Friday, 27 August 2010


The two Highland Soldiers who stand guard over this column are at attention with arms reversed. On the columnar battlements a lone piper plays the poignant lament "The Flowers of the Forest", the computer is metaphorically draped in black velvet. Even the typeface is in mourning.
We do not believe in death. It is not a buddhist concept; but we still mourn the passing of three merry souls. They, more than anyone else I know, merit Dr Johnson's tribute at the passing of his friend Davy Garrick: "I am disappointed by that stroke of death, which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure."
Stanley Blenkinsop was certainly a purveyor of harmless pleasure. A news editor in the great days of the Daily Express, which he believed was the only reason for the invention of printing, he was grouchy, loyal, lovable, pedantic, funny and colourful in a quiet, English way. On his retirement he became a student, pedalling to the university every day on his cycle and being rewarded with a degree in history. Stanley, like me a tamer of teddy bears, was the only newspaperman I have ever met who wore a monocle and erected a flagpole in his garden from which the union jack flew every day he was in residence. He was an indefatigable writer of letters to the Times which were always used. Once in Paris, where he went every year to celebrate Bastille Day, he had his wallet stolen.

"What did it contain?" a gendarme asked.

"My monocle," replied Stanley, and was immediately treated with the fawning courtesy reserved for English Milords.

Stanley's closest friends were Gordon and Beatrice Amory, a couple who enjoyed the happy marriage to which we all aspire. They were the party givers from Heaven; never happier than when they were dispensing hospitality by the ladleful. Gordon organised an annual party in Newcastle for "Geordie" newspapermen which was legendary. I have known him for half a century and can never remember a time when he wasn't smiling. The smile was still there, the emails still supportive and cheery, though since Beatrice died earlier this year, the smile must have been harder to summon. I imagine it came back this week when he was reunited with her.

I thought of an inscription I once saw on a gravestone in Winchester for a widower:
"Tried a little to live without her,
Liked it not
and died."

One of their greatest blessings was Denise, a loving daughter. One's heart goes out to her in what must be a terrible time beyond imagining. Perhaps she can take some consolation now the three of them, in Sir Thomas More's words, "meet merrily in heaven". I will know at the end of the month whether I will be making it a foursome.


Dying is in its infancy in England. They take it much more seriously in rural Wales where a funeral is not considered well done if there are fewer than three services. It was a Welshman who invented cremation. When I first went there sin eaters were occasionally employed to take on the corpse's sins by eating a meal off the coffin lid. Into the coffin went a tiny ladder with which to climb to heaven.
No one tried harder to vanquish death than Sir John Pryce, 5th baronet (sheriff, 1748), of Newtown, Powys. He was a well-known eccentric, who married three times. His last lady having to insist on the removal of the embalmed corpses of her two predecessors from his bed before her marriage.

SirJohn had already, after the death of his second wife, written to the curate of Newtown, then on his deathbed, to ask him to deliver messages of affection to both his wives in Heaven and to request the second to appear to him. After the death of the third Lady Pryce, he invited a well-known faith-healer, Bridget Bostock, 'the Cheshire Pythoness’, to bring her back to life. The Pythoness undertook to heal all diseases by prayer, faith, and an embrocation of fasting spittle, which she supplied. Sir John requested her prayers for the restoration to him of his third wife, recently deceased. In a letter he asked her: ".... to offer up prayers to the throne of Grace on my behalf that He would graciously vouchsafe to raise up my dear wife, Dame Eleanor Pryce, from the Dead. If your immediate presence is indispensably necessary, pray let me know by return of the Post, that I may send you a Coach & Six & Servants to attend you here, with orders to defray your expences in a manner most suitable to your own desires. If your prayers will be as effectual at the distance you'r from me, pray signify the same in a letter directed by way of London, to, good Madam,

" Your unfortunate afflicted petitioner & humble Servant,
John Pryce.

Miss Bostock is said to have visited him, and to have exerted all her miracle-working powers, but without effect. Sir John died in somewhat straitened circumstances at Haverfordwest on 28 October 1761, whilst meditating a fourth marriage to a lady whom he described as "that dearest object of my lawful and best and purest Wordly affections..."


My own view of death owes a great deal to the professional gamblers I used to run with in Chester. Notably Lol Shone, a character who owed much to Damon Runyon.
Another friend Tony Vyse, landlord of the Bowling Green Inn, had three fixations: Tia Maria, the first favourite on the card and a statuesque blonde receptionist at the Grovesnor Hotel of the sex whom Lol christened 'The Longhaired Bandits'.

We were in the bottom bar of the Grosvenor when. having downed a Tia Maria and backed the first favourite, he surprisingly collapsed at our feet. He died being given the Kiss of Life by the statuesque Long Haired Bandit.
"Lucky bugger," said Lol enviously. Seeing our shocked faces, he explained: "Only two weeks into the flat racing season and he's already got a treble up."