By John Hughes D'Aeth
It’s often said that children don’t appreciate their parents until it’s too late. Well, I guess we’re no exception. It’s only in the last few weeks – through talking to people, reading the many messages of sympathy we’ve received, seeing the turn-out at the cremation and at today’s celebration, thinking about what to say here (and then trying to condense it into something suitable) - that I’ve come to realise what a remarkable man Dad was.
You see, to us he was just “there”. He was happy to play a supporting role in the family drama and to fit in with what others wanted. The words “I’m easy” were his catchphrase. But all the time he took a keen interest in what we were up to; he was proud of our achievements and he always made time to answer our questions and to share his experiences with us.
He was a gentle man in every sense of the word. He was always polite and kindly; in fact, I don’t think I ever heard him say a bad word about anyone. He was naturally quiet, but he would talk intelligently to anyone about almost anything. He had a gift for putting people at their ease by listening and taking a real interest in what they had to say. I think this is one of the reasons why he was held in such affection.
Nothing ever ruffled him. Mark tells of when he came over from the USA for the surprise party we’d arranged for Dad’s 70th birthday. He arrived, out of the blue, at Grosvenor Place, and as he came in Dad walked past. He looked up, said “Hi son” and carried on. That was Dad all over.
But, of course, there was much more to him than that. We knew he was very clever - his Oxford degree and the deep knowledge of history to which Christopher referred were testimony to that. He could have used his intellectual gifts in some high-powered and well-paid job in one of the professions. But that wasn’t for him. To him, work was a means to an end - a way of providing for the family he loved, of giving us the best education he could, but leaving time for him to pursue his other interests.
There was fishing, of course, about which Christopher spoke so eloquently. I think he was slightly disappointed that none of us caught the bug; but that meant we didn’t appreciate just how good a fisherman he was. One of his fishing buddies wrote of him as “constantly refining his many ways of deceiving the fish”. He always seemed to come home with a good catch, even when others failed.
But we shouldn’t be surprised, because whatever he turned his hand to, he did it properly. Whether it was tying flies, every one a work of art, that battered black box of his a treasure trove of feathers, hooks and other paraphernalia; or making model ships in that Aladdin’s cave of a loft at Grosvenor Place - they were much more than a kit to him, he wouldn’t just make do with the plastic rigging that came in the box, so he tied his own, referring to old books and pictures to make it as authentic as possible; or researching and collecting details for the family archive, every entry meticulously logged and indexed for future reference.
And there was his reading. Of course, he was a voracious bookworm; no sooner had he put up another set of shelves than they were groaning under the weight of yet more books. But he didn’t just skim read - oh no. I swear he could remember every twist of every plot of every book he’d ever read. His memory was astonishing, and he loved to recite at length from the poems of Hilaire Belloc - word perfect, of course. He would delight in reminding us that the chief defect of Henry King was chewing little bits of string, or that it is the business of the wealthy man to make employment for the artisan. And then there were his limericks … but none of those are suitable to recite in church!
Dad belonged to a number of book clubs. They seem to be struggling to come to terms with his death – their profits will be badly hit. A letter arrived from one of them this morning, which I must share with you – Dad would have loved it. It read “Dear Mr H-D, We understand that you no longer live at the above address. [Factually faultless!] Please notify us of your new address as soon as possible.” We’re still trying to think of a suitable reply!
And he was a keen traveller. He’d seen quite a bit of the world in his younger days; his childhood had taken him to Malta, Bermuda, Canada and Jamaica, and he’d had an extended tour of duty with Shell in East Africa. Again this had gone on hold while his family came first, but we were pleased that after he retired - and especially after his operation in 1997 - he was able to visit many new and exotic places. Christopher has mentioned some of them; I’d add to the list Patagonia, north Russia and most recently Alaska, all with rod and tackle in hand. It’s as if he knew his time was limited; he’d been given a new lase of life, and he was damn well going to enjoy it while he could.
There were more trips planned, but it wasn’t to be. He’d fought off the cancer before, but this time we think he knew his number was up. But there wasn’t any anger or bitterness; he accepted what was coming to him, quietly and without complaining. He was a proud man; he wasn’t going to admit that he was suffering, he didn’t like asking for help and he definitely didn’t want our pity. We saw this at the family gathering in Berkhamsted in October; it was obviously a great effort for him, but he was determined to be there and enjoy himself, and there he was on the sofa, chatting away about old times with the people he loved most. He wasn’t an overtly religious man; he didn’t go to church or talk about God a lot. But there was definitely something inside him - you might call it faith - sustaining him and pointing the way in those last weeks and months.
So Dad, you’re at peace now. The fish in Wimbleball Reservoir can rest easy, but I hear there are some plump specimens in the crystal river upstairs who are quaking in their boots. Thanks for all you did for us, for all the sacrifices you made for us. You touched so many lives, and we’re privileged to have had you as our father. For the last word, to paraphrase Hilaire Belloc: “Your sins may not have been scarlet, but your books were certainly read”.