A lament for Patrick Gordon Smith

My mother and father discovered our neighbour, dead, this (tuesday) morning, slumped on his kitchen floor behind his front door so that it had to be forced to be open.

Patrick Gordon Smith – not hyphenated, but treated as a double-barrel name – lived two doors along from my parents, and was an significant influence upon my life right from our arrival back in the UK in 1978, through to when I left for college in 1985, and beyond.

He was a quintessentially English character; long-limbed, mild mannered, silver haired and perpetually dressed in proper shoes, trousers and a long-sleeved shirt with collar, he was cast from a mould of WWII military aviator whose values and behaviour are unseen – and barely understood – in this day and age. Fans of Dad’s Army would, with some fairness, compare his style to that of bespectaled John LeMesurier, but with a rather less wily air, more at-ease with himself, with a hint of Naval swagger but no bravado.

Pat was WWII ex-RN Fleet Air Arm and flew “Stringbags” (Fairy Swordfish Torpedo / Fighter-Bombers) off of the Ark Royal; I believe that he was in-on the hunt for the Bismark, but not based on the Ark Royal at that point. Stationed in Malta for a while. I also believe he finished up as a Wing Commander or somesuch.

I never pressed him about his war experiences because we shared another interest entirely: birdwatching.

His slightly betweeded love for all matters avian – porting everywhere his 1950s vintage copy of Peterson-UK and a pair of Barr & Stroud 8x30s, dressed in a muddy-brown smock – was an inspiration to me. Trips to Slimbridge, trips to Cley and Mins, regular weekly hauls up the A38 to the rather less-well-known-than-now reserve of Upton Warren… We must have spent several hundred (often freezing and rained-on) hours in each others’ company, or comparing notes after expeditions on our own; he always gave his time and advice freely, rarely took umbrage or became angered at anything, and when he did tended to express in terms of “being a bit miffed”.

One of the happiest moments of my birdwatching life was the time that I felt that I had managed to “give him back” a worthy experience; through another birder I learned that a nest of Quail had been discovered a few miles to the north of where we lived, in Doverdale fields. In the summer evening half-light we drove out there, I led us to the spot, and after a few too-long minutes a Quail emerged like some shrunk-in-the-wash Partridge, no bigger than a fist, perched on a hummock and began to display with its repetitive “twit-wip-wip” call.

Patrick couldn’t hear it – with age he was becoming progressively more deaf to high frequencies and was also partially blind in one eye, the other deteriorating through glaucoma – but we tracked it, we nailed it, we saw it we did, confirming the species observation by the frequency of the bird’s wingbeats as it flew off.

That was a good day.

I didn’t see Pat much after I left for college and then work; his birding trips tailed-off after hearing and sight defects made it less fruitful. As was his habit, he and my parents would get together on saturdays and do the Daily Telegraph crossword over dinner, phoning up family and sharing the clues and solutions in a joint social-event / race / intra-family war.

Apparently his deterioration recently became more serious after he finally became too disabled to drive; my mother attributes much of this to loss if independence, and I can see merit in this view. Yesterday – monday now – feeling poorly, he booked an appointment to go to the local medical centre, and my dad was to taxi him there at 0845 the next morning.

Sunrise came, Dad went to pick him up but found the front door locked, with a note stuck in the window for Pat’s cleaner; Dad cast-around, tried to find if Pat’d gone to the doctor’s under his own steam somehow, called Pat’s son, after an hour my Dad (82) himself was on the verge of attacking the front door with a sledgehammer when Mum found the spare key we kept. She unlocked the door and pushed, but nothing moved.

It was only while she was shoving the door hard that she had the horrible realisation of what might be blocking it, and putting her head around the door confirmed the body. I’m glad that Dad was there too, because he’s seen enough death – also WWII – to be able to cope level-headedly.

The police arrived later – they’d got lost – forced entry, arranged ambulances and examiners and so forth. As ever, the traditional response of Muffetts to emergency services personnel is to feed them endless mugs of tea – which gave Mum something to do; she (fortunately) like the rest of us is pretty bombproof on these occasions, and also saw to fielding Pat’s son when he arrived.

The general opinion was that Pat had dropped in his pyjamas while fetching the morning milk – a bowl of muesli, a sliced banana, cutlery on the sideboard bearing witness. It appeared to have been over quickly.

I hope it was quick. He deserved quick. It’s a pity that death takes no measure of gallantry or kindness, nor necessarily gives you the opportunity to, erm, properly dispose yourself for other people to find you.

Oh well – there are certainly worse ways to go.

Mum told me this evening that she feels a bit “steamrollered” by events, and will be having “a jolly stiff drink” before bed. Dad likewise, although he seems more nonplussed than anything. They’ll be OK. They’ve lived through worse.

And me? Well, I, too, shall have a small toast to his rememberance, before I turn in. It’s not my tragedy – it’s Pat’s, and the world’s.

Gentlemen (birdwatchers or otherwise) of PGS’s ilk are themselves rarities nowadays, and for this reason if no other I mourn his passing; yet I have much more reason for I owe him much of my knowledge of Natural History, and some of the best times of my youth.

I shall miss him, and my parents have lost a crossword-partner. In my family, that statement expresses a sentiment that it is not possible to put into words.

At least I knew him.

One Reply to “A lament for Patrick Gordon Smith”

  1. I stumbled across this post and couldn’t believe my eyes, pat was my grandfather (grandpa me to). It is so lovely to hear your words of rememberance. I still think of grandpa and miss him daily, then I always smile. He always spoke of the Muffetts fondly and this gives me great comfort. Two memories stand out for me. One being Grandpa smoking a cigar in my car as we drove to my cousins wedding (his first grandchild Kate) and tapping the ash out on my mobile phone instead of the ashtray. As you said his eye sight was not what it once was! The second was later that day, I have been told by my mother (Karen) that he hated dressing up for such events. It was a hot day and during the very long speeches the three brothers (Grandpa, Tony and David) snuck out to get some air in the nearby marque. We have a brilliant photo of the three of them, all dressed up. They were/are (Tony passed away last year) all really quintessentially English characters. Thanks again for the memories. Lenka

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