Thursday, 1 December 2016

Parting of the ways with my oldest friend

The one benefit of a boarding school, from a kid’s point of view, is that you’re with your friends all the time. They’re within walking distance. There’s none of that phoning their parents to check whether they can come over and establishing when is convenient for both families. You just pop round, convenient or not.

The first step, of course, is to make some friends at the school.

Fortunately, when I showed up at the boarding school I attended – Dartington, now sadly closed – I found myself quickly thrown into the company of one boy of my age. In fact, he was a couple of months younger, which was a shock to me: I was used to being the youngest in my group. He also had a name that struck me as weirdly spelled: Alasdhair (pronounced Alastair).

We had a number of interests as well as our relatively young age in common. We both liked languages, for instance, and we shared an interest, passing as it turned out, in physics. However, it was neither of those things that first formed a bond between us.

One of my earliest memories of Alasdhair was cycling with him to a poetically named village near the school, Landscove. Isn’t that evocative? Coves are things you get on the coast. What’s one like when it’s inland?

It turns out, nothing special. Landscove is in Devon which is known for its hills. That made it a struggle to get there on our bikes. It was little reward for the effort to discover that it was a pretty little village but with nothing to distinguish it from any of the others around.

Alasdhair was fortunate in having his mother, Barbara, and sister, the equally strangely-spelled Shellagh (pronounced Sheila), living at the school. Shellagh and Barbara were as charming and fun as Alasdhair and it was balm to my soul to be adopted by them. They offered me a welcome which I’m sure I outstayed by repeatedly visiting their flat in the evenings to enjoy the atmosphere of family life while away from mine.

But inevitably I spent most time with Alasdhair himself. We listened to comedy radio programmes, in particular I’m sorry I’ll read that again, featuring the team that went on to launch Monty Python along with the one that launched another TV programme, The Goodies. We cultivated our taste for science too, notably by stealing rather a lot of wire at one point, laying it around the roofs of the school and using it to run an illicit radio station. Fortunately, we were caught before we ran out of enthusiasm for becoming DJs.

We also tried fermenting potato juice and then breaking into the chemistry lab where we tried to distil the product into vodka. Our pains yielded a lot of broken lab equipment and a tasteless, murky liquid with absolutely no intoxicating effect.

What else did we do? We walked on Dartmoor until our feet felt like lead. We bored our contemporaries by talking about relativity theory without understanding it. We maintained a friendly rivalry over linguistic ability, which I probably edged over him in French, but he won hands down overall by also learning German.

I don’t want to give the impression that we lived in each other’s pockets, because we certainly didn’t. We each had our own circle of friends, his significantly larger than mine; our orbits simply intersected more often than most and we had too much in common not to keep gravitating towards each other.

After school, we kept up our bond by making for London to study Physics. We both got involved with the radical left and took our eyes off the study ball with the result that neither of us covered ourselves in academic glory, though he got closer to it than I did. We lived with some other friends in glorious squalor, in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of the unfashionable east of the city. We even took in a group of young West Indians we met locally, which led to some interesting and colourful experiences, not always with the most successful of outcomes.

After college, our ways parted, as he made for the States and I stayed in Europe. Even so, we spoke or wrote from time to time and met occasionally. We went skiing together, with the woman, Danielle, who became my wife and another who didn’t become his, and we spent time together in Danielle’s home region of Alsace, enjoying the life, the food and the drink of the three countries that join there, France, Germany and Switzerland.

We met in England too. On one occasion he, his first wife and I met in Oxford for a picnic. We started by shopping for delicacies – smoked salmon and smoked ham, melon, salads, French bread, white wine – after which we faced a characteristically English mishap, when the heavens opened and threw down a deluge which looked apt to drown us.

Fortunately, we found a gloriously English solution. In South Parks Road there is a cricket ground with a graceful wooden pavilion and, in those days, the grounds weren’t fenced off from the road. We repaired (quickly) to the terrace of the pavilion and found all we needed: a table and benches under shelter. The picnic was all the more memorable for taking place within a metre or two of dense downpour from which we were fully protected.

In later years, I was sorry to hear that his marriage had ended, but delighted by the pride he took in his children’s progress and the joy that gave him. I was pleased too by his second marriage, to Becky Villarreal, an event I know brought him solace in what turned out to be the last few months of his life.

For he remarried not long after learning that he was suffering from stage 4 cancer, the disease that had much earlier killed his mother. Cancer has no stage 5, unless we use that term for death. Even so, his doctors held out a meagre hope of giving him another year or two of life.

It really was a meagre hope and on 4 November, it ran out.

Alasdhair Campbell, 1953-2016
in Dartington Hall Gardens, one of his favourite places
Of all friends with whom I still maintained contact, Alasdhair was the one I’d known well longest. Though the contact was more tenuous in later years, it had never been broken; but because it was tenuous, its ending feels all the more unreal. I certainly haven’t accepted it yet, and still expect to write to him or hear from him at any time.

It’s a particularly strong feeling when I visit Oxford, as I still do frequently, and see the cricket ground and its pavilion. That leaves me smiling with pleasure at the memory of our picnic and ruefully at the fence that prevents any repetition of it. I feel it too whenever I travel by air, as it reminds me of the many long journeys Alasdhair used to take for work and which he would commentate on facebook. Indeed, it is on a plane that I’m writing this testimonial now.

Odd that he’s not around any more. Terribly unfair. And poignantly sad.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this I would not have otherwise known about his sad death. I knew him well and he offered myself and others great support over the abuse that some of us suffered at Dartington mainly at Aller Park. Thank you for this heart felt piece.

David Beeson said...

Thanks for sharing that. And the abuse was something I heard about in the last couple of years and found hard to believe - a shocking surprise. I can only say how sorry I am.

Becky Campbell said...

Today was probate court. Sent this link to the two men who stood up for him - one an EMT he worked with and the other a firefighter he worked with. They had to testify that he didn't have any other children other than the 2 you know of. So I read it again ( 100th time). You write so beautifully - thank you and please continue! - Becky Campbell

David Beeson said...

Thanks, Becky. Good luck with all the painful administrative burdens, which I'm sure you could do without. I hope you find the way to have a good new year in spite of everything.

Anonymous said...

A heart-felt homage to your much-loved friend. Although I never met him, your tribute much moved me.