Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Remembering my father-in-law, Graham

So, this post stretches to the limit the idea of 'it's a stock item', because most of it comprises the words of the tribute I was honoured to deliver at Graham's funeral last week, but I'm going to claim that words are a stock item as I've worked with words since completing an English degree many moons ago.

Readers of this blog (and you know who you are, you lovely few) may remember that projects to help my FIL cope with his motor neurone disease have regularly featured.  My favourite three are the two about the construction of a ramp at their Belstone bungalow:

and the one that documented the four progressive stages of enabling him to keep using his Kindle when the buttons became too tricky for him to manage:

In writing his tribute, I used the technique that had (sadly) served me well just over two years ago when Graham's wife, Joan, died very suddenly of a heart attack, and I sat with their daughters Elizabeth and Helene and took notes as they chatted about their memories.

Here's the story of an 'ordinary' life - of course, I think it was extraordinary in many ways.

Graham Ward 1934-2015

It’s just over two years since many of us met here in the immediate aftermath of the sudden death of Graham’s wife, Joan. They had been married for 54 years. Perhaps I can begin this morning by taking stock of what was said that day. I quoted Joan’s philosophy, which she maintained even in difficult times: ‘When you wake in the morning, think, “What can I do today that will make this a good day?” and then do it.’

That day, Graham was already using a wheelchair, more than four years into the cruel decline caused by his motor neurone disease.  It’s perhaps the most remarkable thing that I can say about him that no one, over the past two years, has managed to honour Joan’s words more successfully than he has. While we so much wish to celebrate this morning the vivacity of the man before he was stricken with MND, we should start by saluting the ways in which he managed, despite the progressive loss of physical function and, ultimately, his voice, to find ways to bear his condition and, often, indeed, rise above it to enjoy a trip out with family and friends or a tasty snack at Exeter Quay or the Garden Centre. He even made new friends in this period, whose only pictures of Graham will be of a chap in a wheelchair, smiling for as long as he was able, zipping around in the wheelchair-adapted Peugeot the family incomprehensibly christened the Bubble Car.

Graham was born in Rochdale in 1934 and always remained a proud Lancashire Lad.  He was the youngest of three children.  Muriel, the older sister, died some years ago but Margaret, who still lives in Rochdale, is here with us. She has always had a special ability, as required, to cheer Graham up and make him laugh, even in recent times.

Graham left technical school at 15 to take up a graphic design apprenticeship. Like many of his generation, being denied a longer period of education made him determined to provide it for his children, all of whom went to university.  It also spurred him on to read extensively and deeply in history and English literature, and all Anthony Trollope’s novels were on the Kindle that he used until its buttons were no longer manageable.

In 1952 he was called up for National Service, and for him, as for so many, this was a life-changing and life-enhancing experience.  The boy from Rochdale found himself successively in Egypt and Cyprus, meeting the challenges of making new friends or at least rubbing along with all sorts of people, and coping with a system where his superiors demanded unquestioning obedience. He wasn’t the sort to find that easy – hence, in later life, the number of letters he wrote to newspapers and other bodies. His army experiences were important in two other ways in particular: he entered service as a fairly skinny teenage boy and emerged as a fit, muscular man who was devoted to various sporting activities for the rest of his life.  Also, he had a cheap camera with which he documented his experiences whenever he could afford film, and he came out of the army knowing that he had an eye for a good picture and determined to make a living as a photographer.

Back in Rochdale, he found work with a firm of studio photographers, and fell in love with Joan, whose husband Brian had died in an RAF accident, leaving her with two children, Elizabeth and Paul, aged 3 and 1. Their marriage two years later was understandably difficult for members of Brian’s family.  But, as time passed, and the love that Joan and Graham had for each other and that Graham had for the children became evident, then acceptance did occur. This acceptance quickly deepened into mutual affection and love.

After Joan’s death, Graham told my wife Elizabeth that he would not have married Joan had he not known that he could love her two children properly – which he absolutely did.  As there are now step-parents and step-children in the next two generations of the family, we feel we have learned a lot from Graham’s example. Helene, the daughter born to Joan and Graham a year later, completed their family.

A nice aside: at the wedding Paul, too young to remember his natural father, turned to Joan’s life-long friend Pat, who was minding him and Elizabeth, and said: ‘I’m very happy. I’m getting a daddy today.’ 

Four years after Helene’s birth, Joan and Graham took the opportunity of a £10 Pom passage (the assisted immigration scheme) to take their family to live in New Zealand, choosing Christchurch on the South Island as they didn’t want to join the larger ex-pat community on the North Island. Graham had secured a job in a photographic studio and Joan trained as a teacher. New Zealand fitted Graham like a glove. The adventurous, practical outlook of New Zealanders meant that his sporting enthusiasms and love of expeditions and camping fitted in well, albeit on a shoestring as money was tight. His children still remember long walks in the bush and Graham’s sometimes unjustified confidence in his navigational skills. 

In his active life-style Graham did not always have the unquestioning support of his family. Joan loved the open countryside but preferred to shelter from the sun, and Liz remembers some of her teenage rebellion being focussed on stopping going with Graham to early-morning weekend swimming sessions.   Her dad didn’t hold this against her, no more than he expressed any disappointment in Paul not sharing his enthusiasm for soccer – after his own amateur career Graham coached a spectacularly unsuccessful Topsham team for a few years. This was the team which progressed from many double-digit defeats to a single glorious draw, but never won. Graham believed in a very direct style of play – years later I totally failed to convince him of the value of an occasional back pass when sitting with him as he shouted at the television during European matches.

As the young Paul didn’t take to football, Graham unselfishly adopted his son’s enthusiasm to the extent of successfully building with Paul a plywood dinghy from a kit. This was the son who would subsequently sail his boat (a bigger one, of course) in a gale across the Bay of Biscay to Spain.

A practical, outdoor life was what Graham wanted and speedos or shorts were his attire of choice – he even tried shorts years later at County Hall in Exeter – but his boss didn’t approve. The only thing that didn’t work out for Graham was a brief foray into glamour photography. When Helene helped him a couple of years ago to put together an illustrated talk about his life as a photographer, he revealed that the only such studio session he attempted made him so nervous and uncomfortable that he almost had a breakdown.

Six years later, Graham’s father became very ill back in England, and money wouldn’t stretch to allow for a there-and-back visit. After a family conference, and with Elizabeth interested in attending university in the UK, it was decided that they should leave New Zealand and head back. After a short stay back in Rochdale and following Graham’s father’s death, they decided to move to Devon (as close to a New Zealand lifestyle as you can get in the UK?)  After a short spell living in a caravan (a bit cramped for 5 – Paul slept in the bath) they rented for a while in Exton before moving to Tops-ham (not, Graham would repeatedly correct me, Top-sham). For a while Graham worked as an insurance salesman – a job he hated and at which he was hopeless – the only saving grace of this whole episode being his meeting with Colin Hickmott which led to a lifelong friendship with him and Thelma – indeed it was on Thelma’s recommendation that Graham eventually moved to Langford Park Nursing Home.

After several years with a photography business in Exeter, Graham became the official county photographer for Devon, a job which suited him down to the ground.  He engaged cheerfully and easily with a wide range of people (was there ever a more natural extrovert?) and drew on his wide experience as a technical and landscape photographer when the assignments demanded.  He took truly beautiful photographs of the then new M5 viaduct over the Exe estuary, catalogued a succession of Lord Mayors in their regalia, and had no trouble with Miss Devon as she kept all her clothes on.

Outside work, he became a key member of the Topsham community, and is especially associated in many people’s memories with the planning, funding and building of Topsham Outdoor Pool.  He loved Topsham and made some lifelong friends there.  He joined in gamely with everything, particularly if showmanship was involved, as in refereeing the Mud Football game.
We have been very moved to see the number and nature of Facebook responses to the Pool’s announcement of Graham’s death. This is the very positive side of social media. With his daughter’s help, Graham wrote his account of the building of the pool 18 months ago for publication in the Estuary magazine. I particularly liked his memory of local junior school children, invited to the official opening of the pool, being singularly unimpressed by Graham’s efforts to fill it in front of them with a garden hose from an ordinary tap.  He knew when he was beaten, and called in the Fire Brigade.

At the Pool he was one of the original Nutters, the early morning swimmers. We think the name suited. 

Graham was generally good at making things, and he and Joan had always found that they could be particularly happy when sharing a project, usually the purchase and upgrading of a house.  In his mid-fifties Graham took early retirement from Devon County Council and he and Joan embarked on a grand round-the- world tour – they travelled east, returning along the way to New Zealand and spending time with Brian’s family in Tasmania as well as visiting Muriel in New England. Liz’s children remember the excitement of plotting where their grandparents were as they crossed the map of the world and postcards from everywhere came through the letterbox.

When they returned they began the search for a new house.  In Clyst St George they bought Church House which needed extensive rebuilding, so much so that for months they had only a ladder connecting the ground floor and their upstairs bedroom.  Graham’s mother had moved to Topsham before Graham’s retirement and after a few years was beginning to struggle. So, pooling their resources, they bought into Pytte House, a grand property in Clyst St George which had been divided years earlier into 6 homes, each full of character.  Here they increasingly cared for May, helped in the summer months by Muriel who came over each year from her home in the United States.  These were on the whole very happy years – the house was often buzzing with visitors – children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces on Devon holidays – and all the Pytte House residents got on extremely well.  Number One had a great open plan kitchen / living space long before such things became popular and here different generations would work and chat together and conjure up amazing meals. It was at one of these that Graham’s coughing fit inspired the comment from his step-grandson Hugh which appears on today’s order of service.
The Pytte House occupants shared the maintenance of the grounds and infrastructure, including a badly-behaved septic tank, so Graham became a member of another crazy club, the Sewer Rats. Most communal celebrations included beautifully presented and illustrated expressions of sentiment in appalling doggerel verse, something Graham revelled in. He liked dressing up, too. A photo which almost made it the cover of the order of service shows him at Joan’s 60th birthday party (in Number One, Pytte – quite an occasion!) wearing a kaleidoscopic waistcoat.  His love of bright colours is brilliantly expressed in today’s lovely flowers. And as for his outfits on the floats at the Topsham Carnivals – well, enough said!
They lived in three different houses in Pytte until they downsized, too soon as the subsequent move to Baldwin Drive in Okehampton showed, to Pound Lane in Topsham.  At this time Helene moved back to Topsham and to help her out they often collected Ellie and James from primary school.  They were the most lively and youngest looking grandparents at the school gate.

However much they did to the Pound Lane house and garden (and they did a lot) it remained too small a property, so they tried to burn it down.  No, seriously, they had undertaken as always to make gallons of soup for the Pool’s New Year’s Day swim (great to see that that’s still going) and were working with gas burners in the integral garage.  A gust of wind, some papers under a workbench, and the garage was alight. Fortunately they got out and the Fire Brigade got there quickly, but not before the front of the house and its services were extensively damaged.  Having benefited from the kind hospitality of Topsham friends, they were able to return to a repaired house three months later.

A few years later, The Bartons in Okehampton was their last home-improvement project.  It was here that Graham had the first signs of his illness, when he noticed that he was struggling to fasten his shirt buttons. But he was more interested in the fact that he and Joan joined the Senior Council in Okehampton, which acts as a forum for older people and liaises with the County Council.  Graham also returned to an enthusiasm of his youth – singing.  In Rochdale he had been a keen Glee Club member, and now he joined the Men’s Forum, whose contribution today we greatly value. Sadly, as his voice weakened he was no longer able to sing, but one of the many ways in which he enjoyed seeing the younger generation take up the reins was the performance in Les Misérables at Okehampton College of his grandson James.  He was both particularly touched and amused to find a wheelchair space reserved for him in the middle of the front row labelled ‘For James Cox’s grandfather’. Later we are going to hear a piece of music from Les Misérables which Graham requested when he talked to Liz about his funeral about a year ago. It’s a symbol of his pride in, and love of, all his children and grandchildren.

Graham’s condition didn’t admit of much thinking about the future – it was too remorselessly mapped out – but in one way he did look forward, and that was to the future of his family, including his seven great-grandchildren. All but one of these treasures have arrived during Graham’s illness and we know that in some small measure they have mitigated the emotional effects of an illness which was a particularly harsh one for such a man of action to endure. He lost muscle tone progressively through his body but only at the very end was there any hint that the speed of his mind had been affected.

After a brief occupancy of  Ottersmoor, the bungalow in Belstone, Joan and Graham moved back to Okey to Castle Ham’s assisted living facility shortly before Joan died. The staff there, and subsequently at the Chollacott home in Tavistock and finally at Langford Park in Newton St Cyres worked marvels in supporting Graham. We have to single out the Langford Park staff, and key workers Denise and Roger in particular (Graham referred to them as his A team), because of the degree of assistance Graham needed from them. The family thank them most sincerely.

So what was Graham really like? I have at home his ‘name mug’ which begins by describing him as ‘even-tempered and level-headed’ – no help there, then.  However, on the other side of the mug we read of ‘a man of esteemed action who loves to be just’ – now that’s more like him. Graham displayed, amongst other characteristics, a fascinating combination of determination and impatience. In his 70s he learned to use a personal computer, and succeeded in digitising his vast collection of photographic images, no mean feat.  This didn’t come without a price, though. No one, it seems, had ever had a more wilful set of computer equipment.  He would ring Helene one day to protest that his printer wasn’t working even though he’d told it 6 times to print a document. Then, the following morning when he finally switched the printer on, he would ring her again to complain that it had now printed out 6 copies that he didn’t want.

To his family and friends, he was a thoroughly reliable, practical and loyal man. If you had a problem and needed help, Graham would be one of the first to offer his assistance, sometimes driving the length of the country to do so.

So, how would an impatient man deal with his debilitating illness which gradually robbed him of more and more capacity? Well, to the admiration of us all, he learned, if not patience, at least endurance; and displayed a quite remarkable degree of good cheer when he had company, which was often. Just a month ago, he was showing with his eyes his silent appreciation of being taken out for a breath of fresh air and a bite to eat at Lutzy’s on the Quay.

Over the last couple of years Graham passed on to his children and grandchildren his large collection of tools, cameras and photographic equipment and took pleasure from the sense that these things would again be used. He loved to see that in their parenting, his children and grandchildren are as loving and involved as he had always been. He gave up very reluctantly his active role as father and grandparent, but he took consolation from a sense that, as in a relay race, the baton had been passed on. This athletic image for his legacy will, we think, serve Graham well.



  1. A lovely and loving description, bringing to life someone we only knew second hand. Thank you and, sorry to be a cliche, but meant: my sympathy for you all losing Graham, and for his last, difficult years.
    XXxx Anne

    1. Thank you, Anne (and Charles). It's been very good to have your support this last while.

  2. Dear Ian, I have arrived here via Elizabeth's very moving post, and now have been able, through your eulogy, to increase my knowledge of her father.

    Having had the pleasure of actually meeting Elizabeth and you, I think I also have had an opportunity to know something of how the baton was being passed from one generation to the next.

    Best wishes to you all.

    1. Thank you, Frances. It's wonderful to have the involvement of friends in Graham's life through the medium of our memories - most of which are very happy ones.