Ann George remembers her brother Father Fred George, Archdeacon Emeritus of St Helena
Our mother always spoke of her second son as “Poor Fred”, so much so that Fred took it for the name of his first volume of memoirs. I can only assume that Mum was referring to his slow progress as a child in reading and writing, which Fred only realized much later (when he was in his 40s) was actually a symptom of dyslexia. Fred was, all his life, a very slow reader, but the upside was that he remembered everything he read; his retention, not only of facts but also of arguments, was indeed phenomenal.
I was about 12 years old when Fred went to Australia. In the early 60s it was a long voyage out by ship, calling at many exotic places, and so started the necessary intermittent contact by post from far-flung corners of the world, which was a feature of both our lives for nearly 60 years, until Fred was unable to write anything at length and phone calls became the norm: firstly at Christmas, Easter and his birthday, then monthly, finally weekly and, in the last few weeks of his life on earth, twice a week.
Fred returned to England intermittently during his working life, and in the 70s we started what became “routine” for us: when Fred and I were both in England at the same time, we would plan a trip to Italy. The first one was to Siena. Fred would usually travel without booking in advance, but as his little sister (in her 20s) was travelling with him, we were booked through Cook’s, travelled by train and stayed in a modern hotel just inside the walls of Siena. To achieve the general tone expected of Cook’s at this period there were other English and American visitors in the lounge, a hushed atmosphere and the sound of rustling newspapers in the mornings. However, Fred and I were out every day, all day, chasing down this church or that gallery, feasting on a visual diet of glorious art, then indulging in the cheapest menus and carafes of the local wine for “pranzo”.
After a long stint in Australia as a member of the Brotherhood of St Barnabas, working mainly in Queensland, then for a few years in Victoria, Fred returned to England but was soon asked by SPG (now USPG) to become headmaster of a church-run school in Brunei; this was in Kuala Belait, a town about the furthest you could travel in this tiny country, on the border with Sarawak. I visited him there in 1976, travelling by the weekly plane en route to Australia via Brunei and Hong Kong; we had to stop twice to refuel, once in the Gulf and then again in Sri Lanka; it was my first flight – I never seem to do things by halves. Fred was at the airport to greet me along with what seemed to be the entire population of Brunei, all staring down at me from a circular viewing gallery.
Letters during the early 80s were particularly sparse: I was working in the Himalayas on the top of a mountain in a school which had no telephone at all and Fred was working in the Gambia: not the two best places to be reliant on the postal system. At one point Fred managed to send me a telegram saying, “Don’t worry; I am safe,” after serious unrest in the capital, Banjul; as it happened there had been no report of this in Pakistan, at least not in the English language media, so I was a bit confused about his reassuring message.
Fred’s first post in the Gambia was headteacher of a small private primary school in Banjul, but then, after being encouraged strongly by the Bishop of the Gambia to be ordained priest (Fred had been ordained deacon when in Australia) he returned to England for the necessary training at Chichester Theological College. On his return to the Gambia Fred became headteacher of a church-run vocational school up-country in Farafeni near the border with Sierra Leone. Bill (our older brother) and I visited him there during my final furlough after the Pakistan placement. We travelled from our posh hotel in Banjul in the cab of Fred’s flat-bed truck on the road that hugged the river all the way; local people waved frantically and we waved happily back; it took Bill and me a while to realize that we had a bus-load of cheerful local people all riding on the back of the truck. Things became more surreal after a dinner cooked by two of the students at the centre. They had left long before we wanted to clear away; Fred scraped the plates of the odd bone or so, and said, nonchalantly, opening the kitchen door: “I’ll just give this to the vultures.” On the step were two hump-backed, bare-necked vultures, waiting for their supper!
Fred was renowned for his eclectic taste in motor vehicles. The flat-bed truck was only one of a line of unlikely vehicles which he wore into the ground or smashed into an inconvenient hedge or wall. Having learnt how to drive in Queensland in a Land Rover (driving test: once round the block) he was at his best on an absolutely open road with no vehicles on it at all. Next stop in his career involved a group of English rural parishes and another life-style choice of car, but this venture will have to be revealed in the next instalment.
Ann George worships at St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge.