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Doris AsherNicholas White
Address given at her funeral on 7th February 2017
Doris' was a life that nowadays is increasingly rare. We all remember her so vividly, she was the quintessential party animal who loved conversation, yet how often do we remember Doris talking about herself?
The generation framed by direct experience of the war does not go in for broody introspection. And this is only one of many such, to use the word so beloved of Anglican preachers, paradoxes about Doris. I am very grateful to Mary for reminding us of Doris' formidable intellect, masked only by an even more fearsome modesty. Yet she adored her History and was seldom happier than when clambering over some ancient ruin in the Eastern Mediterranean. The names of Doris and Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, will remain inextricably intertwined, the more so as the passing into administration of Swan Hellenic was followed by that of their most devoted customer only nine days later. Not that you'd want to share a room with Doris. Joan Barton complained of being awoken every morning at 5.30 as Doris rose for her morning constitutional on the deck outside, despite conspicuous conviviality in the bar the evening before. Study cruises, often taken with friends from Hampstead and further afield, were Doris' sole indulgent gift to herself and the only occasions when another lifelong companion, her NatWest deposit account, went into shock.
Doris' love of History goes right back. A true North Londoner, Doris was born at the Royal Free, St. Pancras and her first home, in Hungerford Road, N7 was only two minutes from her last, on Camden Park Road. A promising student from the start, Doris was educated at Camden School for Girls where, you will be unsurprised to hear, she rose to become a prefect and Head Girl. A degree in History was immediately followed by her teaching diploma from the Institute of Education, as Mary said, and, after some adventures in East London, Doris arrived at St. George's, Ascot in 1957, remaining there until 1975. I am very grateful to Mrs. Sue van der Veen, Alumnae Relations Officer for St. George's, for sending me a digest (yes, it did have to be a digest) of the more than fifty e-mails she received from Doris' past pupils, all testifying to her zest for life, her energy, her lasting influence on their lives and her ability to communicate her joy of History. As one old pupil wrote, "No-one interrupted her lessons she was so good". Another pupil recalls, and this comes as a surprise to those of us who knew Doris only in retirement, that she was only ever to be seen on five-inch heels. Known as Smasher* or Dot behind her back, another pupil writes of Doris' kindness. "Although there were some of us who may owe her more than others, her kindness was such that she saw everyone as a person, and had no favourites. She touched many. I count myself fortunate to have known her and also fortunate to have had the occasion, more than once, to tell her that, for me, she made the difference. She encouraged my curiosity and asked my opinion as if I were grown up and her equal, something extremely unusual at the time, I can assure you. She was a very surprising woman. I enjoyed her unexpectedness in a world where life could be tiresomely predictable."
St. George's was followed by Queen Anne's, Caversham where a colleague wrote, "Doris does not walk, she bustles. We can picture her now hurtling down corridors, twirling at speed around the dance floor of the VI Form Ball or rushing up the field with her infamous trolley in tow." Doris' approach to education is, of course, best summed up in her own words: in this case in the farewell sermon she preached upon her retirement from Queen Anne's in 1995. "In the lessons you have attended, you have been brought into contact with the visions of poets and painters; the exploration of the human condition in novels and drama; the abstract world of mathematical reasoning; the mysteries and marvels of the structure of the created world; the interplay of people and events in the past; the power of music to reach the parts that cannot otherwise be reached; the skill, co-ordination and grace of physical activity - and much, much more. Try to see in what you have learnt, not just 'subjects' in which you have to pass exams but a portion of the richness, wonder and delight of the created world and the achievements of mankind. But...most of all I hope that [you have]... become aware of your own personal identity; that identity that will enable you to live creatively in freedom."
It was upon her retirement that I, newly arrived in Hampstead, first got to know Doris, actually as part of a trio of life-affirming, effervescent women along with the aforementioned Joan Barton and the inestimable Pat Gardner. Hampstead Parish Church had always been Doris' church outside of term-time. Indeed, in her younger years she was something of an enfant terrible along with that other whippersnapper, John Willmer, both Young Turks of the Parish Communion movement cajoling a recalcitrant vicar to move away from Morning Prayer as the main act of worship. And here is another paradox about Doris: this sophisticated woman espoused a simple faith. If she had doubts, I never heard them. And this faith found its natural expression by means of the so-called Three Pillars of Anglicanism: Scripture, Reason and Tradition. She was possessed of strong opinions, make no mistake, (you will have noticed there's no Rutter in today's service), but these were liturgical, not doctrinal. Standing above all was Doris' attachment to the Eucharist. In that same sermon Doris quoted from Peter Shaffer's Equus. "Without worship you shrink" and went on "It seems to me that without an object of worship, call it Truth or Beauty - or God there is no passion and without that passion I don't see how one can help but shrink because there is nothing to light one up. There are many ways in which people find renewal of the spirit but I suggest [it] is to be found in this place in the opportunity for silence, in the daily act of worship and the weekly celebration of the Holy Communion and their focus on beliefs and principles which transcend our day-to-day preoccupations."
It seems to me that community is the silver thread running through Doris' life. She was once engaged - to a man whose National Service was postponed until after he'd finished his further degree at Oxford, but, during that National Service, he was killed in a munitions accident in Germany. I remember Doris' words: "As a result my life took a different course, but I don't regret the course it has taken." As I said at the beginning, Doris was not one for speculating on how things might have been.
Hampstead Parish Church was her final community. She had a home, of course, but it is the understatement of the year to say that Doris was uninterested in domesticity. She didn't own a washing-machine. Breakfast was taken, as it always had been, communally, though no longer in the Senior Common Room and now in John Lewis, Oxford Street, a convenient bus-ride from Camden Park Road for both passenger and trolley. When Doris did refer to home it was usually only to mark her appreciation and gratitude for Brian, her longterm neighbour in the flat downstairs, for their many hours of convivial conversation. Instead Doris would sally forth on her daily rounds, encompassing exhibitions and the London Library but usually ending here in Hampstead. Philip Buckler recognised her deep knowledge and love of this place in appointing Doris as Churchwarden to serve alongside Bill Risebero and she was a devoted server, an enthusiastic supporter of the music, as well, as Mary said, an active member of the Friends of the Drama. I don't imagine there's much that can have brought Doris more joy than co-directing The Tempest with her great friend, Sir Alan Goodison, and stuffing the cast-list with their friends David Gardner, Bill, Gaynor, John Willmer, Derek Spottiswoode, Lyn Phillips, Joan Barton, Cliff Burgess.
Doris' life was one spent in communities of one sort or another. Her joy was all of you. A few days before she died in Spring Grove, where she was professionally and very tenderly cared for, I consoled her that she hadn't long to wait now before she could enter, unencumbered by illness, upon the social joys of Heaven. Although she was awake and knew she had a visitor, I couldn't know, and indeed I still can't be sure, how much she understood of what I was saying but, when I speculated with her that Alan Goodison would be waiting to greet her with one of his famously strong Gin & Tonics, she gave a huge twinkly grin and was, briefly, recognisably herself again. So thank you, Doris, for those words you wanted printed on your Order of Service.3 We have received so much from you and it has, indeed, been a lot of fun.