I recently visited the Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty, where I was met in the porter’s lodge by the master, the Rev Terry Hemming. The beautiful almshouse is a Christian foundation founded around 1132 by Henry de Blois (Bishop of Winchester) in meadows outside Winchester. The Master, wearing a silver cross and a black robe, was kind enough to show me around and introduce me to two Brothers, who wore red and black robes respectively.
As we walked back from lunch towards the little shop in the Porter’s Lodge – where I was given my “wayfarer’s dole” of a horn of beer – one of the Brothers noted solemnly that the lodge door was half-open. “It means a Brother has died,” he said. “We enter a period of mourning and his name is typed up and pinned to the door.”
I’ve been thinking about this small but noble gesture of respect as the last months have seen three wonderful friends of mine unexpectedly and tragically die. Their ages ranged from 42 to 55. With funerals curtailed to under 30 mourners, it can be difficult to know how to grieve and honour a good friend when they die, especially when it is so unexpected. Posting a photo on Instagram just isn’t enough. I’ve been feeling a terrible void.
I now understand what people mean when they refer to one’s fifties as “sniper’s alley”. The first to pass away was my dear Cambridge friend Patrick Paines who died from cancer in November, aged 54, having moved into a Pilgrims Hospice in Kent. Patrick was a bon viveur and larger than life City character whose colourful life was celebrated over many columns in the Times and Telegraph. It was a delicious irony that he shared an entire obituary page in the Telegraph with former French president Giscard d’ Estaing.
His funeral service was led by no less than the Dean of Canterbury in the medieval crypt of the cathedral, where the body of Thomas Becket was dragged by monks after the archbishop was murdered in December 1170. Such a funeral honour is a perk reserved for scholars of King’s, Canterbury. Around two weeks after the service (restricted to 30), his friends were able to watch his funeral service on YouTube, filmed by his godson.
Nobody can say that Patrick, who was known as “the minister”, wasn’t given a statesmanlike send-off. I hadn’t seen him for years and later learnt that I passed within a few miles of him – as he was dying of cancer – on my Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury in July. I hadn’t known how ill he was and I never said goodbye.
Another dear friend to pass away, in April, was Mark Rowland, also just 55. Known as “Porky”, we met in the early 1980s when we attended Edward Greene’s Tutorial Establishment in Oxford (bills were sent on parchment). It was our first taste of freedom. We bonded over buying a Yamaha 250 motorbike together which we roared up the Banbury Road, taking secretarial college girls on joyrides. We became the closest of friends and travelled around the world – first stop Moscow and then on to Manila – where our bags were cricket “coffin” suitcases.
Porky was a brilliant horseman, carpenter and travelling companion. He never complained (not even when we bunked for 18 baking hours in a fourth-class Chinese train) or questioned my quixotic itineraries.
Hanging in my loo is a photo of the winning Cambridge Cresta Run toboggan team of 1989 in the Varsity Race. Porky (left) helped us win after downing a jug of fiery bullshot (vodka and beef consomme) before his first run. He hadn’t slept. That he wasn’t technically at Cambridge never bothered the Telegraph sports writer who wrote up Porky’s daredevil winning speed in the paper. He showed the same bravery in the saddle as master of foxhounds.
Porky was a wonderful friend, husband and father, commuting between Portsmouth, where he taught the art of boat building, and Wales where he lived with his lovely wife Helen and three daughters. He taught carpentry to students but taught me the art of real friendship, and his loss has made me realise how we need to appreciate our greatest friendships.
And then there was also, back in March, Alice Horton, a wonderful young journalist friend from the Evening Standard who lit up any party and was a brilliant writer and mother of three. She was struck down by a sudden cancer. She was one of the loveliest and warmest people I knew. What all three of my friends had in common was an extraordinary gift for kindness, laughter and a deep sensitivity to others. Maybe their souls were too kind and sensitive for this world. All I can do now is pray for them, and write a few words and think about that half-closed lodge at St Cross. Because the door of their memory will never close.
William Cash is acting editor of the Catholic Herald
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.