Kindness. Thoughtfulness. Compassion. Words we all know and understand and hopefully act upon as often as possible. Yet while bombarded daily it seems with news reports of terrifying and sickening acts of violence, depravity, murder, and unimaginable human suffering from around the globe, it is hard sometimes to think that much goodness actually exists.
But it does exist.
During a recent gathering of my lovely brood, we enjoyed reminiscing about how much Eldest Son loved dinosaurs as a boy and how thrilled he was when the film Jurassic Park was released in the 90’s. It fast became a family favourite and I’ve lost count of how many times we watched it together.
Who can forget Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of John Hammond as he greeted the visitors with the iconic line, ‘‘Dr Grant, my dear Dr Sattler… welcome… to Jurassic Park!’ and then later on with huge pride, ‘We spared no expense!‘
Watching the film back then, it was impossible to think that one day, Eldest Son would meet Richard Attenborough face to face.
By the time I prepared to move back to the UK from California in 2003 with my two youngest children, Eldest Son was attending Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo and he had some hard decisions to make – stay on at Cal Poly or move to England with us? He had been born in England and visited many times but he had grown up in California and his life and friends were there.
In the end, and much to my delight and relief, he decided to give adult life in England a try. So it was that he applied and was accepted to the University of Sussex where he could continue with his studies for a history degree.
By the summer of 2005, ready to graduate in cap and gown, Eldest Son was thrilled to learn that Richard Attenborough (then Chancellor of the University of Sussex) would be presenting the diplomas.
According to a news page for the University of Sussex website, it was due to his personal ties with Brighton as well as his life-long respect for education that Richard Attenborough’s ardent support of the University continued for four decades. David Bradford writes:
‘It was in Brighton, in 1947, that Lord Attenborough clinched his acting breakthrough, turning in a menacing performance as a young gangster in the film adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Following two prolific decades of acting, he launched his career as a director with a musical critique of the First World War, Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), and Brighton again provided the backdrop.’
Tragically, only six months before the 2005 graduation ceremony, he had lost his beloved eldest daughter Jane and 14 year old granddaughter (together with Jane’s mother-in-law, June Holland) in the Boxing Day tsunami at Phuket resort in Thailand. Jane had herself studied sociology at the University many years before and so it was with even greater poignancy that Richard Attenborough gave his speech at his first graduation ceremony after the disaster, telling the graduates:
“Today is, importantly, a day of celebration. What happened to my family and hundreds of others should not dent your happiness, sense of achievement and right to enjoy yourselves.”
It was quite obvious to all listening that this man had been deeply traumatised by his personal family tragedy yet there he was, keeping to his long promised commitment to hand out to the young people before him their hard-earned degrees, taking the time to speak to each one, including my son, with genuine interest and encouragement.
We’ll never forget his moving speech that he gave that day in Brighton and my son will never forget the thrill of his University Graduation made all the more memorable by the presence of such a wonderful man. Of course, my deep pride for my boy will also never be forgotten.
So it was with deep sadness to learn this weekend of the passing of Richard Attenborough. Not only a famed British actor, director and producer of many other acclaimed films, not least of all Gandhi, The Great Escape (my other favourite) and A Bridge Too Far, but a member of the House of Lords and a tireless contributor to charity causes.
More importantly perhaps, it is clear from the tributes shown on television over the bank holiday weekend that he was a true, honest family man, loved and adored by all who knew him both personally and professionally. It is plain to see that he was a man who not only knew the words kindness and thoughtfulness but he lived by them authentically with true compassion and continued to do so in light of his terrible grief so late in life.
I don’t profess to know him personally, but surely it is this legacy that he leaves behind in the hearts of his family and loved ones that will be long remembered even more so than that of his glittering film career and good works.
And as for me and my family, we will never forget those days spent huddling together on our beaten up old sofa eating popcorn and watching Jurassic Park. That, and a certain Graduation Day.
“At my age the only problem is with remembering names. When I call everyone darling, it has damn all to do with passionately adoring them, but I know I’m safe calling them that. Although, of course, I adore them too.”