Eulogy for Delia

A Eulogy for Delia Mary Islip
Aultbea Church of Scotland
and subsequently in south Hampshire

Late in World War Two a battleship of His Majesty’s Royal Navy put into Belfast docks for boiler repairs. On board was Warrant Officer Bill Smalley. By co-incidence his wife Mrs Wynne Smalley, at that time a serving WREN, had been posted to Belfast. And so it was that a baby girl christened Delia Mary was born on the third of December nineteen forty four.

The first twenty eight years of Delia’s life are known to me only at second hand. Dee, as she was and is known, was born and brought up in Gosport, a naval town just across the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour. She was christened on the Navy’s Whale Island in Portsmouth where her father was to occupy the highly prestigious position of Gunnery Officer. Her childhood was all Navy. In fact she had one of her early birthday parties in the officer’s mess on board HMS Duke of York, just as her elder sister Gloria had had an earlier birthday party on that other, more ill-fated battleship, HMS Hood. One of her grandfathers, a Sergeant Major of the Royal Marines, lost his life under Jellicoe at the Battle of Jutland in WW1. And this very year Dee was so proud of our grandson, who has himself been accepted into the Royal Navy to continue the tradition.

Perhaps because she was the child of a military family through a time of more than the usual teenage rebellion - or perhaps because her education was fractured by the serious illness of her father, Dee would often describe herself as a teenaged ‘wild child’. Knowing well her habitual self-deprecation and her rigid law abidedness I tend to take that with a healthy pinch of sea salt. Anyway she was definitely a follower, perhaps in her own local way even a leader of fashion, and this she maintained throughout her life. She loved her clothes and she loved getting dressed up when the occasion arose. One of the pictures on the front of your order of service shows the pair of us at Bahrain’s famous Poppy Ball.

At all events the girl Delia Smalley made the most of her teenaged years, hitching to the London jazz clubs and the rock and folk festivals along the south coast of England, even to the infamous mods and rockers con-frontations on Brighton beach. At one of those events she met and for a while went out with a shock haired lad of her own age going by the name of Rod Stewart. I believe that for some years Rod had on his guitar the title of the trad jazz number, ‘Delia’s gone’. How poignant is that, right now…

I am told that local teenagers in the sixties would gather in Portsmouth at either the Apsley and the Aukland, and it was in one of these pubs that Delia met Ian Perry, an apprentice coppersmith who was to become her husband and the father of her two sons, Max and Rudi. Whilst that marriage itself did not survive for many years there was no lasting bad feeling. Ian will not mind me saying that she brought her boys single handedly through those in those early years. Her sense of motherhood was always of the strongest. Even though in latter years Delia, Max and Rudi have lived far apart geographically, they would always remain the most closely bonded of family units.

When I met my Delia my own life was at a low ebb. The advanced multiple schlerosis of my beloved first wife, Joan, our four children growing up with that difficult family background through their teens, and the demands of a fairly high flying international business career made for pressure at times almost unbearable. But it became apparent that Dee and I, though from diverse backgrounds, shared so much in common: so much of a love of books and the reading and writing of them, so similar a life attitudes, so much of an adventurous spirit and so deep a contempt for those twin curses of our modern era, materialism and elitism.

Dee supported me through the difficult years leading up to the death of Joan, through the mental illness of my eldest son and all the usual teenage trials and traumas - as well as the joys and successes of our maturing offpring. She did her best to become surrogate mother to my own daughters, Kairen and Julie and my sons, the aforementioned Robert and Stuart. No easy feat in any second marriage as some of you will surely know and even more difficult when their natural mother had suffered so grievously for so many years. Nevertheless in the fullness of time a whole new family has developed, admittedly mostly at long range for by then our young people were no longer so young. They had grown up and moved on - soon to take wing and settle in various parts of the UK and abroad. Grandchildren followed; thirteen to date and presumably counting. Great grandchildren even. Dee loved them all. And she never forgot a birthday.

And so to Scotland. I have a photograph on the wall at home. Delia is standing, looking fresh and lovely by a lonely roadside somewhere just south of Fort William. It was taken one November day on the way to our first brief holiday up here in the Highlands. Not long afterwards, looking at this picture, she surprised me by saying that we would someday live ‘up there’. How prescient was that from a lady who had never until then been further north than Birmingham!

Eleven years ago came an opportunity to enact Delia’s prophesy. In September 2002 we packed up our Hampshire village home of thirteen years and followed our furniture northwards with our beloved pair of Hungarian Vizslas. We had rented Brenda Peace’s little cottage in Mellon Charles. I shall never forget our first evening here after a fourteen hour car journey in a malfunctioning Jeep Cherokee. Leaving our piles of stuff higgledy piggledy we went off to walk the dogs on Gruinard beach. It was raining a light rain and we were surrounded by midges. Dee could have been forgiven for wanting to turn around and head back south right there and then, but this lady was made of sterner stuff. We sat on a rock, looked at each other and just laughed and laughed. The dogs must have thought we’d flipped. We stayed in Peace Cottage for the next five very happy years then for the next four made our home in Kittie Wiseman’s beautiful Loch Ewe Cottage, just up the road a way. The owners of both cottages have become the dearest of our friends.

For a couple of early years Dee took a job as a cleaner in the Isle View Care Home. This helped us to get to know many of the local families and to adapt to the Aultbea way of life. She also enrolled herself into The Aultbea Ladies Club, going off on a regular basis to all sorts of exotic Highlands destinations, not to mention some apparently hilarious meetings up at the Drumchork Hotel. Now, for the three years past we have lived next door to this very kirk, and once more the owners - distant absentees this time - have become our very good friends.

Twenty five years ago, in anticipation of a time when we would be working for ourselves, Dee had reluctantly agreed to study at night school for an O Level in accountancy. Having been successful I pressured her into doing an A Level. This time she fell short. Not an ‘A’ - just another O! Anyway the qualifications did help when I began to bring in the pennies from writing and publishing novels, and creating cards and prints etc from my landscape paintings and verse.

Dee and I agreed recently that, even through these last two years of increasing pain,  the years in Wester-Ross have been amongst the happiest of our lives. Certainly the most contented. With our pair of dogs, now so very sadly gone, we discovered dozens of unpathed walking routes across the hills, along the rivers and burns and down alongside the rugged, ragged sea shores. Walking for one or two hours every day of the year, rain or shine, we learned the whereabouts of, and thoroughly enjoyed the wild provender there for the taking; amongst it the cockles and the mussels and the berries and four kinds of edible mushrooms in season. Always on our walks we found a convenient rock or fallen tree with a view on which to sit to eat our sandwiches and drink from our flasks, often in a perfectly relaxed silence. How often at such times we were able to marvel at the wondrous beauty of this tiny corner of our world and, of course, at its wild life.

Delia has made so many friends, both here and throughout her years in Hampshire. In fact at her request I shall soon be delivering this same eulogy down there at a Memorial Gathering. Although we have become Highlanders by choice and adoption Dee had a great affection for the places of her childhood and more youthful years.

She truly had so much to give: understanding, loyalty, intelligence, all that honesty, sense of fun, that love for family and friends and our dogs and for all dogs and creatures great and small, I have to say especially the ones on Kittie’s and Ann’s Mellon Charles croft. Nobody deserves an illness like lymphomatic cancer, but if that is the card with which one is dealt no-one could handle it better or with more fortitude than she, and nobody could be in a better place to do so than Aultbea, in Wester-Ross, in Scotland. In a world that has in our lifetime become increasingly secular and bitterly self-seeking, the depth and breadth of care here and the genuine kindness, both professional and otherwise, has reached into the hearts and the souls of us both. ‘Thank you’ is not even close to a sufficient expression of gratitude.

Here is a postscript: a few years ago we were honoured to be invited to join the Wester-Ross Burns club, so please forgive me, fellow Burnsians, if in conclusion I transliterate an adapted extract of the words of the Bard …

Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met - or never parted-
We had ne’er been broken hearted. 
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!

Ladies and gentlemen thank you for bearing with me today and for sharing in my sorrow. A very good woman called Delia Mary Islip has left us.

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