I’m not one of life’s careful collectors. When I read about mothers who spend their dying days preparing ‘memory boxes’ for their small children, I am as moved by their organisation as I am by their courage. My skills as archivist are meagre. All our wedding pictures are in a shoebox. Sam’s baby book ends long before the Tooth Fairy arrives. So it’s all the more amazing that I have a Lyell File, a straw basket that contains my Lyell family collection.
The oldest thing in the basket is a wedding photograph. A thinner me, the bride, is hooting with laughter while the groom grins shyly, and Nick, his Best Man, delivers a speech with the succinctness and timing of a poet. With his words, he magically harmonises the English and American wedding guests.
Marriage could almost be a theme in this improviste Lyell Collection. There are pictures of Veronica’s wedding, eldest daughter of Nick and Susanna, much-loved goddaughter of my husband. I wrote about this wedding on this page 13 years ago: the service in the parish church in Flamstead, the walk across wheat fields back to Hill Farm, ‘the bride in her long, white, linen coat, a slender sail in a sea of green; the groom, handsome and manly in his Austrian jacket’.
Another item in the collection, printed on thick cream paper: ‘Service of Thanksgiving and Celebration for 40 Years of Marriage, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Nicholas and Susanna.’ On this summer’s day, the miniature cathedral filled with friends, the bride and groom of four decades led down the aisle by their four grown children and six excited grandchildren. Afterwards, a Champagne lunch in the college gardens, followed by a week-long celebration at their manoir in Burgundy with a small circle of lifelong friends.
The weightiest piece in the basket: a small volume called simply Poems, Nicholas Lyell, a present to their father from his four children. In fact, Nick and Susanna aren’t great archivists either. Years ago, their children decanted their parents’ wedding photos from a hatbox and put them in an album, an inspiring precedent. Last spring, they gathered together Nick’s poetry, poems he began to write during his school days at Stowe and added to over the years at Oxford, at the Bar, and during his political career. My favourite is called After Tom Bowling, a poem he wrote in 2006, some eight years after he was diagnosed with cancer, a meditation on a lifetime’s faith and experience.
It might seem that I have kept this museum because of Nick’s cancer, but such was his and Susanna’s optimism and his many miraculous reprieves over the years, that I believe I’ve held onto these things for another reason. Although they have never known it, they have been my ideal family. The family I think about when I think about family life. So much in life is extraneous, mere clothing, but the Lyells have always reminded me that the family is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; the thing to watch over and care for and be loyal to.
The last addition to my basket is the service sheet. We are in Flamstead church again. The hymns and readings were chosen by Nick and Susanna during Nick’s days of perfect peace at The Hospice of St Francis in Berkhamsted. There is cello music that Benjamin Britten wrote for the lyrics of Tom Bowling by Charles Dibdin (1745-1814). I never knew about the original, which ends with Tom Bowling’s death: ‘His soul has gone aloft.’
Nick’s poem, read by Veronica, considers the notion of a soul going aloft. He isn’t so sure about ‘aloft’, and I, too, find Heaven difficult to locate. But when he writes ‘If heaven at all it’s here and now and everywhere’, I’m with him. My surest glimpses of this Heaven have been in the company of this modest and remarkable man, our Best Man, his wife and his family, my best family.