John Warner Maslen: a eulogy in books and languages

[My father’s funeral took place last week, and I couldn’t go because of Covid. For a long time I hesitated over putting his eulogy on this blog; I wanted to mark his death in some way, to make some statement about it, but what I’d written felt too personal. In the end I decided to put it here after all, because my Dad was one of the people who gave me my love of books, SFF in particular. Ursula le Guin was one of his heroes, and without his love of her work I wouldn’t have discovered them as young as I did and they wouldn’t have shaped me. For this, as for everything else he did, I want to record my thanks and love.]

It’s hard to know how to make a eulogy for anyone, let alone your father. How to summarize a life in a few words – a life about which you only know fragments, each of which means a great deal to you but might not even feature in another person’s memory of him? Hirokazu Koreeda made a wonderful film in 1998 called After Life, about the place where people go when they’ve died, which is a dilapidated old school occupied by hard-working administrators, male and female, young and old, whose task it is to help the dead choose a single memory from their lives to take with them into whatever happens next. Just one memory, no more, no less. That’s something we could all do now, everyone who knew him: think of a single memory that encapsulates John Maslen from our point of view. But which?

A father’s children know a number of definite things about him: how it feels to hug him, the smell of his shirt, the texture of his hair, the look of his long, slim hands, the funny noises he makes in his sleep, the way he hums or mutters as he does things. They know how well he reads books aloud. Dad’s skill in reading the Tintin comics was legendary, and he made a brilliant Captain Haddock, which is why we were always nagging at him to grow a beard (he did, of course). They know his nasal laugh, and how much he likes laughing; he spent a lot of time in our company laughing, at least in my memory. We loved making him laugh. I remember once, at his flat in Brussels, I wrote a kind of radio play based on the epic poem Beowulf – we called it Beolamb – and we spent several days recording it, with my best friend Brook working with me on the special effects. We had to keep stopping the recording because we couldn’t stop laughing at Dad’s impression of Peter Sellers as the numskull Bluebottle on the Goon Show. This love of laughter was nothing new; as a boy his favourite book was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, and this embarrassed him at times on public transport because he couldn’t stop himself laughing aloud at the funny bits.

They know about his love of food. I may be wrong, but my impression is that if you read his diaries – and he always kept dairies, written in the tiny script he used for making his endless lists – my impression is that he wrote down everything he’d had to eat, every single day without exception. When someone came to interview him a few years back about the European Union’s negotiations with China in the 1970s, he was able to identify every meeting he’d had with the Chinese delegation from the record in his diaries of the meals he’d eaten with them in Chinese restaurants all over Brussels. Whenever he came to visit us from Belgium, and when he went home afterwards – sometimes taking a few of us with him as luggage – he would sit down in the dining area before the ferry left port and eat steadily throughout the crossing until it docked on the other side. That was his recipe, he said, for avoiding seasickness. Sometimes his love of food had unfortunate consequences. When I visited a Spanish village with him in 1980 we ate sucking pig at eleven, as the Spanish do, and lay in bed for most of the night with acute indigestion, groaning at each other like pigs ourselves. I’ve often suspected that his description of food in his diaries might be some sort of secret code, and that if we could read those entries properly every mention of Brussels sprouts would have a hidden meaning. If you want to know how to cook Brussels sprouts, by the way, here’s the recipe he gave me: boil them for exactly seven minutes in lightly salted water. When he cooked for himself in his Brussels flat he ate Brussels sprouts every night for weeks on end, with cold ham and reconstituted powdered mashed potatoes. Delicious!

His children know about his love of birds. I believe it was Mum who put him onto this hobby, as a way of getting him to take some exercise, and he took to it like a duck to water. His bird book, too – the Collins Field Guide to the Birds of the World, if I’m not mistaken – became a kind of diary; he entered all his sightings in it, and could tell you the exact dates he was in any country in the world by looking up the dates when he spotted a hornbill in Costa Rica, or a thick-knee in Sydney, or a hoopoe in Pedraza. Was there a code in the birds, I wonder? They were part of the language of his love of looking at things, of being a witness to beautiful landscapes, or works of art, or ancient buildings, or the battlefield at Waterloo. But the birds didn’t have to be fancy; just looking at them out of the back window of his house was enough. He would sit there happily for hours, crumbling stale bread between his fingers for the bird table, scanning trees and gardens to see if he could spot a jay or a bluetit. He always had a pair of binoculars with him. He was very much a looker, though he was a listener too; he loved classical music, and his Brussels flat was always full of it. He had a particular fondness for Mozart, baroque music of any kind, and the music of Johann Nepomuk Hummel – though I think he mainly liked Hummel because of his name.

His children know how he loves to read. Dad was always reading, and we read too, in his flat in Brussels and his house, often picking up the books from his bookshelves – Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ursula Le Guin, the Asterix books (he had all of them), the Tintin books (ditto), the Peanuts strips which he carefully cut out from a magazine called the Bulletin. In his turn he would read the books we’d brought in our luggage, finishing them off in only a day or two, far faster than we could. Almost any book would do, though he loved science fiction (Le Guin was a favourite) and novels set in ancient times (especially Mary Renault). He liked factual books about trees and history, and Michelin guidebooks, and The Economist, and ghost stories, especially real ones. There was a science fiction story he loved, in which an alien is accused of poisoning a human being and asks how he could possibly have known that the man’s pathetic digestive system couldn’t cope with a hearty meal of ‘wholesome polystyrenes’. That phrase delighted him, and he would often repeat it – ‘wholesome polystyrenes’ – especially when faced by an unusually disgusting dish in the canteen of the Berlaymont Building where he worked.

His children know about his love of languages, and how this shapes everything he does and the way he thinks. Dad started collecting languages in his childhood, and he went on doing it for most of his life. He could speak Russian fluently, and German, and French – though when he first started working in Brussels he spoke French like the seventeenth-century playwright Jean Racine. He spoke Polish well, and Spanish a little, and a bit of Mandarin. He also spoke Danish – of necessity, because he had Danish relatives through his wife, Lise – though he could never make himself understood by Lise’s aged mother. In fact he could turn his hand, or rather his tongue, to almost anything. When we went on holiday to the Adriatic Coast he learned Italian. With Lise he learned Flemish. Confronted by border guards in Yugoslavia in the 1950s he spoke Serbo-Croat. He helped Mum translate a novel by the Polish novelist Marian Pankowski, and write an article about the linguistic jokes in Karel Capek’s famous novel War with the Newts, which was written in Czech. He helped his friends among the Brazilian spiritists of Brussels to translate some of the key texts of their faith from Portuguese into French. When he read us the Moomin comics, he translated them spontaneously from Swedish into English – and I still remember my outrage when I learned to read for myself, and at once rushed off to read those comics, only to find that they were indecipherable, full of words and even letters that didn’t exist in English. Dad’s linguistic brilliance was enhanced by his understanding of the links between languages. He was fascinated by etymology: the history of words and the relations between them. He devised his own phonetic system for writing down words in obscure dialects; and he worked for most of his life on a kind of universal history of all the languages in the world, and how the links between one form of speech and another could be used to trace migrating populations across the planet, from prehistoric times to the present. He respected the speakers of every language in the world, and as a result he was, to the best of my knowledge, completely bereft of racism – something unusual in British diplomats of his generation, I think. For him, everyone in the world spoke a language, every language in the world was interesting, and he wanted to learn them all, and discover the cultures they reflected.

He also helped people rediscover their own languages. When he began to get frail, various people from different countries came to his house to help him with everyday routines. On one occasion he asked a Congolese nurse what language she had spoken in her childhood, and she told him where it came from and the name of the small community that spoke it. He went at once to one of his books and was able to show her a few sentences of her language printed in it, as recorded by a missionary long ago. She burst into tears; it was the first time she’d ever seen her language written down.

He showed me many things, one of which was how to admit when I don’t know something – a crucial skill for a scholar. I confess I haven’t always practised it as well as he did.

Has this been a eulogy? I haven’t said anything about his official life: his schooldays, his early training by military intelligence, his work as a diplomat, his work for the European Union. I haven’t talked about his parents, or his love of his wives – Elizabeth and Lise – or his children and their spouses, his grandchildren, relatives, friends. I’ve been trying to pick a memory of him to carry forward into whatever life may be coming next. We all have many memories to choose from; these are some of mine.

The single memory I’ve chosen is a simple one: lying on the sofa reading a book, while Dad sits and reads at the dining-room table. He smiles from time to time. I think he’s enjoying himself.

He was a modest, kind, funny, loving, learned man. This set of facts is embedded in every memory each of us has of him. That’s what his children, grandchildren and friends have taken from his life. It’s enough, I think.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel

 

2 thoughts on “John Warner Maslen: a eulogy in books and languages”

  1. Your writing is beautiful, Rob! And your love and admiration for your father shines like a ray of sunshine. Well done!

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