Remembering, rediscovering, Robert Crosland Bell

A Eulogy for my father, Robert Crosland Bell, given at his memorial on Sunday 2 October 2022

Robert Crosland Bell, 13 October 1930 – 13 September 2019

My father, Robert Crosland Bell, was born on 13 October in 1930 in a nursing home on a small suburban street in Ealing, West London suburb. I would say it was one of the outer suburbs, but my son Jovin (who was living a few streets away when I discovered this fact) suggests that this is now considered to be “central” London.

Most of you will know that I didn’t spend much time with my father as I was growing up. I learned much more about him in the final decade of his life, and since he died – even in the past couple of weeks and days – starting with this (to me startling) fact that he was not born in the North of England. It was quite a shock to discover that his life started in the metropolis. I had presumed that one reason that he and my mother were such a terrible match – and they really were – was the combination of her exotic Italian urban immigrant roots with his far more solid British, countryside-oriented, origins.

Many of you, his friends, knew him as the “eccentric English man”, with talking fish hanging on his wall, and a delight in parties, this Beverly Yacht Club and the beer that usually accompanied most endeavours. He presented himself as the (almost) perfect English gentleman, with the accompanying traditional manners: standing up for “ladies”, pulling out chairs at dining tables – the types of things that drove me crazy as a young feminist. His letters were peppered with refined and measured phrases: “I would wish to make the point once and for all”… “Whatever you decide I will not again make this request.” He could be very particular, some might say dogmatic, but his default style was polite, dignified and rather formal.  In his latter years, with his weakened mind, he could be irascible, and downright difficult – but the most frequent words that many of you have used about him are impish and kind. I’d like to hold on to that, as well as his great sense of fun.

Before he died, I had always thought that my father had been born in the North of England in Cheshire (like me), or perhaps the Lake District, or maybe even Scotland, where he spent happy, somewhat austere, school days boarding at Glenalmond College – a school known for its traditional upper class pursuits, which in those days included teaching boys to enjoy and endure the character forming stuff of cold baths and miserable boarding school food. When I found him in Tobey hospital in 2018, I took in old school memorabilia, and he would often stare at the wooden plaque bearing his school arms that I placed on the windowsill. It was one of the few things left in his house, and his face would brighten when I brought it over to him, with distant childhood memories tumbling out whenever I showed him old school photographs.

You can see some of those photos in the slideshow – tumbled in with the days that most of you will remember well of him sailing and partying here in Marion, where he spent far more of his life. Glenalmond College – where I intend to take some of his ashes – was the place that taught him a great love of the outdoors, leading to his passion for sailing, as well as fishing and (it seems from photos of him with his own father) even a spot of hunting too. Fishing continued to be a great love – and I plan to also take some ashes to Derwent in the Lake District where he often went fly fishing for salmon with his cousins, Sheila & Michael Thompson, who ran a Bed and Breakfast there. In later years there are lovely photos of him and Joan (Cody) enjoying the extreme beauty of this spot of England where he also enjoyed family holidays as a child.

One of his other great loves of childhood was Toby, his working cocker spaniel. I remember that dog from my childhood and I’m pretty sure that it cannot be the same hound that features in the photos of him with his father Islay – perhaps they were from the same family lineage. I know that he was distressed to leave Toby dog in England when he sailed for North America in the early 1970s. That was the other photo that he responded to most joyfully when I took it to him in 2018, when he was a long term resident at the other Tobey.

I’m sad that we never discussed the photos of him wearing a kilt. Perhaps some of you remember that sartorial look? It’s not an outfit that I recall. Nor do I have any memory of him playing the bagpipes, but it seems that he marched with that school band too. I’ve read through his school reports from Glenalmond and he was a very average pupil (at best!) but he did score high marks for PE (physical education) and especially for the Cadet Force. His training in the military started young. He did not go to University, but he followed his father in other ways – achieving the same rank of Major in the Royal Engineers.

Bob Bell’s father, Major Islay Kingsley Crosland Bell, was born in 1899 and was a Cambridge Blue – rowing for the University. Many of you know this because, at least until very recently, Islay’s oar was hanging at the Marion Antique store. I have been intrigued to learn that we are a Cambridge family and that most of the men – in my grandfather’s generation and before – went to College there. This is an alarming discovery since at Oxford we are taught to look down on “the other place” (and maybe vice versa). My grandfather Islay seems to have studied at Fitzwilliam College, taking an Engineering Tripos. My father followed him into that profession, although at a rather different level, as well as into the Royal Engineers as a soldier.

Islay was the reason that my father went to Glenalmond. At the time the school was full of boys whose fathers were away at war. It was not a great war for Islay. He survived the battles with no significant physical injury, but it seems that the impact rippled on – we might call it PTSD these days. From what I can piece together his story was similar to those told in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. Islay died aged 63 – before I was born – unlike most of the men in his family. I’ve been tracking my family tree, and as far back as the 1700s nearly all of the men lived to the age of 89 – as did my father. My father’s military career began after World Wars had ended, but there was still a role for him in this father’s regiment and Bobby Bell saw service in what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Malaya. One of my more surreal memories was nursing my newborn twins in hospital and overhearing one end of a loud telephone call at the other end of the ward. It was between Julian – the Malaysian father of my twins – and my father, who seemed to be telling him of his days “fighting Commies in the jungle”, with Julian patiently explaining that my father had doubtless been busy killing his grandparents.

Since I never met him, it is hard to know what post-war life was really like for Islay, but it is clear that Bertha Thompson Bell quickly became the mainstay of the family. I don’t recall spending time with her either, though I might have done as a toddler. I know that my father stayed very close to his mother. They wrote to each other frequently, and he worried about many details of her life. I imagine how hard it must have been for her to see both her children sail away to the US. Rosemarie, who was one year younger than my father, left the year that Islay died, taking her daughter to Pasadena. Life was never easy for a divorcée in middle class England in the ’60s, and doubtless California seemed easier. She left for North America a decade before my father – and he wouldn’t thank me for telling you that he had a sister. I am not sure why they fell out so badly. I never met her and he snapped at me when I tried to probe for information.

It seems that my big discoveries in recent weeks are about something that several of you did know, but somehow I missed. As I sorted through my father’s well ordered filing system (ahem), and extraordinarily messy attic, I uncovered that his great-grandfather was the brother of George Bell. Bookbinding and book selling was a family business that traces back at least to the early 1700s. George took the risk of moving to London (from Richmond in Yorkshire) to learn more about the trade, and in 1854 he founded a very successful educational publishing company “George Bell and Sons”. It started life as “Deighton, Bell and Co” and specialised in supplying, and then commissioning, books for students at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. As I rummaged through my father’s attic I was astonished by the huge number of schoolbooks. Many of them were mildewed and tattered and I was struggling to decide how much I should keep and carry home, when one small navy book grabbed my attention. Initially, I was attracted by the perfectly formed bookworm holes that punctured the 128 pages. I’m now very grateful to the little critters for alerting me to my origins and telling some early tales of how my ancestors created this company, over time forming alliances with other publishers. He was especially close to the MacMillan brothers, and took out a lease on 1 Trinity Street, Cambridge – now the site of the Cambridge University Press bookstore, and (according to a plaque hanging on the front ) the longest continuous booksellers in the UK. It seems that George Bell sparked important developments in publishing, especially in the Victorian era. The story is documented in A Brief Memoir, written by George’s son Edward Bell, inscribed Ex Libris Cicely Bell (I assume was my great aunt). The memoir tells the early stories of my family’s business which included publishing the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine and Aldine Poets, as well as helping to found the Kelmscott Press and Chiswick Press.

What I also discovered – and again I wonder if he would like me telling you this – was that my father’s grandfather, Herbert Crosland Bell, was a highly regarded clergy man. He took care of a couple of churches in beautiful rural villages in Hampshire – close to where Arun (my other son) went to school. Many of you will have heard my father’s views about religion; he never held back with his dislike and belief that “religion causes conflict”. It was never easy for me when my father started these anti-religion rants. I studied theology out of a fascination with how and why religion and belief is important to people. But perhaps it was something more genetic? Revd Herbert Crosland Bell was not the first prominent clergyman in the family, and indeed many of George Bell’s publications were religious tracts. Maybe my father’s strident anti-religious sentiment was partly a reaction against his family history? Or it could (as I’ve heard recently) have been hardened after my mother’s Roman Catholic family behaved badly.

For now, I am simply curious – and rather delighted – to discover that I come from a long line of bookbinders, booksellers, clergy, publishers and artists. Prior to uncovering the reason behind all those random books in that messy attic, I knew little of my father’s family except that he was very proud of his talented Great Aunt, (Lucy) Hilda Bell, a Royal Academician. He gave many of us some of her exquisite watercolours, and I had an inkling that Hilda Bell lived a very independent lifestyle. She was only a handful of women who gained the honour of admission to the Royal Academy in the 1800s. It seems that she also served as illustrator to several of the family publications, and in the 1901 census she is listed as living with a female “companion” of a similar age.

The story of my parents meeting could not be further from this artistic milieu. I’m told that my mother was busy in her spare time making tea for the local (Bowden) Rugby club. She was clearly far more interested in the players than the game.  I always learned that their relationship grew out of a touch of double dating: her eldest sister Christina had married Bobby Bell’s best friend – Ian Davies – a year or so before I was born. The friends were a notable sight (as some of the black and white photos show): Ian was well over 6 feet tall; my father was barely taller than my mother.

They were not a good combination. My mother could think of nothing more boring than hiking in the Lake District, going fishing or sailing. I know they did go on a fishing holiday in Ireland – and was always told that this was why I was present in those wedding photos (hiding behind her very large bouquet of roses). While I grew up being told that there’s was a “shotgun wedding”, I was pleased to find many affectionate, loving letters among my mother’s affairs. There were even more written exchanges detailing train times when she was to collect him, and long lists of tea, biscuits and other items to procure for the rugby team. It was not all admin, but at heart there was a total lack of compatibility and the marriage failed quickly with the Catholic Church issuing a Decree Nisi (declaring it “null and void”) before I turned four. My father left for North America when I was around seven, following some travelling salesman opportunities in Canada – one of the many, somewhat random, jobs that he found.

You do not want to know how many CVs, boxes of business cards and querulous letters to bosses that I found in that attic, as well as a few battered “Employee of the Month” certificates. You all know that work was not his top priority. But he was delighted that an early job led him to this area and led to him settling in Marion, a place that brought him so much happiness and friendship – and that really was his top priority.

I suspect that many of you know (likely far more than I do) how very proud my father was that I earned a place to study at St John’s College, Oxford. While he may not have been so fond of my subject choice, I know that he told many of you about his trip to visit me there. Among his papers I found toe-curling letters grilling my tutor about my chances of getting First Class Honours. “A first in theology for a schoolgirl entrant is rare” Revd Phillips told him bluntly in reply. He was instructed not to worry and that I had it in hand (and I did – and I did not get a first). Far more charming was correspondence between my parents, back in 1981, after he had been to London to visit, where he wonders “Can she sit for an Oxbridge scholarship? It would I believe be great for her to try and add to her confidence to succeed – with two dunces for parents where does she get it from?!”

It was three years, later after I had successfully sat my Oxford entrance exams, that I first visited the US. I still remember the shock when I arrived in Marion to be greeted by an extraordinary number of people, gathered under a marquee in the grounds of Peggy Francis’s home. I just knew Planting Island Road as an address for my (infrequent) letters and was overwhelmed by all of these kind, unknown people who seemed to know a lot about me. The Howland family were then – as now – beyond generous to this rather lost young teenager. I remember learning about whaling and scrimshaw, seeing my childhood paintings on my father’s wall, and marvelling at the huge jar of dimes that he had been saving for my visit for many years. He had arranged the perfect trip for me. I fear I was so confused that I was not as grateful as I should have been, but I remember many highlights: a long day at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, more whaling stories in New Bedford and a memorable trip to the Gallinis in Pittsburgh before I settled in New York where I was working for (and sleeping in) a gallery in SoHo for a month.

My work focused on AIDS and I returned to New York many times, staying with friends in Greenwich Village from the late 1980s. I rarely came up to Massachusetts. My sons, who were born 25 years ago, became curious about who my father was, and in June 2001 the three of us came to New York for a meeting at the UN. My father came down to meet them and once again organised quite the tourist trip: a Horsedrawn carriage through Central Park, a boat around the Statue of Liberty, huge bowls of ice cream in a café near FAO Schwartz. A couple of years later we returned and came up to Marion. We have happy memories of staying in the Briarwood Beach Motel (where I’m also staying this time) and a big party at Nana Buckley’s house, as well as a memorable trip out on Robin 2 – nicely documented in the photos here (a photo he seems to have loved as he gave me three framed copies!).

From 2001, my work brought me back to New York for the UN General Assembly most years (though rarely with my sons). Whenever possible I tried to come up to visit, but there were gaps, especially when we moved to live in South Africa. In 2013 Chris Bale tracked me down through Google. My father’s illness had started to cause big challenges and he needed next of kin to sign off on the health bureaucracy. I came over with Jovin and after that I made sure to visit every year.

All of you, and especially Jonathan Howland, have been extremely kind and supportive to him and to me through these final difficult years. I am intensely grateful for the opportunity to spend so much time with my father, and even to get to know him better when his long-term memories kicked back in. His last two years were really tough – and would have been much tougher without all of you, his true friends. Hard to believe that it is now over three years since he died (on September 13, 2019). The pandemic affected our plans to celebrate his life. I remain really proud that he decided, many years ago, to donate his body to medical science – even if that generosity has made closure a little bit harder. I am also both proud and astonished that so many of you would travel, often long distances and on such a chilly day, to honour a man who would have been 92 next week. It means a huge amount to me, and to my sons (who are very sorry not to be here; they now live in Asia, in Bali, and the logistics just proved too tricky).

It is very strange to get to know my father more at the end of his life, and indeed after his death, than I was able to do when he was alive. One thing that I always knew – something that I learned when I was very young – was how much he loved his life in Marion. It is wonderful to be here again and to be reminded of everything that brought him joy: the beauty of the natural environment, his (rather battered, and now foliage covered) boats and, most of all, these wonderful friendships. I know that those of you gathered today knew him far better than I did, and I am really looking forward to hearing all of your stories. I will enjoy continuing to get to know, and to be proud of, my father Robert Crosland Bell.

Robin Gorna Bell

2 October 2022