Monday, 21 October 2013

In Memoriam: Matthew Thompson

A few months ago, I wrote a 'pre-memorial' and published it on this blog for my friend Matthew, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died last week, and I've been asked to deliver an edited version at his funeral (which he planned himself, and which promises to be genuinely hilarious).

Matthew avoiding the camera

Matthew objecting to the camera

As some people can't attend, here's what I'm planning to say about him on Friday:
As you can probably imagine, one of the saddest things I’ve done over the last few days is to edit this piece, changing the present tense to the past: from ‘Matthew is’ to ‘Matthew was’ is a simple, awful thing to have to do. 
I knew Matthew for just over a decade as a (usually) friendly face around the circuit, though it's only over the past few years that we've become friends. An engineering designer, he lead a glamorous life in which he designed everything from turbines to Tube trains: if you’ve ever sat on the little cushioned ledges at the end of each carriage, you can thank him for your comfort. From this life, he acquired a number of characteristics you’ll recognize: pragmatism, a concern for precision and accuracy, a preference for answers over questions and an eye for style, which is why he was so consistently rude about my fencing, whether I won or not. 
He was a leading fencing coach, referee, and board member of England Fencing. Without him, many of the stars past and present would never have achieved success, which is why it’s so good to see so many of you here. 
I'm not one of those stars: I first met Matthew at the Much Wenlock Olympian Games when I was in my twenties, when he refereed one of my fights. Disgusted by having to award points to such a sloppy and ungainly fencer, he added a running commentary about what an awful fencer I am, with his usual wide grin. Noticing that I wasn’t just smiling, but in total agreement, he redoubled his efforts then and at every subsequent opportunity. If I won, he would loudly suggest that I should be ashamed of myself. If I ever beat someone better than me, he’d allow me a grudging ‘huh’, which I knew was actually his way of congratulating me. At least, I think it was. But from then on, we were friends. 
It was the start of a friendship forged in dank sports halls and meeting rooms across the country, one which started in sport and came to encompass so many other aspects of our lives. MT is at the heart of a network of fencers who meet up for plotting, gossip and teasing occasionally interrupted by a little light coaching or competition. He was also a leading member of the shadowy underground fencing club dedicated to mischief known as Salle de Twang, some of whose members may – or may not – be in this room. 
Being a friend of Matthew’s meant always seeing a friendly face whether you're fencing at an Under-8s competition or a World Cup event. It means being inducted into the cultural memory of my sport, and it means joining the Resistance. If there's an Awkward Squad in fencing (and there definitely is), he was its leader, but he always played the ball, not the man, though I’ll miss his devastatingly witty character judgements, which were always accompanied by a disarming giggle. 
Matthew was one of those labourers in the vineyard who would have been horrified at the thought of medals and honours. A well-run event, a nicely-timed riposte, a young fencer’s continued success long after they’d moved on from his tutelage or a decent bit of engineering were the kinds of thing that gratified him, rather than recognition: he hated 'fuss'. which is why it was so important to tell him how we felt about him while we still had the chance. 
I’m not sure who gave Matthew my mobile and office phone numbers, but I want to thank them now, though I wasn't always so grateful. He would phone me at random times of the day or night, often more times in a week than I could cope with – my colleagues in the office assumed it was him every time the phone rang. There were never any ‘hellos’ or ‘It’s Matthew’: most of the time he would launch into ‘Have you read?’ or ‘Have you seen what X has done’: sometimes fencing gossip but politics, economics, photography, hi-fi, public services, transport, taxation and a whole range of topics would occupy us for hours, often with no end in sight. 
There were no short conversations with Matthew until, appallingly, towards the end. We had so many shared interests and on hot topics, interest in each other’s points of view, especially when we disagreed, as we often did. I always thought that Matthew’s engineering background contributed to this. As well as a concern for fairness and justice, he always had an eye for policies and schemes that worked, and despaired of my more abstract or ideological flights of fantasy. 
I once told him that he was the most organized anarchist I’d every met, which he took as the compliment I intended it to be. That’s why I wasn’t in the least surprised when he told me of his intentions to set up his Trust. I never spoke to him without learning something new or seeing an issue from another perspective. 
I’m glad I got to tell him this, via the internet, before he went, though I’d never have dared say any of it to his face and he’d have hated having to listen, because he was above all a modest man. 
Those of you who are fencers will know – in theory at least – that the referee’s word is final. However unfair, unjust are just plain wrong he or she is, the fencer’s job is to accept the decision with good grace, shake hands at the end and get on with it.
In this slightly laboured analogy, Matthew’s cancer was of course the referee. Nothing became his life so much as the dignity and style with which he left it. Faced with the end, he coped with the pain and the medical miseries with considerable wit and verve, as this funeral he planned demonstrates. 
I saw him in pain and sometimes scared but I never saw him give up, or rage against the futility and injustice of his fate. That, I think, is his last gift to us: he showed us how to snatch a very human victory from the jaws of a terrifying defeat.

1 comment:

David said...

Matthew would have been proud of you for what you have said and how you have said it. Remember the good times and the times you laughed together. Take care and be strong.