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Dr Godfrey Earlam Lester Graham

St Peter's 13-18

Dr Godfrey Earlam Lester Graham

Address at the funeral of Earlam Graham 13.5.16

A couple of days after Earlam died, we were together as a family in Wigan to make the arrangements for today and to clear his room at Lakeside. In the course of our tidy up, Hugh passed me a bundle of papers that I said I would sort at a later date and a few days later, idly leafing through the pile of old christmas cards, photos, and letters, a few newspaper clippings, yellowed by age, caught my eye. One, probably from the Yorkshire Post and dated in the summer of 1937, had a headline that read “Graham’s Good Innings”.

How fitting, I thought, for the life we celebrate today – even if cricketing metaphors generally don't play well with me (largely because I can think of nothing worse than standing in front of three sticks and having a hard ball hurled at me at speed). Anyway, I read on. This was the report of a cricket match between the MCC and St Peter’s School, York where Earlam was educated from 1932 – 1937, becoming Head Boy, captaining most of the sports teams and leaving to go on to Oxford University. No pressure there, then, for his five children as they grew up!

The article described how GEL Graham, the Captain of the First XI, “played a very good innings of 42” and went on to state that “his confident batting must have made a good deal of difference to the rest of the side”. Sadly the clipping was truncated before I could read who won the match but that short observation helped me reflect on the qualities of the man whose life we celebrate today. It seems to me that a great player not only makes an impact of his own but also brings confidence and security to the rest of the team. This is a theme to which I will return.

Godfrey Earlam Lester Graham was born in 1919 and carried that distinctive set of forenames with him through life. Always known as Earlam and later, once grandchildren appeared, as Whirlie. His upbringing was in that extraordinary period between the disasters of two world wars. He was the middle of three children – Rosalie and Pieter both pre deceased him. His father was, as both Earlam and Pieter were to become, a well known and respected doctor in Wigan. Ones senses that the demeanour of home life was perhaps a little Victorian, certainly as far as Earlam’s father was concerned, and it is likely that the young Earlam blossomed in the environment of his boarding school, particularly at St Peter’s of which he spoke fondly and in which he maintained a close interest for the rest of his life. Sport was all but he was no slouch academically and he went on to Oxford to study medicine and to gain a blue at hockey.

From Oxford he moved to St Mary’s Hospital, London, to complete his clinical training. Life must have acquired a more serious measure at that stage, not only in his studies but in wartime London. He graduated in 1941 – taking a shorter course than usual because of the necessities of war time. But it was not all work and even the stories of fire watch on the roof of the hospital attracted a Boys Own Paper veneer – whether he really did shove incendiary bombs off the roof with his bare hands is a moot point but it made a good story. But life for Earlam then was, I think, really about love. It was at Mary’s that a petite, efficient young nurse from the Welsh valleys came into his life. This was a match that, as we all know, blossomed and flourished for almost 70 years. Earlam and Nansi married in London in July 1945 but very shortly afterwards Earlam, by then commissioned into the Royal Army Medical Corps, was posted overseas, to India, at the start of a separation from Nansi that lasted almost 18 months.

Earlam served in several places in India and was then sent on to Japan, arriving after the Japanese surrender and in the aftermath of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are photos that Earlam took of what was the city of Hiroshima. They are characterised by an eerie desolation and destruction as far as the eye can see. How can we tell what impact that sight had on a 26 year old, recently qualified doctor? It is difficult to know as he almost never discussed it but I might suggest that it was an important influence on the priorities he showed to his family and to his community for the rest of his life. Experiencing devastation on that scale can surely only make one more committed to the safety and care of those one loves and for whom one has responsibility.

On his return from Japan in 1946, Earlam and Nansi moved to Wigan, rapidly settling into the community. Earlam, like Pieter his brother and Billy Bennett his brother in law, joined his father in general practice. These were the days of ‘Call the Midwife’ when poverty and pride went hand in hand across large parts of the community. Earlam, Pieter and Billy were called out at nights and weekends, delivered babies (and there are some here today who were delivered by Earlam) and they took on all the challenges that general practice threw at them. They were in the thick of it when the NHS began.

Earlam probably felt the greater responsibility of seniority especially when his father died unexpectedly at an age we would now describe as young. He and Nansi moved into Netherby House in Upper Dicconson Street, next to the surgery, and the life of their growing family became emeshed with the work of the practice and the lives of the P Grahams, the Bennetts and many good friends. Nansi dispensed tea and sympathy (or was it brandy) to patients and visitors alike, for many friends and visitors to the house were also patients. The door was always open, sometimes too literally, and Earlam and Nansi’s generosity was legendary, and apparently never-ending. Jane, Hugh, Sue, Wendy and Nick were effortlessly slotted into Netherby life. Dinner parties were frequent and lively. Sunday lunch acquired a status which lasted long until the latter days at Croft End. Vast amounts of meat; five, six, or seven vegetables; an unhealthy dessert; and then, always at the end, “the nibble of cheese” that Nansi would press on her groaning family and guests.  How many Rectors of Wigan and their curates were nourished at that table as Earlam and Nansi exhibited their extraordinary support for this lovely church and its work. Earlam was churchwarden here for what seemed like an eternity and, if truth be known, was rather reluctant to step down, serving far, far longer than is now permissible under Church ordinance.

In retrospect, it would probably be seen that Earlam briefly resisted many of the changes seen in the Church of England over the past 50 years but was then generally quite quick to embrace them, recognising that it was his task to support the Rector and the church in moving onwards – and in the process perhaps even convincing himself that he was actually in the vanguard of modernisation! Interestingly, Nansi once told me that Earlam would have made a good priest. I agree in many ways although it was a vocation highly unlikely to have been achieved. No one would have been less keen to stand up and address the crowd: public speaking was just not his thing. As an aside, Earlam once told me himself that at one stage he actually wanted to be a dentist but that his father would not have had it. Having seen some of the products of his DIY work (and who can forget the home made coffee tables with their wonky legs, graced with tiles of dancing Spanish ladies), I can only suggest that the teeth of the people of Wigan were actually rather safer with him as their doctor.

Earlam kept up his hockey for many years and some of his other enthusiasms were encouraged and permitted by the presence of the children – the trips to Bellevue for stock car, speedway and the funfair; drives to Southport to get shrimps; the latest gadget; and later, the must-have electronic gizmo.  How many cameras, phones, and computer accessories worked their way into the dining room at Croft End, a veritable treasure trove of Toby jugs, pewter mugs, decanters, drug company tatt, photograph printers and internet routers. Single handedly Earlam probably kept PC World, Toy & Hobby, and Tesco in business for at least 25 years. But it was this childlike enthusiasm that provided a link to his grandchildren for whom a trip to Croft End was almost better than Disney World. The warmth of the welcome, the sheer indulgence of the care and the excitement of the latest gimmick just could not be beaten.

Life for the Earlam Grahams also embraced Cawsand, a holiday destination near Plymouth that was the venue for many happy family holidays and a place of welcome to so many others. It has acquired the status almost of a second spiritual home to the whole family and has provided some of everyone’s happiest memories. The tectonic plates had shifted when Earlam and Nansi moved from Netherby House to Croft End. They lurched a little again when the house in Cawsand was sold but wherever Earlam and Nansi were, life was characterised by that same sense of generosity and nurture – and at Croft End there was the garden too (and finally, central heating!). Such happy days and so many good memories of family parties that always included a wider circle of others.

I spoke earlier of the qualities apparent in that cricket match report and observed that a great player not only makes an impact of his own but also brings confidence and security to the rest of the team. Today we all bring our different memories of Earlam, whether as child, grandchild, patient, or friend. We will all have seen him differently but we could easily share some of the qualities we saw in him in common as he cared for and supported those around him.

From a social perspective, Earlam was never happier than having organised or otherwise facilitated a gathering of some kind, but he was not the extrovert. How many times have we seen him stand back, topping up drinks, carving the meat, smiling benignly at the end of the meal table but not wanting or needing to be the focus of attention. How many times at Saturday lunchtime drinks did we suddenly notice that Whirlie had slipped away – some mysterious errand, something to do with a patient, addressing an urgent need for more brandy, or ginger, or both.

But whilst he derived his energy and satisfaction from the comfort and achievement of others, Whirlie rarely said what he thought or felt, and that could sometimes be difficult for the family – and if you really wanted to know where you stood in his approval ratings, it was often best to ask the Rector.

I was never his patient but we know, not just from the lovely things that have been said on the phone, in person or by letter since he died, how important he was to those that were. He was a rock. He was pragmatic. Empathetic but not emotional. And he got things done. He would always pick up the phone to someone at the Infirmary to get something sorted out. He went the extra mile but wouldn't have thought he did….. it just came with the territory; its what you did; and it mattered. How many here saw and felt the benefit of his kind and skilled care.

But where was the inner man? What did Earlam draw on for his own internal energy and sense of being. The first and obvious answer must lie in his wonderful relationship with Nansi. But the second must be in his Christian faith. Like so many of his era, this was rarely, if ever, articulated. Talking about his faith would have been almost the last thing he would have done. Perhaps there are a few here who heard at first -hand something of his spiritual journey but, for the rest of us, we can only seek evidence for a man with a deep belief. In recent years Earlam not only endured the burden of increasing age, he experienced the loss of Nansi and, soon afterwards, the untimely death of Jane. He grieved quietly, with dignity and without self pity. It was, I suggest, the mark of someone with a deeply held confidence in the life hereafter. An acceptance and a recognition of the limitations of this world and the expectations of a world to come.

The passage from Micah, read by Katie ended with these words: “….and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God”. 

Surely this was such a man.

May he rest in peace.

Mike Stevens