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For Dad

Eulogy for Robert Edmund Gaisford

4.12.1946-23.11.2023


Pass the Pigs is a game in which, instead of dice, you throw miniature rubber pigs; how they fall determines the score you get. 

 

It is not clear what possessed my father to take Pass the Pigs to the Himalayas. Nor do we know what possessed the locals to take my father seriously. 

 

Still, every evening, as the sun set over Fishtail Mountain, people gathered in their numbers to try their hand at this dark art. ‘Give it a bit more wrist,’ the pigmeister would tell them. Or, ‘Have you tried a run-up?’ His enthusiasm was contagious; it is no exaggeration to say that for a limited time in 2001, Pass the Pigs was the talk of the Pokhara Trail.

 

And beyond. As Mum recalls, it was 150 kilometres away, in Katmandu, where they jumped in a taxi and the driver asked, ‘Do you have the pigs?’ He did not. He’d given them to Rabindra, their guide. He also gave Rabindra another gift. We’ll come back to that. 


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Two summers later, my parents chose a marginally less exotic holiday destination: Norfolk. The year was 2003, and things were going well for Dad. Ostensibly, at least. He was a senior litigator and partner at Sinclair Roche & Temperly International Law Firmhe was happily married to our wonderful Mother, Sue; and he had five doting - and impeccably-behaved - children. What was not to like? 

 

Well, much as Dad loved his Spanish and Scandinavian clients, the partnership was under a new leadership; the daily commute to London meant that he saw very little of us and, as we were soon to discover, he was in perilously poor health. 

 

He was driving when it struck. A major heart attack. And but for Mum’s quick thinking, he would not have survived. Anyway, the call went out and everyone shot over to King’s Lynn hospital. He was still alive - thank God – but the next few hours would be critical. 

 

It was hard not to fear the worst. But then came the reassurance we needed:

 

‘As he was beginning to regain consciousness,’ Mum told us, ‘The radiographer announced that she was taking an X-ray of his chest. At which point your father piped up, “Would you like me to smile?”’ 

 

Even in the darkest moments of his life – especially in the darkest moments - Dad succeeded in bringing laughter to those around him. This was owed, perhaps, to his rare ability to put others’ concerns above his own. 

 

When I got in to see him that day, his skin was ashen and he could barely speak; indeed, he managed just nine words for me: 

 

‘There’s a box of Rioja under the stairs.’


#

 

But the heart attack took its toll on him, and on doctor’s orders he did the thing he had long dreamed of doing: he packed a rucksack and set off to Northern Spain to follow that famous pilgrim trail, the Camino de Santiago. 

 

He almost destroyed his feet. He stopped short of Santiago too, in favour of a bath in a Parador Hotel. But those things aside, his mind cleared and the plan worked. ‘Life is a not a dress rehearsal,’ he returned to tell us all. ‘Life is for living - go for it!’ 

 

And he meant it.

 

He resigned from his City job and took his health in hand. After a period of accompanying Mum on travel-writing trips – he especially relished the one they took to the vineyards of La Rioja - he reinvented himself as an arbitrator - and without wishing to overstate the case, a ruddy fine one too.

 

In no time at all, he became president of the London Maritime Arbitrators Association. And Tim Young KC speaks for many in remembering Dad as ‘…one of the best, one of the wisest, one of the most intelligent and, most of all, one of the truly nicest men ever to grace an arbitral tribunal.’

 

Another reason he commanded such respect: he was just. As solicitor, Nick Shaw, observes, ‘He was bright and knowledgeable, but above all, sensible and fair, a true gentleman to deal with at all times.’

 

And this is what Dad’s friend and colleague, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, said of him:

 

‘He was an immediately kind and generous person, always ready to help others and with no sense of his own importance. He knew what mattered and what did not and had an amazing ability to deal with whatever life brought him. He was also a person of the highest integrity.’


#


On hearing such beautiful tributes, one may wonder where on earth such a thoroughly good egg came from. 

 

The short answer is Essex. Born in Woodford, to loving parents David and Vera, he grew up with his big brother, Phil, and younger brother, Joe.

 

He had fond memories of those early years: of flooding sandpits to create little islands, of playing Cowboys and Indians, and of other, more gentle pastimes, like a holiday on the Essex coast, where he helped to build a clinker boat, and was rewarded with a model of it.

 

Another institution of Dad’s childhood was Chunky, his stuffed toy dog. As the photos betray, he was a constant companion to him for many years – even when all that remained of him was an ear. 

 

Suffice to say, it was a happy start for young Rob. But trouble lay ahead. 


#


When he was eight, he passed the entrance exam to Chigwell. Phil was there as a day boy; yet, when it came to Dad, they apparently had no more day places, but he could attend as a boarder. The school had his parents over a barrel: not wishing to send their children to different schools, they coughed up the fees and the little lad’s fate was sealed. 

 

At Chigwell, Dad’s nickname was ‘Smiler’. But the brave face belied his true feelings. As he later told us, he was ‘profoundly unhappy’ at the school, where most of the teaching was appalling and he lived in constant fear of castigation: it wasn’t so much the punishment itself that troubled him, but the random way it was meted out. 

 

Most painful, though, was the separation from his family: boarding school became the norm and home the exception. 

 

One way he got through this period was by going to the school communion service each morning, before most of the other boys were up. He described it as a serene way to start the day. This was probably the beginning of his profound and unshakeable faith, which would guide him through the rest of his life. 

 

Another way he got through was courtesy of his brother Phil, whose protective hand was rarely far away. Once, for example, some teddy boys chose to pick on him in town. Braced for a beating from the ringleader, he watched as the thug appeared to levitate: Phil, who happened to be nearby, had lifted him off the ground. ‘Is there a problem?’ Phil asked.  Strangely, there wasn’t. 


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Dad read Law at Southampton University. And it was there, of course, that he met Sue: a beautiful, intelligent English student with a list of suitors as long as your arm and, in Dad’s words, ‘the most elegant legs I had ever seen, and ever would.’

 

To cut a long courtship short, she invited him to the Chamberlain Ball, they danced, and it was during this intimate moment that Dad delivered the line that would sear his name forever into her heart: ‘You smell like Chunky’s ear,’ he said.  

 

They were married in May 1970. Among those at the wedding were Ed and Maz Campbell, and Richard and Sarah Hayes. Kind, cultured, ever-so-stylish young things, the six of them would go on to become lifelong friends.

 

Of course, Mum’s best friend was Dad. And she, his. As Phil wrote to her in a very touching letter: 

 

‘Thank you for keeping my brother happy all those years. He was born happy, he died happy and, thanks to you, he was happy in between.’

 

Mum and Dad were also each other’s rock. Among the worst storms they would weather in their 53 years of marriage were the untimely deaths of Dad’s father, David; of his younger brother, Joe; and, later on, of Mum’s younger sister, Monc. 


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Dad was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 2021. He was given six months to live; but thanks to exceptional medical care and, one suspects, his own, irrepressible spirit, he survived another two and a half years. 

 

This was the moment we had long dreaded. For twenty-one years since the heart-attack, we had learnt to see this hilarious, hands-on, domestic lumberjack of a man in a new light. Dad was vulnerable. 

 

When it came to it, he treated his impending death like he would a weak legal case: no use fighting the facts, but every reason to mitigate.

 

And mitigate he did:

 

1.   He learnt to paint. And rather beautifully too. For that, we have Mags to thank - whose idea it was to buy him some lessons – and the all-inspiring Terry Rosenberg, who taught him. 

 

2.   He and mum opened their doors to mother and child, Natascha and Mikhail, refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.

 

3.   He set up an entirely new entity: The Panama PlonkersAssociation. On losing what remained of his hair, Dad ordered a Panama on line, found that he had got the wrong size, and so plonked it on his granddaughter, Mattie’s head instead. Eliza, Mattie’s sister, had better have one too, he thought. And that was that. 

 

The Panama Plonkers only ever comprised those three founding members. Indeed, it existed solely for the for purpose of excluding the rest of us. This was betrayed by Article 4 of the Agenda to their first meeting – drafted by the Supreme Plonker himself, of course. It read, ‘To consider (and probably refuse) any applications for full membership of the Club.’ There was no probably about it.

 

4.   In his final six months, he remained ever-present for his youngest daughter, Mags, as she came to terms with her own cancer diagnosis.  

 

5.   Even at the very end, flat on his back and barely able to move, Dad held ‘parties’ for us in his bedroom, where he quaffed tiny amounts of champagne through a straw and entertained us with, among other things, his stunning impression of the Clitheroe Kid.  

 

Pausing here, I must formally acknowledge the remarkable work that Mum and my sisters put into his final weeks. It meant so much to him to see how well everyone worked together, each contributing in a unique and invaluable way to bring him comfort and peace. I must also thank our respective partners and children for holding the fort at home to enable us to remain at his side. And I must thank all of Mum and Dad’s wonderful friends and neighbours for the emotional and comestible sustenance you plied us with. You were indispensible.


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In Dad’s final week of life, Mags, his youngest, was able to give him the news he had been holding out for: her MRI showed that her chemotherapy had been successful. I’ve never seen such relief on anyone’s face. ‘Thank you, God,’ he said. 

 

There was more good news for him too. Mags’ son, Joey – who had been cast as a cow in his school nativity play, and had not taken kindly to this – had just been upgraded to a shepherd.

 

To this, he replied, ‘You should have started with that.’ 


#


Dad left each of us with a treasure trove of memories, too rich and too deep to do justice to here. I’ll end now, where I started.  

 

Back to Nepal, and to that second gift my father gave Rabindra, besides the pigs. It was his word, no less, that he and Mum would put the man’s bright young son, Dipu, through secondary school.

 

It was a promise they honoured. Not only that, the promise became a bit like a living document, frequently edited and updated. In its final iteration – several years later - it had become a promise to put the now-not-so-young Dipu through secondary school, university, and medical school.

 

Today, Dipu is a consultant orthopedic surgeon and runs his own department in a new hospital in Pokhara. In a recent exchange with my sister, Juliet, he had this to say of Dad: 

 

‘He has blessed me by giving me this wonderful life…my prayers are always with him…I thank him so much for being my loveliest god dad.’ 

 

Beautiful words, for a man who was nothing if not generous; a man of integrity, grace and good counsel, and whose sublimely silly sense of humour few of us will ever forget - however hard we try.


 

 

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