Wednesday 20 November 2019

A widow is always a different person than a wife

Dick West and Mary Kenny
Dick West and Mary Kenny
Dick West
Dick West and Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

My husband Richard died on the weekend of the Nepalese earthquake disaster, and watching the terrible scenes from Kathmandu, I wondered if it was selfish to be more concerned about our own private losses than the great tragedies that befall so many others. Yet that is the way of human experience. I changed from a wife to a widow on a Saturday afternoon, and though it was far from unexpected, it left a draining void and for the next three days I felt poleaxed by migraine.

Richard died at home after many years of being disabled by a stroke and after months of visible decline. At the end, he looked as emaciated as an El Greco painting. But the stiff upper lip served him well - as the old Greeks knew, stoicism is a support in suffering.

Except in a jokey way - "would you like a sherry, dear?" "No, a chalice of Hemlock and a loaded revolver" - he would never have requested anything like assisted suicide: he was too much of an old-fashioned Anglican, and an admirer of the Book of Common Prayer, which intones: "The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord." I don't mean that in any kind of sanctimonious way, which wouldn't have been his style at all.

We were a bit of an odd couple - but then every marriage is weird in its own way. One of the obituaries which chronicled his life noted that he wasn't really made for domesticity, and that was true: Dick was at heart a wanderer, and his life as a freelance journalist wandering the globe was his natural milieu. I wasn't much of a fan of domesticity either, so that made us a match. When we married, a Yorkshire friend said, in the blunt idiom of his ilk: "I suppose you'd better marry one another, for nobody else would marry either of you!" Ah, the Yorkist's jest - yet, there was an element of truth in it. Wasn't Heaven good to allow two oddities to find one another?

Dick himself came from a literary, slightly Bohemian family: his great grandfather, John Addington Symonds, was a Victorian aesthete and Italian Renaissance specialist who, in retrospect, has become a gay icon (though married to a devoted wife, he had a penchant for Venetian gondoliers). Dick was sent to a public school, where senior boys were permitted to thrash the juniors and freezing conditions were considered character-building, and went on to Cambridge, but his natural milieu was Bohemian life anywhere: Fleet Street, Soho, and any foreign soil in trouble or offbeat (a favourite location was Papua New Guinea).

He fell in love with Yugoslavia when he watched Tito repulse Stalin, using an oath of astonishing vigour: and where, in 1954, he interviewed the last survivors of the Black Hand Bosnian-Serb group who had assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. He also fell in love with a Serbian woman who was the great passion of his life: it ended tragically, but years later, when we were moving house, I found her picture carried in an old wallet.

In his youth, life often seemed generally more Bohemian and informal. Young people lived in cheap digs and found work where they could: in Islington, he shared a lodging house with journalist Mary Holland, and they talked about Trotsky into the dark watches of the night. He worked for the Manchester Guardian, with Michael Parkinson, and then for the Daily Mirror in London, where he was proud of writing a headline for the letters page: "Why can't we have a teenage Pope?" He reported from Africa and got terribly upset about the blockade of Biafra, which killed off that fledgling nation. And many times over from Vietnam, the Balkans and Central America, where he drank with Graham Greene.

In Australia, he went into a bar in Alice Springs, and asked for a glass of white wine, only to be slung out (in pre-Politically Correct days) as a "Pommy pooftah". Never mind: he ended up drinking for a whole day with Gough Whitlam, in a seedy Sydney hotel, although Whitlam was Australia's Prime Minister at the time.

Our home life was often chaotic. We drank a lot, but gave hospitality when we could: there were fun times, and fighting times too. He said something memorably encouraging when I quit drinking: "Mary, you are quite effervescent enough without a drink." And then he added: "With one, you can be a vixen."

Every widow is a different person than she was as a wife. Dick's disabilities, which started seriously around 2000, meant that I had to be more of a wife than I would have freely chosen, but I now wonder if I hid behind that role - did I use it as an excuse to avoid life? I am glad that his last months of suffering are over, yet I couldn't but think of John Donne's words: "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee."


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