Saturday, 4 May 2019

Isabel Clarke Tribute to Chris


 Tribute to Chris, given at his funeral in St. Michael's Church, Southampton City Centre, 03.05.2019.

Chris was universally loved: he was kind, friendly and unassuming, combined with a formidable intellect, and a ready sense of humour, rooted in a deep appreciation of the absurdity of human life.  Behind that gentle and unobtrusive demeanour lay passionate commitment and steely determination to further the values and principles at the heart of his being: the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and justice – and good food. 

When I first met him, we were both barely 20, he was a 3rd year undergraduate, and was already writing a paper on Time! – (not part of his degree course – the work for which he dashed off in a couple of hours before the supervision – in marked contrast to my slogging away all week at my history essays). On graduating, his focus was to explore, through the medium of mathematics, the furthest and deepest secrets of the cosmos – the pursuit of the singularity; that moment (or can you call it a moment?) when time, space and matter started; black holes – all that.  He made significant and recognized contribution to that field. 

But he hated the elitism of Cambridge and its colleges. He said of Cambridge colleges that they were medieval institutions that had, with considerable effort, dragged themselves into the 18th Century. He therefore rejected pleas to stay with that group. Instead, he took a job as a lecturer at York university, where he developed his potential as teacher and communicator, and then, becoming a professor in Southampton before the age 40, he consolidated the international recognition of his work and became leader of a still flourishing research group.

But still, his principles and values drove him on.  Ever since a dramatic conversion before we met at university, faith had been central for Chris. By now this had matured into spiritual connection and compassion for the whole of the cosmos. Already in the 1980s he saw the need to take responsibility for the fragility of the earth and what human beings were doing to it. He became disillusioned with his role as a professor; disillusioned with what could be achieved by mathematics; disillusioned with a university system that was being forced to switch from pursuit of knowledge to pursuit of profit. 

He walked away from all that in 1999, to pursue what he believed to be truly important; the relationship between people, between people and planet - plants, non-human creatures – and trees; the fundamental spiritual connectedness of all and the responsibility that entails.  He brought his scientific brilliance to bear on these issues that are even now being recognized with greater urgency. He chaired organizations – The Scientific and Medical Network, Greenspirit.  He wrote books for the general reader, gave talks and workshops.

Then, in 2012, our luck, which had been pretty phenomenal up until then, ran out. Aggressive cancer, Alzheimer’s. Scylla and Charibdys I called them – if one doesn’t get you the other one will. However, this ushered in another important phase of Chris’s life. Alzheimer’s gradually stripped away the intellectual versatility, leaving the contemplative and devotional core of his being, where he felt most at home among the trees of Southampton Common. Recognizing he could not write the intended book on Wisdom (his last book, Knowing, Doing and Being was published in 2013) - he communicated this phase through a blog, followed and valued by many. In this way, he moved towards his death in clear sight, aware that his body as well as his mind was giving up, and conscious of the need to make the most of life in the present.

Too soon, in the fullness of all the aspects of a richly lived life, Chris has become our ancestor, leaving me torn apart.  It remains to me to thank God for the extraordinary, immeasurable gift of our love, given to us in early youth (ours was an arranged marriage, but arranged by no human agency). This love does not die, because it is not our love, but a part of, a way into, that all-encompassing love that is.

I will now hand over to Leon and Dunstan who will hopefully fill in the part I left out – about Chris, the family man.

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