Saturday, 12 July 2008

A necessary excursion

One type of event that an active councillor attends almost as frequently as meetings is funerals.

Yesterday my wife Caroline was a tad perplexed as to why I would drive 140 miles to and from Chichester to attend the funeral of Ted Hitchcock, a man whom I had seen twice, possibly three times, during the last thirty years.

When I was a lad of fourteen I was, as I am today, a regular attendee at Isleworth Congregational Church. As well as services on Sunday mornings, the Church ran a youth club on Monday evenings which was the highlight of my social calendar. During one year in particular - and I remember the year well, it was 1976 - it was the epicentre of everything I lived for. It was where my closest friends went, it was where my gang was based, it was where music was played of a kind (Barry White, Van McCoy, George McCrae) for which I would not under other circumstances have had any enthusiasm but which, because I associate it with that year and with that club, I still cannot listen to without an almost unbearable desire to turn back the clock and walk back into the Church Hall one last time in my four-inch platforms and tartan lumber-jacket (with collar upturned) to see my old mates once again.

Ted was a helper at that club, as was his wife Dorothy and his daughter Jane. He was a Deacon of the Church (as I am today), who gave up his Monday evenings for no personal gain to help ensure that twenty or thirty local youngsters were kept off the streets and on the straight and narrow. But he did more than just help. He took an interest. I can remember holding quite a few deep conversations with him about a range of issues - social, theological, musical. Whether he was humouring me or not I'll never know, but I always felt as though he was treating me as an equal.

In late 1975 some members of the club spent a weekend away on a barge on the Thames at Abingdon. Most of us travelled there by minibus, driven by another helper. Ted arrived a little while later in his estate car. Taking one look around the dormitory-style sleeping quarters he decided very quickly that they brought back too many unhappy memories of his time as a Prisoner Of War, and elected to sleep in his car
instead. But he stayed the weekend nevertheless.

As fate would have it and despite the very best efforts of Ted and others to steer me along the correct course in life, I strayed from the path regardless. Unbalanced by the sense of shock which came with the realisation that even the state of spiritual perfection that was 1976, not to mention adolescence itself, had to come to end, I began to develop an unhealthy interest in fascist politics which led ultimately to me joining the National Front, and remaining with it or with splinters thereof until just after my thirtieth birthday. Inevitably, my new enthusiasms ran coterminously with my disengagement from my Church.

Although for two decades I had hankered on many an occasion to walk back into the Church, I felt unworthy. However in 1998, shortly after having been elected as a councillor for the first time, I bit the bullet and attended a service - in part to honour a promise to the late former Secretary Pat Burch, who was also one of my constituents and who during the election campaign had taken out membership of the ICG. I have been involved again with the Church ever since.

By this time Ted and Dorothy had long retired, and had moved down south. However during my ten years of renewed work for the Church I saw them when they returned on a couple of occasions to attend special events.

Ted passed away a few weeks after his ninetieth birthday. Although I had seen him only rarely since achieving adulthood, I wanted to pay my respects to somebody who had been part of what was a very special period of my life.

I also think, subconsciously, that I wanted to give him back some of the time which he gave to me as a member of the youth club.

The world would be a much worse place without all those selfless people who give up their own time for no other reason than to make the lives of those around them better. Ted, and others of his kind, should serve as an example to us all.

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