Changing of the guards

Bob Dylan – who wrote Changing of the guards – was a huge favourite of a friend of mine whose funeral was this week.

silhouette of a person with grey paper scrunched up around to depict depression


This week has been a sobering one. I attended the funeral of a former boss and friend who died suddenly at 59. I have been going to a lot of funerals in the last few years of people who have died unexpectedly and way before they should have.

Richard was a great boss – more of a colleague than a boss in the old-fashioned sense. He knew his subject – health – inside out and had a huge passion for it and he was a stickler for accuracy and good standards in journalism. We tackled everything from the MMR controversy, Private Finance Initiatives and Viagra to community care together and he backed me when I suggested doing a special report on mental health, which, at the time, we only seemed to be able to illustrate with footage of people playing snooker. For some reason this seemed to be the stock BBC picture for mental health [hence the top picture on this blog. See, Richard, I found a different one…]

Most of all, however, he was a good human. He was supportive and interested and engaged. He was also very quirky and would paint himself as a bit of a grumpy loner, but it turns out he was loved and admired by so many people he worked with. The church was packed and Facebook tributes to him have been many and they are not just one-line comments, but long heartfelt paragraphs.

He was a one-off. You couldn’t reproduce him through a training course. I’ve often written about mentors and in the past I’ve found it hard to think of anyone who has mentored me in my career, but maybe I’ve been thinking of mentors in the wrong way. Maybe mentors are just good people who encourage you along the way. You don’t necessarily want to do things in the same way they have done because that wouldn’t work for your individual circumstances and you don’t put them on a pedestal, but you learn things from how they approach problems and issues and how they treat other people.

They can be friends or colleagues or family members. We are, after all, all about the people we meet along the way. And it was a stroke of luck that I joined at the same time as Richard and benefited from his huge knowledge of the health system, but also his bone dry wit and his willingness to chat about all his interests, weaknesses [which he often exaggerated and which, in the talking about them, became strengths] and more.

It was so strange to be at his funeral and to see people I worked with 20+ years ago when it feels like such a short time ago. I left the BBC after my first maternity leave. Richard had joked that I was going to have the millennial baby. In the end she came early, but I wrote about the birth for an inevitable special report. I only left because of the hours and the commute.

Those key times in your life are so important, both at the time and, it turns out, years afterwards when they are interwoven with so many different emotions and layers of life. But they are never gone and nor are the people who were with you at the time. They stay with you – like a suspended conversation.

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