Michael Williams

MWmsOne of our regular members died, at the age of 79, on Monday 4th November 2013 of a heart attack (his third).

I have known Michael for thirty-five years. I was new to Bristol, knew hardly anybody, and his partner, Lionel, invited me for a meal. Hospitality was a major part of their life together.  On Christmas Day, over an hundred neighbours would pass through their doors, (I often washed up the glasses afterwards!) a custom that went back to the days when being gay wasn’t fashionable and often not acceptable. Christmas dinner in the evening was a delightful event. It was a fairly small gathering of those gay men who were on their own and who chose not to go home to their families, for various reasons. They say you can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends. I always felt that to be true – we set up an alternative community based on choice and like-mindedness. Boxing Day (Boxmas, Mike always called it) saw a bigger crowd, couples who’d had enough of other by then and were desperate to get out; people who’d been with their families the day before and felt the same.

Mike and Lionel’s home had been a hub for many gay men back in the day when the only meeting places tended to be cottages or seedy pubs. By contrast, here people could meet for food, chat and friendship. It was also a refuge. I stayed there for a few days when I was going through a very rough patch in my life. Their company and care is something I have always treasured.

His rebellious streak showed up early when he refused to stand up for a teacher who he didn’t respect.   Mike was a conscientious objector to National Service and worked as a porter at Southmead Hospital  instead. He trained to teach science at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, and taught at a secondary modern school and, later, as an FE college teacher and librarian. Education and pacifism were two of our many shared concerns.

He loved Italy, architecture, opera and music and directed plays. He played violin and piano and his house was full of books and CDs – if you picked up something you liked, he’d most usually give it to you. He was a volunteer at the Aled Richards (now Terence Higgins) Trust and, because he was also interested in local history served as secretary to the Brunel Society for twenty-one years. Here is a review of one of his books.

Mike had been adopted and bought up by Jehovah’s Witnesses, which gave him a sceptical but tolerant view of religion. He was in great demand, after his retirement as a Humanist officiant. As one who conducts funerals myself, I know how much time goes into preparing them. His preparation was thorough and meticulous. I also shared many of his humanist values, having more in common with him that with many of my co-religionists.

He was part of OutStories oral history project and can be heard describing how he met his life partner.

He attended our group regularly, from 2008 onwards. He welcomed one of our new members to the city. Other members member said, ‘My first visit to the Book Club was to a Christmas meal at Michael’s. I shall remember him with great affection. He was an amazing man, with such warmth and compassion towards those around him. I am sure that he will be greatly missed by a great many people.’  ‘I enjoyed meeting him and having him tell me what a ‘nice young man’ I was.’ ‘He always struck me as a very warm and kind person, and when he used to have something to say about the book it was always to look for the positives in it.’ ‘Very smartly dressed but didn’t seem very orientated as to what we were talking about, but did say on leaving that he had had a very nice and convivial evening. RIP.’ ‘Even in the brief period that I knew him he showed himself to be a kind, gentle loving man.’

We began to worry two years ago when we were on a bus into town for a book group meeting and he told me that one of our members was in an am dram production. Two stops later, he told me the same thing again. On another occasion, he asked me why I wasn’t using my bus pass. I explained that I wasn’t yet old enough to possess one. Then, a little later, ‘Why aren’t you using your bus pass?’ Towards the end he forgot the book we were discussing. He seems to have enjoyed our company and said that he loved this group – it was a safe space where he didn’t feel scared. He also attended two other book groups, one of which was for ‘straight’ men but he dropped those groups while keeping ours on.

Dementia seems very cruel to many of us. However, Mike used to say that problem with getting old is that ‘bits start dropping off’. Having led a very active life and having kept healthy by daily exercise until prevented by diabetes perhaps he has been spared further illness and dependency.

Mike’s funeral was standing room only at the crem. I reckon there were about 150 people. He had so many friends – yet whenever I saw him it felt as if I was particularly special – as did all the others, I expect.

From The Guardian – Announcements: WILLIAMS, Michael, died 4th November in his 80th year. A dedicated teacher, librarian, socialist and humanist. He loved life and the arts, especially music. He was a loyal and generous friend who gave great support to many organisations including the THT. He remains in the heart of all who knew him. He is survived by Lionel Reeves, his partner of 48 years. Funeral at Canford Crematorium, Bristol, 2:30pm 22nd November. No flowers, donations to the British Heart Foundation.

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