Saturday, 17 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 16 January 2015 – A Friendship Across The Generations

One day in 1974 I was looking intently at a completed proposal form for a life policy with the United Kingdom Civil Service Benefit Society, housed at that time in an office on the Sheen Road in Richmond, Surrey (this was before the creation of the London Metropolitan Boroughs, so the old county name is still relevant). Applicants for policies were lower-grade civil servants: clerical officers and assistants, post office workers and a fair few prison officers. Signing people up for policies was the task of local representatives, who were sometimes colleagues of the applicants, and completed forms often arrived at our office in batches.

This was my first-ever employment and it was my job to check the incoming forms and insert relevant details from them on to pro-formas that would be passed to the two women who then had to type the relevant details into a computerised printer so large it needed its own room. The resulting policy documents would be returned to me for further checking before being issued to the applicants, carbon copies being retained at the office. My colleagues in the Policy Processing Department and I sat around a large table, each of us performing complementary tasks. My work did comprise other duties, such as filing, and calculating premiums on an electric calculator the size of a small dog kennel, but proofreading and the checking of details was my main thing.

Completed policies and associated correspondence were filed in large cabinets along one wall, and members of other departments would visit our room to access them and usually stop for a chat. There was much banter and a fair amount of griping and moaning, but the working atmosphere was generally good. The air quality was poor however as two of my colleagues—one as thin as a grass stalk and the other of an ashen complexion—smoked incessantly. The walls and ceilings of offices in those days all bore a yellow-brown patina of nicotine. We knew it was unpleasant but at the same time did not question its acceptability—it was some years before the issues of passive smoking became common currency.

Working at "The UK", as the Society was called, gave me my first introduction to the basic concepts of actuarial risk and the principle that an applicant's state of health and consequent life expectancy would have an impact on the level of premium that would be charged to secure the payout of the desired sum assured on his or her death. The application form contained a section requiring the applicant to provide details of existing medical conditions. A disclosure of any serious medical condition would mean that the application would be sent to The UK's medical adviser, who would specify what further information should be supplied by the application before a decision could be made on accepting risk.

On the day concerned, the medical section of the form I was looking at contained the single handwritten response "LYPHOMA". My mind being stocked with a vocabulary of medical terms gleaned from perusal of my father’s medical journals, I was concerned by the spelling used. If the word had been “LIPOMA”, there would have been no need for further enquiry, as the applicant would have been disclosing nothing more than that he had a benign fatty lump somewhere about his person (the applicant was male, as most indeed were). However the presence of y and h made me think that the applicant was actually referring to a more troubling entity, that is to say lymphoma, meaning that his medical outlook was likely to be more significantly compromised. It was indeed the latter, so an imaginary gold star and a less becoming sense of smugness were my rewards on that occasion. Little did is suspect that, more than a quarter of a century later, I would be sitting in a haematologist’s consulting room further west in the county of Surrey receiving the most unwelcome news that my own bone marrow had turned to the Dark Side and become the enemy within.

I have often found myself since diagnosis recalling that early lesson in the importance of correct spelling and at the same time being thankful that the treatment of many cancers, including lymphomas—there are numerous types—has improved dramatically in the intervening years and even in the time since I first became a habitué of haematology departments.

Since 1964 my permanent residence has remained within what is now The London Borough of Richmond upon Thames (“LBRUT”, whose Council is sometimes known locally and with a certain satirical affection as “El Brute”), but today I was once again in the town of Richmond itself, at a church service to celebrate the life of the man who gave me that first employment and who died shortly before Christmas. He and his wife, who predeceased him some 12 years ago, were good friends of my parents and our families spent much time together from 1968 onwards and well on into the 1970s in particular, my brother and I also getting to know and stay with their wider family in South Wales.

Though our paths have not crossed that much in more recent years, as is so often the way in life, the cords of love and shared memories have remained strong and life-giving. During the church service today and at the reception afterwards, I was not only reminded of the best times anyone could hope to experience, but also handed the golden opportunity that such occasions afford: to reforge links of love, both with members of the family and with the wider circle of friends and acquaintances, some of whom I have also not seen for many years.

My late friend was a remarkable man, as all present today were able to affirm, of strong (but never “earnest" or dull) Christian faith, generosity, fun and not a little mischief. What impressed particularly about him was his willingness and ability to relate to people of all ages, and I am so glad my own children got to experience for themselves his qualities of warmth, kindness and good humour—they declared him to be “a dude”. He was unfailingly kind to me and unstinting with his time and attention to what what was going on in my life, sometimes enquiring directly but nevertheless gently about my spiritual wellbeing.

I last spoke to him about two years ago, when he telephoned me in the depths of my illness, having heard from his daughter that I was unwell. He was by then well into his nineties and until 2013 he sent my family a Christmas card every year, his firm handwriting giving no clue of the advancing frailty he bore without complaint.

May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Duke Street Baptist Church in the centre of Richmond.
Many hours of my teenage years were spent in this very plain building.

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