Wednesday, 9th August, 2023

[Day 1241]

Today was a day that started off in one of the worst possible ways one can imagine. I listened to a voicemail on my iphone which gave me the news that the oldest, and dearest, of my friends had recently died at the age of 96. I suppose one has to say that 96 years olds can be carried away, as my doctor once informed me, by a ‘puff of wind’. But Jo (short for Josephine) was an incredibly significant person in my life and her demise is quite a blow to me. I first met Jo when I was a young civil servant working at the Central Office of Information in London in 1964. My job was part of a team to man an information centre for the rest of Whitehall and I was just the raw office junior whereas Jo was an Assistant Information Officer. Our desks were at right angles to each given the layout of the office and we all worked extremely collaboratively on a whole range of information issues. That particular year – 1964-65 – was an momentous one in information terms as it was the 700th anniversary of the founding of the Simon De Montfort Parliament which is the precursor of our present-day Parliament. It was also the year in which Winston Churchill died and, again, the world’s media were going frantic for every bit of Churchilliana it was possible to find. But the reason why Jo is such a special person for me will now become apparent. She knew that I was attempting to study for some ‘A’-levels completely on my own with no tuition. Jo enquired whether I had a quiet place in which to study, suspecting that a hostal for young male civil servants was not a place in which there was any opportunity for such study. I informed Jo that my principal study time was the 20 minutes of a Tube Journey between Finchley Road and Lambeth North on the Bakerloo line in the morning and again, in the reverse direction in the evening. Jo was a widow with a son who was then aged about 15 but lived with her son in a house adjacent to Heathrow Airport, where her pilot husband had been killed in an air crash. She made me an offer that was hard to refuse which was that I was to accompany her home on Friday evening and then have uninterrupted study time all Friday evening and the following Saturday and Sunday for intensive study for the three weeks just prior to my examinations – she said she would provide me with meals but I could have time for completely uninterrupted study. So this worked out fine but I think her 15 year old son must have wondered what kind of a waif and stray his mother had adopted. Eventually my results came through and as I had had no tuition and not submitted a single assignment, I had absolutely no idea whatsoever what my results were likely to be. In the event, I obtained a Grade A in Economics and a Grade B in Logic and my success in this venture owes a tremendous amount to Jo who had ‘rescued’ me and given me such a wonderful opportunity. On gaining my A-levels, I was off to University but Jo and I have remained life-long friends and she has shared my joys in life such as getting married to Meg, the birth of our son and much more recently a guest of honour at our 50th wedding anniversary nearly six years ago now. Jo was such a talented musician and she had a LRCM qualification in piano regarded as a degree level qualification for the civil service which employed us both. But she also had a strong science background and as well as working in pathology labs was at one stage employed in a facility where she met with, and exchanged some conversations with, Alan Turing, the celebrated mathematician and cryptographer who helped to crack the code of the Enigma machines deployed by the Germans during WWII. This enabled the Allies to have advance knowledge of German war plans and Turing’s work helped to shorten the war effort considerably as well as him being regarded as the ‘father’ of the modern computer. In recent years, Jo and I and our families have been meeting once a year in a little Italian restaurant just around the corner from the British Museum until the pandemic put a stop to all of that. She phoned me up about a month ago and on my Casio keyboard, I played her the Largo from the New World Symphony (which she knew well and sang along to). I had hoped that we might meet up in the next few weeks as soon as we could organise it all but she had felt unwell for a couple of days and then died what I hope was a peaceful and tranquil death. I am not at all ashamed to say that I wept copiously when I got the news this morning and have spent all day trying to cope with my own grief. Goodbye, Jo, and may you rest in peace! How blessed I am to have had a friend like you for the last 59 years and now I have only memories (and some 50th wedding photos, of course)