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A talent to amuse

Justin Holding revives some fondly-recalled memories

At home, kept usually somewhere close to my work desk, I possess a battered old Samsonite briefcase. In it I keep what might be termed my ‘vital belongings’, e.g. my passport, driving licence, cheque book and anything else, e.g. a stash of euros, a sentimentally-important old watch, innumerable business cards, shop ‘bonus point’ cards, and – for some reason – a ‘frequent flyer’ gold card issued by the Delhi Brasserie curry house in Soho. Oh, and a lot of other rubbish that could probably be thrown out.

This briefcase has the additional function of being the receptacle for anything currently quasi-important in my life. If I buy a travel, concert or theatre ticket, for example – that’s where it goes until the day it is required.

I thought of it today, when I read of the passing of Sandy Wilson, writer of musicals, at the age of 90 on Wednesday 27th August.

See here for a copy of his obituary that appears on the website of the – DAILY TELEGRAPH

I have – or had – a very small connection with Sandy Wilson.

Early in 1984 my first wife was diagnosed with leukaemia, only about six months after giving birth to our daughter.

After various tests and a bout of option-considering, she decided not to seek a bone marrow transplant involving a non-sibling donor and simply try to live as long as she could by using the drugs then available to hold back the disease. Apparently, statistically there was a 1 in 4 chance that a sibling had matching marrow (i.e. that most likely to produce a positive outcome) but sadly, none of her four sisters were so blessed. As regards potential outcomes for the alternative of matching but non-related donors, in those days – things may be very different now – the chances of a leukaemia sufferer surviving a non-sibling marrow transplant were just 2 in 10.

For my wife, then with two kids aged 21 and 7 months respectively, those were not odds she was willing to risk – hence her decision to go for the ‘holding back the onset with drugs’ option.

As you may imagine, for a couple just into their thirties, these were tough issues to be dealing with. After several months of coping, in a spirit of “Oh, what the hell!” I went to my employer, asked for three weeks’ compassionate leave, and booked a ‘second honeymoon/holiday of a lifetime’ three-week cruise down the Nile on a paddle-steamer.

It turned into one of the most rewarding – it would be stretching it to suggest ‘favourite’ – holidays I’ve ever had.

Firstly, for the obvious reasons set out above.

Secondly, because of the wonders of the Ancient Egyptian treasures that we saw and what we learned about them from our tour guides.

Thirdly, because of the company and the comradeship that grew between the guests on board, almost all of them British and none of whom we had met before.

One of them was Richard (‘Dickie’) Annand, winner of a VC in Belgium in 1940, who was there with his wife. Although we could all sit at whichever table we liked and everyone ‘circulated’, we dined with them many times, hindered only slightly by the fact that Dickie was as deaf as a post, apparently an occupation hazard for an infantry officer spending hours and hours training troops on the firing ranges.

The other couple we spent a lot of time with were Sandy Wilson and his boyfriend Chuck, whom (I noted from one obituary I saw) he later wed. Chuck was an Oriental, totally devoted to Sandy, otherwise very friendly and quietly amusing and – if matters of business ever came up – tended to melt into the background.

At the time I was only aware of Sandy’s mid-table celebrity via the Ken Russell-directed movie of The Boyfriend (1971), which – to be frank – I had first seen in the cinema only because I was a fan of Ken Russell.

We got to know Sandy and Chuck really quite well on the trip and regularly kept in touch with them afterwards for five years or so before drifting apart. I remember one informal Sunday lunch at Sandy’s London flat at which one of the other guests was the vamp-like Fenella Fielding, who was both outrageous and fun.

Inevitably, I was reminded of all this today when reading of Sandy’s death. I shall always treasure the four successive Christmas cards that Sandy sent us, beautifully hand-drawn by himself in pen-and-ink (coloured with watercolours), in the late 1980s. They have been in the bottom of my aforementioned Samsonite briefcase for nearly thirty years.

I shall be thinking of Sandy – and indeed Chuck – today.