Harry Mottram reports on the funeral service for the bon vivant Wendy Mace of Axbridge who (along with her husband Robin) were part of the ‘greatest sitcom the 1970s never made.’
Sun light streamed through the stained glass windows of St John the Baptist parish church in Axbridge, in Somerset, lighting up the sandstone a golden yellow as the coffin carrying the late Wendy Mace was carried from the church. It had been a memorable, amusingly bitter sweet and ultimately uplifting service presided over by the Reverend Tim Hawkings.
It was about a year since the church had been filled with a near identical audience for Wendy’s Civic Award to mark her work with many of the town’s organisations including the youth theatre group Young ACT. Now the church was again packed with standing room only with friends, family and residents who came to pay tribute to her and her work. Those activities included: the pageant, the youth theatre, the museum, the community theatre group, the book club and the carnival – to name but a few.
Born in 1944 before the D-Day Landings and the final act of World War II in the Kent village of Harrietsham Wendy Mace was a teacher, a thespian, a designer, a youth worker, a mother, wife and grandmother all wrapped into the robes of a party hostess, chef and bon vivant. Before 2002 Wendy lived in the south of England teaching English and Drama at Fernhill School in Hampshire where she lived with her husband Robin and her son Toby.
The funeral was marked by remarkable speeches and tributes, none more powerful than one from her son Toby who spoke of her self-deprecating humour. His voice cracking at times with emotion he related stories which brought laughter and tears of joy. For there is a strange conflict of emotions as bereavement and humour intermingle creating a surreal atmosphere where one moment you laugh with a sudden release of tension before finding your throat has become swollen with emotion and tears fill your eyes. Toby recalled the time she drove her car into a man dressed as a Roundhead at a Civil War re-enactment – who was driving of all things a Vauxhall Cavalier. Laughter he said was her greatest gift as if you can laugh at yourself then nobody can laugh at you, but instead with you. He spoke fondly of how she opened the family home to a variety of guests from around the world when he was a child dubbing her the Greatest Ambassador of Nibbles the United Nations never had, and with his father Robin created a household that should have been turned into a 1970s’ TV sitcom.
Toby’s young son spoke with an assured confidence about his granny and of her love of poetry and in particular Haiku poetry and how she had passed that enthusiasm on to him. He had written four seasonal Haikus with the one for spring reading: “Daffodils appear, lambs are here, it’s that time of year.”
The Reverend Tim Hawkings essentially played the straight man in this production. He hit the right tone balancing empathy, a Christian voice and yes, a quiet anger, at the cruelty of cancer. He reminded those present of the impact Wendy had made with the youth theatre group in the town, her acting career with the theatre group ACT along with her Christingle services that had involved and impressed so many. He described Wendy’s ‘incredible courage’ in the face of the cruel disease and quoted the words of Seneca: “In the presence of death, we must continue to sing the song of life.”
Paul Passey who admitted his life had in part been scripted and directed by Wendy was one of Wendy’s longest friends dating back to teenage years when he and his wife Diana and Wendy’s husband Robin were a happy quartet back in the early 1970s in Hampshire. In his eulogy entitled ‘On the Subject of Winning’ Paul spoke of get-togethers at the Roe Buck Inn, of late nights ending with Wendy’s mum providing nocturnal snacks in her parlour, and it has to be said of incomplete stories of seduction, rivalry and much more. As his mate Colin said there were lots of stories that were not appropriate for church. Using a euphemism for the facts of life used by the nuns at Wendy’s school of two separate canoes mooring together in the river bank of married life Paul played on the idea that as teenagers the foursome had deliberately misconstrued the word canoodling as an extension of the nuns’ idea. They say canoodling and the nuns say canoeing – despite it all the quartet stayed in touch and ended up in Axbridge some 16 years ago.
Janie Gray read one of Wendy’s favourite poems The Scholar and his Cat, Pangue Ban, from a ninth century poem translated by Robin Flower. And the Axbridge Singers (of whom Wendy had been an enthusiastic member) performed En Tout, La Paix Du Coeur (In all, Peace From The Heart) and the melodious Santo, Santo, Santo conducted by Stella More. There was also music by Nigel Hess from the movie Ladies in Lavender and a departing song as Time Goes By from the film Casablanca.
This was one of those occasions when we realise we are all mortal, that despite the hymns and prayers implying life is a just a transient step on the way to an afterlife, we are just a collection of atoms with just one shot at life. It is a bleak conclusion that all but the most fervent believers must face. We can delay the date but we can’t put it off. But in that delay and in that decision – we can make the most of life – and that is perhaps the most important point. Live life is the simple motto. Or as a Scottish proverb underlines: “Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.”
That does sound dark. But people like Wendy show how while we are alive we can light up the world by simply embracing life, making friends and being ourselves. Dr Samuel Johnson echoed perhaps how Wendy herself may have put it: “It matters not how a man (or woman) dies, but how he (or she) lives.” Or even more succinctly Clarence OddBoddy in the film It’s a Wonderful Life recalls Mark Twain’s words that: “No man (or woman) is a failure who has friends.” You only had to look at the packed church to see the truth is this last statement.
There is more from Harry at www.harrymottram.co.uk
The next Axbridge Theatre production is Our Country’s Good at the end of April is dedicated to Wendy.