Saturday, 23 July 2011

richard webster















I went to a memorial service for my friend Richard Webster this afternoon at St Barnabas church in the Jericho quarter of Oxford (above).

I will always be indebted to Richard for his advice about typesetting and publishing when I set up StreetBooks last year.

Richard was a long-standing member of Writers in Oxford (WiO) and my memory of how he welcomed me when I first joined some ten years ago seems similar to those of colleagues. He was such a staunch believer in the society and was fascinated by people, giving them so much of his time.

In his professional life as a writer he was also a champion of a number of people who were either falsely accused of crimes or imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. A man at his memorial said that he had told Richard that he valued going to prison because if he had not done so he would never have met a man like him. I've tried to paraphrase what the man said and perhaps in doing so I have made it trite. If so, I can only apologise. What he said was profoundly moving. Among others who spoke were a recently retired MP who had chaired a parliamentary committee to which Richard had given decisive evidence and a QC who had successfully defended Richard over a New Statesman article he had written.

One of the remarkable things about the memorial was how little of what Richard did many members of WiO knew. He was a wonderfully warm friend and colleague but not one to boast by any means.

As a former chair of WiO, I have to confess that I was aware of Richard's directness. His passionate belief in the society meant that he could on occasion ask difficult and penetrating questions. Yet he was never a person to put you down. He wanted to raise issues, yes, but was never happier than when you made your point back. What he wanted was honest, robust debate. People said today that he never made you feel diminished by his incisive comments. Rather you were left with the feeling of being enriched by the discussion he provoked. That was certainly my experience.

For the last couple of years, as readers of this blog will know, I've been getting off the 18 bus at St Edward's School, if I'm in good time on my way to work, and cutting down to the canal before walking to Jericho and on into town. At the back of Hayfield Road I have on occasion come across Richard standing at the end of his garden on the opposite bank or having breakfast and he has smiled his unforgettable smile--so surprised to see me there, the first time this happened--and we have chatted for a while. Every time I walk this way, even in winter, I have wondered whether he will be there. Whenever he has been it has been such fun to see him. Now I know he will never be there again.

Finally, I remember Richard quoting at a WiO committee meeting (as was fitting for the author of an excellent book on Freud): 'Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.'

Richard Mortimer Webster, http://richardwebster.net.

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