Travelling Light

In memory of Peter Killingbeck Bowers (1950-2018) 

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Its almost a month since my wife's uncle, Pete, passed away after being diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. He was 68 years old.  

One of his last requests was to be cremated in Inverness, where my wife's parents live. Prior to his death, there was a tentative plan to bring him north so he could spend his final days in a hospice near to most of his close family. Sadly, he ran out of time.

Being an avowed atheist, and disavower of most cultural norms, Pete had asked for a humanist funeral. Two weeks ago, a handful of family and friends gathered at the small chapel at Inverness Crematorium, taking our seats to the husky intonations of the late Leonard Cohen. Pete was present, as the thread binding us together in our mourning. I'm travelling light. 

The minister was keen to treat proceedings as a celebration of Pete's life. As my father-in-law gave the eulogy, waves of emotion breaking up his words, I wondered if the minister had misjudged the mood of the mourners. There was palpable grief among those who knew Pete well, more than the minister was prepared for and perhaps more than Pete himself might expected. I imagine he would have been touched by this, though he may also have wondered what all the fuss was about. 

Impossible to speculate about the thoughts of the dead. In reality I didn't know Pete all that well, and am probably the least qualified person to speak of him with any authority, much less eulogise him. I can only write about the Pete I know, who is a different Pete to the Pete my wife knew, who is a different Pete to the Pete her parents knew. And so on.

This, however, poses another problem: what right have the living to write about the recently deceased at all? How can we possibly condense the complexities and contradictions of an individual's character into a few paragraphs of prose? Particularly when we measure the value of another's life against the credo by which we live our own; especially when words and actions can be misinterpreted and misconstrued. 

In Pete's case, this is made all the more difficult by a paucity of information about certain periods of his life. There are known knowns, and known unknowns. After working for his father's photography business upon leaving school, he left to pursue his own interests. He spent time as a photographic printer in London, thereafter in Amsterdam and even in Libya under the Gadaffi regime. Later in life he was in a loving relationship for a number of years, until her untimely death from cancer. Pete nursed her through her illness, something that affected him deeply and perhaps contributed to his dogmatic approach to his own diagnosis. 

Pete's life was unconventional; one cannot say that it was without colour. There are some things we can say definitively that we know Pete did. There was something faintly prodigal about Pete, standing slightly at one remove from the rest of the family. Pete once told me that he had taken every drug under the sun, and while its true he was part of that generation that tuned in, turned on and dropped out in the late 60s and early 70s, he did not strike me as a drug casualty. He was too astute for that. Too hard-wired to the real.

We met several times, either at the home of my wife's parents usually over the Christmas period, or on the rare occasions that he visited our home in London. I enjoyed his company, his acerbic sense of humour and occasionally protracted diatribes against some injustice or other. He always poured himself an extra glass of wine, never did the washing up and smoked in a non-smoking household. He livened things up a bit. I liked that. 

When we first met, he was in the middle of a protracted battle with a large housing association. His west London flat, and the block it occupied, were due for demolition. The other tenants had already moved on but Pete was absolutely determined not to quit his flat until the association found him acceptable alternative accommodation. For months and months he refused to yield, and this dogged display must have caused untold irritation and aggravation within the offices of the association.

Pete enjoyed kicking against the pricks. At this time I was working for the lobbying organisation that represented landlords. Back then I was trying quite hard to become a photographer, taking photographs almost constantly. We didn't talk about work but Pete instinctively knew I hated my job, and was desperate for a way out. Given his background, I was really pleased when Pete showed some interest, without being overly critical or sycophantic about the photographs I had taken. 

One particular Christmas it had snowed heavily in the Highlands, and we were holed up at the in-laws remote cottage. Also cognisant of my burgeoning interest in photography my mother in law had very kindly set up a little darkroom in one of the upstairs bathrooms, with a very antiquated That day I took some portraits of the family and after dinner Pete and I spent a couple of boozy hours in the dark making prints of the negs I'd developed that day. Pete was able to make perfect prints just from looking at the images under the lens of the enlarger. He seemed particularly chuffed with the print of his sister, but my favourite portrait is his: there is an intensity about his look which perfectly encompasses his personality.

On another visit we were walking through Inverness,  me trying to take photographs, him trying to bend my ear, when we passed a charity shop. In the window Pete spotted two old Olympus SLRs, virtually antique and in perfect condition. While I debated making a purchase, Pete started negotiating on the price of the camera, and managed to convince the two ladies behind the counter to knock off a tenner. I began to see how he'd managed to survive all those years under the radar.

A couple of years later Pete came for lunch at our old house in Sydenham. He had brought over a ten rolls of AGFA Vista film which he'd stashed in his loft from way back when, saving me the best part of fifty quid. Several were used in tandem with the Olympus SLR for my Land of Eagles series.

After lunch I had to run out on some errand or other and Pete came with me. As we made our way along Adamsrill Road and past Mayow Park we passed the time chatting about something I can't recall now. I left him at the bus stop on Sydenham High Street, shook his hand and walked on. That was the last time I saw him. 

After our family relocated to Scotland I hoped to see him again; that he would have come up, stayed for a few days, got comfortable, as he always did, listened to some records and shared some whiskey. Helen's parents were half-expecting Pete would move into their place in Inverness in the coming years. There would have been time to do all those things. Retrospectively, there always is. Regrettably, it wasn't to be.

Rest in peace, Pete. See you in the next one.

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