In recent months, with his sense of humour intact until the very end, Dad amused himself with the idea of recording his own eulogy for just this moment. If only I could simply press ‘play’ and he’d be back with us. But he didn’t, and I can’t. But I do know a few of the things he would have said. He would have thanked you for coming today to remember a silly old farmer and for the pleasure of your company in life. He would have expressed his hope that, on balance, he’d been the source of more happiness than suffering – a point on which he need not have worried – and he would have said that he’d had a pretty good innings, that we should not mourn him too keenly or allow his departure to diminish the richness of our lives. Well, we can but try.
To most of you, I guess Dad was known as Martin or perhaps just Mart. But to Lyndall, Lawney and I, his names changed over the years: Dad, Jaffa, McTavish, Tavish, Pinkie, Blue-eyes, Nedrick, Gaffer, Tup, Tuppin, Tupper. The ancient Greeks had four words for love, and I’ve just got to 11. And then, if Ali will allow it, there’s also Muti; which makes 12. He was not short of love.
That it should be so may not have been immediately obvious in his early years. Born – breach birth, of course – a few hundred yards from this church in the village rectory, Dad was the youngest sibling, by some distance, of 4. My sense is that Dad was happy to let rectory life, at least in its human form, wash over him in those early years, or, better still, to pass him by. In a house full of comings and goings – cousins stayed in the school holidays; refugees and evacuees in the war – it was not unknown for Dad to lock himself away to avoid the social demands of a tea party. ‘Mart coming out?’ his friends would ask, and, on occasions, Dad would hide behind his father’s authority – ‘Our Dad won’t let I’. It was more than just his accent that would change in the years to come. But animal life in its many forms was a big part of Dad’s childhood: dogs, cats, goats, pigs. With white mice at home in his pockets, it was a veritable menagerie. His happiest times in those early years, were to be had climbing trees for birds’ eggs; rabbiting with the dogs; and, with his beloved mother, watching ‘Long Tom’ Graveney and Jackie Crapp play cricket for Gloucestershire. Together they would cycle to Fairford, catch a train to Cirencester and then on to Cheltenham. I simply cannot imagine a better day out.
So his life started in Eastleach and it ended, peacefully, but a couple of miles upstream, in the place where Dad truly made his mark in life and gave so much pleasure to so many others: Macaroni Downs Farm. But Eastleach and its wider community was Dad’s anchor, and his playground, and he never strayed too far, the notable exception being his and Mum’s extended, year-long, honeymoon in California, where Dad, a Fulbright scholar no less, undertook postgraduate study at the University of California, Berkeley. It was 1961. I don’t think they drank the Kool-aid, but they certainly fell in love with California. And California, of course, fell in love with Martie. There were other stints outside the parish too: boarding school, where at Radley, Dad outscored Ted Dexter, the future captain of the England cricket team – he’ll be pleased I mentioned that. Oxford Univerity, Wadham College, and Agriculture, for the record. A year’s teaching Chemistry in Somerset. Here the dial was set for Dad’s future relationship with the concept of Health and Safety when he held a conical flask aloft, the better to allow his pupils to observe sodium’s reaction with water. In a flash the flask was simply eviscerated before his stunned audience and Dad was left holding its dismembered neck. Miraculously, no one was injured, unlike Dad’s tweed jacket, which slowly unravelled over the subsequent weeks, and perhaps his pride. There was National Service, too: the Royal Air Force, in the East of England. By disposition, Dad was not really suited to a uniform, and mostly spent this period recuperating at the rectory from surgery to reduce his left leg to the length of his right. It must have caused a stir in the village when the military police finally tracked him down.
And, of course, there was farming too. First in Warwickshire which led ultimately to a second farm tenancy; and then, through the foresight of Sir Thomas Bazley, to Macaroni Downs Farm. Sir Thomas simply could not have made a better choice, and it was a choice they celebrated perpetually thereafter through countless games of badminton on Sir Thomas’s private court. Dad was pretty good with a racket in his hand; and I doubt anyone has ever enjoyed a game of table tennis more.
Many of you know better than me the sheer scale of Dad’s contribution to Eastleach life. That so many of you are here today is testament to that fact. He’s held most of the offices of state at some point: bell-ringer, church warden, chair of the parish council, to name a few. And then there’s the Whitsun celebrations, parish parties and village fetes with the human fruit machine, wood louse races and all. There’s a thousand stories right there, all to be told another time. But here’s one from me, for the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977, a raft race was held on the Leach just by Keble bridge. For some unknown reason, men and boys were to be dressed in women’s night attire and Dad persuaded me, aged 6, to be his co-pilot. Our raft was Dad’s standard issue: a sheep hurdle with a 5 gallon drum secured to each corner with binder-twine. Inevitably, it sank almost immediately, and weighed down by my sister’s nightie, I went under the water and floundered in the weeds. Unlike me, Dad, I think, was delighted with our performance. But the point is this: the pattern had already been set, we would do anything for him. As a father, Dad was generous in spirit and heroic in deed. But above all, he made every day an adventure and I, for one, could never get enough.
But the more I think of Dad as anchored in place, then, like a subatomic particle, the harder I find it to place him in time. His pleasures were as old as the hills and the digital era, of course, left no mark upon him. He had a deep love and connection with the natural world, and Dad tried, and mostly failed, to teach his children the names of grasses, trees and birds. He loved music and singing, in the Eastleach choir or better still around the piano at home. And he loved the English language, too. Dad made letter writing an art form, even if a semi-legible one, his poetry anthologies were well thumbed and his dictionary always close to hand. As for the limericks he committed to memory, well, now’s not the moment.
Dad was fun-seeking, self-effacing, and mischievous. He could also be exasperating and his teasing could infuriate. But so disarming and loveable was he, and so infinite was his capacity for humour, all was always quickly forgiven. Introducing his friends to one another at parties was often pure comedy gold. He once introduced my partner Laura, much to our amusement, as ‘ah, and this is the girl Tom met yesterday in the local fish and chip shop’. Foreign young women were invariably introduced as if contestants in a Miss World competition: Miss France, Miss Spain and so on. I simply don’t know how he got away with it.
I think of Dad as a shy extrovert. Never overbearing, he was energised by others’ company and we, in turn, just loved to be in his. Once up to speed, often aided by his trusty hip flask, he radiated the light of pure joy. He made happiness happen; he was life itself.
Energy was indeed a trump card for Dad, which was arguably just as well given his extraordinary intake of sugar. In the early years, he would dance all night in Oxford, return to the farm at dawn and get straight on a tractor. In middle-age, however late the party at the farm, he was pretty much always last to bed, and then first up. To quote his beloved Shakespeare, ‘Why man, he did bestride us like a colossus.’ Joke-teller; raconteur; after-dinner speaker; eulogist; actor (brackets: amateur). Charm personified, with a twinkle in his eye, he was much in demand. Goodness, he even made a star appearance on Playschool, the children’s TV programme.
Dad sucked the very marrow out of life. Why go to one party when you’ve been invited to two? Just go to both. Why knock on a door to hand-deliver a Christmas card when you can sing a Christmas carol instead? And why limit a game of hockey to 11-a-side?
So to the farm, his home for nearly 60 years, we must turn. They are inseparable for me. There are memories of Dad from every field, for every season of the year: thawing water troughs in winter; lambing ewes in the spring; his face lined with dust from the corn-dryer in the summer; stone-walling in the autumn. He is in the barns, many of which he built with his own fair hands; he is in the fields, which he tilled; he is sat by the Aga in the kitchen, warming up, munching something sweet, perhaps with a lamb at his feet.
And here’s a snapshot. It’s 1985 and Dad has just celebrated his 50th birthday with a huge party on the Far Bank, the theme was Shepherds and Nymphs – well, he was a shepherd and it was his party… There’s a harvest to bring in, the winter barley is ripe. I’m old enough to drive a tractor; Lyndall is off conquering the word; Lawney, the local pubs. Mum, God bless her, is keeping us all afloat. Phil is on the combine harvester, and I’m following in my siblings’ footsteps as his wingman on the grain trailer. Dad’s at the corn dryer, moving like some fearless cat in the rafters above the grain bins. It’s hot and very dusty. It’s orange squash and bread and jam. It’s the Ashes on the radio and David Gower at the crease. It’s a glorious time to be alive and Dad loved every minute.
Dad’s approach to farming was based upon a wise aversion to capital expenditure, a preternatural belief in the powers of binder-twine, and a steadfast adherence to the idea of deep-litter theory. The latter gave him an extraordinary ability, latterly at least, to lose whatever was in his hand five minutes ago. Inefficiency is fun, he’d insist, as we delighted in finding the thing he lost yesterday, in order that he could lose it again tomorrow. Farming was a way of life, not a means to earn a living: where, after all, is the fun in that?
And I don’t mean to mock. Dad was, in my view, a wonderful farmer. He understood the rhythms of the seasons, the power of the land. He had a deep atavistic connection with his livestock, and he introduced us to one of life’s great pleasures which is this: keep a couple of ewes past their sensible cull-by date; bring them one by one, in the back of a dilapidated Landrover, into the yard, the better to endlessly fuss over them, day and night; and then – and here it is – hand feed them hog weed, and witness their delight.
And perhaps it is these deep understandings of life, and death, that gave Dad his stoicism and his courage – qualities that served him so well in the face of his cancer diagnosis and the shock of Lawney’s suicide last year. He may have seemed happy-go-lucky but he knew suffering, too. In the space of two years, his admired big brother, Hugh, his partner-in-comedy-crime and closest of friends, Tony Reid, and Celia, my mother, all died tragically young. Lesser men might not have recovered from such losses. Dad did grieve and I know he raged at the injustice of it all but boy did he bounce back. And with Ali at his side, there were more adventures and fun to be had, much more life to be lived.
And it is with the farm that I shall end. Two summers ago, I sought Dad out on the farm to say goodbye at the end of another weekend. I found him in the field behind the house, as ever pulling up docks and thistles, content, and at peace. I said goodbye, no doubt patted him on the chest, and left him to his happy toil. But as I left, I turned to look at him one last time, and there he was, perched on the horizon; framed by the blue of the sky above him and the green grass at his feet, his clothes white in the bright sunshine. Bent to his task, outside of time and half-way to heaven. Well, he’s there now.
Also read : Tribute to Martin Squire by Trevor Milne Day