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25 July 2014


Our prototype Obama

I THINK it was Wittgenstein who said that "death is not an event in life." He argued that, at death, "the world does not change, it ceases." Well, death is certainly an event in the lives of the elderly, like me; but, of course, it is always the death of someone else. More than once recently, I have opened the obituary pages of The Times only to see a familiar face and a lengthy tribute to a former colleague and friend at the BBC.

This week's death - I apologise for the funereal nature of this column - was of Betty, the wife of Dennis, a churchwarden in my first (and only) parish. Writing a letter to him yesterday brought back wonderful memories. He arrived on the scene at exactly the right moment, newly retired from senior management at Pressed Steel, in Oxford, ready to tackle the needs of a Norman church of stunning beauty but daunting practical problems.

It was seriously damp, the external drainage was inadequate,the lighting was awful, and the heating was by those dreadful overhead strips, which burn bald scalps but leave feet frozen. The crumbling pews spread splinters like deadly darts. There was an enthusiastic and growing congregation, butour greatest asset - a beautiful building - was also our greatest handicap.

Dennis set about each challenge in turn, always backed by his smiling wife, winning over a financially anxious PCC and sceptical members of the diocesan advisory committee. He was Obama 15 years early - "Yes, we can!" And we did.

Part of his plan from the start was a lavatory. The church now has it, but it was his successors who finally pulled that one off.


Life at the Front

THE anniversary of the start of the Great War, 4 August, draws near. I seem to have been writing about it all year, but my thoughts at present are focused on a service I am leading in a neighbouring parish. Now that everyone who actually fought in it is dead, my generation becomes the last repository of first-hand memories, because our parents lived through it.

My father joined up in the early burst of patriotic enthusiasm, eager to show solidarity with "gallant little Belgium". Like my older brother, who drove an RAF truck up the Normandy beaches under enemy fire in 1944, he seldom talked about the stark horrors of war (he was a stretcher-bearer), but from time to time he did tell us boys stories and experiences of life on the Western Front.


The Poppy Bus

NOT surprisingly, perhaps, they were mostly of friends and comrades, of funny incidents and colourful characters, and of the songs that kept up their spirits. He also spoke with admiration of the ministry of the chaplains on the front line.

One small memory has always stuck in my mind, because it is so contrary to the usual picture of life on the Western Front. Every morning, without fail, he told us, a man came from the nearest village and walked along the trenches selling the Daily Mail. I imagine that, in those days, Brussels got a kinder treatment in its pages.

My father was gassed in the retreat from Mons, and eventually invalided out of the Army, but he and another soldier pooled their demob money to buy a London bus, which they ran until 1930 along a route from central London to Waltham Cross. They called it the Poppy Bus.


You're only old once

THE current concern in church circles about the well-being of the elderly is certainly welcome; but, for this happy author of a book on being old - At the End of the Day (Feature, 10 January; Review, 7 March) - it is also a profitable coincidence. I think my provocative subtitle, Enjoying life in the departure lounge, may have helped, too. Cilla Black, at a mere 70, asserts that "being old is no fun." Wait till you get there, Cilla.

I suspect that another reason why the book has sold well is thatold people are fed up with being analysed and advised by experts who have yet to reach the airport car-park, let alone the departure lounge. I sense that many of us would like to make up our own minds (while we still can) about our "quality of life".


Familiar follies

THE book has brought me plenty of correspondence, much of it relating, with geriatric glee, the familiar follies of old age. One woman could not find her keys, until she spotted a pot of yogurt on the coat-stand (they were in the fridge; you can work it out).

Another man reported a long and friendly conversation with a person he met in the high street, whom he thought he recognised from church, only to realise an hour later that he was wrong. Most of the conversation, he reckoned, would have been utterly meaningless to the stranger on the pavement; but, with admirable British tact, he had kept smiling, and even made non-committal but positive replies to questions about his daughter and son-in-law in Rabat.

Such experiences are not seen as shaming. Indeed, they are the very reason why old people seem to laugh a lot more than the anxious middle-aged.


Trust me: I'm a doctor

ANOTHER correspondent, a retired priest and one-time surveyor, Desmond Sampson, picked up onthe piece in my last Diary (6 June) about the odd expression "under the doctor", still used by some of our contemporaries. He recalled an elderly woman writing to explain why she was in arrears with her rent. "I've been in bed with the doctor for a week," she wrote, "and he's not doing me any good."


Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.

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