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
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
|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
|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,
*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'