My father Robin, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, died on December 2 last year. He would have been 94 in February. “He had a good innings,” people keep saying, and while they are right, this isn’t much of a comfort in the early stages of grief, as anyone who has lost someone they love will know. All the letters my mother and I have received have said what a gentleman he was, and while this may be my inference, it is as though they are mourning not just a man but a whole breed.
My father was a member of the House of Lords for 38 years before it became an overcrowded graveyard for former politicians and prime ministers’ cronies. He inherited his seat in 1961 and felt it was his duty to use his position to help others. He ran a hill farm in Kirkcudbrightshire and later a guesthouse on the Isle of Islay, where he lived the simple life in the true sense of chopping wood, growing his own food and sourcing local game.
He attended the Lords as much as he could, always voting with his conscience, which meant he wasn’t always popular with his party. He took up a number of unfashionable causes, latterly and most notably, after marrying my mother, a Pole from Krakow, in 1986, that of “righting the wrongs which had been done to Poland over the course of the 20th century”, as he himself put it. He became a hero among Poles when he was the first in the UK parliament to call the 50 years of silence over the massacre by Russians of over 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyń forest a scandal, and later when he fought successfully to correct lies in British school text books which taught children that the Polish government had joined forces with the Germans during the Holocaust.
He also fought for the Poles to have a better deal on visa restrictions which prevented them from travelling to the west before the Iron Curtain fell. What I remember most, though, was that he and my mother were always quietly helping individual Poles in difficult situations. For his efforts, he was decorated by the Polish government in 1995 with the Polish Order of Merit, the highest order available to a foreigner. On the day of his funeral, the Polish embassy delivered a wreath of red and white flowers, to go alongside ours of lilies, white roses and thistles for a Scotsman, to the Brompton Oratory.
He inherited his seat in 1961 and felt it was his duty to use his position to help others
The lead up to my father’s funeral was wrought with frustration for me at not being able to give him the send-off I knew he would have liked because of coronavirus restrictions. My friend Father Rupert McHardy and the Oratory did a wonderful job though: a Requiem Mass in Latin with an organist and soloist who sang beautifully in the most beautiful setting. My sister read the Raising of Lazarus from John 11 in English. As our undertaker, a Catholic from Belfast, said: “I love working with the Oratory because they do things properly. None of this happy-clappy nonsense.”
I felt his coffin had huge presence in the small gathering and the presence of God was there so much in the massive Oratory – I do not feel he was alone in any way at that time. But I do feel we have felt more alone by this awful separation in our grief, unable to share that sense of being together during a heartbreaking and painful time. Many friends have also lost parents and said the same. I felt an additional layer of sadness knowing that my father, who was loved by so many, would have been disappointed with a congregation of only 15 and a pretty meagre wake. Luckily, the Oratory has gone hi-tech since Covid and we were able to have the Mass live-streamed for people to watch from home, including my sister in the US, despite this being something my father would have thoroughly disapproved of.
There was much about modern Britain which my father, a gentleman, could not understand. During his illness he had a number of unhappy stints in hospital, where the staff, some a quarter his age, called him “Robert” rather than Lord Belhaven. To him, this was pure insolence. They spoke at him quickly and quietly about his condition, even though it was obvious to anyone watching that he wasn’t following what they were saying because their English was so bad. When a DNR form was signed on his behalf without his or my mother’s consultation, the doctor told my mother that he had been asked, but that he was clearly demented as he hadn’t remembered the conversation. He told me in disbelief once that the nurses never looked him in the eye when they spoke to him. “I don’t know what has happened,” said one of my father’s district nurses, who had become a good friend during my father’s illness, “but there is no compassion in our hospitals any more.” On that occasion, he had gone into hospital for a routine procedure but contracted septicaemia on the ward which meant he was there for over a month, losing the ability to walk in the process.
My father’s final visit to the hospital, at the end of November, was the most tragic. With my mother unable to visit because of Covid restrictions, he sat alone on an empty ward at St Thomas’s hospital for days on end refusing to eat. He was administered medication which he was allergic to because no one had read his notes. As a result, he had a haemorrhage in his intestine. My mother rang the ward incessantly trying to speak to someone to update her on his condition, but the phone went mostly unanswered. When a nurse did pick up, my mother was again informed that my father must be demented. My mother asked: “What is he saying?” The nurse replied: “Something about ‘my wife is over the river, but alas I cannot swim’.” My mother replied: “He is adapting poetry to express his frustration at being across the Thames from me. Learn something from him. His mind is razor-sharp.”
Ever since I can remember, my father was quoting reams of poetry, always surrounded by books. Piles of them around his feet and on the tables flanking his armchair covered an enormous range of subjects. Just after he died, I sat down in his chair and found a copy of the Bible, the Qu’ran, a history of Scotland and Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. He also wrote one novel which was never published and pages of children’s stories which I grew up having read to me and later reading myself. I would love to publish them one day in his honour, but they would be far too un-PC for today. In the meantime, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren can enjoy them under the covers with a torch and remember him.
When my father finally came home from hospital, he was promised a tank of oxygen to help with his breathing. The tank was not delivered, and after three days he lost consciousness. Two days later he was dead. The GP said the hospital had forgotten to order it but assured my mother that my father probably would have died anyway.
His life can teach us many things. One especially pertinent in these times is not to be afraid
A convert to Catholicism, my father never gave up hope of getting better. As his heart grew weaker, he continued to exercise, planning what he would cook once he was up on his feet again, promising to come to my house in Wales as soon as he was strong again. He was also not afraid of catching coronavirus and insisted I visit him and kiss him whenever I did, even during the lockdown. When we managed to find a window in 2020 to baptise our daughter Florence, my father insisted on coming despite being told to shield.
As Father Rupert said in his sermon, my father’s life can teach us many things. One especially pertinent in these times is not to be afraid. He wanted to live his life fully, which meant seeing the people he loved. I am so grateful to him for this, for allowing his children and grandchildren to see him in the final year of his life.
And one month on from the day he died, I am comforted that he is happier in heaven than in a world he could no longer recognise.