Sunday, 28 March 2010

Elspeth Thompson

Those of you who followed Elspeth Thompson's wonderful blog, books and garden writing in the Sunday Telegraph will be saddened to hear of her untimely death at the age of 48. One of her talents as a writer was her openness, and I am sure that many, many readers will have felt touched by her way with words, by the sense that Elspeth's unique voice had reached out to them. (And for those who haven't yet read her, you might start with her inspiring piece on gardening against the odds).
I first met Elspeth at university, and feel blessed to have known her. When my sister died of breast cancer, Elspeth's kindness and grace were, as always, evident. On the day of Ruth's memorial service, she rose at dawn, and went to buy lavender at New Covent Garden market, so that the scent of my sister's favourite flower would fill the air. Afterwards, I took several of the pots of lavender home with me, and would always think of Elspeth, as well as Ruth, whenever I saw or smelt them. Indeed, Elspeth's gift that day was one of the catalysts for my founding of the Lavender Trust, a charity which I hoped (as I still do) would remain true to the spirit of Ruth, and others like her, who came to understand that the shadow of death could not take away a profound love of life.
Elspeth knew the meaning of loss, of the darkness at the edge of the light; which may be why she was also swift to cherish those who were dear to her, as well as the gardens that were so close to her heart. Her love of her family, and the gardens she created for them, were entwined; her gardening seemed to me to be an act of faith, as well as a testament to her creativity.
Here is one of the poems that she shared with readers of this blog, for Elspeth was as generous with words as she was with seedlings and flowers.

By Frances Shaw
“Who loves the rain
And loves his home,
And looks on life with quiet eyes,
Him will I follow through the storm;
And at his hearth-fire keep me warm;
Nor hell nor heaven shall that soul surprise,
Who loves the rain,
And loves his home,
And looks on life with quiet eyes.”

Finally -- well, not finally, because the living continue talking to the dead -- is a poem that Elspeth posted on this blog at the turning of the year. Here it is again, for her, wherever she may go...

adapted from the Celtic by Thomas A Clark

May the best hour of the day be yours.
May luck go with you from hill to sea.
May you stand against the prevailing wind.
May no forest intimidate you.
May you look out from your own eyes.
May near and far attend you.
May you bathe your face in the sun’s rays.
May you have milk, cream, substance.
May your actions be effective.
May your thoughts be affective.
May you will both the wild and the mild.
May you sing the lark from the sky.
May you place yourself in circumstance.
May you be surrounded by goldfinches.
May you pause among alders.
May your desire be infinite.
May what you touch be touched.
May the company be less for your leaving.
May you walk alone beneath the stars.
May your embers still glow in the morning.

So, no, not finally, never that, two more poems and comments from Elspeth. When I wrote exactly a year ago on what to read when the clocks go forward, she sent me two poems by Mary Oliver, including the one that was read at my sister's funeral. As she said to me then, it represented a kind of full circle. Dear Elspeth, dearest Elspeth, thank you for remembering the poems. We will remember you.


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.


harriet said...

dear Justine -- this is very sad -- she looks like a lovely person and it must be especially hard for you given the associations with your sister and her memorial service. But how lucky for you to have known her and to have such lovely memories.

kairu said...

I am so sorry to hear this. I had found Elspeth's blog through you - she had commented on one of your posts - and I loved reading about and seeing the photographs of her converted railway carriage home and the beautiful beach nearby. My heart goes out to her family, especially her young daughter.

linda said...

What a lovely tribute. I hope you find comfort in the memories of your friendship. She always seemed to me like such a generous, kind and creative person.

I only "knew" Elspeth through her writing, but, oh, how I adored her writing and her approach to life. I read the announcement by her husband yesterday and was stunned. To know that she is gone makes me sad. She'll be missed.

walter and me said...

Thank you for sharing this. I was so sad to read yesterday of Elspeth's death. She was such a generous writer and shared so much. A good few years ago, when I still lived in London, it was her inspiring book The Urban Gardener that ultimately inspired me to garden and get an allotment. I shall miss her, and her wonderful blog.

Tracy x said...

i am so shocked and still cannot believe that she has gone..
elspeth was always there to reassure me when my own house build was just too much...
she always, always made me laugh out loud with the emails she sent..
i will miss her and always regret that we (and our hounds) never did get round to meeting..
i wish i had known
t x

Lazywell said...

Poor Justine, You have clearly been deeply affected by this apparently sudden and tragic event. My thoughts go out to you, just as I am sure your warm and heartfelt sentiments will bring great comfort to her family. She must have been very special.

Unknown said...

This is such sad news. Elspeth, through her work, shared so much of her own nature and her embracing of the nature about her, and so reflected in her writings. Indeed, a lavender will remain a reminder of her contributions to the betterment of all of us. Thank you Justine for your kind words of Elspeth. God bless you, and our thoughts and blessings to her family.

kairu said...

I went back to that earlier conversation, a year ago now, and felt the tears prick in my eyes. I am so sorry, Justine, that you have lost a dear friend who had such a capacity for generosity and understanding.

I will always think of you both when I read Mary Oliver.

Sarah said...

Such terribly sad news. It strikes me that both of you are well read writers, both of you reach out to others in your writing and both of you have a strong bond with your readers. My thoughts are with her family.

Chrissie said...

what a lovely tribute, so sorry you have lost your friend

Karen, Surrey said...

Hi Justine, Just sat down for a mo, thought I might check in to Elspeths blog and am now in shock. Like others I found her blog through yours and others and knew i could check in hear to get your thoughts. I expect you too are huge shock. My feelings are with her family and daughter and with Elspeth. She seemed to have so much going on, and a passion and love for life, gardening etc. etc. I shall read your poems and thoughts and reflect.

Nan said...

I don't know when I've read such a beautiful tribute. Thank you.

Reading Tea Leaves said...

I was so sad to learn of Elspeth's death yesterday. She will be missed so very much. I only knew Elspeth through her writing but you have lost a dear friend,your affection for her shines though in this wonderful tribute.
I hope you don't mind but I have linked to you in my blog today. I always post a poem on Monday and I have dedicated today's poem to Elspeth.

Justine Picardie said...

Thank you all for your comments; I'm feeling wordless today, please do read the obituary of Elspeth in the Telegraph.

roxy walton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

Dear Justine,
Thank you for this. Elspeth and I were new friends but I looked forward to getting to know her better and being friends for life. I feel so lost today and Frank and Mary are constantly on my mind. You have written this so beautifully and I'm pleased I read it but when my husband Stewart said the tributes were wonderful I howled that I didn't want tributes, I wanted Elspeth still alive.
Sally Walton

Justine Picardie said...

I know -- tributes are meaningless, in comparison to the meaning that Elspeth brought to life. Suicide is always terribly shocking, but Elspeth's death seems beyond belief.

kairu said...

I spent much of yesterday curled up in bed, looking at Elspeth's beautiful photographs and reading about the transformation of two dilapidated railway carriages into a cozy, lovely home. To hear that she suffered from such depression that not even the beauty around her or the love of her family could pull her back from the brink is unbearably heartbreaking. I went back over her last few blog posts, again and again; they gave no sign of an inner turmoil, only an appreciation of the beauty of small things, a sunset on the beach, flowering bulbs, the sun streaming through a child's bedroom window.

Nicola Slade said...

This has been such a shock. I've been reading Elspeth's column in the Sunday Times for years and had recently found her blog. Unbearably sad to think of anyone being in such pain.

Knitting Out Loud said...

I am shocked and very saddened by this news. My heart goes out to her family and friends.

galant said...

I was stunned when I read Elspeth's obituary in yesterday's Telegraph. Like so many leaving comments, I have read and enjoyed Elspeth's columns and books for years. Oh, how she will be missed and how sad for her husband and young daughter. Such great sadness.

enid said...

How unutterably sad and what a beautiful tribute.

deanna said...

I have so enjoyed her books and blog, and was so saddened to hear of her passing. What a tremendous loss for her friends and family, and what a lovely tribute you have posted for her. She was a person of grace.

Lou said...

There is so much I want to say but all one can think about is the deep dark grief of her family and just wish something could have been done to prevent this terrible, awful loss of such a beautuful soul.

herschelian said...

I am SO sorry to hear that Elspeth Thompson has died, I have two of her books and have often given 'The Urban Gardener' as a gift to friends contemplating getting an allotment.

Julian Turner said...

Dear Justine, so sad. Don't know if you remember me but I was a friend of Elspeth's at Cambridge and afterwards. I had lost contact recently. If you know anything about a commemoration of any kind could you let me know? My email is,
Julian Turner

Susan Moorhead said...

What a beautiful tribute to your friend.

SueBee said...

Having suffered from depression myself, I know this horrible disease does not care who you are, how rich you are, where you live, how supportive your family is, as evidenced by Elspeth's tragic death. I feel so sorry for those left behind and hope they can gain strength from each other.

Stephen Pope said...

A shattering, unbelievable turn of events. How can this be so?

Clutching at straws, I've been burning through everything I can find of Elspeth's to re-read. Her online railway carriages journal (my own derelict house & treefern folly project is close by) is such a brilliant creation that it cries out to be preserved in some way - either on the net for posterity, but better still published as a photo-diary on the lines of Derek Jarman's Dungeness memoir. It's safe to say there will probably never be two such transcendent poets of love and life among shingle.

Justine, I meant to find you and say hello in the crowded cricket pavilion in Winchelsea on Friday (I'm ex-Independent from around your time with LT on the magazine) but I got boxed in behind the keyboards Bob Dylan retrospective and after that it all got a bit overwhelming. Anyway, bear me in mind should there ever be stirrings to make Off The Rails a more permanent tribute to Elsbeth.

Off contemplative beachcombing (no lurchers, alas) as the tide goes down this afternoon...

London's Green Corners Awards said...

Justine I read your beautiful tribute to Elspeth soon after she died and thought you might like to know about a gardening award in her memory. The Sunday Telegraph launched it last week and I am involved through The Conservation Foundation. Elspeth was a judge of our Green Corners awards in London and a wonderful supporter. I hope she would have been pleased abuot the Gardening Against The Odds awards.

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