It’s my birthday tomorrow, Monday 20th January, happy birthday to me. And on Friday Sarah suggested we go for our tea at Leaf in Bold Street ‘to mark the official start of your birthday.’ She said we’d go upstairs to eat ‘as it’s a bit quieter up there.’ We got the bus into town and I was mildly irritated by her continual texting, both while we were on the bus and as we walked across from Leece Street to Leaf.
But I was glad to walk into warm, friendly and always popular Leaf, though a little surprised to see that the curtains were all drawn on the way up the stairs. ‘How on earth will they get people to come up here when it looks like it’s shut?’ I was thinking as Sarah drew back the curtains to the upstairs room. At which point a camera flashed and loads of, forewarned by Sarah’s texts, voices shouted out ‘Surprise!’
Naturally I looked around wildly for Cilla Black, but found that the camera was being held by Sarah Jones and the voices all belonged to people I recognised and was delighted to see. Sarah’s huge risk had paid off. If I’d picked up even a whisper of a ‘surprise party’ I’d have wanted to stop it and had in fact skitted Sarah earlier in the week when I’d heard several texts arrive on her phone. ‘That’s another three people saying they’re not coming to the surprise party’ I’d quipped merrily to her stony glare.
So well done Sarah for taking the risk and for loving me so much. This is what she then said, from the upstairs stage at Leaf.
“Welcome everyone and thank you for being here. I am delighted to see so many of Ronnie’s friends – old and new – here to wish him a happy birthday. I should imagine Ronnie is equally delighted too, but I am sure he will have his own message for you all later on.
This evening, I wanted to bring together people who know Ronnie and give you all the opportunity to spend some time together – talking and drinking, so that’s what this event is for. I’m going to say a few words now, then we’ll have a toast to Ronnie, and then there’s talking time. In about half an hour we’ll have an open mic session – and I know some of you will have brought a story or memory of Ronnie you’d like to share. There’s a bar and there’s food… and the spirit of Liverpool Housing Trust – what else could we possibly need?
I’d like to particularly thank Bev Mines for enthusiastically agreeing to help me and do the LHT invites. Thanks Bev. And Sarah Jones has also helped me with arrangements too, so thanks Sarah.
Ronnie doesn’t know what I wrote to invite people to this evening – so for his sake this is what I said:
‘On the 20th of January 1954 the world greeted a new soul – Ronald David Hughes. Too young to be in The Beatles, he only dreamed of being a pop star or an astronaut, failing that he wanted to play for Liverpool. But instead – he became a sane voice in the housing ‘movement’, and relishes saying the word ‘movement’… He will usually then go on to say, ‘We were a campaign then!’ Ronnie spent a long time, man and boy, working at LHT and always talks fondly of his time there – as well as his ‘real job’ he did work on the terms and conditions and in the union with some great friends. He left in 1996 to set up ‘a sense of place’ with me – we married in 1997. Life in the self-employed lane has been great fun together and the road has taken various turns…. many of them unexpected! Including my breast cancer diagnosis in 2007. Ronnie has been the best person in the world to have walked that particular path together.
I know you all know he is a great guy – and he is and I love him to bits – which is why I am inviting you to celebrate his 60th birthday at a surprise party.
So come on, come and celebrate Ronnie’s bus pass with us! (I am not kidding he has applied for it already.) And don’t even think about buying Ronnie a present – he is a man who wants for nothing other than a large glass of Valpolicella and enough money to buy vinyl. Seriously. Bring back record vouchers I say.’
OK, that’s the invite – so this evening – Ronnie’s Valpolicella is behind the bar with his name on.. so if you get Ronnie a drink from the bar, ask for his bottle.
I wanted to say a few words and briefly remember how I met Ronnie and tell you a bit about what he means to me.
I met Ronnie because of LHT. I worked there – briefly – in 1988/89, for about a year. Having come from a lowly admin job in the NHS in Rodney Street I arrived with my own teabags and tray with teapot. I didn’t realise the ‘holiday camp’ of LHT would even include free tea. I think I got skitted for the teabags, but I know I got skitted as ‘the new girl on the third floor with that laugh’ – by Ronnie. Only at LHT.
I know that many of you knew Ronnie long before I arrived at LHT and so you’ll know about his wit, his sarcasm, his intelligence and his views on politics. You’ll know him as opinionated, as passionate about equality, a very fair man. And I am not the only person who thinks that Ronnie should be the prime minister.
Even when I left LHT, Ronnie skitted me. The brilliant cartoon my friend Bill Citrine had done of me driving away in my 2CV up to the glamorous career that awaited me in Owen Owen, was copied by Ronnie with a ‘Sod off Sarah’, to TJs, and ‘make sure the bugger goes’. I’ve included a copy of said cartoons in tonight’s booklet for you to see for yourself.
Anyway, Ronnie was right, because six months later he was helping me negotiate my exit from a union-less miserable job. He was brilliant.
And a while later he asked me to go to the cinema – it was ‘When Harry met Sally’. And we also had a day out in Llandudno – in December. It was lovely.
Ronnie is a very determined person, you might call him stubborn – and opinionated. Ronnie is courageous and brave. He’ll do things because he believes they’re right, not because it’s the most popular choice. And he will challenge as well. I admire that in him.
It was only when I started thinking about what to say today that I realised that Ronnie and I have been a couple for 24 years – nearly half my life. And we’ve been married for nearly 18 years now – but I’m not a ‘Mrs’ and I’m not a ‘Hughes’ and that’s because of my choice, but also because Ronnie wouldn’t have it any other way either. He’s always supported my independence, and that’s something I’m ferocious about anyway. But he’s always supported me, always been there. And ‘being there’ takes on a whole new meaning when you are someone’s main carer – through many years of surgery and treatment. And Ronnie has been absolutely devoted to me, and I am hugely grateful and I probably didn’t say thank you enough. So I’m saying it now. Thank you Ronnie.
And when Ronnie and I found ourselves about two years ago on the ‘other side’ of breast cancer – as far as we know for now – it was a very difficult time. It’s a time when life has changed so much, and changed forever, that there isn’t really anything to ‘go back’ to.
Our experience of looking at mortality changed us. Ronnie’s now living life as though he has a year to live. I hope he doesn’t, but that’s not a bad way to approach life, day by day.
Many of you here will know what I now do for a living – I take funeral services. I help families have a meaningful completion of their loved ones lives. It is hugely rewarding and I feel enormously privileged to do the work.
When I decided I wanted to do this – at the point two years ago when we looked into an empty future – Ronnie couldn’t have been more supportive.
He even sold his CDs to help raise the money for my professional training. He was completely unfazed when I called him up from Devon during my training to ask what songs he’d like played at his funeral, as we were doing his funeral as my final practical assignment.
He has selflessly encouraged me to pursue this new career, to find my place in ‘funeral world’ (and it is a very strange place). And he’s done this even though it has meant that I can no longer be part of the adventure we began together as ‘a sense of place’ back in 1996. Such is Ronnie’s love.
But for both of us it’s very important that we use our lives well, our days well, our time well. And looking at death, and I do that all the time now, it does have a way of putting things in perspective for us.
There’s a quote I often use in funerals by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.
‘Death can show us the way, for when we know and understand completely that our time on this earth is limited, and that we have no way of knowing when it will be over, then we must live each day as if it were the only one we had.’
And I suppose that informs me now, and how I choose to live, which is why I’ve done this for Ronnie today. I’ve seen him be at two LHT funerals now – Phil Macaulay and Andy Barrett. Ronnie has loved the company at those times despite the grief for his friends, but why wait until you are dead to come together? And it wasn’t my intention to bring you together to remind you that life is both short and precious, but it is. And a day, even a moment of happiness, is not something that I now take for granted. And nor does Ronnie, which is why I wanted to us to celebrate together.
Ronnie is notoriously difficult to buy presents for – although he is a brilliant present giver – his first birthday present to me was a flying lesson. I’ve received a steady stream of things that have enriched my life, always perfectly timed and well thought about…. a camping cooker and kettle for my allotment shed, numerous cameras, a trip to Dublin, a 2CV, a place on a beekeeping course in Gloucestershire, a place at night school to do my RHS horticulture course, a keyboard, the latest Elton John record – on vinyl. Loads of stuff and always perfect.
In return, Ronnie has received fairly mundane things – mugs, a jar of garlic pickle (remember Ronnie that was your 50th and the power cut in Llangollen?), chilli jam (made by myself but presented as chillis on the day itself), a sports watch…. I have never stooped so low as socks, but I reached a new low last year. I found myself the week before Ronnie’s birthday with no ideas, with my new career starting to happen, which was all consuming emotionally and physically. And so I gave an apology and told Ronnie there would be nothing for him, but that I did love him. I made mental note to do better next year. And so, many funerals later and I’m taking things in my stride… and the next year has arrived.
And I do have some exquisite presents for you Ronnie – for Monday – honestly I do. But really, what more can I say than this is my gift to you dear Ronnie.
So this evening, we will have talking time and wine and food… and we’ll come back in half an hour for open mic, I’d like anyone who wants to, to share memories of Ronnie, I know many of you here have known him for a long time and share a long history. And I know there are newer friends here too, who have discovered what an opinionated person Ronnie is, and appreciate him for that.
We’re going to raise a toast to Ronnie, but first I have a short reading that I’ve always wanted to use, and this seems the perfect opportunity. It’s called ‘Late Fragment’ by the American poet Raymond Carver. This is enscribed on his gravestone.
‘And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.’
So, ‘Happy Birthday’ to this lovely man – Ronnie Hughes.
So beginning a few hours I will never, ever forget. Thank you so much Sarah and everyone who helped her and everyone who was there. Sarah Jones and Dominic Jones took the photographs below, and I’ll be doing another post with more, plus my own reflections on reaching 60 and how that is changing my life.