Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A tribute to a great friend

My friend Bill Beaton would have been 100 years old today.

I call him my friend, and I count it a privilege to have known him as one. But the truth is that Bill was far more to me than that.

I was 16 years old when I first met Bill who, at the time, was a young 82. I was away from home for months at a time - such was the reality of living in the Hebrides and attending school in Oban. Spending so long away from family can be a difficult experience for many, but Bill was a valuable source of support for me and - at a time when family life at home was quite fraught and emotionally challenging - provided some much needed stability.

I came to regard Bill as my adoptive father, but he was, like all fathers, a counsellor, a guide, and an encourager. In fact, Bill's greatest contribution was to empower me to have some faith in my own abilities; a belief in myself was not something my volatile family life had done much to foster. He was also a sounding board for my anger, my many frustrations and sometimes quite frankly ridiculous worldviews.

I got to know Bill through the church. He had been a minister in the Church of the Nazarene and his brother was minister of Oban's liberal-leaning Congregational Church which did a significant amount of work with local youth. For cultural reasons Bill liked to attend the Wee Free as well, I think largely because of associations with his time in the Outer Hebrides. But he would have no truck with the puritanism of the Frees, their intolerance or their rigid interpretations of morality.

I found out that Bill had been a member of the Gay Christian Movement and had also been a passionate advocate of an inclusive church. His house was full of visitors from his previous church, many of whom were of LGBT orientations. His relaxed attitude and championing of LGBT rights, accompanied by his serious and scholarly take on "practical theology", enabled me to come to terms with my own developing sexuality while also allowing me the opportunity to see Christianity at its best - a million miles away from the inflexible and judgmental religion I had grown up with.

He also had an outrageous sense of humour, although as I found out that didn't extend to teenage jokes about women or semi-biographical "life stories" in which I ridiculed teachers and members of my family.

Bill had been a chef by profession and, prior to entering the ministry somewhat later in life, and worked in some of the most prestigious hotels in Europe and America. Before retiring he was chef to the British Embassy in Washington, and spoke with fond memories of serving various dignitaries and politicians. Politics was in fact an equally important part of Bill's personal identity: he was an affirmed liberal, a supporter of the Liberal Party and (later) the Liberal Democrats and a friend of the great Ray Michie, MP for Argyll & Bute, for whom he had nothing but praise.

Bill was a native Gaelic speaker and while I was unable to inherit his fluency in the language, his love for it transferred not only to myself but the many other people he came in contact with.

I have very many memories of Bill, most of them positive. Like all of us, he could at times be infuriating. His obsessions with snooker and tea-pot collecting I could never entirely comprehend. But the most striking thing about Bill was the ease with which he was able to mix and socialise with all types of people, to bridge generational and cultural gaps, to enthuse people with his infectious humanity.

Simply knowing Bill in the way I did made a huge impact on my life. He was the kind of person who once met was never forgotten. It was almost impossible to spend any time with him and not be changed by the experience. Certainly his influence, friendship and belief in me have helped create the person I am today.

Bill died in his 94th year, shortly after his brother Donald who lived to 98. I would have loved Bill to have survived until his hundredth birthday and received his telegram from the Queen - unlike myself Bill had great respect for Her Majesty. Unfortunately he left us over five years ago and will not be with his friends as we celebrate his remarkable life. What is inescapably true however, is that his memory will continue to inspire, encourage and entertain us.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Nice article - I remember Bill ('Teapot') from Largs in the 80's where I was a similar Morton-supporting angst-ridden teenager as your good self!