Service for the celebration of the life of John Cheney
For the Order of Service please click here.
On the 16th of August 2010 John wrote to his sister Margaret and me a letter that began: ‘My departure: I’ve been giving a bit of thought to arrangements for a small thanksgiving service. I’ve overstepped the ‘three score years and ten’ specified by the psalmist, so this event surely cannot be long delayed.’ It's gratifying to think that John had three more years ahead of him when he wrote this. It’s classic John – that ‘departure’, that ‘a bit of thought’, that deference to the ‘psalmist’ and the mock-portentousness of ‘this event surely cannot be long delayed’. And the realism of the sentiment. Sensible realism. Because people do tend to die, as John might have said with a particular pensive expression on his face, one of those fine eyebrows cocked, people do tend to die rather often after the age of 80. John would perhaps disagree, but he was, for all his studied little-boy raffishness, profoundly sensible. Sensible in seeking to enjoy life on this earth and to resolve to do so on his own terms, and sensible in knowing that those terms must include the turn outward to others in service, the seeking to do good, if you are really going to enjoy life. He was (as is only sensible) deeply engaged with the seriousness of being alive on this earth, though he wore his seriousness lightly; deeply engaged with the Christian perspective on life (as mediated through the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer – God blast those new translations!), though he wasn’t going to impose that perspective on anyone – except unwittingly, perhaps, by his seductive example.
In any case, he asked me to provide a few words on ‘his departure’. ‘I’ll let you have some notes so you don’t have to bother other folks’, he wrote ‘There’ll be no interruptions from me!’ Well, sorry, John, but there will be quite a few interruptions from you. In fact, what follows will be more or less all you. You shaped this service, after all and your notes comment on its elements. So on your choice of our first hymn, Joseph Addison’s wonderful ‘The spacious firmament on high’ (I hope we did it to the tune you wanted), you say, ‘Why? Because I loved the sky at night ('a tiny version of eternity', he calls it elsewhere): – the nearest hymn to Act 5 of Midsummer Night’s Dream, which says it all.’ That’s Lorenzo to Jessica on the music of the spheres as they gaze at the night sky and John’s right; within that beautiful ancient cosmology, Shakespeare’s lines say it all. Say it all about the divine harmony which grounds the universe and our own souls and how we can sense that harmony but not fully apprehend it whilst ‘this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close it in’. Perhaps Vaughan William’s fine setting of Shakespeare’s words in his Serenade to Music helped his choice here. John was a chorister, indeed a choirmaster and a highly cultivated man - . Anyway, the choice says a lot also about John – that upward reach towards the divine perfection, that wistful, rather than tragic, sense of a falling short.
John chose Ps 121 because it’s ‘gentle and lovely’. When it comes, feel it as so. And note again John’s gaze upwards, towards those hills, towards God. Note, too, how John has chosen a Psalm that speaks empatically of God's help. John endured much by way of serious sickness, of course, but he was brought through a great deal. Being a Prayer Book man he would perhaps not have wished to attribute his survival publicly to God’s help – a bit presumptuous, perhaps – but he may have allowed himself to think it so in the privacy of his own soul. Certainly he writes, 'Apart from illness, life has been good, varied and not without incident' and he will have thanked God that it was so.
And then John asks for Jerusalem (unless, he says we’re one of those churches that don’t allow it). Thank you, John for your consideration – but we are one of the churches that does allow it. It’s a great hymn about trying to build the kingdom of God. John wanted it because, he says, 'I spent 20 years at Grove Court looking out on England’s green and pleasant land.' And then ‘I love England, and though the 'clever' people (inverted commas round clever), though the ‘clever’ people pretend they don’t understand it, the ordinary England-lovers know what Blake’s getting at’. 'What’s more,' says John, puncturing that slight inflation towards the pomposity he abhorred, 'What’s more,' he says, ‘It’s a real belter to end the service.’ When we get there, then, belt it! But while you're belting it, consider how the building of Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land has much to do with the building up and binding together of local communities at which John excelled.
John was born at Broughton Road, Banbury in 1929, son of John and Mary Cheney and brother to Margaret and Christine; born, in fact, into a dynasty of printers of great distinction. He was educated first at Miss Bromley's School in North Bar, 'A good sound grounding which stood me in good stead and taught me nearly (underlined) all I needed to know in later life'. He went on to the Downs School at Colwall, a Quaker boarding school. 'I was very happy there and became interested in art, music and writing English', all of which, of course remained central in his life. 'It became apparent at The Downs,' he writes 'that was the world's worst mathematician, a distinction held throughout my life.' Of his next school, another Quaker one, Leighton Park at Reading, he comments only 'I hated it.' Whether he loved or hated the schools, my guess is that the Quakers bear a lot of responsibility for the shaping of John - and they should be proud of it. John started on the shopfloor at Cheney and Sons in 1947 and then did National Service from 1949-1951 in the Royal Artillery. 'It did me good,' he says, 'as it did most national servicemen good. I was given a small room and a telephone and was told that I was medical clerk for 'A' Battery RA Depot, Woolwich. I hadn't the least idea what was involved, but a year later I had a large office, two bombardier's stripes and a staff of ten.' What he doesn't say is that he generously spent time writing their letters for his less educated comrades - or that the preposterousnesses of National Service soldiering grounded his deep appreciation of Dad's Army, recordings of all of which he possessed.
After National Service, it was Cheneys for the rest of his working life. He lived with his parents in Banbury until his father died at the age of 58 and then with his mother in Norris Close Adderbury, where Margaret was a neighbour. When John's mother died he was initially somewhat at sea in domestic management; he'd not had to do it before and leaned rather heavily on his sisters. The move to Deddington and his own clearly separate establishment made him stand on his own two feet and was highly successful. 'Grove Court,' John writes, 'was a wonderful, friendly place to live.' He writes also of his cancer and the seven operations he endured at the beginning of the nineties and speaks of being wonderfully looked after by Margaret.
And then he gets onto his achievements: 'very few', says John, wrongly, of course. For 52 years he was Almoner of the the Banbury Poor Trust – that mattered to him. He liked to help people. He was a benign employer, as some people in this congreagtion remember, and his attentiveness to his staff's wellbeing extended to his making a point of attending funerals in their families. He writes of entertaining at dinners and 'do's' in the Banbury area with his cousin Robert and Bill Weaver. Their speciality was rude songs about those present, acts of generous celebration, of course, which can't be done well unless you are interested in and perceptive about your fellow human beings. The achievements list continues 'wrote countless songs for entertainments at Bodiote and Adderbury. Ran 'Poetry Please' at Deddington and was allowed to make Festival concert appearances.' That self-deprecating 'allowed to make' might rather be 'compelled by popular demand to make'. And if he had to be installed rather awkwardly in the pulpit here, propped up on a stool with a concealed bottle of a rather decent red to keep him happy, then so be it. There were many memorable performances. I think my favourite was his full-throated, almost genuinely frightening rendition of 'When the night wind howls' from Ruddigore.
John finishes his typed letter with 'Deddington has been very kind to me; it has been a wonderful place in which to live. And he was kind to us, a wonderful person to have living among us for these last 25 years. Yes, there was Poetry Please and the Festival, but there was much else too: Gardeners' Question Time should be mentioned and John's support of this Church and its Choir - his support, too, of the local hostelries. But actually, just seeing John across the street out on his rounds was enough to bring some cheer to a bad day. The rightness of John's being here.
John generated huge affection in this community and the other places in which he lived. That's not so much to do with his undoubted talents and achievements, I think, as with his genial love of life (a scribble at the end of the typescript of his letter tells us that he loved Italy, landscape and painting it, which he did very well, making memorable journeys down through France in the convertible to do so, - that he also loved people, food and drink). It's to do, our affection for John, with his generosity of spirit (his wit was not waspish), with his self-deprecation and perhaps with a certain winning vulnerability that stemmed, I think, from a measure of dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction more with himself than with the world, a dissatisfaction arising out of John's underlying seriousness. For all the wit, certain things really mattered and being a decent human being was the most important of them. John was a more-than-decent human being who enriched the communities in which he lived and enhanced the lives of the many he had to do with - but I think he knew, as all sensible people know, that there was room for improvement. And, yes, he knew, feelingly, that we die. These dissatisfying awareness imparted, its seems to me, - his choosing Ecclesiastes for today is no surprise - imparted a tinge of melancholy to John's presence. Nothing tragic; he accepted fallibility and mortality wisely, and readily enough. And bravely. The day before he died, knowing how things stood, he opened conversation with me with a resolute, if wistful 'So here we are'. To everything there is a season.
And now we are here, past John's death. Here where the darkness of death is confronted by the light of Christ's Resurrection. John shared the Easter hope and he wrote some wittily profound lines on Easter at this Church. Those lines are full-on, mainstream, incarnational Christianity. They bind together the ordinary people and the ordinary pleasures of this world and with the great saints and with Christ's rising. Love and enjoy this world God has made for us to live in, says John, love its people; acknowledge your shortcomings, trust in God's love; trust that God is for us; trust the Resurrection. John's right again - seriously right:
St Peter and St Paul were chaps who didn’t mind a jar
And Hugh and Dan follow after them, for in the church the bar
Dispenses tea and coffee, true, but wine to all and sundry
On that fantastic joyful day that we call Easter Sunday.
And our dear Lord who’s rising's celebrated
Would surely not wish to see us all inebriated.
But I think there'd be a smile on the countenance divine
If we had one extra jug of ale or another glass of wine.
I shall certainly be raising a glass to John today in Sweden. SkÅl! (prounounce 'Skawl' And thank you, John. May you rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.
John Cheney. One of the most wonderful people I've been lucky enough to know. We are going to miss his poems, his red mobility scooter, his white wine, and amazing sense of humour, his determination to beat every life threatening illness he encountered, but most of all his ability to befriend everyone in Deddington no matter how young or old they were. Things will never be the same here without my wonderful friend and I am honoured to have known him. RIP x
How very sad. John was one of the best. RIP, our friend.
Such sad news , such a lovely man with a cheeky glint in his eyes and always a tale to tell - Deddington is poorer for his loss.
Such sad news, I have known John since I was a child as I used to go and meet him at the pub with my Grandpa He will be missed by so many. RIP John xxx