‘One of the last times I saw John Ashworth, was on his 70th birthday gathering. Then he said, probably the next time we shall all be gathered will be for my funeral. It almost was.
Wivenhoe, The Garden Cottage.
Soon after we arrived at Garden Cottage (a deceptive name for a half timbered substantial town house), John Ashworth presented a post card he had to hand on the kitchen window shelf. It showed the front of Exeter college, where they both attended 1957.
‘The top tower window was my room, and the one below was Michaels.’
It was how Michael described their meeting too. There was some kind of hierarchy, vital then, irrelevant now. Both were scholars, Michael reading mods and greats, John Bio-chemistry. John had invited Michael into his room, to hear on his electric gramaphone, an LP of The Trout by Franz Schubert, which has since become Michaels favourite music.
He became Scientific Advisor to the government, a regular civil servant. When Thatcher arrived in Downing Street, she invited him to come and meet her. He arrived to find her seated on a sofa surrounded with papers, and in front a chair where he supposed was where he was supposed to seat. He removed the papers from the sofa and sat beside her.
I was the first to brief her on Climate Change. I remember after describing the basic science to her, she responded: All this drama over weather? But she became an advocate of it. Unfairly she was not automatically nominated a member of the Royal Society, but was invited to present a paper, in which she concluded ‘we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself’ .. Is this it? . With others, I helped her to to prepare, and she gave the talk, which became the basis of her argument to the G7 that we must pay attention to climate change and take action. (I recalled to John that I had a Climate Change booklet 1980, which would have been written during her time in office)
‘She had no small talk. I used to be called up on the odd occasion – if she was having a particularly bad day or needed to relax, to visit her and brief her on the latest science being debated or discussed. It was her subject after all. We’d studied under the same people at Oxford. This was her way of relaxing.’
John had recently written in the Exeter College Reigster about how he ran a campaign back then in support the Hungarian students, ending with the parallell with Ukraine now. It inspired him to echo the same, and he has in fact now effectively raised a substantial sum of money to support Ukrainian students over here.
Will you visit us, I asked as we prepared to leave?
‘I am a spider in a web now, catching all who come by, but not moving any more’. No longer a boat, or car and limited use of legs, his days are dedicated to his wife, Aurial, with increasing dementia, double incontinence, and arthritis. His relaxation is watching Youtube. ‘You know I watched from MIT, a fantastic lecture on the Origin of species. It was my subject once’
We are but 11 miles from the Community, lets go. I explained to John the move of the community from a Tudor palace with acres of grounds and cedar trees surrounding to a rough tough Colchester council estate. ‘Not Greenwood?’ he guessed.
It was still not. Tre had warned me that the heat slowed everyone down, but that I was welcome for tea so long as it was coffee. Gradually they all emerged.