JOHN HAMER: 1937 – 2019

Published September 27, 2019

A Eulogy by Clyde Jeavons (delivered at Golders Green Crematorium, 25th September 2019)

 

John was a close, constant and enduring friend of mine for more than 50 years – indeed, without question, he was my oldest and best friend.

 

We met in the mid-1960s when, as the neophyte Chief Sub-editor of the then radical women’s magazine, SHE,  I was asked also to write the Book Reviews. John was the publicity rep. for the publishers W H Allen, and he promptly introduced me to the concept of the business lunch, with the aim of persuading me to mention a W H Allen volume or two in my column. Thanks to bibulous, gourmet sorties to the likes of Quaglino’s (ah, those were the days), John’s objective was wholly successful and our lunchtime meetings became a regular occurrence. The speculative books flowed in and there was the bonus of being able to top up my paltry National Magazine Company salary by selling these and other review copies to Fleet Street bookshops at half the cover price.

 

These convivial assignations were not entirely mercenary or hedonistic, however. They quickly turned into friendship. We were on a similar wavelength – not just gourmandising, but also sport (especially cricket, golf and rugby), reading and – dare I say it – the sowing of wild oats, at a time when our relationships were, so to speak, fluid. During one lacuna in his love-life, John found himself homeless and moved into my house in Putney, and our friendship became a fixture.

 

John had been an accomplished athlete and rugby player at Stowe, but his first love, for a while, was cricket – as was (and remains) mine. He was an excellent, if eccentric bowler – think of Australia’s Bob Massie – and a hard-hitting batsman. I inducted him into Brondesbury Cricket Club, where Mike Gatting was a promising, not to mention precocious, colt, and in one game against arch-enemies Wembley, John took eight wickets, scored seventy runs – winning the game single-handedly – and in true Hamerian fashion walked into Wembley’s clubhouse, bought a beer and emptied their fruit machine with a single shilling.

 

John was a gambler, and a good one, if sometimes rash. He had been a croupier and he knew all the odds. He introduced me to backgammon – with which I still struggle – to the extent that he persuaded me to join a backgammon club in Chelsea, with the result that this is the nearest I have ever come to being arrested: It was precisely at this period that local authorities chose to clamp down briefly on illicit gambling, and as backgammon involved a measure of betting, the club was invaded one evening by an exaggeratedly large phalanx of policemen, who closed us down with (as it turned out) empty threats of prosecution.

 

I realised John was sometimes a dangerous man to be around. I realised how dangerous when he recounted, for the first time, the legendary story of an incident during his term of National Service in the artillery. He was a gun aimer, or whatever the position was called, and in an exercise on Salisbury Plain, inadvertently got his co-ordinates wrong and instructed the gunners to fire on their own troops. When asked to explain to the commanding officer, John pleaded inadequacy at maths, which had caused him to miscalculate the line of fire to the tune of 180 degrees.

 

This is a suspicious excuse, because John was actually very good with numbers: witness his gambling skills and his daily routine of Sudoku-solving. Perhaps his military mind, like his business sense, was – shall we say – sometimes fanciful. John once opened a wine-drinking club in Putney; quite successful and popular for a while, but perhaps too popular: it had to be pointed out to John that he shouldn’t be giving the wine away free, that the customers were supposed to be paying for it.

 

But this gives us a pointer to one of John’s great qualities – his generosity. He would readily pay for meals and drinks – often champagne if he could afford it (and even if he couldn’t). He once bought me a replacement Tom-Tom satnav for my car, in which he was a frequent passenger (and rotten navigator – he once took us 70 kilometers out of our way to the wrong Trouville in Normandy): the first Tom-Tom he called Sybil, because of its voice; this one he called Prunella…I leave you to work that one out.

 

For generosity, also read selflessness and courage. When John’s third wife, Christine – he called her affectionately, Christine Mark Two: there had been an interim Christine – became terminally ill with MND, he agreed to abandon his beloved London and move to Deal so that Christine could be near her family. There he bought a beautiful flat near the beach and nursed and cared for her to the sadly bitter end. He continued to campaign tirelessly for the MND charity – and true to form, once a year, wherever he might be, and in whoever’s company, he would buy champagne to celebrate Christine’s memory.

 

His consolation was the one passionate endeavour in his life: golf, at which he excelled. At his best, he had an impressively low handicap and won trophies. He played almost daily at the spectacular Walmer and Kingsdown Golf Club and made many friends there. He would occasionally tolerate me as an opponent, but was deeply suspicious of my rather high-end handicap, which on a good day could result in undeserved victory. He used to call me a (expletive deleted) bandit, but still bought the drinks. He was a steely competitor in everything he did, a stickler for rules, and much cleverer and shrewder than he allowed his carefree image to convey. He surprised everyone, in his younger days, by becoming a contestant on the TV quiz and commodities show, Sale of the Century, hosted by Leslie Crowther, and ended up winning a car – which I think he sold.

 

If you asked John why he abandoned cricket for golf – which he did, virtually overnight – he would tell you that it was his angry reaction to having his hard-won place in the Brondesbury First Eleven being usurped by the upstart, 15-year-old Michael Gatting. It turned out to be an intractable decision. We used to say it was a great loss for cricket; sometimes, after a wayward 18 holes, he would say it hadn’t benefited golf much either.

 

When Christine died, John returned to London, the city he loved most, even though it was a struggle financially: prices even in desirable Deal do not come anywhere close to those in London. In familiar, pragmatic fashion, John settled in Bow and began to enjoy again the life-style he had missed. He re-united with his first wife, the wonderful, understanding Gretha, and they became social and cultural companions, with Gretha opening John’s eyes to art and opera. John acquired new friends, among them my other good friend, Ed Buscombe – we made up a regular threesome at Lord’s. And John joined my cricket and dining club, The Bushmen, with whom he played, toured, umpired, dined and caroused, and, beguiling raconteur that he was, whom he generally entertained with anecdotes from his chequered life while he filled their glasses with a decent vintage.

 

In his last years, back in London, John had, I think, become kinder, wiser and more tolerant than the old-school Tory he sometimes affected to be. Many people who met him, particularly his new cricket pals, have said to Shirley, my wife, and me how kind he was, and so approachable; one or two have even used the word ‘sweet’, which John could unwittingly be, though I think he might have harrumphed at the description. He was also great fun: witty, intelligent, interested in everything, and very funny – a ‘comedy legend’, as one Bushmen colleague put it – and a flattering listener, which of course endeared him to ‘the ladies’, as he liked to call them with barely a hint of irony.

 

When John became seriously ill, he characteristically raged against the dying of the light, and fought back with tremendous resilience and single-mindedness – courageous and obstinate to the end, cared for devotedly throughout by Gretha and his stepson, Finlay. It has become something of a cliché on these occasions to invoke the Yorick speech from Hamlet, but I think Shakespeare’s words sum John up beautifully and succintly: “A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” Needless to say, I shall miss John very much.

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