It occurs to me, more and more frequently these days, that we don’t often cherish the wonderful people we know when they still live. I thought of this particularly last week during a memorial service at St Brides church in Fleet Street that the Hopkirk family organised for their father, Peter. As my old friend Denis Taylor recalled for us some of his memories of working with Peter, and as Peter’s children and grandchildren spoke of the much-loved father and grandfather they had lost, I thought of my own – much smaller – loss, of not making an effort to seek him out in his last decade, when he would have had time for former colleagues and admirers.
If you wish to find out more about Peter’s journalistic achievements, his narrow escapes from dangerous places, his books on Central Asia and his wisdom and interests, you cannot do better than seek out the many obituaries that the press published on him in the wake of his death last August. In particular, I recommend the long obituary in The Times – whose brilliant authors I know, but am not at liberty to tell you! Here I would like to recall Peter’s kindness towards junior colleagues and his patience to give them more confidence and to guide them to write better. Denis told us that when Peter himself started on The Times in 1966, he went to a senior writer on the paper to ask for advice. He was told: Write exactly as you have done until now, but make sure your paragraphs are twice as long!
Only five years of my being on the paper coincided with his, from 1980 to 1985, but I remember that every time he passed through the newsroom, he stopped by my desk to chat and to re-assure.
The organist and choir of St Brides bestowed full honour on Peter’s life with their fabulous musicianship. We heard Kyrie from Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, Tomas Luis de Victoria’s O Quam Gloriosum and Faure’s Sanctum from his Requiem. But I found the rector’s heavy invoking of Christian dogma a little overdone, particularly as Peter – though the son of a vicar – was not into God at all. At the reception afterwards, I grumbled a little to his son James. He had been over-ruled on the matter, he said.
The gathering proved altogether a memorable day and an occasion also to meet again the many old friends and colleagues with whom I had lost contact. For it all I am grateful to Peter’s wife Kathleen and to the rest of the extended family also. They had gone out of their way to spend a fortune on the service and on the accompanying booklet on Peter’s life and writings. Furthermore, they strengthened my new resolve to seek out long-lost friends before one or the other of us similarly becomes lost to seeking out!