Tuesday 19 July 2011

Farewell to a fine old countryman

We know that nothing is forever, not even the sun and stars. Yet death always comes as a terrible shock, however old or poorly the deceased. So I was duly stunned on Friday morning when news reached me of the passing of my next-door neighbour of 23 years, Andrew Beresford.

Etta and Andrew, 2005

It would be idle to pretend that Andrew (or “Mr Beresford” as I always called him) and I had a huge amount in common, beyond the proximity of our living arrangements. We did not get off to the best possible start when he hailed me aggressively over the garden wall as I inspected the semi-derelict cottages I had just acquired. Few people could invest the words “Can I help you?” with quite so much menace.

But after an introductory period of chilly mutual misunderstanding, I began to develop a huge respect for the man and his lifestyle. He and his wife Etta kept goats, pigs, turkeys and chickens, and grew vegetables and fruit. Many country people enjoy eggs from their own hens; few also cure the bacon to go with them. A series of chest freezers allowed them to enjoy their own produce all year round. (Never believe anyone who tries to tell you that frozen food is rubbish.)

Andrew's goats
The henhouse with the finest view in England

Indeed, they seemed to have little need of shops except to buy the odd bottle of whisky. A fire burned in their grate 365 days a year and the smell of home baking regularly filled their kitchen. It was exactly the sort of life of rural self-sufficiency I had always dreamt of for myself, but will almost certainly never realise.

But Andrew also had skills that I could never dream of mastering. He was a man of prodigious strength, whose ability to drive a fence post into hard ground with his bare hands never ceased to amaze me. He had an immense knowledge of horses, having begun work on farms in the days when they were the principal source of power. He broke horses to harness and drove them in traps and carts he had built himself. He also carved beautiful walking sticks, one of which I shall treasure as a memento of his skill.

Some of Andrew's horses
Some of Andrew's carts

Above all he was, beneath his occasionally forbidding exterior, a warm and generous neighbour with a great love of children. For years I took him a daily copy of The Journal when I was not working away from home (which was, I regret to say, all too frequently). I had only recently handed on that baton to my two-year-old son, and will never forget him proudly walking up the garden path with a copy of the paper tucked under his arm, repeatedly rehearsing his line, “Ayo, Mr Beresford, I bring you paper!”

A line which somehow got shyly abbreviated to “Paper!” at the moment of delivery, but still raised a smile.

Andrew with the Hann family, November 2010

Although he was 87 and had been in poor health for some time, I never imagined that I had seen the last of Andrew. And, as usual when someone departs, there are regrets: in this case that I never told him what a very high regard I had for him. Perhaps it would have been better to put it in a column before he died, though more likely it would just have caused embarrassment all round.

So let me conclude this uncharacteristically uncynical piece by offering my most sincere condolences to his widow Etta, sons Neville and Scott, and all his extended family. Andrew, it was a privilege to have known you.

And if there is anyone out there – whether in your family or among your friends and neighbours – that you really admire, respect or even love, and you have never let them know, take a tip from me. Tell them today. Because tomorrow may turn out to be too late.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.


Louise said...

Very sad to hear of this. How is Mrs Beresford coping?
Please send her my condolences.

CC said...

I have come to realize that the truest sign of a life well lived is to be remembered for humanity and humor, with survivors
dearly wishing for more.

Receiving such a fine and touching tribute from a sworn curmudgeon is certainly the definitive affirmation.

Lovely photos.

Very sorry for your loss, Keith.

Nicola said...

Fond memories of a mutually incomprehensible 3-way conversation between Mr Beresford, Keith and myself on the subject of one of Mr B's horses. I would have understood the horsey bits if I could penetrate the dialect; Keith had no difficulties with the dialect but couldn't tell a pastern from a postern; Mr B had a fine disregard for my southern accent. Fond memories also of gifts of braces of pheasants with their necks mysteriously wrung, and Mr B's affection for his pet rabbits.

Frank Black said...

"Tell them today. Because tomorrow may turn out to be too late."

Too true.