My father, Bill, died in the small hours of Wednesday morning, UK time, in a nursing home in Tasmania with June, his wife, and Ann, his daughter, by his bedside. It was as though he’d waited for Ann to arrive from Sydney. Half an hour after she sat by his bed, he gave his last laboured breath and was at peace.
It had been a gruelling few weeks. By the end, he hadn’t been able to swallow for almost a fortnight and the low-intervention approach meant no tube feeding, just morphine. It’s hard to concentrate on work when your father’s starving to death.
By the end, he’d lost the ability to speak. The world had become a thing of confusion and pain and little else. While this was going on, there were a couple of news reports about elderly people taking their own lives to avoid such a death. I don’t blame them.
I can’t make the funeral, which is tonight, British time. Instead, a message from me will be read out at the determinedly secular service – even as dementia set in he was certain in his disbelief. Indeed, what use would it be to seek consolation in a system of belief you do not share?
Anyway, here’s the message for his funeral. It wont be of much interest to many people, but it’s here for other members of my family to read, those who can’t make the funeral either. What is true of him, though, is that he once had the best job in the world: Kodak paid him to take year-long trips, taking photographs and lecturing. He drove down the whole length of Africa and all round Australia, for example, taking some wonderful black and white photos. He gave it up to provide more security for his family and the boredom destroyed him.
The funeral message:
It was hard not being there during Bill’s illness, but there is one advantage which I’d like to share with you all now.
The picture I have of him in my mind is not of an ill, thin man in a nursing home but instead of a younger, handsome man – younger than Ann is now.
I remember magical nights lying in a bed improvised in the back of that old estate car while our parents drove through the night – there were fewer street lights then so we could look up at the stars through the rear window, lulled into sleepiness by the motion and the murmur of the wheels on the tarmac. There was the day when he suddenly decided to take us all to Blackpool to see the lights – impulsive, spur of the moment – and we children had never seen anything like them.
I remember wrestling with him, Mark and I, on the floor of the lounge in Brentwood, a ritual that went on until we were big enough to win – which wasn’t half as much fun as losing, wrapped up together in a tangle of grunts and limbs and laughter.
These were times not of endings, but of beginnings, of hope and optimism and future. The first time we went to view that house, June stood on the stairs and looked back at him. I can’t recall her exact words but she knew it was right. And there in Brentwood our parents gave us the best years of their lives. There were pets, more than a hundred every time the stick insects bred. Two cats were flown in from the Isle of Man, timid, scared little scraps of fur peering out from a wooden cage large enough for a young lion. The scallops – remember those? Two huge cases of them, also from the Isle of Man. June only knew three ways to cook them and there were so many it seems, in memory, we ate them for breakfast lunch and dinner. Three ways to cook them, three meals a day.
Of course, it wasn’t really like that, they were frozen and took months to eat. But that was the joke: Bill’s huge enthusiasm, something that stayed with him into old age. Back then, you knew that he could come home with anything, a complete set of Private Eye magazine, huge rolls of plastic sheeting, a case of live geese – and whatever it was, it would be large, generous and open-handed.
The cats and the scallops came from the Isle of Man because he had made friends there during a decade of visits to photograph the TT Races. Bill was a fine photographer and, in many ways, an adventurer. He loved to tell the story of bartering his way out of trouble with a packet of biscuits during a drive from Morocco to South Africa in the late 1950s. Was it true? Did he really do that? Does it matter? Like many adventurous, travelled people he liked, as the Irish say, to tell the tale. We are rarely heroes to our own children and we children were not always generous in our appraisals of such stories. But Bill was, after all, half Irish and for him a story was measured more by its social value than its truthfulness. He could have been a character in a Flann O’Brien novel.
When I won a guitar amplifier in a magazine contest and a tattered old stained thing arrived, he phoned them pretending to be a journalist, then cleverly turned the conversation on its head. A brand new amp, as promised by the competition, duly arrived a couple of days later.
I think he hated the routine of PR work for Ilford Films. Blagging a magazine into honouring its promise was far more fun than office politics. But he took it on to provide his family with security. Was that the biggest sacrifice he made for us? June would have a better idea than I, but I suspect it might have been.
So, today, let’s remember the Bill who adopted and adored Australia, the man photographed with the huge tray of Yabbies in the garden he loved in Mildura.
Let’s remember the father who wrestled, drove through the night, brought home surprises for his family.
Let’s remember, too, the Bill who fought his own demons in later years, and didn’t always win.
But let’s also remember, even remind ourselves if necessary, of the smiling, slim young man in khaki shorts standing grinning beside a Land Rover in Africa in the late 1950s. Let’s remember the artist, the photographer whose eye framed and captured some of the finest, most beautiful images I have ever seen.
The man who loved his family even if he wasn’t always able to show it, who gave everything he could for us, who gave us, his children, life itself.
Sleep peacefully, Bill Risdon. And thank you, Dad.