Richard was a poet, interpreter and translator. He inherited his talent for languages from our mother, Kate. He spoke and wrote perfect Russian and Turkish; he learnt fluent, slangy French as an eight-year-old living outside Paris. He could draw appreciative smiles from native speakers with his sallies into Polish, Serbo-croat, Farsi, Greek and a hatful of other languages. He was Master of the Tower of Babel. He started Latin and Ancient Greek at Stouts Hill prep school in Gloucestershire, where for one term we three brothers were together. I was designated McKane major, Richard was minor and our never-forgotten Andrew was minimus.
An English poet has said – in Latin – that “Catullus composed an elegy for his dead brother, and now the same sad duty falls to me.” Catullus’s poem has added poignancy because he was visiting his brother’s grave in Bithynia in north west Turkey, where Richard was so happy and at ease.
Richard loved animals, even the panic-struck swimming cat that sent him to hospital for rabies injections into his stomach after he had rescued it in Istanbul harbour. He was devoted to Jamie, the boisterous family St Bernard. He took Jerry, our ancient one-eyed pony, to the Cotswold Hunt pony club camp. He was a better milker of the house cows than our father, Mac, because he used the fullhand method that he had been taught by Harry, an itinerant relief milker.
He excelled at ball games. Captain of squash at Marlborough and at University College, played for the Oxford second team, the Squirrels, and could give a good game to future internationals such as John Easter and Paul Millman, not to mention the local Test cricketer Tom Graveney. Richard played tennis with a squashplayer’s cunning – all angles and dropshots rather than brute force. Major Millman, Paul’s father, who coached tennis in the summer holidays, could often be heard bellowing “Good bawll, Richaaard”, halfway across Cheltenham.
His golf handicap was a somewhat optimistic 13, verified at the Cotswold Hills club by the well-disposed National Westminster bank manager in Winchcombe. I used to partner him – it certainly wasn’t the other way round – in school fives competitions.
Richard’s all-round fitness – such a cruel contrast to his later life – made him a skilled Mediterranean spearfisher. In 1966 there was a quite unexpected “Dr Livingstone, I presume” moment on the Greek island of Tinos when I looked out of a window and saw Richard (then on his gap year) returning from an early-morning hunt with his breakfast fish. He dived deep and he shot straight.
Richard’s schooldays were among his happiest. An American friend remembers the two of them always being the earliest risers in Cotton House “boiling tea way before breakfast and reading while others slept.” He became a protegé of John Dancy, the progressive and fearsomely intellectual Master of Marlborough. JCD is now is his nineties and he and Richard spoke on the phone most weeks until his death.
When he went up to Oxford later in 1966 Richard found Univ a very congenial college and made lifelong friends there. They remember him as shy, kind, sensitive and disconcertingly clever, sometimes more of a spectator than a participant. At Christmas 1967 the college gathered in Logic Lane in the evening gloom to sing carols. Everyone was carrying a candle. Richard was not among them. He appeared, lowering himself from the window of his attic room above the Law Library, from a rope-operated fire escape device. “Nothing unusual about this”, friends recall, “except that Richard was holding two lighted candles, one in his hand and one in his teeth.” Did this illustrate a certain detachment from the event or an attention-seeking wish to join in? We’ll never know.
But the clouds of mental fragility were gathering, and he took his Finals in hospital. Baudelaire wrote of his own youth that it was “a dark storm, pierced here and there by brilliant sunshine.” One such brilliant ray was the publication by OUP of Richard’s first translations of Anna Akhmatovka in 1969, while he was still an undergraduate. The Modern Languages Faculty wrote a special Finals paper to accommodate Richard’s interest in modern Russian poetry.
He spent much of the 1970s in his beloved Turkey – in old Istanbul, writing by a wood-burning stove; as a slightly unconventional rep with the travel company Wings, mainly in Antalya; or digging up sites such as Kandahar with Lady Wheeler and Tony McNicoll, the Oxford Middle East archaeologist.
Richard took up a Hodder writing fellowship at Princeton in 1978 – the first non-American citizen to be appointed. It was while he was there that he met and married his great love, Elizabeth. The marriage did not last, but they remained lifelong friends. Their jointly bylined translations of Osip Mandelstam’s Moscow and Voronezh Notebooks, published 13 years ago, were recently described as still definitive by a reviewer in the TLS. A shelf-full of translations of Nikolai Gumilyov, Olga Sedakova and other Russians followed, as well as versions of the Turkish poets Oktay Rifat, Fazil Husnu Daglarca and Nazim Hikmet.
Richard never neglected his own poetry – he always had a pen and notebook to accompany his perennially inefficient pipe – and his first collection, in 1993, entitled Amphora for Metaphors, was praised by Peter Levi, the former Oxford Professor of Poetry: “Richard McKane’s arrival has been long delayed, but now he steps into the rather crowded ranks of the most brilliant poets of the last 20 years or more. His poems are so faultlessly alive, so fully worked out. I take off my elderly hat to him.”
His last collection, Poems from my Care Home, was brought out earlier this year by Richard’s Oxford friend Bob Moxon-Browne. Bob wrote: “Richard is a survivor…The recurring subjects of the new poems – the joys of pipe-smoking, the unexplained disappearance of fingerless gloves, the indignities of incontinence – still echo nobler themes – optimism, compassion, gratitude, the memories of great men and women, and always, unshakeable love of God and God’s creation.” Many people treasure his presents of books he wrote or edited.
Richard never wavered from the way of the poet. Often short of money – although he was helped over many years by the marvellous Royal Literary Fund – his needs were few and he muddled through on book advances and sales, work at the Turkish Consulate in London and of course his interpreting. Richard was fascinated by words and ideas, and felt the limitations of words to express all that he felt. That made his readings at the Pushkin Club and the Troubadour highly-charged events – he put everything into them. Isaiah Berlin was a lifelong influence. In a letter to Richard he urged him to “continue, continue, continue: your work adds to the sum of human values.”
Richard was a passionate defender of human rights and free speech, and kept in touch with imprisoned writers, especially in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, countries in which he had travelled widely. He was vice-chair of English PEN’s writers in prison committee, and went to Turkey as an official trial observer. A leading member of the committee described him as “a stalwart you could rely on to say and do the right thing, however awkward that might have been.” And Moris Farhi, chair of International PEN, described Richard as “a just man, a champion of the oppressed…he lines up alongside the victims, the ‘others’, the unloved strangers in our midst, and amplifies their voices.”
He devoted many years to the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture as an interpreter – work that made great demands on his equilibrium. The Foundation benefitted greatly from his personal experience of life-changing circumstances. He was a gentle soul, devoid of malice, able to get on with anybody, and had a quiet confidence in his faith, which was often emotional and reflected the Methodism on our mother’s side of the family.
Richard never wanted for love and compassion. Although that could sometimes be hard to give to him, he was capable of great charm and empathy in return. His family, his friends who are here today and others around the world all know that, and did their best for him. And he also received unstinting practical help from Caroline and Richard and from Anna. But the greatest burden of caring for him undoubtedly fell on Juliet.
She and Michael were the poles of his often turbulent world. Since the time she was a little girl living with him in a council flat, Juliet (nicknamed Woolsey or Wilding) rose to the almost daily challenges of Richard’s illness, especially in his later years when his horizons narrowed and he became less mobile and able to look after himself. His indomitable spirit and courage never allowed his afflictions to be swept under the carpet or stigmatised. One of Juliet’s greatest pleasures was taking Richard in a special £1 ComputerCab to visit friends. They would gas away more like old mates than father and daughter, exchanging jokes and spoonerisms. (He’d be tickled that we are going for a drink later in the Grumble Hape).
In his poem Your visit, written in 1983, when Juliet was about four, Richard said:
“I felt fatherly but on an equal eye with her…” Juliet was the apple of his eye, and perfectly personified a daughter’s love for her father.
Many of you have helped me to weave this address and I’m sorry I can’t name you all.
We shall all miss “lovely, lovely eccentric Richard”, as another friend from fifty years ago described him, in our different ways and with different memories.
I want to say goodbye to Richard with the words that Catullus used for his brother:
“In perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.”