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Obituaries - Geoffrey William Ipgrave
1921 - 2003


Canon  Dr Michael Ipgrave delivered this Tribute at his father's funeral November 4th 2003

There is so much that could be said - that we could all say - about my dad; but I want to pick out three strands in particular that run through his life as I see it.

The first is consistency. Dad lived a life that was full of a succession of huge ups and downs: first, a happy and settled childhood, abruptly followed by his terrible years as a PoW in the Far East; then, great joy with his wife Ruth, my mum, as a father, and as a village schoolteacher, curtailed by wracking sadness at my mum's illness and death; but then again, over the past eleven years finding great happiness again with his wife Pat, right up to his last few tormented weeks in hospital. Yet through it all, he was the same man, reliable, orderly, making lists of things he had to do (and, sometimes, of things he had already done), acutely interested in everything around him: one of the characters he invented to sustain his pupils' interest in his favourite subject, geography, was called simply 'John Findout', and he is perhaps a symbol of this side of my dad's character.

It was these qualities of consistency, carefulness, reliability, that helped him to be such a good and respected teacher, and they seem to me to have been there throughout his life. A few months ago, he gave me a set of the letters he had written to his parents immediately following his release from detention in 1945. The first of those - though it is fairly bursting with excitement and impatience to return home - largely consists of what he introduces as 'a brief summary of places and work': he knew that, for his own sake and his family's, he had to chart the pattern of those awful years, to reduce them to some sort of order. I shall quote more from those letters in a few minutes, for their words reveal so much of the man he was and is - but so does their handwriting. I was startled when I first saw them, a few months ago, to see that his hand was exactly the same. These letters of fifty-eight years ago, written in pencil from the deck of a ship sailing from Rangoon to Colombo through the Suez Canal to Europe - from their appearance they could have been the diary of things done and to do, people met and to meet, which dad kept for the first few days of his final stay in hospital last month. The hand is exactly the same: elegant but not fussy, orderly but not crabbed; and that steadiness of hand reveals the consistency of the man within over the years.

Those letters also show clearly something else that we knew from his life, and this is my second point: something about generosity. My dad was a kind man, a fair man, with not a hint of bitterness about him. He really did show - though he would have been embarrassed at the suggestion - what it means to live the life of love of which St Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

In his earliest letters back, remarkably, he has kind words for some of his Japanese captors, recognising that they were human beings like himself trying to do their job under difficult circumstances. When, after mum's death, he travelled out to Japan to spend some time with me, he was deeply touched by the hospitality and kindness he received from our Japanese hosts, and he responded with graciousness and generosity:

Make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring your love. Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord ...

That same generous and open attitude was expressed in the care he had for the generations of children who passed through his tutelage in the village school at Helmdon, and for the genuine interest he showed in their families, and in all the comings and goings of village life. Even though deafness increasingly set in as a barrier to easy communication in his later years, he had a gift for easy friendship to which people responded instinctively, and in his exertions to learn lip-reading this naturally shy man disciplined himself to communicate, and won a new circle of friends in the process. As a volunteer driver for Cynthia Spencer House, as a neighbour, and in so many other ways he gave of his time to others, and many people miss him now.

And if that is how he was for all, then of course his generosity directed towards his family was all the more intense. In one of his earliest letters back to his parents, he writes, beginning with something of an understatement:

Things have been a bit rough at times, but my chief worry has been that you are worrying.

That generous love for his parents sprang from the same heart from which there was to pour out the same love for his wife Ruth and for us his children, and for his wife Pat and for all his family. It was a love which expressed itself quite naturally in a gratitude and a pride which we would all want to own for ourselves and to reflect back to him now. Certainly I know that I would want to say to my own mum and dad these words that he wrote to my grandfather on 17th September 1945:

I am the luckiest lad alive [!] to have such a pair for my own Mum and Dad. It is a sad and bitter truth that you rarely appreciate happiness fully* until you have lost it. But we shall regain it soon, and it will be strengthened by long absence. Enough! I am writing like a parson, but I know you will understand.

'Writing like a parson' - he would not want to do that, and this brings me to the third point I want to make: about the things of the spirit in my dad's life. He wrote as follows to his mother:

This is a very ticklish subject, and I don't want you to get me wrong ... I am not 'religious'. I am like dear, old Dad. I just have a pretty good idea of what's right and what's wrong, and I try to do the right thing.

All of us who knew him recognise the truth of what he says there. Nevertheless, there is more to be said than this. Although he would not 'wear his heart on his sleeve' (as he always suspected parsons of doing), he had a rich inner life, however reticent he may have been in expressing it.

As a Prisoner of War, he was sustained by one book above all - one book which he preserved from the fate of nearly all others, becoming roll-up paper for cigarettes. That book was A. E. Housman's collection of poetry, A Shropshire Lad. I bought a copy a little while ago to see what there was in these verses which could nurture his spirit in such adversity. I have to say that it is pretty bleak stuff;* indeed, perhaps it was this very uncompromising lack of comfort which gave it credibility to a reader in my dad's dire situation. Still, there is at least positive aspiration in Housman, even if it sits alongside a grim assurance that aspirations will never be met. In these verses in particular, there is a deep felt human yearning for assurance that death is not the end:*

If truth in hearts that perish
Could move the powers on high,
I think the love I bear you
Should make you not to die.

Sure, sure, if steadfast meaning,
If single thought could save,
The world might end to-morrow,
You should not see the grave.

This long and sure-set liking,
This boundless will to please,
- Oh, you should live for ever
If there were help in these.

My dad's love of poetry, of all literature, never left him. He was a man of words to the end. Even in his very last days, when my sisters and I were trying to persuade him to allow his tormented body some rest in his hospital bed, it was a quotation from Shakespeare which could finally reach through to his mind:*

Sleep, that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great Nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.

Not only words, but superbly performed music, a finely played game of cricket, the gentle charm of the English countryside, and anything that was beautiful and lovely found a response deep in his heart, was able to carry him beyond himself. So here we hear from him for the last time, in Rangoon, and thinking of the homeland to which he was about to return, that good and lovely world which his spirit had never truly left. He writes as follows to his father:

Talking of holidays - during the past three years I have been on dozens of imaginary holidays ... It may not be the ideal temperament for one who wishes to make a financial success of life, but I have often thanked God that I am a bit of a dreamer. When material things were at their blackest, the real me would slip away to Everdon Stubs ... to execute delicate late-cuts and leg-glances, to batter my way across the Glendon fields with Jerry plunging into the snowdrifts.* Then it mattered little if I got a bashing, if the floor were flooded and rain pouring through the roof, if the rice were like lead shot and the 'stew' mere marrow-water. I could escape at any time I wished.

Maybe he experienced something of that in spirit during the past few weeks of trouble for his body, as the real him could slip away, and maybe he is experiencing it in a fuller way now. At the heart of his being, his spirit reaches out, as it always has, to the good and the beautiful, the fountain of life from which we all draw our existence. My dad would not have wanted to say anything too positive about that drawing force; but - speaking now as a parson - I invite you now to come in prayer to the love that reaches out through the darkness to his spirit and to ours, as we gently commend him to God's care.

*1. Dad inserted the word 'fully' later, perhaps after reading over what he had written initially and deciding that this way of putting it was a little too 'sad and bitter'.
*2. John Sparrow, in his 'Introduction' to my edition, remarks that 'This unwavering determination that everything shall be for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds sometimes leads him beyond the edge of absurdity; his lads seem all to be lying long in churchyard or in jail' - A. E. Housman, Collected Poems (London; Penguin, 1956), p15.
*3. A Shropshire Lad, XXXIII - ibid., p62. The fourth, and concluding verse of this section, while it flatly denies any fulfilment to this hope, is a heartfelt plea for compassion in the face of unavoidable hopelessness: 'But now, since all is idle / To this lost heart be kind / Ere to a town you journey / Where friends are ill to find.'
*4. Macbeth, II.2.
*5. Jerry was his much-loved dog. I have been unable to locate 'Glendon'; one theory is that the reference should be to 'Grendon', but the years in a Japanese PoW camp had caused my dad momentarily to confuse 'r' with 'l'.
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