Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul
On Friday we said goodbye to our dear friend and trustee, David Wilson, who died of pancreatic cancer on 1st August, aged 64. There would be no New Paths Music without David. He was one of our founder donors and it was through conversations with David that the idea of doing something to honour the memory of Alan Spedding (Organist & Director of Music at Beverley Minster for 42 years) took shape.
The mourners at the private funeral service in Hull were few in number (David did not want “a fuss”), but this was a man who touched the lives of thousands of people in the area – through his extraordinary work as a funeral director. David spent the last two decades looking after bereaved families in the East Riding – a responsibility which he bore with great humility, skill and kindness. You could not wish to have a better, more compassionate person by your side at such a moment in life.
David’s career as an undertaker was just one chapter in a life devoted to serving others. Born in Westwood Hospital in 1957, David spent much of his childhood in Beverley Minster, initially as a chorister. He soon began assisting the Head Virger, Eric Milner, and quickly caught the bug for this ancient profession. David’s apprenticeship included shovelling coal into the boiler, hoisting the flag atop the North-West Tower (some 165 feet up) and learning to ring the bells. (Later in life, David was one of the team on the rope of ‘Great John’ – the Minster’s seven-ton bell – which rang in the Millennium.) David went on to succeed his mentor as Head Virger of the Minster, a role he held for most of the 1980s. It was a vocation which suited him beautifully and one he loved. Ever so quietly, David kept the vast building impeccably clean and administered it immaculately (there was no church office in those days). It was a privilege to witness him going about his job with such care, dignity, and kindness. No task was too menial for David – everything was done properly and with respect. In many ways, this most humble of men was the soul of the building, and so when he married his sweetheart Gill Bosworth a huge crowd of well-wishers turned up to cheer them! David’s love and deep knowledge of the Minster was certainly an inspiration to many, including the author of this tribute. It was no surprise then that when David led our ‘Musical Tour of the Minster’ in the 2017 festival, hundreds of people flocked to see this much-loved man in his natural habitat.
Pass it on
In 1991 David landed his dream job as one of the virgers at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. He was in his element in Windsor (being so well-groomed, smartly turned out, polite and proper was a formidable combination in that setting) and he was rapidly promoted to Dean’s Virger. He was one of the Castle residents who saved priceless artefacts from the fire in 1992. And he was in the room for the initial funeral planning meetings following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.
David described his time in Windsor as “touching the stars”. David adored the musical tradition of the Chapel and basked in anthems and canticles by Stanford and Parry. (Whilst David’s taste for Victoriana and music of the Edwardian era was perhaps sentimental, it seems natural that someone who had inherited so many traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (especially through his training from Eric Milner) should savour that soundworld.) And it was during the Windsor years that his son, Adam, was born after years of IVF.
It was a wrench for David when the family left Windsor in 1999, returning to Beverley. David and Gill separated, and she remarried. David’s words of lament for Windsor were “the whirlwind passeth” – taken from an anthem by Sir Walter Parratt sung at ‘Obit’ services in the Chapel. By which he meant that Windsor was a chapter in his life, that he’d been honoured to play his part in the history of the institution and that it had been a joy for him to ‘hold the baton’ for a while and pass it on. This generous philosophy was at the heart of his kindly but brilliant nurturing of junior colleagues wherever he worked. It’s a similar sort of mindset articulated by another softly-spoken Yorkshireman, Alan Bennett, in his play The History Boys:
“Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.”
It also lies behind David’s massive contribution to the augmentation of the peel of bells in St Mary’s Church in 2018. The addition of three new bells to the church was a huge undertaking and David worked tirelessly on the project, whilst juggling the heavy demands of his work as a funeral director. The whole idea is that the additional bells (creating a ‘light eight’ at the top) will benefit both young members of the band and aging ringers, for generations to come.
At our last trustee meeting (when David was experiencing what he thought was a flare up of the Crohn’s Disease from which he had suffered for many years – it turned out to be the cancer which took his life within weeks of diagnosis), David was visibly delighted that the latest festival included a performance platform for young musicians in the area. He reminded us how important nurturing local young musicians had been to Alan Spedding, and he said that Alan would’ve approved. Thank you, David, for inspiring us to stay true to the founding vision of the festival – to “pass it on”.
Live for today
On the wall in David’s beautiful (and, of course, modest) home in Beverley were the words: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother shared the sentiment; in her words, it was about “counting one’s blessings”.
And so it was a meeting of minds when they spoke in private on one occasion in St George’s Chapel. David took that opportunity to say to The Queen Mother how happy he was that her recent second hip replacement operation had gone well and how pleased he was to see her out and about. He explained that he too had two replacement hips and knew how horrible arthritis could be. She was staggered that someone his age should have had such surgery twice, and called her daughter, HM The Queen, over to join in the conversation.
It is indeed staggering: in his late teens and early twenties, David was often bedridden or in hospital with chronic pain from arthritis. When he was well enough, David hobbled into Beverley from his home in Molescroft on two sticks. But he was deprived of being able to work in his beloved Minster.
The mobility and the freedom from pain which his first hip replacement (aged only 21) gave him transformed his life. And he thanked God for it, living out his motto to
“learn from yesterday, live for today, and hope for tomorrow”.
Thus, David took great delight in ticking some things off his ‘bucket list’ in recent years, such as going to the Royal Opera House. Seeing him so wrapped up in that experience and so thankful for it (in his own words, he was “on a cloud”) was humbling and inspiring. (And a real lesson for us not to take such things for granted.) David’s favourite opera composer was Puccini, and so it was Tosca and La bohème which he saw at Covent Garden. The one concert in the first New Paths festival which David sat through in the audience (during all of the other performances he was running around, either stocking the interval bar with wine, chilling white wine (serving unchilled white wine was an abomination to him), chauffeuring artists, accommodating colleagues, building stages, or baking cakes for the Coffee Concert) was the Opera Gala. He was adamant that despite all that madness of the festival, he was going to enjoy the scene from La bohème which David Butt Philip and May Bevan sang so beautifully for us. Thank you David for having been such a huge force behind the scenes in the early years of the festival and such a support to us.
Alas, some longed-for things on David’s ‘bucket list’ never happened – such as visiting Florence. He had intended to wind down his arduous funeral directing work when he reached sixty in 2017, and did initially cut back. This gave him some time to work as a supernumerary virger at York Minster – which he loved, even zipping along the infamous A1079 in his swanky new Mini (“a bit of fun”) – and to care for his mum (who passed away in 2019). But before too long David was called back to fulltime work as an undertaker – with the onset of the pandemic he felt that he needed to support his colleagues and serve the families of the area during those dark days. And so it was a return to being on call 24-7.
David Robert Wilson trod lightly on this earth, but carried the burdens of so many people, with grace and strength. Music was a great comfort to him as he persevered; particularly the music of Elgar. David was “blown away” to hear The Dream of Gerontius performed by the Hallé Orchestra and Choir (conducted by Sir Mark Elder, with David Butt Philip as Gerontius) when he was on duty in York Minster in 2017. Indeed, one of David’s very few requests for the funeral was that The Dream should feature in it, and so on Friday we listened to the final section beginning as it does with these words sung by the Angel:
“Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul, In my most loving arms I now enfold thee”.
David was a man of few words, but they were always golden, generous words (spoken in his unmistakably warm East Yorkshire accent). We never heard him speak ill of anyone – such a rare phenomenon. Whilst he embodied the ideal way of being that is captured in Rudyard Kipling’s If (oft quoted by David, and read by Adam at the funeral), David was not a saint. He was rather an angel, a luminous person in our lives.
David’s concern was always for others. The closure of the West End due to the coronavirus pained him. Not just because he was denied his regular visits to Phantom of the Opera (which he saw over 20 times) – he was heartbroken for the many people whose livelihoods depend on the theatres. He was therefore hugely supportive and encouraging of our efforts to keep going through the pandemic with Postcards and Oktoberfest, saying how happy he was that those projects provided work to musicians at a very difficult time.
David himself had done a stint working backstage at Hull New Theatre and was obsessed with stagecraft. It was the technical aspects of Phantom which he adored most (again relishing every single moment when visiting Her Majesty’s Theatre to see the show for the umpteenth time and introducing others to it). David also trained as a baker, drawn again to the technical qualities of that trade. He took joy in providing cakes for friends’ celebrations, and was much in demand as a cake maker & decorator among the congregation of Beverley Minster.
On that culinary note, we must now draw to a close this tribute to our talented and generous friend. He had a profound Christian faith. David felt that his life had been moulded by God, often saying “We are the clay, He is the potter; we are all the work of His hand” (referring to Isaiah 64:8). It was into God’s hands that David’s soul was commended on Friday.
David is survived by his son, Adam, who has followed in his footsteps as a virger, and of whom David was very proud.
David’s legacy also lives on in the work of his former colleague, Lewis Northern, who David trained as a funeral director.
For our part, we will remember David when we hear the bells of St Mary’s ring out across Beverley, when we set foot inside the Minster, and whenever young musicians take part in the festival.
But for now we mourn the loss of a huge figure in our lives and in the history of New Paths Music.
Johann Sebastian Bach arr. Harold Bauer: Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen
translation: The soul rests in Jesus’ hands
(filmed in Beverley Minster in 2020 during a torrential rain storm!)