My 9-year-old son, Jamie, is fundraising for CLIC Sargent, the children’s cancer charity, in memory of his great uncle Ian.
Here is a memoir written by my mum (Jamie’s Nana and Ian’s sister). Please sponsor Jamie if you can; CLIC Sargent is a very worthy cause. Thank you.
Memoir of Ian Alfred Rickvold Gunn, 7th June 1950 – 3rd August 1971
Ian Gunn was born in Cambridge on 7th June 1950, the third child and first son of Jack and Sue Gunn. He was an adventurous child, climbing the cherry tree and jumping off the garden shed with his sister Jacky – neither being pastimes approved by his parents!
He also loved animals. As quite a little boy he went up to an extremely wet and muddy dog in the street one day and hugged it – ending up just as wet and muddy. Miss Tibbs, the family’s cat, adored him, in spite of the fact that as a very small boy he once cut her whiskers with a pair of scissors he had found! He also came downstairs one day inspired by a visit to a museum clutching his cricket bat and intent on making his own tiger skin rug, announcing ‘I’ve got my bat, where’s the cat?’
Ian grew into a kind and loving boy with a wicked sense of humour, a trait which served him in good stead at secondary school. He had passed the 11+ to get into a local grammar school in spite of not being very interested in working hard – Mum had to sit down and asked for aspirins when she heard the news – and was in grave danger of being bullied there, partly because it was endemic in the culture of the place and partly because he was small for his age. But his ability to joke about saved him – as he once said ‘Nobody attacks their fool’.
He was not interested in schoolwork, much to his parents’ despair. He got ‘Pensums’ (lines) and ‘Coffee cards’ (Saturday morning detentions) on a regular basis, which never seemed to bother him. He did the minimum possible to scrape through to O Level GCEs, for which he refused to revise saying revision was ‘cheating’. Nevertheless he passed art and history and got his parents’ consent to leave school without taking A Levels.
His interview with the jobs advisor left Mum very embarrassed. When asked what he wanted to do, Ian replied that he didn’t want to be a brain surgeon. ‘Not much danger of that’ came the frosty reply and Mum wanted to melt into the floor. But somehow or other the opportunity came for him to apply for a post as an apprentice technical illustrator at what is now Marshall’s Aerospace, based then as now at the aerodrome at Cambridge. In those pre-CAD days, it was necessary to be very good at drawing to get a post like this and potential apprentices were asked to produce a piece of work to demonstrate their ability. In Ian’s case, the theme for the piece was health and safety at work but we only found out later that his submission was actually a kind of cartoon with things like a box of nitro-glycerine bottles with an axe in it, a ‘no smoking’ sign with a fire burning nearby, etc etc. It would never have gone in if Mum and Dad had seen it first but it got him the job: it wasn’t just his drawing skills they liked but also his sense of humour – he would fit in well in the workplace.
He certainly enjoyed his job and started producing what looked to us like wonderful drawings from his college classes. It seemed that he was taking the first steps in the start of a great career when disaster struck. As often happened with large firms in those days, a mobile X-ray facility visited Marshall’s, probably in search of TB or lung cancer cases, but when Ian’s chest X-ray was examined they found causes for further investigations. It was discovered that he had Hodgkin’s Disease and that it was reasonably well established. At just 17 years old, he was told that he had only a 50-50 chance of reaching twenty.
It is impossible to imagine how one would personally face this sort of prognosis at that age but Ian just tackled life even more enthusiastically than before, still laughing and joking even when things looked black. By this time his elder sisters were away at college but he had a little brother, Alasdair (known in the family as Ben), who was eight years younger than him and he continued being a great (but typical) big brother to him. On the plus side, he always bought him magazines and comics right up to his final illness and played and mucked about with him. On the minus side, on one occasion he cajoled and bullied him into jumping off the flat roof at the back of their home with a haversack on his back – to make a parachute jump! Ben was unhurt, I hasten to say. But they were as thick as thieves and devoted to each other.
Strangely, or perhaps it was just how things always were in those days, we siblings knew little of Ian’s illness and never discussed it amongst ourselves. I knew the outlines almost straight away as I was home at the time of diagnosis and our father confided in me in some things. My elder sister Jay was told by our mother on her 21st birthday which caused a huge row as she and Ian were always close and the choice of day, when 21 was the age of majority, was very unpleasant – but mother had mental health issues at the time and could not understand what she had done. Ben was never told. Our parents felt he was too young when Ian was first diagnosed with the disease and waited for ‘the right moment’ to tell him. Of course it never came – it never does. The first he knew was when he woke up one morning to be told that his brother had died in the night.
Ian continued to work at Marshall’s in between operations and played in cricket and football teams there. I remember one momentous match when they lost around 22-0. He, like almost everyone else in the team, was in goal for part of it and like all the others he let goals in! He continued to play cricket even after the membrane around his heart had to be removed. This meant not only that his heart beat almost twice as fast as normal but also that any blow to the chest would kill him but he was certain no cricket ball would ever do that! He played darts for the local pub, the ‘Five Bells’, and was quite successful, not only with his ‘arrows’ but also with the pub’s slot machine; he always seemed to win and he never failed to buy Mum a box of chocolates from behind the bar to take home. He was also a keen fisherman, though his catches were largely inedible.
I don’t know whether it was as a result of his stays in hospital but he started to help his uncle Don Hale run the Radio Requests programme for in-patients at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge. Those were the days before television in the ward and phones from the bedside and the Requests programme was very popular with patients and visitors alike. By now he had a motor scooter, though he was never a Mod, and used this to dash around the place, even going to visit his sister Jay in Gloucestershire after she married and moved down there.
He himself always tried to avoid serious relationships as he felt he had no secure future to offer. Any girl who got too keen was instantly dropped. I remember walking down the road towards the house one afternoon and seeing him hiding behind a bush in a neighbour’s garden. He grinned and told me to keep quiet about it. When I got home, I found the latest unhappy girl waiting for his return. Eventually of course she had to go and he wandered in a few moments later, his usual smiling, joking self.
While Jacky and I went to college, got married and moved away, Ian stayed at home working at Marshall’s, studying for his exams and having a succession of operations to remove cancerous growths as they appeared all over his body. He seemed to take it all in his stride but how would we ever have known? Our mother always firmly discouraged any discussions which might have become serious. He had by now reached the target age of twenty and his doctors felt that he was in remission and that with every bit of luck going (and if he did not push things too much) he could live to be forty. But luck was not on his side and only a few months later, just before Christmas, the cancer returned. The surgeons had removed everything they could and tried every form of treatment at their disposal. There was nothing more anyone could do.
Ian was bedridden for the last six months of his life as his body gradually gave up on him. He lived and slept downstairs in the lounge-diner so that he could see the garden out of the window. He told me he regretted not working harder in school as he might then have got an interest in something which would have stood him in good stead now when he could not move around. He still hoped that he could fight back and made plans to go camping in Switzerland in August with Jay and her husband and refused to let us buy the watch he had asked for for his 21st birthday, saying he would come with us to choose one. He dreamed of playing cricket again as the days got warmer and his manager from Marshall’s visited to promise him his job was secure whenever he could come back. He was never well enough again to do any of this.
In mid July 1971 he went into hospital for a brief respite stay. The nurse who had been visiting him daily at home had never expected him to come back again but his spirit was still strong, much stronger than his body. Jay and her husband resigned themselves to going on holiday without him. They were not told how sick he was now as they would have cancelled and stayed and our parents did not want Ian to know how near the end everyone thought he was. I was phoned late one Friday night, just as my husband and I were packing to leave our bed-sit in London for our first house, to be told that he was dying and not expected to last the weekend, so unlike my sister I was able to see him again before he died.
I cannot write about my last visits right now but Ian died in his sleep at 2am on Tuesday 3rd August 1971. He had fought to the end, all his organs gradually failing him. He had wanted to give his body for research into cancer but his parents thought the hospital had had quite enough of him while he was alive! His funeral service was packed out. We had requested family flowers only and donations to cancer research but people asked us if they could be considered family for the day as they wanted to give them because he was special to them. He was very special to us too. Even after forty years, I cry as I write about him. Losing a brother like Ian leaves a scar on the heart which never quite heals. He was an amazing person and stunningly brave in a way I could never be. I once read an eighteenth century epitaph which goes some way to summing him up:
‘He taught us how to live and – oh too high
The price for knowledge – taught us how to die.’