Saturday, 6 January 2018

Memorial service for my father

Yesterday we said goodbye to my father for the last time. He died early in the morning of Christmas Eve in the Criccieth nursing home, Bryn Awelon, where he spent the last two weeks of his life.

His coffin was brought to St Catherine's church on Thursday evening where the vicar, Kim Williams, conducted a brief ceremony for close family members. On Friday morning the hearse led the cortege to Bangor crematorium where Kim led another ceremony, and at 2:30 around 80 family and friends gathered at St Catherine's for a wonderful service of remembrance. We assembled a scratch choir and sang Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus and Tallis' If ye love me, with our cousin Michael Chance singing a short solo piece in his inimical counter-tenor.

My sister Helena and I delivered the eulogies, which I reproduce below. We held the wake at the Lion Hotel and a dinner for 40 family and out of town friends at Dylan's restaurant. A splendid send off for my dearly beloved father.

Sir George Jeremy ffolliott Chance

Born London, 24th February 1926; died Criccieth, 24th December 2017

A true gentleman. Courteous, generous, fun and kind. A twinkle in his eye. Always a charmer. An adventurous spirit.

These are some of the words friends and family members used to describe Jeremy in the messages of condolence we have received since he died. Jeremy, or Jem as my mother liked to call him, was a man of many talents, loved and respected by all who met and knew him, a man for whom the words integrity, honour and selflessness could have been invented.

When my brother Sebastian sat down to write a eulogy to my mother, which he read in this same church just short of three years ago, he faced the same challenge as I faced this week: our mother and father’s lives were so intimately bound up together, it is hard to recount one without reference to the other.

For more than three quarters of her 86 and his 91 years, Jeremy and Tiggy danced to the music of their times, offering a welcoming home to their children, relatives and countless friends, all drawn to their unique combination of love, warmth, tradition and exuberance.

From early childhood it seems they were destined to be together. Mum used to recount her memory of telling her governess, aged 7 or thereabouts, that she would marry cousin Jeremy one day.

Jeremy was born in London when his parents were living in Squire’s Mount, Hampstead, and led a peripatetic childhood which included spells on the Sussex coast and in Germany in 1937-38 when his father Roger was press attaché to the British embassy in Berlin. Roger’s acquaintance with Kurt Hahn led him to sending Jeremy to Gordonstoun School on the Moray Firth, where he excelled. His tough physique and sense of adventure were well-suited to the Hahn regime and he was appointed head boy in his final year. It is wonderful that his dear school friend, Hilary Behrens, is able to join us today.

Jeremy joined the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve straight from school in 1944 and was soon promoted from Ordinary Seaman to Midshipman. He volunteered for Special Services and found himself training to command a Welfreighter, a landing craft-submarine hybrid with a crew of three designed to carry agents and arms into enemy territory.

Aged nineteen he was promoted again, to Sub Lieutenant, but had not seen active service by the time the war ended. Those of us who attended Dad’s 90th birthday lunch in Oxford will recall his imagined foray onto the beaches of Normandy. Active service or no, his personal courage and taste for adventure marked him out as the ideal commander of such a craft.

In 1946 he went up to Christchurch, Oxford where he read history then agriculture, and made many lifelong friendships. He kept a photo at home of the Christchurch hockey team featuring Donald Scott, a fellow sailing enthusiast. Donald and his wife Nancy were frequent companions on family holidays spent in Wales, Scotland and the continent.

1949 was memorable for his expedition to southern Africa and later engagement to my mother. The expedition took him to Cape Town by sea and overland to Nairobi, where he toyed with joining the Colonial Service but romantic yearnings pulled him back to England.

Tiggy and Jeremy enjoyed recounting how they got engaged on Christmas Eve 1949. After a romantic dinner they walked to Trafalgar Square where he proposed, but Mum said, where’s the ring? A beautiful sapphire and diamond engagement ring bought the next day sealed the deal. They were married in St Paul’s, Knightsbridge on March 4th 1950.

His father’s friendship with Harry Ferguson led Jeremy to join Massey Ferguson on its mission to feed the world. He was to stay there for 28 years, working his way up from trainee to Director of Public Affairs.

His job at Massey Ferguson took the family to five homes over that period, from Game Keeper’s Cottage near Kenilworth, to the Cottage, Bilton near Rugby, to what my mother fondly referred to as their “noddy house” on an estate near Ayr in Scotland, back to Bilton, then to Stareton near Warwick and finally to Leamington Spa. Each of these homes played host to family gatherings on highdays and holidays, but it was in Wales that the broader family, which include all of our cousins here today and many more, came together.

My parents had always loved Wales, since our grandparents built St Bride’s house in Morfa Bychan in the mid-30s which was the family holiday home for thirty years. After spurning an opportunity to buy Bardsey Island, in 1972 they settled instead for Rhosgyll Fawr, a farm of 240 acres a few miles from here.

It was at Rhosgyll that my father really came into his own, first becoming a farmer – a lifelong dream – then re-designing and converting the old farm house, building the holiday cottages, finally indulging in his Capability Brown fantasy by excavating the bog into a series of lakes. In 1990 this endeavour earned Jeremy and Tiggy an award of recognition from the Countryside Commission and the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society, and was probably his proudest achievement. Jeremy also made lasting contributions to the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, serving as Chairman of the Caernarvonshire branch for a number of years.

Into his late old age, whenever his children or grandchildren came to Criccieth, he asked to be taken to see the lakes at Rhosgyll. I can see him now, wrapped in his winter coat on his wheelchair looking wistfully over the lakes, perhaps hoping to see a trout rise or an otter make a rare appearance.

My mother and father found their metier not just on the farm but in the Criccieth Festival, which they launched in 1987. Their love of music, gardening and creative pursuits, and their entrepreneurial spirit, put Criccieth on the national festival circuit and attracted world class performers and speakers to the Lloyd George Memorial Lecture. Mum was the creative force behind the festival, while dad provided the logistical and organisational back-up. That the Festival celebrated its 30th anniversary last year is a tribute to their vision and perseverance. The Festival brought its frustrations but made them many friends, especially musical director Bronwen Naish who played a cello piece at mum’s funeral and is with us here today.

Dad’s own creative impulses were directed to painting and singing. Whenever possible he took his paint box and easel on holiday and the products are now sitting on the walls of his home and those of his children and grandchildren. He shared his passion for painting with his younger sister Teresa, and it is no coincidence that his son and grandson Michael have made a living out of fine art.

Jeremy’s bass baritone voice was natural and untrained but always found favour with choir masters wherever he and mum settled. I well remember him singing Handel’s Messiah at Rugby School some fifty years ago. I am sure his inspiration led my sisters Victoria and Helena, and me, to take up singing as important sources of relaxation and recreation. Dad’s singing also led him inexorably to the Anglican church, and he was proud to be a warden at St Catherine’s for over a decade.

Dad was a lifelong Tory and proud member of the local Conservative Association. But when he wrote to 10 Downing Street informing the Prime Minister of his support for the Plaid Cymru candidate in the European Elections it came to the notice of my friend Jonathan Hill, who was working for John Major at the time. It caused a minor stir there, but a bigger one in these parts, where Jeremy was seen as a turncoat and traitor to the Tory cause. The English have always had an adversarial relationship with their Welsh hosts but in this instance Jeremy’s instincts were sound.

I should add, on this point, that Jeremy also endeared himself to the Welsh farming community, who accepted him as one of their own. It is a tribute to his lack of stuffiness and acceptance of people on their own terms that he was viewed as a colleague, not an interloper.

Jeremy was very much aware of his family’s heritage. Though never directly involved in the firm of Chance Brothers of Smethwick, near Birmingham, world-famous glassmakers, he single-handedly badgered away at Pilkington’s, who took over the firm in 1955, to release the firm’s archive from their vaults in St Helen’s. This now forms the core of the Chance archive in the Sandwell library and is a bounty for historians of the West Midlands. Jeremy also motivated and paid for the replacement bust of his great grandfather, Sir James Chance, at the Chance memorial in West Smethwick Park in 2009.

Many of you will recall the 1982 television film of John Mortimer’s A voyage round my father. It comes to mind now as I try to encapsulate a long life in a few minutes – how does one do justice to the man who begat you, whose foibles, failings and paradoxes shaped one’s own life and is fixed in one’s genes?

My father had some troubled times. When he lost his elder brother Anthony tragically young, in 1970, and his sister Serena equally prematurely in her sixties. I remember suppers at home in 1975 after he had made countless colleagues redundant, he looked like the shadow of death, in a deep depression. He would sometimes disappear into his study for hours at a time and reappear looking grim. Sometimes he would forget to pick me up from school due to absent-mindedness or simply over-work.

Dad also had his bad habits – drying out his pipe on the Aga which infuriated my mother as it stank out the kitchen. Starting the washing up just as supper was about to be served. Succumbing to trashy special offers from mail order firms.  

But most of all I remember him as a man who loved trying out new things, one determined to finish what he’d started, the knight in shining armour, who would get to swim in the roughest of cold seas because he had to, the man who people naturally looked to for leadership and guidance. My father was not a cerebral man, but one driven by instincts and deep, unexpressed convictions. His expression was through doing, he was a man of action, who drew satisfaction from outcomes not process.

This is what drew him to my mother, and vice versa – she was the intellectual who needed a rock to lean on, with a cause to pursue and the support of a life companion and escort. Together they achieved a wonderful union, gregarious but not gaudy, curious but not obsessive, loving but not treacly.

To quote Mike Rutherford,

I know that I'm a prisoner
To all my Father held so dear
I know that I'm a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Fortunately, Diana and I saw and spoke with Dad in the two days before he died. He greeted us with his inimical “hello, it’s Toby and Diana”, his bright blue eyes shining through a beaming smile. We were able to tell him how much we loved him and that we didn’t mind if he felt it was time to be with mum. He took us at our word.

Goodbye, dear, beloved Dad.

Darling Dad,

I remember, when I was little, crawling onto your lap and burrowing into your embrace.  I wonder when you first called me Mary the Fairy? I remember Christmases at Bilton and the candles on the tree lighting up your face.  At Easter you dressed up as the Easter Rabbit and we quivered with trepidation and delight as you bounded around the garden, tossing chocolate eggs across the lawn. I am humbled to know that these memories are so vivid after so many years.  We have so much to thank you for.  You gave us a love of Wales, leading expeditions up mountain tracks and through rushing streams.  There were no excuses for failing to reach summits, or refusing to plunge into icy waterfalls – perhaps vestiges of your tough training at Gordonstoun rubbed off on us. You would find the best picnic spots and spread out the rugs to devour cheese and pickle sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, penguin bars and orange squash faithfully prepared by Mum.  She fed you devotedly through all your married life.  You never learned to cook – your one cheese sauce mix of flour, water and grated cheese a long-standing family joke.

You had a lovely singing voice and gave us good ears for music.  An early memory is watching you sing the Messiah in Rugby and you were a loyal member of the Pwllheli choral society. You worked relentlessly to support the family, first at Massey Ferguson which wore you down and then as a farmer in Wales, but you mostly sheltered us from your hardships, giving us idyllic holidays at Rhosgyll Fawr, and when the grandchildren came, you loaded them into the tractor bucket, with firewood and sausages, and made a camp for them down by the lakes.

 You found intimacy difficult, but you said it all in your smile and your warmth and in your letters. You were a man of your era, responsible, proud and with a strong sense of morality and justice. You were greatly respected by all.  Perhaps the best testament came from a trade union shop steward at the Massey Ferguson factory in Kilmarnock, Scotland where you were working and dealing with industrial unrest there in the late 1960s.  ‘Dinna worry Mr. Chance’ he said, ‘When the revolution comes we’ll see you are alright’.

You bore you old age with great courage and patience.  Mum used to say that she wanted to die first because she couldn’t live without you and you would be fine without her. She was wrong, you missed her exceedingly but you found pleasure in your family and friends, our memorable holiday in the Norwegian fjords, the garden, the view of the sea and sky from your bedroom window. You knew how lucky you were to have Tora to look after you – and we knew it too. You thanked her many times, and we thank you again Tora, for the loving care you gave him.

Farewell kind and very handsome Dad, you live on in all of us and in the joy you gave to us, and to your relations and friends.

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