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Doris AsherMary Shakeshaft
Address given at her funeral on 7th February 2017
Doris and Scholarship
I had met Doris briefly at the Study Centre but really began to know her when we had both retired and were asked by Peter Galloway to be governors of Emmanuel School. Then followed nine years of going regularly to meetings, committees, appointments, services, school plays. and class observation. We had both trained as teachers at the University of London’s Institute of Education and therefore as qualified teachers sometimes helped in the classroom and escorted children on visits. I remember Doris taking a History class and going with her and a group of children to the Museum of London to study the Romans and to the Geffrye Museum where staff and children brought sandwiches, but Doris and I had a good lunch in the café. We often had meals together before or after visits to Emmanuel and we talked books and theatre and exhibitions and church, of course.
This continued when Doris joined the Hampstead Christian Study Centre committee – the most enjoyable committee I’ve ever served on. Doris brought to it her immense erudition and her delight in history, literature and theology. A thorough Anglican she had a wide range of ideas and interests and knew a lot of people who could be persuaded to give lectures. She wore her learning lightly and was modest about her knowledge, never flaunting it and always prepared to listen to others’ views. After the committee meetings she and I usually had lunch, often at the now-gone Turkish restaurant in Belsize Village, where to my admiring astonishment Doris talked to the waiter in his native language. We talked about books we were reading or had read or reread. We both liked rereading old favourites and Doris told me that for many years during Lent she had read a good Lent book but also reread a serious novel, an idea I adopted with profit and I recommend to you. We discussed with relish the characters of great novels, our favourite poetry and plays of Shakespeare and our favourite or puzzling historical characters. Doris had a feeling Mary Tudor had had a bad press and I was uncertain about James II’s. I remember when Doris was beginning to lose her memory we went out for the day one summer at her request to Ham House. Doris knew the personalities of all the people in the portraits and the parts they had played at the court of Charles II. Even in these last sad years she would light up if I talked of a historical programme I had watched. When I sent her a card from Framlingham I said hesitatingly to her I’d sent it because I thought Mary Tudor was there when she heard she had become queen. “Yes, she was”, Doris assured me. I think our friendship was cemented the day we sat and talked about books which had meant a lot to us in our childhood and we both revealed that when we were about 10 our favourite book was Charles Kingsley’s “Westward Ho!” I have often wondered if that confirmed Doris’s interest in history as it confirmed mine in the Elizabethans.
Doris was always willing to talk at the Study Centre and gave several well-researched and clear lectures. Many of us will remember her great lecture on the Gnostics, the fruit of years of research and thought; one on labyrinths, another long-deliberated interest of hers, and even when she was beginning to be ill she gave a paper on the nineteenth century written some years before. She worried about delivering it and gave me a copy so that I could prompt her but I didn’t have much to do. She was an enthusiastic member of the London Library and she introduced me to the Literary Hour held regularly in this church and enjoyed discussing with me what she should put in it when it was her turn to arrange it and what she could find in the London Library which she once proudly showed me round.She was an enthusiastic Friend of the Drama and her production of “The Tempest”, her favourite play, was thoughtful and stimulating. Her interpretation of Caliban drew on another of her interests as she made him into a Green Man. Her study of English folklore was deep and long-standing. I remember once telling her about a rather sinister group of dancers I had seen in the market-place in Bungay, all in dark clothes with faces blacked and several men dressed as women. She sent me a lengthy account of Molly Dancers, who commemorate East Anglian nineteenth century farm-workers who went out at night wrecking farm machinery.
Doris’s erudition ranged over many areas, the language and literature of her beloved Greece, most of English literature, mediaeval history and art, myths and legends, all kinds of music, church architecture, film and modern painting but also crime fiction. She introduced me to several clerical sleuths including Merrily Watkins, the priest and deliverance officer of the Welsh Borders, who is the lively and likeable heroine of a series of novels by Phil Rickman, whose knowledge of folk-lore is nearly as extensive as Doris’s was.
She told me that as a House-mistress at Queen Anne’s, Caversham she encouraged the girls in her House to read novels which were not found on the highest slope of Mount Parnassus but which she felt every cultured person should recognise and perhaps be able to quote from – “The Three Musketeers” and “Lorna Doone”, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “Cold Comfort Farm”. We used to enjoy sitting over coffee, adding to the list It’s an enjoyable game.
I want to end with a story which illustrates Doris’s vast knowledge in another field. One cold winter evening some years ago there was a Deanery meeting which Doris and I attended with Bill Riseboro. I’m sorry to say it was a rather tedious meeting (I have no memory of what it was about) and at the end Bill said we needed a drink and weren’t far from the Richard Steele. When we got there, it was very crowded as it was one of their jazz evenings (which we enjoyed). Bill courteously asked what we would like to drink and I opted for red wine but Doris said she would like a beer but wasn’t sure which, whereupon a young man propping up the bar said “Try this” and named it. “Oh no” said Doris, ”far too sweet”. He then suggested another to which she objected and I think they went through at least eight beers until Doris named one he didn’t know and he retired defeated. I was rather proud of her!
But I am very proud, Doris, that I was one of your many friends.