Onward and Upward

The Eulogy - 12th July 2005 read at St Mary’s in Hitchin

If you walk to the end of Stevenage station, down to the place where Don last stood, and look south, it's not the past that will grab you but the tranquillity... the empty rails run off into the distance over gravel and under an open sky, punctuated by signals and lights that promise adventure, and beckon you out into the unknown - the big blue yonder. There's no bad feeling, just one of infinite wonder.

And here we are marking the end of a life that once seemed to be equally infinite. Celebrating a man who spent his life celebrating us. Everyone who met him will have a story to tell. That's the way Don was, that's the way he still is. He lives in all of us.

It's hard to know what to say about a man who lived to about 150 but managed to cram it all in to just 70 years. He did so much, talked so much, laughed so much... but I have a confession to make, I didn't know him well at all.

I knew that money was never his priority, and we're all better off for that, (except for my camping addiction). We can repair cars, fix windows, re-point brickwork and smell bullshit a mile off. We all have an undeniable passion for family, creativity and fair play. We have Don to thank for that.

I know that Don was in his element at Number 9 New England Street, our first house, he made it famous for gatherings and parties. It was where seemingly hundreds of people met in an open-house for evenings of wine, music and peanut butter... jelly, cream and ginger shortcake too. And days of coffee and flapjack and chats with Sylvia who must have counselled more girls than Maggie Smith. It was where teenagers met policemen, our babysitters met journalists and musicians met choirs of hells angels. It was where Bruckner met Hendrix and Messiaen met Pink Floyd, and where the occasional passer-by, who'd taken the wrong turn or simply asked a stranger for somewhere to stay, would hide in an alcove to avoid meeting the hair and bodies and candles that carpeted the floor and the fireplace - it was a safe place, an enchanted place, more than a house it was a world. But on Sundays Don would often sit alone in the living room, with the full force of Wagner pressing the doors firmly shut, and for all that we still didn't get to really know our dad.

I've no doubt he was an extraordinary friend who'd drive miles for you, invite you home, listen intently then challenge every word you said, he just wanted to know you, hear you, understand you, climb trees with you, eat baked beans and sausages out of the boot of the mini with you and laugh at you. Sometimes light-hearted, sometimes profound, in Don's company anything could happen and usually did... everyone got a share of him, but only a few, a tiny few really penetrated the man. Sid, Pat, Tammo have all sadly gone too, I imagine he felt then, what we feel now - I can also imagine the looks on their faces as he joined them on the 1st of July. Hat, cravat, cigar and a flash of teeth and spectacles and maybe a fur stoal and a can of WD40 just in case. "Whaddya hear, whaddya say?"

I've no doubt he was a incredibly demanding boss who asked for the impossible but serenaded you with words like STUNNING! and STUPENDOUS! when you achieved it and I've no doubt you loved him when it all, finally, made sense. He was on a man on a mission and wouldn't let up, he left no stone unturned, research was watertight, evidence corroborated and the stories that ran were simple human, ballsy and engaging, I've no doubt that at some point you've said "he taught me everything I know".

I've no doubt he was an inspiring brother, despite never having come to terms with his father's illness, he must have raised a smile as he took-off on his ridiculously long bike rides, wearing ridiculously short shorts and a ridiculously large grin to pedal 80 miles, map in pocket, to meet a girl he suspected might be lounging at the seaside - he always had an eye and a almost uncontrollable passion for bikes. Then home it was with just enough time to captain the school cricket teamů before being plucked from school at 15 to work on the local paper and then whisked into the RAF only to be buried beneath a hill in a bunker disguised as a farmhouse and filled with radar screens and more maps - Donald Walter Smitty Jr. must have been a spiffing chap.

And as a husband? That's probably best for Sylvia to tell, but it's nice to know his love of maps drove him to Finchley Central library where he spent endless lunchtimes planning his next adventure. Unfurling countless ordnance survey maps to plan the next adventure... and creating countless opportunities for chatting up the librarian - yes, our mum. I can imagine him now, knee-deep in unfoldable paper asking questions like 'So sweetiepie, does Naples wrap over Venice, or should we fold Rome in first? I know a nice little Italian restaurant where we might find out".

Through 45 years of marriage, with more love and support than any man might warrant, maps figured quite a lot. Maps of Finchley, Barnet, Camden, Hampstead, St Albans, Hitchin and Luton. There were a few that were slightly more exotic, like Boscastle, Bakewell and Bath. Don's passion for Italy took Ma & Pa as far as Marine Ices in Chalk Farm Road, his dedication to the United States of America led to the raising of the confederate flag that flew in the garden at the Mill - why fly yourself when you can bring it home to your own back yard? He really was a difficult man to really know.

It wasn't till he died that the penny dropped. Don's heart lived right here in the community he served. And he dragged everything he could into the community to make it a richer and more exciting place. He was an extraordinary man who really cared about ordinary people. He had no ego. He didn't need to work for the National press, in fact he never wanted to. He was profoundly modest, his life was dedicated to genuine stories in local papers and the people who worked with him to tell them.

He couldn't stomach injustice. He campaigned for people who might otherwise have gone unnoticed. To us he was working late, to June Gordon, a black woman sentenced to 7 years in prison for being mentally ill, he must have been a knight in shining armour. He wrote story after story to free her, he motivated St Albans to write letters and send Christmas cards, he worked tirelessly for a year before, before MPs really took notice and the Nationals took up his story. No credit did he ask, and none did he receive, he was content with his notes from June Gordon and her mother, which he kept to his dying day. His triumph was the victory of justice (and common sense) over apathy and (committees of people who simply don't care).

In another campaign he exposed the trauma of young and difficult kids who were being sent from concrete tower blocks to homes where they were pinned down with a knee to the neck and injected with drugs - this was called therapy. Difficult kids make a difficult story even now, but it didn't stop Don walking into the middle of it, banging on doors to demand an interview and, having read through a small clutch of his files, it seems as though he nearly always got his way. Another day another story that changed a life, and sometimes changed a law.

Next time you're in St Albans walk through the Maltings and look up. At first you'll see nothing, but if you look really hard you'll see the big blue yonder. The reason it's there is Don and his crew at the Review. The Review was his passion - a free newspaper that dared to publish challenging articles and take on anyone who didn't have the community of its city at heart. If it wasn't for this campaigning spirit that shopping centre may well have been a large enclosed box with a lid and St Albans could have been on its way to Luton. Dad spent his life working for you and me and dedicated himself to us all. That sky in the Maltings is his blue plaque.

The sickness that knocked him down 13 years ago didn't dent his appetite for adventure, he put his energy into his grandchildren while he had it to spare and sought the company of books when it ran low. He collected verses and poems and moments - all different, crazy, funny and some just bizarre - just as he'd collected people and their stories through the years before. He became a local historian for a lucky few for whom he turned tiny detail into monumental importance. That was his way. And though it seems he eventually lost sight of himself he never lost sight of the people around him as Jordan is our witness.

'When Don came to school in Wellies'

It was a boiling day and I couldn't wait to get out of the sweaty classroom. As I walked to the school gate, my brother ran up to looking panic-stricken.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Don!" he shouted and hung back as I walked on with my friend. When I got to the gate I knew Don must have dressed-up again in one of his embarrassing outfits! But this time it was worse...

He was wearing long green Wellingtons, way up passed his knees, a raincoat and jodhpurs tucked into his wellies. I looked around, beetroot and hoped no one noticed, but it seemed as though everyone already had!

But that wasn't the worst part, as we walked to the car I heard water sloshing about in his wellies!

"I filled them with water just so they'd make that noise" he said as he laughed and grinned at everyone we passed, who gave us odd looks. But Don being Don, didn't care AT ALL!

I know my father a little better now.

A great man rests in this place.