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19th November 1946 -
24th December 2012
On Monday 8th April, 2013, at 12 noon a service of thanksgiving for the life of Christopher Robbins, journalist and writer, was held at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street.
The Venerable David Meara delivered the bidding:-
We remember today Chris Robbins, a man of many parts, journalist and author, whose career began as a teenager in Bristol on the Evening Post, then the Daily Telegraph, and his formal training on the Stroud News and Journal.
He wrote for papers in Britain, Europe and the United States, later turning his pen to writing Screenplays for many films, and the author of a number of well researched books.
We remember today a stylish and ebullient man, witty and amusing, loyal and generous, fun to know, daring and different. As we celebrate his life and all he meant to each of us, we commend him to God, and pray that his spirit will live on and that his memory may be a blessing to us.
May he rest in peace.Amen.
Listen to Address:
Rather than hear people talk about Chris today, I thought it would be better if we heard his voice one more time through his books. We'll talk about him for the rest of our lives. His brilliant sense of humour, intelligence, courage, his immense kindness and generosity and irrepressible sense of adventure - all of that is the stuff great stories are made of.
Most of them will revolve around his wit. Chris didn't tell jokes, he created them out of thin air, they were inspired by the moment and relied on a kind of magic rather than a punch line to makes us laugh. His jokes were short stories, told in a split second, and he could make people laugh at themselves without ever making them the butt of the joke, ranging from Margaret Thatcher to a boatman on a dying lake in Mexico. He didn't hold his punches, but got away with it because was always more interested in them than himself.
I'm not suggesting he was self-effacing, he certainly wasn't. But he did have a rare quality - for as long as I knew him, Chris knew exactly who he was. He settled the business of being Chris Robbins as a very young man, and with the same style settled the business of dying as a man of sixty-six. He once told me that happiness isn't something that happens to you, you have to decide to be happy, it takes effort, and he made that effort, even when he was down on his luck. No matter what was going on, he always grabbed his life with both hands and lived it with relish.
Writing was the heart of his life and his books ranged from reportage, to history, biography, memoir and travel, all written with passion for the subject and style, but in The Empress of Ireland Chris finally combined all his gifts into one voice, his voice, and that voice was heard again in his last book, Apples Are From Kazakhstan. When in the hospital with a broken arm, Hillary Clinton read it and insisted the entire State Department read the book to understand the country. He was unable to finish his latest book, but all of Chris's books are still being published and read so that voice will go on.
Chris kept journals and after he died I started reading them at random. I came across the entries he made when we fell in love in 1978. There were romantic ones, flattering ones, but the one I treasure the most made me laugh. He wrote - 'I said to her "You're driving me up the walls!" and she shot back "Who hasn't?!" I think this is going to be a long and important relationship but I don't think I'm going to get away with much.' The truth is we both got away with murder and in spite of the cultural divide - he remained completely English and I remained completely American - for some reason we saw straight into each other and found we were made of the same stuff.
Since Chris's death a strange image keeps appearing in my mind. I see him from behind, walking up Parliament Hill, the highest point in London where the wind is strong, flying a kite, something he never did. The kite swoops around in the wind but is attached to a string which is held firmly in his hand. I feel as if I'm that kite. Over our years together, he took me to places I would never have gone and made our lives very, very big.
There are no happy endings. Endings end things. But to feel great loss, you had to have something great to lose. And I did. I was transformed by the flight Chris took me on and for as long as I live I know that string will continue to be held firmly in his hand. My years with him, being loved and having loved so completely, will always be the best years of my life.
Larry Pryce read Corinthians 13: 1-13
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
Simon Callow read "We made it!" said the Wise Man, from The Empress of Ireland by Christopher Robbins
It was a period of considerable stress. Although I lived with money trouble as an Eskimo lives with ice and blubber, the entries in my journal for this period chronicle increasing desperation - an unpaid screenwriter and freelance journo on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Faced with financial melt-down and the bouts of depression and despair this brought with it, I took down from the bookshelf a boxed Penguin paperback set of War and Peace, a Christmas gift, and began to read. There are people who cannot differentiate between literature and life, and fortunately, in my twenties, I was one of them. As Joseph Conrad wrote, "I don't know what would have become of me if I had not been a reading boy." While the unpleasant people drummed on my door, punched the bell and pushed nasty communications through my letter-box, I was far away in Mother Russia. Curled up on the sofa drinking cups of tea and nibbling Jaffa cakes, I anxiously anticipated a cavalry charge, as horses stamped and snorted on an icy winter's morning; I was fearful as Bonaparte's army moved upon Moscow; I suffered through Pierre's spiritual anguish, and was moved by his enlightenment.
Occasionally, I took time away from the upheavals of Russian life to make furtive expeditions to Fleet Street in search of commissions. Whatever my personal circumstances, I always found the Street of Shame a place of endless romance. In those days almost all of the major national newspapers were located on Fleet Street or close by. An army of journalists rubbed shoulders in the area's pubs and restaurants: Marxist-Leninist and High Tory leader writers drank together, reporters from the tabloids swapped gossip with distinguished foreign correspondents from the broad sheets and a young journalist might stand on the edge of many circles and absorb Fleet Street's strange theories of how the world turned. Despite the threats of electricity and gas boards, Camden Council and the Metropolitan Police, I felt I was at the centre of the world and it was an adventure to be alive.
And somehow, in between writing articles and extended sessions with War and Peace - happily a long, long book - I managed to knock the script into some kind of shape. Brian's verdict on the first draft was that the structure was essentially sound, but the story needed filling out. Herod was too much of a one-dimensional villain, Brian said, and suggested he should be more sympathetic, like the character of Othello. "Give it a dollop of Shakespeare." He also wanted more made of Herod's relationship with Miariamne, hinting that I was no great shakes at the lovey-dovey stuff. He was merciless in his mockery over a line I had put into the mouth of one of the wise men at his first sight of Jerusalem after a long, hard journey. "We made it!"
"Good God," Brian said. "We made it!"
"What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing - if one of the three kings is from Brooklyn. Reminds me of that old Cleopatra movie where she instructs a huge Negro standing with a roll of papyrus and quill. 'Take a letter - take a threatening letter! Mark Antony, Rome...."
"All right, all right."
There was only one serious area of disagreement. Angels. There weren't any in my script, and Brian insisted they should be put in. I had written one scene in which the Angel of the Lord, although not actually appearing on screen, terrified the shepherds sitting with their flocks by night as a disembodied voice. "Are these shepherds supposed to be madmen?" Brian demanded. "Hallucinating and running around the desert like they're off their rockers? Somebody put something in their gourd of sheep's milk cocoa?"
"I was attempting to create a scene that might be accepted by a modern audience," I said with dignity. "Trying to avoid the Christmas panto effect."
"I want proper bloody angels!"
"It carries the risk of ridicule."
"Listen, Thoroughly Modern Millie - put in the angels! I'll arrange a screening for you of Pasolini's magnificent film The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. He modern enough for you? See how a genius handles angels."
After lunch we came out of the pub and crossed the road on our way down to Shaftesbury Avenue. Sitting on the pavement outside of St. Anne's church was a man Brian would have called a tramp, now redesignated a homeless person. He was in bad shape, filthy and wrapped in an old blanket. "Got change for a cup of tea, gov?"
Brian stopped and dug into his trouser pocket for a coin but couldn't find one. He pulled out a five-pound note instead and waved the money in the direction of the tramp, who viewed it with hostility and disappointment. "I can't change that!"
"No, no!" Brian said. "Take it!"
The man's eyes grew wide, he took the note gingerly, sensing a trick. He looked up and down the street with suspicion, as if involved in an illegal act, whipping the note beneath his blanket in case his benefactor might undergo a sudden change of heart. "Thanks, mate," he said in an amazed murmur. "Thanks a lot!"
"Remember, as you look up at the stars tonight," Brian said, "that the soft starlight you see has taken millions of years to reach us. I am told when you analyze starlight in the spectrum it contains the same chemicals that make up our bodies - bitumen, ozone, oxygen and so on. So if anyone ever tries to diminish you, just say, "Listen, you're addressing a walking piece of starlight."
As hard science, I suspect this data might be flawed but as poetic inspiration it proved effective. Some outside force entered the tramp on the pavement, an injection of energy and spiritual rejuvenation brought on by the powerful combo of fiver and philosophy.
Alex Ratcliffe read "As the war dragged on, so the myth grew..." from The Ravens by Christopher Robbins
As the war dragged on, so the myth grew. It started in the mid-1960s as a mix of gossip and bar talk among a battle-hardened elite... Apparently, there was another war even nastier than the one in Vietnam, and so secret that the location of the country in which it was being fought was classified. The cognoscenti simply referred to it as "the Other Theater." The men who chose to fight in it were hand-picked volunteers, and anyone accepted for a tour seemed to disappear as if from the face of the earth.
The pilots in the Other Theater were military men, but flew into battle in civilian clothes - denim cutoffs, t-shirts, cowboy hats and dark glasses, so people said. They fought with obsolete propeller aircraft, the discarded junk of an earlier era, and suffered the highest casualty rate of the Indochinese War - as high as 50 percent - .... and they operated out of a secret city hidden in the mountains of a jungle kingdom on the Red Chinese border.
It certainly sounded far-fetched, yet the talk emanated from...men like the Special Forces soldiers who fought behind enemy lines, CIA case officers who lived in the field year after year, and the fighter pilots who flew over North Vietnam. The pilots spoke of colleagues who had vanished into a highly classified operation code-named the Steve Canyon Program.
When these men reappeared they had gone through a startling metamorphosis. In the military world of spit, polish and crewcuts they stood apart: some sported long hair and muttonchop whiskers or curling waxed mustachios... and many wore heavy gold bracelets and... if they happened to be on the edge of a combat zone they carried a 9mm pistol in a holster, the preferred weapon of the professional soldier of fortune.
The greatest change of all was not in their appearance, but in their manner. Self-confident to the point of arrogance and disdainful of anyone outside their own group, they had the distant air of people inducted into a powerful and mystical secret society.
Insiders who worked with them knew these pilots as the Ravens. The secrecy of their activities and the very fact of their actual existence was guarded throughout the war and the secret is still guarded today.
The legend has become hazy, a half-remembered war story known only to a few veterans of Vietnam. "The Steve Canyon Program? Yeah, I remember. The Ravens - a weird bunch of guys who lived and fought out there in the jungle in the Other Theater somewhere. Hell, what was the name of that country?"
Ron Rinehart had been back in the States for three years and gone into the U-2 program, where the camaraderie among the pilots was equal to that among the Ravens. He was at home... when he received a telephone call... from an officer with Graves Registration at the Pentagon. He said that the MIA status of Cookie 2, the F-105 Thud pilot who had crashed into the mountain back in 1969 remained unresolved. The wife and father of the pilot would like to talk to the Forward Air Controller who directed him. Papa Fox understood that the family wanted more than the government version of events and needed to speak to someone who had seen it happen. He called them immediately and described the terrain in Laos and what he remembered of the mission. The pilot's father and wife listened in silence...finally the pilot's father asked if Papa Fox was 100 percent sure that his son was dead. "Personally, I think he went in with the airplane and there is no way that he is alive today. I watched it happen." There was a moment's silence on the end of the line. "Thank you very much," the father said. "It takes a burden off my mind." Papa Fox put the phone down. He had been out of the war for four years, but the brief call had taken him back. For a moment he felt like having a damn good cry, but poured himself a large drink instead and toasted the Thud jock he never knew, who had gone to his death in the secret war the United States lost in Laos.
Greg Wilson - Raven 44 read Poem in memory of the Raven dead by Raven 44
In my memory I carry
The twinkle of your eye, the delight in your laugh,
And the courage that was life, as we expected every day to die.
The red mud stuck
To our boots and tires, the dust to our bodies,
And silver wraiths of mist swirled over and around
Smaller men stood taller and larger than our size,
But you towered over us all, your grin, your tears,
Every orphan was your child, every life a part of yours.
When Chou held on to the thread of his life,
You'd have bled for him, breathed for him,
You'd have given your life for him, if you could.
We lived each day in fire and air,
And every dawn life's croupier spun the wheel again,
And I'd have been a better friend, but I trusted time.
There never was a man more strong, more peaceful,
More fierce, more fair,
And we were all proud to love you.
Perhaps one day when the fire is out
Green mountains will show a flash of gold,
I'll see the twinkle of your eye
And smile again.
Mark Tandy read "Wun maw ni..." from Apples Are From Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins
After an exhausting night I decided to risk a bruising from the harridan at reception and ask for a room change. A young Japanese student was at the desk before me, receiving a ticking-off for not being understood. He had no Russian and very little English, and he was paying a high price for his ignorance. He smiled helplessly, holding up a single finger before his nose to express his wish to extend his stay for another night: 'Wun maw ni.'
'Do you have a voucher?' the harridan demanded.
'Wun maw ni!'
'DO YOU HAVE A VOUCHER?'
The student looked desperate and lowered his voice, so that it became a cringing plea for mercy as well as accommodation: 'Wun maw ni!'
'He wants to stay another night,' I said.
'Are you with this man?' It was an accusation.
'No. Just trying to be helpful. He doesn't seem to understand English.'
'He must have voucher.'
'Wun maw ni.'
'Oh, why can't you understand?' the harridan said, coming to the end of a very short fuse. 'VOUCHER! VOUCHER! VOUCHER!'
'I think that's the bit he doesn't understand,' I said. 'Voucher.'
'He must have voucher.'
The harridan's inappropriate fury had irritated me and I became reckless. 'I've extended my stay and I don't have a voucher.'
'You don't have voucher!' The outrage was lofty, as if I had violated some fundamental taboo of life. The tone further alarmed the Japanese student, who edged away from me, fearful I might forever scupper his plans for wun maw ni in the Otrar. The receptionist picked up the printed guest list that lay on the counter. She stared at me hard: 'Name?'
I backed away from the desk and headed for the door. 'I'll come back later,' I said over my shoulder.
The choir & organist of St Bride's performed the following anthems and songs:-
Jazz Piano - played by Quentin Collins
Pie Jesu from Requiem - Fauré
Lux aeterna (Communio) from Requiem - Mozart
Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen from Requiem - Brahms
I Love You Porgy - Gershwin, trumpet solo played by Quentin Collins
Ode to Joy - Beethoven
The King Of Love My Shepherd Is
All Creatures Of Our God And King