Margaret Christine Hamer 1939 – 2011

The following eulogy was given by Reverend Frank Walker, at the Service of Thanksgiving for the life of Margaret Christine Hamer on Tuesday 19th April 2011.

In Memoriam: Margaret Christine Hamer
17th May 1939 - 6th April 2011

I'm nobody. Who are you?
Are you nobody too?

These words, that so neatly puncture all pomposity, are from a poem by the nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson. Only a few weeks ago Margaret gave a wonderful talk about Emily Dickinson to the Biography Class of the University of the Third Age in Cambridge. She spoke in her usual delightful way, marvellously clear, humorous and witty, obviously knowing and loving her subject so well, but conveying her information in a relaxed accessible way, so that we could all take it in so easily.

She made it all so vivid, and so fascinating, as Margaret always did. It was all thoroughly enjoyable, for Margaret was a very gifted lecturer, master and mistress of her subject, able to impart information and critical judgments so engagingly and so effortlessly it seemed. But of course this triumph was not achieved without effort, struggle, pain, for Margaret then was gravely ill, near the end of her life, although no one listening to her captivating talk would have been aware of that, unless they had been told.

She faced her last weeks and days with such amazing bravery and determination. All of us who knew and loved her so much have been lost in admiration, great sadness and love.

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me.
The carriage held but just ourselves
And immortality.

Margaret quoted that most famous of Emily Dickinson's poems, and sadly it was most touchingly appropriate. The immortality that Margaret and Emily believed in was nothing conventional. It is the product of the love that bears it out even to the edge of doom, the love for others that we have that outlasts their deaths. Margaret shared Emily Dickinson's wish to dismiss all pretentiousness. She herself was genuine through and through, with not a note of falseness in her. Margaret was emphatically NOT a nobody. She was a somebody of great kindness, intelligence and generosity, a very rare and lovely somebody indeed. A life-affirming and life-enhancing somebody!

Margaret had a very keen sense of the comic absurdities of life. Her critical faculties were highly developed, and of course the critical spirit is one of the hallmarks of an intelligent person, and Margaret was highly intelligent. Yet she was generously and good-humouredly indulgent towards many of the follies and idiocies that humankind gets up to - and that is why she was always such a delightful and entertaining companion, always ready to be interested and amused. She was a prime member of that most important of all unofficial and unorganised societies: the blessed society of encouragers, and we would not have wished her any different.

Margaret was born in North Wales and grew up in the little town of Marchwiel on the English - Welsh border. Her family was not itself particularly Welsh, but she absorbed the Welsh love of language and literature as well as some English realistic common-sense with its tradition of stoicism in the face of adversity. It was a very happy and cultivated family, though her first years were passed amidst the privations and restrictions of the Second World War. Children at that time, though, thought nothing of it, and accepted everything as normal.

Margaret was devoted to her parents. Her father, William, was a scientist with the Monsanto chemical company. Her mother, Ena, was a teacher and a gifted musician - both her parents were very musical. Her brothers Neil and Geoff followed their father into science and both earned scientific doctorates, but Margaret pursued a different path. Not being particularly proficient in mathematics, she excelled in English and literary studies. She went to Grove Park School in Wrexham, and then read English at University College, London, and took her teaching diploma at Bristol University.

Margaret took to heart Dr Samuel Johnson's sage advice: Keep your friendships in good repair, and she kept up very happily with many friends made at school and college. From school there was Phyllida, who in mid-life suffered disabling strokes that took away the languages that she had learned as a linguist, and who bravely re-built her life. Margaret was hugely supportive to the very end and helped to arrange Phyllida's funeral only last year. At Bristol she met Ulla from Germany, who later married a Canadian professor. She and Margaret met constantly over the years and Ulla came to be with Margaret at her home during her final illness to help to look after her - a marvellous lifetime's friendship. Also in Bristol Margaret met Jim Hunter who later became a well-known novelist. It was Jim who helped her to plan and plant her lovely garden here in Cambridge. That's just three examples. There are very many more, of course.

After teaching at Milham Ford School in Oxford, Margaret felt the need for an exciting change and found herself a post teaching English in Denmark. She was a great success there and very happy. She was then ready for yet another adventure. Through Ulla's husband, Professor Levenson, she was able to come to Carleton University in Ottawa. There she did research for her M.A. degree on aspects of Jane Austen and feminism, and also some part-time teaching. Ottawa is a very attractive and relatively small city. I well remember on my own visit there cycling along the river, and then going over the great bridge at one end of which is the wonderful museum of anthropology and at the other the great Canadian National Gallery of Art. She greatly enjoyed her time in Ottawa.

Interestingly, it was in Ottawa that Margaret first became an enthusiastic member of the Unitarian community. It happened like this. In her researches into nineteenth century women writers she was constantly coming across Unitarian women who were active reformers and campaigners for greater equality for women and for women's rights, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Gaskell, Harriet Martineau, Mary Carpenter, Barbara Bodichon, Mary Somerville, and so on and so on. In England she had not been aware of Unitarians. Perhaps by now they had died out? Well, not quite. Margaret discovered that Ottawa had a large and vigorous Unitarian congregation in a handsome attractive grand new building, and she liked what she encountered there.

After Ottawa Margaret returned to England as a lecturer at King Alfred's College, Winchester, then mainly a teacher-training college which has now recently been transmogrified into the University of Winchester. Her male colleagues cannily engineered it so that Margaret taught the main courses on the Victorian novel. As you may recall, the Victorians wrote long three-volume novels, so there's a vast amount of reading to be done. In contrast the poetry and drama texts are much shorter, so the college courses in these were craftily snapped up by the men. Not so much hard work!

Margaret was a very popular and greatly loved teacher. She particularly enjoyed teaching her mature students whose long experience of life enormously enhanced their discussions of literature. She was proud of enabling them to take their degrees at long last - a very satisfying sense of achievement. In the end she was forced to take early retirement from King Alfred's because both her parents became old and seriously ill and she constantly had to make long weekly journeys from Romsey in Hampshire to Wales in order to be with them and care for them.

Margaret was the most generous of people, deeply concerned with fairness and justice. When her dearly-loved brother Geoff died suddenly and unexpectedly in America where he was working as a scientist, Margaret went over to arrange his funeral and clear out the untidy apartment where he had been living alone. He had also lived for a considerable period with a woman friend, unmarried. Margaret made sure that a vast proportion of the money she inherited from her brother went to this woman. She was under no legal obligation to do so, but she insisted because she believed it was only fair and just. That was typical of Margaret. I know she also gave great practical and financial help to a young male colleague at King Alfred's to enable him to improve his qualifications and to gain promotion so that he could support his growing family. Only last week Linda King told me of another example. The day after Margaret died a young black woman came to the door asking how she was. She was deeply upset to hear the sad news. She was a neighbour whom Margaret had met at the bottom of her garden. Margaret had got to know her, had encouraged her to go to university to obtain qualifications. She had given her very good advice about her essay writing and helped her to survive. Now this young woman had come to give Margaret some good news - she had just gained a promotion at her work. Margaret's support and interest in her had helped her so much. We shall constantly be coming across Margaret's secret acts of kindness and generosity. One of her recent spells as a volunteer was at Oakington, visiting and helping at the reception centre there for asylum seekers - yet another indication of her passion for justice.

I first met Margaret in 1997 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich where we were holding our annual Unitarian Assembly. I had devised an evening entertainment called A Mirror of the Ministry, or, The Changing Faces of the Vicar of Bray, a largely - but not entirely - satirical look at ministers and clergy in Britain and America from the time of Geoffrey Chaucer to the present day. Many of my colleagues took part as actors, and the audience greatly enjoyed the occasion. Amongst them was Margaret who was introduced to me and we subsequently exchanged many entertaining letters. (Later Margaret helped me to extend and improve this entertainment and we presented it at Leicester University for the Sea of Faith, and in America. Margaret became a marvellous Mrs Proudie, that de facto woman bishop, imperiously ordering everyone about, especially her husband the bishop. Many will also remember a delightful entertainment that she herself created, on the varieties and vagaries of human love that was presented at our Assembly at Southampton.)

We discovered some common enthusiasms. We were both devoted admirers of Toytown, the series regularly presented on the BBC Radio Children's Hour in the 1940s. In particular we both enjoyed the character of Mr Growser who was always indignantly exclaiming, This is disgraceful! It ought not to be allowed! I wonder you have the impudence to stand there and look me in the face! We both thought how wonderful it would be to say that more often to more people (to those who deserved it, of course - a rather large number!) We also loved the version of John Masefield's The Box of Delights that was presented on Children's Hour at Christmas. We greatly enjoyed Sylvia Pouncer the witch and her husband Abner Brown the magician.

Margaret came more than once to stay at my old farmhouse in France and brought her friend Phyllida with her. When I retired from the Cambridge Church and became minister at Auckland, New Zealand, for five months, Margaret was able to join me there for a few weeks. She was expert in driving round the Auckland city roads, which sometimes flummoxed me, so her services as a chauffeuse were invaluable, and we also happily explored the Bay of Islands, the geysers of Rotorua, Christchurch, Queenstown, and the fiords and glaciers. Margaret gave a wonderful talk on higher education in Britain to the Auckland church members and I wanted her to publish it in our journal Faith & Freedom. She often contributed articles and reviews to The Inquirer and became a leading member of so many conferences held at our Unitarian conference centre, The Nightingale Centre, at Great Hucklow in Derbyshire, a place she came to love very much. She served on the Publications Panel, advising the Lindsey Press, was actively concerned with religious education, social justice issues such as the sex-trafficking of women, gay rights and prison reform. She became a leading inspirer of the Unitarian Women's Group, and we were privileged to enjoy her leadership as the Chair of our congregation at Bury St Edmunds - previously she had been a mainstay of the Unitarian Church in Southampton, helping to organise our national Assembly there. At Bury we shall always remember the wonderful Christmas services that year after year she created for us.

Over the years she became the happy Godmother to a number of young people: to Paul, David and Anne, to David Roberts and to Simon, who all hold her in the greatest affection.

Margaret came to call herself a religious humanist, a position well known and accepted amongst Unitarians. She came to see traditional language about God as metaphorical and poetic, not to be understood literally. She became a member of the Sea of Faith, the society of religious radicals inspired by the views of Don Cupitt the former Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. She often attended its conferences at Leicester University and its local meetings. She believed that life offers us a package deal. We are given the privilege of life in an astounding universe that often overwhelms us with great beauty, and for which our response is gratitude. But this goes together with time, chance, accident, suffering, pain, disease, tragedy and death. You can't have one without the other. No magnificence without the possibility of suffering. All the same, we can still say Yes to life - and Margaret was one of those brave souls who say Yes to life.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to them: "Hold on!"

In her last appearance at Bury Margaret read those words of Rudyard Kipling's, and they are so true of her. How magnificently and how bravely she held on!

And so, though we cry out against the cruel chance and accident that cut short a life that still had so much to give, we are nevertheless grateful for the beauty and completeness of her life. Life is at its old trick of escaping, changing, transmuting into some other lovely shape an imperishable element. So, finally, with the inner eye of love, we see Margaret in her own imperishable element. We see her on a sunny spring morning walking in her beautiful garden, playing with Muffy, Rufa, Truffles, the cats in whom she so much delighted. We see her busy on her many rounds of kindness and helpfulness. We see her writing her unforgettable Christmas letters, and delivering the lectures that gave so much pleasure and enlightenment to so many. We see her enlivening the conferences at Great Hucklow, and above all laughing with her friends as if without a care.

She has lived a grand life, and all is well with her now, of that we may be sure. Dear Margaret: so genuine, so brave, so strong, so honest, so determined a fighter against injustice, so witty, so full of humour, so generous, so warm and loving a friend, so lovely! She is a portion of the loveliness which, once, she made more lovely, and we are all the better for knowing her and loving her.

Frank Walker
Minister Emeritus of the Cambridge Unitarian Church

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