Eulogy for Caroline
3 July 2019
This could be a desperately sad day, but we’re all under orders not to let that happen. Even when Caroline knew that her luck and time were running out, she wanted us to be uplifted by her life, not downcast by her death. One of the basic rules of self-preservation is: ‘Never say “No” to a physio’, so I suggest that we all do as she instructed.
It’s difficult to condense a busy life of 64-plus years into a smaller number of minutes, but let’s have a go. Every story worth telling has a beginning, a middle and an end. Caroline's story began in Croydon at 6 am on 10th January 1955, and continued initially on the leafy suburban hills of Coulsdon and Purley. Her parents, Geoff and June, were from the Isle of Wight, which partly explains Caroline's fondness for Milford on Sea, the Hampshire village where they retired and which looks across the Solent to the Needles. Geoff was a City banker, complete with pin-striped suit, bowler and briefcase; I wish now that I’d asked him what he really did during the War, but suspect that the Official Secrets Act would have kept his lips sealed.
Caroline was a singleton but her childhood was happy, with many friends – some here today – labradors and holidays motoring down to Mediterranean beaches, where Geoff would embarrass his daughter by rounding up suitable children to play with her. At Croydon High School for Girls, she shone in biology, geography and French – which came in handy later on. In her teens, she was moderately sporty and loved reading and listening to music. She devoured fiction – everything from Isaac Asimov to Jane Austen – but never quite saw the point of poetry. Here’s an excerpt from a book that she went back to many times: the start of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
June, Caroline's mother, had been a notable tap-dancer in her day but hated music. Mercifully, neither of those traits was passed on to her daughter, although her inability to sing was. Caroline's musical taste was catholic, with the smallest possible ‘c’. With one exception – which you’ll hear towards the end – she disliked choral and especially sacred music, but loved melodic pop: Elton John, the Carpenters and, from across the Channel, Françoise Hardy.
It’s time for Caroline’s first piece of music, as they say on Desert Island Discs. This is one of her favourites from that era – an appropriate choice, as she took it with her when she started physiotherapy at Guy’s Hospital in London in October 1973. It’s the Carpenters, and We’ve only just begun.
In those days, Guy’s Physiotherapy School was based in Shepherdess House. Don’t be fooled by the gentleness of that name. The training was tough academically and practically; after all, physios have to make the sick take up their beds and walk – and, even harder, to get on with orthopaedic surgeons. The course was also a bonding experience. The photograph of the Class of 1973 shows a cheerful team of outgoing young women, and some of the close friendships that Caroline forged then have stood the test of the intervening four and a half decades.
Caroline qualified at the end of 1976 and began her working life at Epsom General. This was a busy and fulfilling time. One unexpected highlight was a curry with the Australian cricket team, which apparently (she never really explained how) followed on from some magic she worked on some bloke’s knee. However, she wanted a bigger challenge, and in spring 1979 spotted an advert which provided that challenge, and would change the course of her life.
But first, here’s a song that always took her back to that time. It’s on a CD that came to live in the family Volvo, and is still there today. Irrepressibly fun and infectiously optimistic: Only the Good Die Young, by Billy Joel. If you’re worried about the title, don’t be: listen to the words, and you’ll realise that this song has nothing at all to do with the injustice of life cut short before its time.
The life-changing advert was from the Orthopaedic Hospital in Lausanne, on the hills above Lake Geneva. Back then, Switzerland didn't train enough physios to keep up with all the skiing injuries it produced. Caroline sent in her CV, was accepted on the spot, and began work in August 1979.
This proved to be an idyllic job. Breathtaking views across the Lake to the snow-capped peaks of the Dents du Midi; grossly overpaid by British standards, and with a quality of life to match; joining a lively, polyglot gang of imported physios who invaded the Alps at weekends for hiking or skiing. She learned about hot mud therapy and peculiarly Swiss forms of massage – methods that had not been taught at Guy’s, perhaps because their only proven effect was to extract money from the wallets of the wealthy. There were plenty of athletic young men with twisted knees, but most of her favourite patients were elderly victims of arthritis.
Telling you all this has made me jump past a key moment in the story. We have to backtrack to a few days after Caroline arrived in Lausanne, and the 25th birthday party thrown by another English expat physio. The birthday girl also invited a young doctor whom she’d known as a student in London, and was then working in Geneva. The moment when they met on the balcony of a hospital apartment was more instantly memorable for the young doctor than for Caroline. He saw a beautiful, elegant girl with a lively mind who was interesting and fun to talk to. She saw a rather brash bloke with a dodgy moustache; because he hadn’t read the invitation properly, he hadn’t brought swimming trunks and so had to wade into the Lake in his Marks and Spencer Y-fronts.
On the train back to Geneva that night, I realised I was smitten. Caroline later admitted that she was amused, and luckily hadn’t been totally repelled. Our courtship was long, complicated and geographically challenging. I returned to London soon after and we kept in touch through old-fashioned, hand-written letters; generously, she forgave me for correcting some of her spellings. When she came back a year later, it was to a job in Worthing. Meeting at weekends made us both familiar with the A23 and with the AA man who resuscitated my clapped-out car on a couple of occasions.
On comparing notes recently, we remembered: the bluebell woods at Singleton; our first date, to see the newly released second Star Wars film; the pheasant which I cooked for her, tougher than shoe leather, which she forced down because she’d forgotten to say she was vegetarian; and the play she took me to see where the cast tore their clothes off and got on with it – much to her mortification. In between, she taught me to sail a dinghy and how to look cool when it capsized; turned me into a dog lover; regularly thrashed me at tennis and badminton; and began her career as a groupie for a string of jazz groups.
Here are two things that she enjoyed from that era. The first is a poem – surprising, because poetry usually left her cold. This one appeared in a trailer for a film we went to see, and uniquely, hit the spot for her. It begins on the tennis court but is all about aspiration, love and fulfilment. The Subaltern’s Love Song, by John Betjeman.
And here’s a song that Caroline was very fond of then, and still was when we dug the disc out a few months back. It was popular in Switzerland while she was there: a plaintive little ballad about how the right person will fill that void in your life. Il Me Manquait Toujours – ‘I was always missing something’ – by Yves Duteil.
We married on 19 November 1983. Photographs from that happy day don't show either of us at our best. My wife later told me that I looked like a cardboard cutout; this is true, but I'd just done a hellish weekend on call. Caroline herself was pale, thanks to a migraine; this completely blacked out my side of her visual field, so she could have married anybody. Luckily, skilled help was at hand, and while everybody wondered why we were taking so long to sign the register, a powerful anti-emetic was being injected into the bride’s right buttock through her wedding dress, to make sure that breakfast stayed down.
Our honeymoon flashed by – Sri Lanka, the Maldives – and then we were back to work: she as a community physio in Camden Town, and me as a junior researcher at the Hammersmith Hospital. Caroline had her first brush with medical misfortune just before our first anniversary; and a year after that, she joined me in the Hammersmith, to have an operation that could either save her life or cut it short. It took several nerve-shredding days in intensive care before it became clear that the first option would prevail. While on the mend, but still with a drip in her arm, she gamely typed up my MD thesis. This bored her so much that she was soon home and raring to get back to work.
Our next landmark was my interview for a senior lecturer/consultant job in Liverpool. The Mersey was as far north as this Surrey girl was prepared to go, and the timing was fortunate because my funding at the Hammersmith was about to run out. On the day, I was lucky, and we moved up to Heswall on the Wirral, in the summer of 1988.
This is a good moment to break off for some more music. As I've mentioned, Caroline couldn't sing and hated hymns, but this is one tune that she always joined in with, as best she could. Music by Parry, words by Blake: Jerusalem.
Singing this one together will do us all good. You’ve been sitting there for longer than is recommended in the current guidelines for healthy living, so please stand up now and belt it out. Think of the Last Night of the Proms, but not as timid. And remember: no matter how bad you sound, Caroline would have been worse.
Our 15 glorious years on the Wirral gave us more than we had thought possible: a fabulous part of the world, wonderful friends, mostly good health for Caroline – and a family, with the arrival of Tim in 1989 and Jo five years later. This is where Caroline really came into her own. She hung up her physio’s instruments of torture and became a full-time mother: calm, supportive and encouraging, always loving and a perfect judge of when that love needed toughening. She failed to infect the children with her love of The Archers, the Daily Telegraph and dilute Dubonnet, but left them forever grateful to their ‘incredible’ Mum for her many other gifts.
Tim realised early on that Caroline had the patience of a saint, remaining miraculously calm in the face of teenage angst, puppy training, heated family arguments, and tense games of Articulate. Tim has inherited Caroline’s ability to defuse confrontation, and can talk down the most emotional of sisters or a deadline-ridden Dad with, respectively, a phone call or a beer.
Tim and Caroline also shared playfulness, with a twinkle in their eyes that luckily didn’t dull with age. You might have found them playfighting, with or without a dog or two; or duelling with wooden spoons; or have spotted Caroline sneakily moving the car to the far end of the Tesco car park while he took the trolley back. Caroline also gave Tim a sense of independence and self-sufficiency, of which both were proud – but which didn’t stop Tim from ringing her up to join him for the big shop every week. And Caroline shared another characteristic with Tim: stoicism. Tim is indebted to her for teaching him to be strong and resilient and to look forward positively, and will be bouyed up by her memory whenever he faces adversity In years to come,
Jo holds her Mum reponsible for passing on a gene, or possibly a cluster of them, for expensive taste. Caroline found in Jo a very willing personal shopper who shared her passion for the finer things in life, and quickly picked up her unerring ability to locate branches of Waitrose or John Lewis. Jo’s bank balance – like her Dad’s – bears the scars of raids on Waitrose in Chipping Sodbury (a particular favourite), posh shops in the Mall, Cabot Circus, etc …. The list goes on.
Mother and daughter were incredibly fond of Earl Grey tea and scones (although they could never agree on how to pronounce the latter), consumed in countless coffee shops, National Trust properties and garden centres. Not surprisingly, while on a girls’ trip to Paris, both were affronted to be served scones (or scones) with whipped cream. Like Tim, Jo loved Caroline’s wonderfully varied sense of humour: from pure silliness (rechristening Tessa ‘Fat Bridget’), to her quick wit and mastery of the one-liner; and you know what they say: ‘Like mother, like daughter’.
Jo also admired the loyalty, compassion and generosity which Caroline showed to her friends – qualities that she knows everyone here will recognise. Jo has built her own friendships on the same foundations of kindness and love which she learned from her Mum, and feels lucky to have had such a fantastic role model who was as much a best friend as a brilliant mother.
It’s time for some more music. Being an uncomplaining groupie, Caroline was dragged to many concerts and gigs across Merseyside. Here's a piece that she wanted to be played today: Tom Jobim's Girl from Ipanema, transformed into the Boy from Ipanema by Mood Swings, a local band which gave us both a lot of pleasure. This brings us to the chapter that rounds off the middle of Caroline’s story. It spans 16 years, starting in 2003 when I took up a dream job in Bristol and wrenched the family out of the happy niche we’d dug for ourselves on the Wirral. We settled in Rockhampton, a village too small for a pub or a shop and where nobody has yet died of excitement. But this is another lovely place to live; the local schools were good, and the natives wonderfully friendly.
Caroline was quickly back in her element, settling Tim and Jo into their schools, bashing our house into shape, and building new networks of friends while keeping contact with the old. She stretched her creative talents in an art group; rediscovered her killer forehand in badminton; became part of the glue that held together the Parents-Teachers Association; and pitched into various ladies-only organisations that strike fear into the heart of any sensible chap: Knit and Natter (not to be confused with its evil twin sister, Stitch and Bitch) and the National Women’s Register. In Rockhampton, she was one of the pillars of village life, keeping the peace between the many users of the surprisingly busy Village Hall – and fending off occasional enquiries from Rockhampton in Queensland. She was also one of the invisible fairies who miraculously transformed the drab Hall into a sparkling venue for many evenings of music and fun.
Our house in Rockhampton gave her a long-term project, turning three dull acres of grubbed-up orchard and grazing into a proper English country garden, with re-planted fruit trees and a back-to-nature area, complete with pond, woodland and wildflower meadow. This spring, 15 years after she started on it, her garden finally looked the way she wanted – and it produced the flowers that you see here today.
And as before, Caroline was the force that kept the Williams Family show on the road. Tim and Jo have said simply, ‘She was always there for me.’ She was, and she was there for me too. When my dream job turned into a bit of a nightmare, Caroline was the rock that stood between me and a hard place.
Picking up that theme of togetherness, here’s another song that she wanted us to hear today. The Carpenters once more, and Close to you.
Now, it's over to you. You each have your memories of Caroline, some of them already in your mind and others needing a gentle prod to be reawakened. Many of you will be sitting next to someone you might never have met, were it not for Caroline forming a bridge between your lives. She was resilient, adaptable and thrived in all sorts of diverse habitats. Here are some of the places you might have seen her:
• at the school gates, at Gayton or Crossways.
• walking one or two dogs, with optional pushchair, along the Wirral Way, or across the fields around Rockhampton, or on the sea wall at Milford, or up in the hills of Shropshire or Clwyd.
• helping to bundle a carriageful of kids on to Santa’s Christmas Train at Llangollen.
• getting excited about birds, orchids or butterflies (and even moths), in Parkgate, Crete, the Vercors, Sardinia, Extremadura, Kerkini or the Dordogne.
• walking out at low tide from West Kirby to Hilbre Island, accompanied by a chorus of seals on the sandbanks, or meandering in a canoe down the Wye, or cutting an elegant figure on a windsurfer off Lesvos.
• on her bike around Thornbury or the Somerset Levels, or plodding up a never-ending hill to Sancerre.
• a reluctant skier in Morzine, Selva, Verbier or Courmayeur – where she was amused to encounter a flasher who had very little to show because it was such a cold morning.
• happy in her garden, working hands-on in the front line or directing operations, or hidden away in her polytunnel, sometimes observed by ex-battery hens or donkeys resting from their beach duties at Weston super Mare.
• in full flight over her weak Earl Grey tea in Lingham’s, or Ronnie’s, or Heritage; or at book clubs, or U3A groups in Latin or French (the latter known as WD-40, as they were all slightly rusty); or relaxing over a puzzle or a jiigsaw.
• doing astonishing things with chickpeas on the Aga, or in a gastronomic ménage à six up on the Wirral, or perched on a barstool and nearly falling off because she was laughing so much.
Here’s some music to accompany those memories. Like the lady herself, this is elegant, thoughtful and witty: Novelette, originally written by Francis Poulenc for the piano, and here arranged for wind quintet. It’s one of those pieces that I can remember exactly when and where I first heard it. Perhaps it will do the same to you; and when you meet it again, think back to here, and now, and Caroline. And so to the end of Caroline’s story. Officially, this took place just after 3 pm on Monday, 10 June 2019, but looking around here today, it’s clear that she will live on in the hearts and minds of a large number of people.
She didn't want me to dwell on this bit, but I have to mention it. Some of you – possibly many – will have only an incomplete picture of her character if you have constructed it using words like lovely, kind, thoughtful, fun, and generous. The missing ingredient is courage. Until very recently, you wouldn’t have guessed that she was under the care of four specialist units in Bristol and London; that her medical case-notes weighed kilos; that she needed a dozen pills every day to keep her out of trouble; and that her diary was full of hospital appointments and crossed-out holidays. If you weren’t aware of any of this, it’s because she didn’t want to burden you with that knowledge.
One episode from her final spell in hospital says it all. A young doctor, exams imminent, came in and asked if he could listen to her heart because he'd been told it was ‘interesting’. Knowing full well that her ‘interesting’ heart would soon be the end of her, Caroline said, ‘Of course you can’; and after he’d finished, ‘Good luck for your exam.’
You’ll have guessed from the nature of this celebration that Caroline was not conventionally religious. However, she could still be moved by the aura of great cathedrals, or the 800 years of history in our village church – and if many people who claim faith ran their lives like hers, the world would be a safer and a happier place. Remembering that she was particularly allergic to sacred music, you might wonder if this next piece is a good choice. In fact, when she first heard it, she said, ‘That’s lovely’. I agree; and if you happen to be there, you’ll hear it again at my own celebration.
We recorded this in Clifton Cathedral on the Sunday evening after Caroline died. The MP3 files arrived by email the next morning, 17 June. When I looked it up, I discovered that this piece had been written exactly 228 years earlier. Mozart signed off the manuscript on 17 June 1791, six months before his death. It’s called Ave verum corpus – ‘Hail, the true body’. It lasts just over two minutes, but distils serenity, tenderness, anguish – everything that makes us human – into 45 bars of some of the most sublime music ever written.
I’ll finish now by thanking you all for coming today. It means a lot to me, Tim and Jo and – in absentia – to Caroline. Time heals, and eventually will partly fill in the Caroline-shaped hole which has appeared in our lives. For now, though, she’s left a big gap.
I’ve given you a lot to digest, but it can all be condensed into a handful of words:
Thank you, Caroline, with our love; we’re lucky and grateful that you came into our lives.