My grandpa, Richard Humble, passed away from Covid yesterday. He was 96.
Grandpa to me, Dad to my Mum, and Dick to everyone else, he had recently been struggling with ill health. Having had his first Covid vaccination about a month ago, he went into hospital for a check-up. Whilst there, he caught Covid and had to be isolated on the ward for two weeks with no visitors. The family were expecting him to come home soon. There’d been no news from the hospital and no suggestion that his condition was worsening. Yesterday was my gran’s 91st birthday and, in wanting to speak to her husband on the occasion, she called the hospital. They set about arranging a call back, only for the hospital to break the news that he had passed away just an hour before.
We’re all heartbroken. At the age of 96, and with his health deteriorating for some time, the news was hardly a shock. But the circumstances are so deeply saddening. There is nothing worse than knowing that someone you loved died alone.
I’ve been thinking about him pretty constantly since I heard the news — as is to be expected, I suppose. I’m already sad that I’ll most likely be unable to go to the funeral, given quarantine restrictions. Instead, I wanted to write some memories down and share them.
I know others who have experienced something like this over the last year — the loss of someone loved that is made to feel so distant and abstract during this pandemic. But hearing their stories and their memories has been lovely. I suddenly understand the sentiment — affirming the individual, all the while acknowledging the horror of yet another Covid statistic. This is not to say that he was special — although he was to us, of course — but rather to acknowledge the strange process of magnification that takes place when a particular tragedy feels infinitely bigger as soon as you consider the many thousands of families who have felt this way as well over the last twelve months.
This pandemic produces very particular cruelties, and they are cruelties I wouldn’t wish on anybody, but they remain abjectly shared nonetheless.
I loved my grandpa. He was one of the gentlest men I’ve ever known. Soft-spoken, he was a keen gardener who loved Georges Simenon and his tales of Jules Maigret. When my parents moved from Sunderland to Hull, he and his wife followed them, living nearby in the town of Beverley from around the time I was born. My mother’s younger sister lived with them too and, when she married, she managed to move in across the road. It felt like a little family commune, and one that I spent innumerable weekends and summer holidays in, getting up to mischief with all the other local kids on the street.
The photo above was taken in their back garden in Beverley in 2010. In my first year at university, whilst studying photography, we did a module called “The Family Album”, which was an interesting opportunity to explore older photographic techniques, the politics of family and genealogy, and also investigate our own pasts. Already aware that both sides of the family had archives of old photographs, I did photoshoots with both sets of grandparents and explored some of the stories within. Though my Dad’s side of the family are more disciplined photographers, with extensive and well-organised archives, my Mam’s family had just a quaint little shoebox that was nonetheless filled with some incredible images. They had old Polaroids, cartes de visite, and even a small daguerreotype of some unknown gentlemen. Exploring this shoebox and it’s barely-bound photo albums was an opportunity I relished, not least because I was able to interview my grandparents about their lives and their sense of their own family’s history.
My Grandpa’s family, in particular, had always interested me. Ostensibly middle class, he came from a long line of merchants and ship’s captains who had travelled the world, albeit often beset by tragedy. As such, their shoebox was full of photographs of family members in South America and India, some in quite extravagant regalia. But the family’s circumstances remained true to their name, at least amongst the men. (Humble women are often less than humble in nature, with my mother and grandmother — lovingly — reminiscent of Hyacinth Bucket, if you ask me.) Various setbacks here and there kept fortune at bay, and there was talk of a seafaring curse passed down the generations.
The Humble name, for instance, can be traced back to Captain Humble of the SS Forefarshire. It is a ship that haunts. I am never not surprised when I stumble across it, whether on plaques at Hull Marina and in the form of models at the Greenwich Maritime Museum in London. The ship is famous because, in September 1838, Captain Humble and his steamship set sail from Hull, heading for Dundee with 61 passengers and various cargo. Ignoring issues with the ship’s boiler during the voyage, Humble pressed on until the ship got into trouble and struck one of the Farne Islands, off the coast of Sunderland. The distressed ship was spotted by Grace Darling and her father, and their rescue attempt made Darling a national celebrity in her time. Captain Humble, however, went down with the ship. Of the 61 passengers and various crew, only nine people survived. He was survived by his children but the family faced ruin. Humble was deemed “culpably negligent” in an inquiry into the cause of the wreck.
The story of the Forefarshire fascinated me as a kid, and gave me a strange sense of pride. We learned about Grace Darling in primary school, as part of the local history curriculum, and I remember how no-one ever believed me when I said I was related to the doomed ship’s captain. In hindsight, it does sound perfectly like a small child’s fib. But it was true, and I would repeatedly make my Grandpa tell the tale.
Dick had swapped ships for planes. He was a navigator in the RAF during the Second World War, an experience he never really talked about. In fact, like many northern men, he didn’t talk about himself very much at all. But he had a lot of pride, and my main memories of him will be those things he was most proud of.
He had maintained all of his own teeth well into his eighties, for instance, until a fall from his bicycle knocked them all out. As tragic as this was for him, it was in character. He was very proud of how active he was, often only learning about the new limits of his aging body the hard way. On another occasion, I remember hearing he had gone to hospital to be checked out after he had tried to jump over a bollard in Beverley town centre, in an attempt to make someone laugh, only to injure himself in that most delicate of areas… Even after he gave up parkour in his sixties, he remained an active man. He was proud to still be driving and cycling and walking into town, and his body only started to rebel completely once he reached his nineties. It was for this reason that he was in hospital. His legs were packing in.
When not running around, he was also a keen writer, although of what I do not know of. He was an avid reader too. He had a little study, where he kept a typewriter, and I used to love sitting on his lap tapping aimlessly at the keys. He also had a little garden shed, which he kept immaculate, where he would read and keep the few tools necessary to maintain his minimal flower beds. A quiet man, and a simple man, and a man that everyone loved for his gentle company. I’m sorry that we couldn’t share that company at the end, when it would have mattered to us most.