Friday, 11 April 2014

Paul Smoker - A Eulogy

Marion has asked me to say some words about Paul. It isn't easy to summarise such a well-lived life in a few sentences, but I shall try my best.

Paul was born on 30 October 1961 in Brighton General hospital, the second son of John and Geraldine Smoker. It was plain from the beginning that he was a bright boy, excelling in his studies, first at Cottersmore in Hove. Then, after to moving to Sutton in 1969, at St Cecilia’s in North Cheam, which was also where all of his siblings went. He was very protective of his three sisters and two brothers, and if we had any trouble from other kids, he would take them into a quiet corner, dust down their lapels and point out the error of their bullying ways. And Paul only slightly begrudged that our grandparents’ weekly sweets package had to be spread ever more thinly among the growing Smoker family.

When he was a very little boy, whenever Mum gave him sausages for tea he used to say he liked them very much and they would always disappear from his plate very quickly. Gradually there began to be a bit of an unpleasant smell in the dining room which kept getting worse and worse over time. Mum took ages to find out what it was but, in the end, she discovered that he had been hiding his unwanted sausages in the lift up seat of the piano stool because he hadn’t the heart to tell his mum that he didn't really like them!

He attended the same secondary school as his two brothers and our father, St Joseph’s College in Norwood, where again he shone, becoming deputy head boy in his final year. His intelligence and academic ability were obvious to all, and he seemed to effortlessly achieve top marks in every exam. In more recent years Paul used to go into the pub at teatime after work each day. He would order his first pint, and then solve the Times cryptic crossword. He always managed to complete the puzzle before he had finished his first beer. Knowing how fast Paul could polish off a pint that is very fast indeed!

As a young lad, he had Saturday jobs at Burtons and Curry’s. Paul also showed great sporting promise. He was a very good footballer, playing for the school first eleven throughout junior and senior school. He continued to play for the Old Josephians for some years after leaving school. He was also an extremely fine swimmer. He represented the County at both competitive swimming and water polo. He gave up competitive swimming at age 18 when he came home and told Mum and Dad that, for the first time in his swimming career, he had been beaten. He described the victor as some bald, ugly bloke...who later turned out to be Duncan Goodhew!
After badly breaking his ankle later in life, he tended to veer to the left when swimming. On holiday in Tenerife, he had to get out of the pool after each length and walk to the other side to continue.

Paul loved acting in his younger years and took part in several talent competitions, singing with the Von Smoker family. He starred as Joseph in the Technicolor Dreamcoat at school. He also joined a youth theatre group in Sutton called TWY, giving a memorable performance as Davies in The Caretaker (by Harold Pinter), and other roles. This theatrical streak continued into adulthood.  When Paul appeared in the village panto a few years ago as Evil Baron von Hard-up, he reveled in terrifying the kids.

Mark, our eldest brother, wrote this about Paul:
“For as long as I can remember Paul was taller, stronger, faster, sportier, smarter and more talented than I. It’s no exaggeration to say he was a kind of superman, a hero to me. I was our mum’s ‘little lad’, tagging along as Paul’s sidekick- playing Robin to his Batman.
It’s an odd thing for an older brother to say about a younger sibling but I looked up to him. 14 months younger than me, yet he was the bold adventurer who invariably led the way as we grew up. He took the lead in our journey through childhood into adulthood; learning to swim, ride a bike, roller-skate, drive cars, discovering girls, sneaking into pubs, getting drunk- all before me. His voice broke, he got a full-time job, got married, bought a house, started his own business, had kids- again, all before me.

Paul radiated charisma- a bluff, rough, no-nonsense charm- emitting a light others just liked being around. I longed to shine like him, yet I never envied him. I could only love him and that warm, unique light of his.
I guess in my efforts to keep up, he somehow made me strive to be a better person, to live my own life more completely and fully.”

Between 1980 and 1983, Paul studied Law at King’ College London, with ambitions of becoming a barrister. During this time he was dating Suzanne, who he had met while still a teenager. They were married in the summer of 1983, and lived in Oval Road, Croydon. Their son James was born in February 1985, a first grandchild for John and Geraldine. Katherine completing the family in July 1989 after they had moved to the Kettering area. The years spent raising their children with Suzanne were among the happiest for Paul, times that he often recalled fondly. I am now going to read you some memories of Paul, written by his son James.

"I would like it known that my father did everything a father needed to do for his son.

He taught me how to read, sitting painstakingly with me from a young age. He gave me a reverence for books, and a love of learning – one of my earliest memories is of making a map of America with him for a school assembly.

He gave me discernment about what was worth studying. On one occasion aged about 7 I had set about to memorise a list of the top 50 video games, and while testing me on this list he suddenly threw out “What's 7 times 3?” - a product I will always associate with him.

He taught me to take pride in my work, as he did – I remember him showing me his manure wall at a country fair, and the way he spoke about his plasterwork and his contribution to the rebuilding of Windsor Castle. He let me play with his colour charts, and was gracious enough to allow me to pick a ghastly mustard yellow colour for my bedroom.

He taught me how to swim. It was one of my favourite “dad” activities to do with him – no visit to Brigstock was complete without a trip to the pool. He once performed the superhuman feat of swimming a length and a half underwater for me, before emerging to declare, “I used to be able to do two”.

He taught me how to ride a bike, but not how to use the brakes, as he discovered to his cost when I crashed into his back while he was confidently walking ahead.

He taught me how to play chess, and how to do cryptic crosswords – a fitting past time for a man who combined great knowledge and a love of words with mischief and irreverence.

He taught me how to shave, and how to drink, osmotically.

He taught me how to perform – I have gleeful memories from Butlins, where I witnessed both his karaoke rendition of Lady in Red and a particularly active lesson in doing the Timewarp. Later, I shared a stage with him at the Brigstock Village Hall performing Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketches. He was Peter Cook, and I had one leg too few.

He taught me to never split an infinitive.

Most importantly, he taught me to never give up. I once let in a goal at my near post in the cup final, and I stormed off in a tantrum. With Gareth Southgate looking on, he dragged me back into goal to resume my duties. Towards the end, he still made Herculean efforts to continue to support me.

My dad clung to life, with hope, despite his perpetual struggle. After every episode in hospital he came out with renewed vigour, desperate to make the most of the time he had left, in the small ways that he could.

My father was a man whose advice I valued greatly. It was only as I grew older that I realised that we viewed the world through a shared lens – another of his gifts to me. He was a born satirist, playful, intellectual, self-deprecating. And only in recollection have I realised how much I will miss him."

Paul worked in construction, founding the company Cy Pres, which renovated historic buildings using authentic period materials. The firm worked on prestigious projects such as Windsor Castle (as James mentioned), and he probably knew more about lime wash plaster than anyone else.

Paul and Marion met at the Three Cocks in Brigstock in the mid nineties. Romance blossomed between them, and they married in Oundle in September 1999, just a few weeks before our mother died. I want to pay tribute to Marion today, for the tenderness, care, patience and love she showed for Paul. I am certain that her devotion to her husband is the main reason we were able to keep Paul with us through his illness as long as we did.

When I asked the family for memories of Paul, the same words were used time and again by all who knew and loved him.  Kind, loving, intelligent, sarcastic, fiercely loyal, protective, and perhaps most of all, funny. He was an excellent mimic, Psychic Sally and Alan with a clipboard were firm favourites. And he was always ready with a fast quip. An accomplished satirist and joke smith, and a masterful raconteur, Paul loved to laugh, and to make others laugh. He was the life and soul of any party. A good description of Paul is as a Bon Viveur. That is a French phrase, which is frequently used to describe someone who enjoys a pint or two. It roughly translates as one who lives well. Paul certainly did that.  There are no end of outrageous anecdotes about Paul, all of which he relished telling himself. And I would love to share some here today. But I am afraid that almost all of them are not really suitable for retelling in a house of God. So we must save them for the Three Cocks later. One particular story about a wardrobe and a handbag comes to mind here.

Paul leaves us here filled with love for him. Filled also with memories of laughter. Filled with admiration for the incredible courage he showed during his illness, and the stubborn determination to battle on and never give in. He was known by many different names. Paul, Paulie, Young Smoker (as opposed to old Smoker), Big Bro, Auntie Paul. To us, he was a husband, father, son, friend, and brother. His passing leaves a painful gap in the heart of every person here. Surely there can be no better definition of a life lived well.

I will finish with the words of Mark, Paul’s older brother, who wrote this:
“Even in his final years, he remained my hero to the end. Witnessing the changes illness inflicted on him was painful for everyone who loved him- not least for the ever-devoted Marion of course. Yet, two things remained undiminished. His courage, of course- which defined him as a man; but secondly- and perhaps even more memorably- the skill which so many relished and adored in him. I speak of course of that coruscating, satirical wit of his. Paul was hilarious. A brilliant mimic, a cunning punster, and undoubtedly the most sublimely gifted piss-taker I’ve ever known. The memories I have of Paul resound with laughter; loud, wicked, irreverent laughter.

In death he forges onto his next big adventure– ahead of me once more… And laughing, laughing I hope. So cheers, Paul.
Shine on, brother, shine on. “