Story 94

Deep rapport

From the very beginning there was a sense of the inevitable about my involvement with Leonard Cheshire. All my life I had some knowledge of Leonard Cheshire’s work: his outstanding RAF career and his work with disabled people through what was then the Leonard Cheshire Foundation.

Tony James with Leonard Cheshire

I had been a curator/archivist in West Australia for Benedictine monks. In May 1985, I took six months’ leave to visit England. I wrote to Leonard Cheshire, asking to work at one of the homes in the UK.

I travelled to his home in Cavendish to meet him. As we talked about his faith and the future direction of the charity, I quickly discovered a deep rapport with this distinguished man.

That day I was offered the post of archivist/ bursar at Staunton Harold in Leicestershire. While the residential home there was being redeveloped, I became adept at several different jobs but not at calling the great man by his Christian name. In one conversation, he said to me: ‘Tony. My name is Leonard, you know.’ I replied: ‘Yes, Group Captain.’ We agreed to compromise on the more affectionate ‘GC’. This I called him from that day until his death seven years later.

In April 1988 I began the happiest period of all under GC’s spell. He passed across to me all his detailed personal and business correspondence, his photographs and the Leonard Cheshire Foundation records. It was a great satisfaction for both of us seeing everything sorted and filed into hundreds of archive boxes.

I was spending part of the time researching theological issues for GC. Happily, this guaranteed regular meetings with GC himself. I left these meetings energised and renewed with new joy.

I returned to Australia for a few months in 1991, but in October I arrived back at Staunton Harold. I was quite shocked when I saw GC: he was very thin indeed. But his welcoming bear hug was as strong as ever. He did mention for the first time his growing sense of being seriously unwell.

In early 1992 GC’s own conviction about his health was finally confirmed by the doctors. He was diagnosed as being terminally ill with motor neurone disease.

A couple of months later he asked me to be his personal assistant for as long as he could continue working. For me there was, and still is, an enriched significance to these last weeks of GC’s life.

In the mornings we dealt with his daily correspondence and then, sitting together in his study, we recorded haltingly and movingly a series of last reflections on his long life: his RAF career, the work of the Cheshire Homes, his acceptance of motor neurone disease, and thoughts about his faith.

After evening Mass with GC and his wife, we walked together for a few minutes. These moments were filled with a rare, moving peace, a sense of much unspoken love between us and regular flashes of that boyish, prankish humour which remained with GC until the very end.

GC passed away on 31 July 1992. The day afterwards was filled with an immense sense of loss. But the memory, the sheer energy, the inspiration of this man would help me through: I was soon filled with a joy that is really quite impossible to express fully – an unexpected certainty and peace.

With his kind permission, this story is adapted from Tony James’ chapter, ‘His Unforgettable and Final Gift’. The full chapter appears in a collection compiled by June Beslievre — ‘Still The Candle Burns’: Memories of Leonard Cheshire VC (Jersey: J.B. Gencot, 1998)

As we talked about his faith and the future direction of the charity, I quickly discovered a deep rapport with this distinguished man.