My uncle, Chris Squire, died in October 2018. He was a man of many parts, and at his packed funeral this week, we heard from friends who’d known him at school, at Undercurrents magazine, and through his involvement with Twickenham Liberal Democrats.
I spoke about what he was like as an uncle. This was what I said:
When I was a boy, I thought that everyone spent Christmas on a farm, and that everyone had an uncle like Chris.
If our parents provided us with security, Chris offered us adventure. It was Chris who would take us on magical museum trips, or buy us books that challenged us. Chris who would insist on making us climb big hills in biting wind, telling us that we needed to be toughened up, but who would keep us going with an endless supply of extra strong mints from the pouch he always wore in his belt.
I don’t know whether it was because I’d expressed an interest in stamp collecting, or simply that he thought I should, as a small boy, be interested in such things, but it was Chris who turned up with a vast collection of beautiful stamps from across the globe, torn from the front of envelopes that had been addressed to Undercurrents, the magazine he worked on.
As we got older, it was Chris who took us to the theatre, who introduced us to Shakespeare. Chris explained to me the difference between keg beer and real ale, between session and kamikaze beers. My introduction to the practical end of politics came, via Chris, on doorsteps in Richmond in 1992 and Newbury in 1993.
Now that I have children of my own, I think that there are advantages to being an uncle. Chris could take a chance on taking a 12-year-old to a Tom Stoppard play. If I hated it, I’d probably have been too polite to say so to him. He could target us individually with the things he thought we’d benefit from.
Before I set off for Edinburgh University, Chris handed me a small case containing a bottle of single malt, a bag of porridge oats, a set of maps and a Scottish Mountaineering Council T-Shirt. When he came up to visit me the following year I was able to repay the favour, introducing him to Scotland’s leading hangover cure, Irn Bru, before he drove us north to Pertshire, and together we climbed my first Munro, Schiehallion.
When, a couple of years later, I told him I wanted to work in newspapers, he invited me to dinner with two journalist friends, Martyn and Vicky, so they could explain the industry to me. And when I was trying to get my foot in the door, it was Chris who furnished me with a story that I was able to sell to the Daily Mirror at my job interview, probably explaining why they hired me.
Not all of his ideas were hits. When Sophie and I were first married, he gave us a year’s subscription to the London Review of Books, but we found the endless essays so oppressive that, rather than renew, we offered to pay them if they would stop sending it to us.
His thoughtfulness represented a challenge to the rest of us. Each Christmas, it would be Chris’s gift that I worried about, as I tried to think of a book that he wouldn’t have come across and which he would enjoy as much as I enjoyed his gifts.
When I was a child, he seemed to know about everything, whether it was history or geography or books or science. So much so that it was a shock even as an adult to occasionally come to a subject on which he simply hadn’t read. This was knowledge that he was enthusiastic to share, even when you sometimes wished he wouldn’t. It was rare to leave an encounter with him without a printout of some article that answered a question you’d wondered about six months earlier – or that he thought you should have wondered about.
As technology moved on, I would get emails responding to articles I’d written, or questions I’d asked on Twitter. A couple of years ago, when I was working on a book, I mentioned to a friend that I was struggling with the volume of research I needed to do. They asked if there was anyone that I could get to help me. The problem, I said, was that they needed to be enthusiastic, and be able to spot the kind of detail I was looking for. And then I said, “of course, there’s my uncle.” So Chris came and met me at the National Archives, and joined me going through the files.
In time, he approached the role of great uncle in the same spirit as he had the job of uncle. He would turn up with piles of books and toys gathered from the charity shops of Twickenham. Going through his flat, we found he’d kept a careful record of his great nephews and nieces, and their birthdays, and the presents he gave them for Christmas, as well as piles of books with thoughts about which great niece or nephew might enjoy them.
Not everyone does spend Christmas on a farm, and not everyone does have an uncle like Chris, someone who always has time for you and is always on your side. But in an ideal world, everyone would.