Sunday, 25 March 2012

Tom Wakefield - 13 December 1935 - 26 March 1996

From the Archives  - January 2010 (edited)

Tom lived around the corner form my sister Mary when she was on Gillespie road. How many of the Arsenal fans who roamed up and down her street every Saturday during the football season knew that they were but yards away from literary history is hard to say, but I bet it wasn’t very many.

My dear friend Tom was a wonderful man, full of love, fun, history, intrigue and a good thick dose of mischief. He loved a bet on the gees gees and wrote some of the most beautiful books I have ever read.

Before Tom became a full time author he had been a headteacher. Not any old headteacher but one managing special schools in Hackney. The education system was a little different then and Tom had freedoms with his charges - even if no funding, that would not appear on an OfSTED checklist these days. He wrote about some of these wonderful and inspiring times in his books ‘Special School’, and ‘Some mother’s I know’.  Both these books are wonderful personal accounts of someone making a difference and giving life and worth to children usually passed over where opportunity was concerned. He transformed lives and gave so much to the parents, the children and indeed the local community.  Reading about his time as a headteacher is, like reading his fiction, utterly liberating.

One thing about Tom that always had me smiling was that each time he had a new book out, the author picture was always a good few years old, with him smiling up with his pseudo handle bar moustache. I'm sure most writers do this - well I know they do, and I know I would.

Tom’s house in Arsenal played host to many good times, and often when I visited he would present me with a copy of another one of his books to add to my growing collection.  I remember one morning waking up to the phone ringing; it was Tom. We’d been for dinner the night before. Tom would regularly produce some of the strangest concoctions for dinner, and would often serve a hardboiled egg as a starter – with a bit of garnish of course. I loved him even more for this strange avant-garde cuisine. I answered the phone somewhat groggily. The night before we had enjoyed, not the usual boiled egg extravaganza, but instead a beautiful soup. It had been so full of flavour that it was worthy of much discussion. Tom had taken great pleasure in describing in detail the ingredients – many, and the various stages he had gone through in preparation and cooking. The description was as magical as the taste. Tom was on the other end of the phone. ‘I feel so bad; it was out of a tin!’ As if that could ever matter, just being in his company was more of an honour than I could ever have wished for. But the apology and confession were so wonderful and so in character. There was no hesitation and I immediately forgave him, must to his relief.

When I came out of a long relationship in the autumn of 1995, Tom was great. He would have me round to lunch and be cheeky and playful and help me look forward to the future and not be sad about the past. He knew so many people and so when I started dating someone new, it came to pass that he and Tom were friends, and Tom loved being able to meddle and mix and play the role of gossipy fairy godmother.

Tom’s magical books, of which there are many, are inspirational and glorious. Tom’s plots and characters are filled with brilliant observation and commitment to showing the extraordinary lives of those usually considered very ordinary. His contribution to gay fiction is to be celebrated. He wrote fiction which included gay characters as they are; part of the world, just like everyone else, and with a strong sense of understanding that families are made up in many different ways. I don't imagine that Tom ever set out to be a liberationist, but he was, and as a reader and a friend I am eternally grateful for this.

He was only 61 when he died on 26th March 1996, and in the days that followed there were obits in all of the broadsheets, and he received many fitting reviews, celebrating all his wonderful achievements. Amongst his papers a half finished novel was found. The novel ‘The Scarlet Boy’ was eventually completed by Patrick Gale who was a friend and colleague of Tom’s. Patrick wrote ‘To “complete” it seemed a monstrous breach of writer etiquette, yet what I had read was so enchanting that to leave it unpublished would have been an act of cruelty to his readers and to him’. It is strange to think that Patrick is now my favourite author and I drink up his every work in the same way I did with Tom. 

There was a wonderful procession for Tom’s funeral from his house in Arsenal to his local church.  At the service there had been a number of speakers. I remember Rabbi Lionel Blue telling a great story about Tom repeatedly squeezing his leg at a dinner party and then Patrick gave an eloquent and honourable eulogy.

I will never forget Tom and I celebrate his memory surprisingly often and consider myself so lucky to have had the pleasure of sharing a short window of his life, and being able to call him my friend.

Tom Wakefield 13th December 1935 - 26th March 1996


Michael Patrick McKinley said...

What a lovely and eloquent remembrance of a wonderful friend and being.

After reading this how could I NOT want to read some of his works?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your tribute to my uncle. Paula Wakefield.