On the death of Stephen Cave: a friend remembered

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Stephen Roy Cave, 30th March 1953 – 30th June 2020

Last Wednesday, thirty of us – friend and stranger – gathered at Basildon and District Crematorium to pay our last respects to Stephen Cave. A huge influence on each of us, everyone there had their own memories of Stephen, whether as teaching colleague, accompanist for the Basildon Choral Society, piano teacher, neighbour, or simply a friend met over dinner.

Thirty minutes is not enough time to remember someone who affected us all so profoundly. Still, we managed to share many memories and play some of the music that most seemed to encapsulate him: the second movement of Shostakovich’s 2nd piano concerto, Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro (sung by Monserrat Caballé), and Nessun Dorma (sung by Luciano Pavarotti). We also listened to a recording of him playing Walking in the Air, a version of which he extemporised each Christmas. The video from which it was taken is at the end.

Dad organised the remembrance, Mum, Seth and I shared memories of his friendship and inspiration, and Ellie read one of the poems that he learned by heart and recited on many occasions after dinner and more than a few glasses of wine (Roald Dahl’s Three Little Pigs from his Horrible Rhymes). Other friends and colleagues offered words of remembrance for the order of service.

Stephen had been family to us. He was my confidante and friend.

It is so hard to believe he is gone.

He will be terribly, terribly missed.


Seth’s words remembering Stephen

It seems entirely appropriate to be more or less lost for words when talking about Stephen. Someone who brought so much joy to others through his gifts as a musician and teacher.

You have heard from others their fond reflections on Stephen as friend and frankly as family. We all loved Stephen and we will all continue to mourn and to miss him.

Stephen was an exceptional musician. He was an exceptional teacher. In fact, I could draw you a direct line across eight individual pianists that starts with Stephen and ends with Beethoven himself. Genuinely – a profound musical heritage. Stephen was taught by Alexander Kelly at the Royal Academy of Music – one of Stephen’s contemporary fellow pupils now runs the Piano Accompaniment Department at the Academy and became one of my teachers when I studied there. He remembered Stephen.

Others of Stephen’s pupils have gone on to pursue highly successful music careers and all of us realise the great musical debt we owe Stephen.

Stephen leaves a huge gap for many of us and I feel privileged to have known him as a friend and teacher. Huge swathes of my piano music collection is littered with Stephen’s handwriting and I shall cherish the thousands of hours spent playing, listening to and discussing music with the him – whether the high art of Puccini, Chopin or Rachmaninov, through to the rye humour of parlour songs such as ‘Could I but express in song’ or as Stephen regularly coined it ‘The Kodaly Buttocks Pressing Song’.

There’s really only one thing to say which is appropriate, if inadequate. Thank you, Stephen.

As Stephen would have said – and did in every text and email he signed off – ‘un abbraccione a tutti’.


My words remembering Stephen

Dilegua, o notte!
Tramontate, stelle!
Tramontate, stelle!
All’alba vincerò!
vincerò, vincerò!

Giacomo Puccini, from Nessun Dorma


It is impossible to begin to describe the immense hole that Stephen’s passing leaves in the lives of those of us who knew him and loved him. It is difficult to believe we will never again hear that deep, rich belly laugh, or hear that booming baritone voice proclaim in perfectly enunciated, self-taught Italian on the beautiful evening he had just spent with his friends.

Intelligent and gentle, self-effacing and yet a consummate performer who secretly loved the attention he garnered whenever he played or sang, Stephen was as complex as he was fiercely private. His friendship was one of my deepest and most valued.  Forged through childhood piano lessons, countless bottles of wine over many years of lengthy Sunday evening dinners, intense singing lessons and, latterly, his steadfast support in my move north and subsequent telephone reminiscences on times past, he was a reassuring constant in my life. His was the kind of friendship by which those darker moments that challenge and distress could be navigated, his measured reassurance and black humour offering the promise of brighter days ahead.

Stephen loved our regular Sunday evening gatherings. Christened DoS – Dinner on Sunday – they started early and finished late, with far too much wine drunk and cheese eaten, listening to Puccini or Rachmaninov or Elgar or Finzi, Stephen a font of knowledge regarding the various singers or conductors or pianists. Pavarotti was his favourite, and he loved Callas, too, but he seemed to know them all, enjoying challenging us to play an aria at random so he could identify – correctly – the singer. Sometimes, he recounted stories from his younger days at Bretton Hall, or when he would go to the opera in London,  or teaching in Grays, or being left at the side of the road on a Basildon Choral Society trip to the continent, or musical adventures he got up to with those he quietly wished he’d been among more regularly. He also regularly claimed to be distantly related to Cliff Richard and to Captain Webb, the first person to swim the English Channel.

If we were lucky, after coffee, and after he had recited a humorous verse from memory, we might persuade him to play the piano and whichever recording was playing in the next room would be surrendered for brilliant and moving interpretations of Chopin or Kabalevsky or Debussy. He was a sublime pianist who taught us all so much about music and how to listen to it and even when his hands failed him in later years, he was still better than most. Afterwards, he would drop me home and we would often pull up and talk awhile, ruminating on the evening just spent, or the meaning of life, or the professional challenges of the week ahead.

He found endless amusement in little things. At our last meal together in Essex, a week or so before I moved north,  Stephen, with tears of laughter in his eyes, recalled one particularly funny occasion when a bemused Japanese embassy official had joined us many years before at Hillcroft to experience a traditional English Sunday roast dinner. What Nobi made of Stephen and a dinner about as far from normal as you could imagine we never knew. His humour was grounded in the gentle absurdity of it all, never mocking. He could not abide cruelty or bullying. He always offered a warm and gracious welcome to the various people who joined our gatherings over the years, putting them at their ease and greeting them as if Hillcroft were his own home. Which in many ways it was.

Stephen was an eternal source of curious information and he would often punctuate the fierce debates about politics, music, education and religion that usually raged around the dining table with choice facts he had learned in the week before. He loved puzzles, particularly maths ones, and learned origami as well as Italian, sometimes leaving a little swan or a flower where he had sat for dinner. He loved Star Wars, too, the original films, not the sequels, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blackadder and the X-Files. Somehow, this all seemed both utterly incongruous and entirely in keeping.

For a good number of years, he and I took singing lessons together. He would drive us – first to Surrey and later to Littlehampton – so we could learn with a teacher, Liz Pearson, who was as brilliant a voice teacher as she was knowingly hopeless a pianist. As we sang, one after the other, him baritone, me tenor, she would punch us in the stomach to get us to use our diaphragms better. On one occasion, we pitched up with the Pearl Fishers duet and we sang our hearts out together as if we were in Covent Garden. Towards the end, we could not continue for laughing. It was dire and beautiful, but it was also just so much glorious fun. On the way home, we would listen to Classic FM and I would read the road signs out loud until it drove him to distraction and he would swear very loudly and threaten to pull over and make me walk the rest of the way.

The last time I saw Stephen was in November 2018, when he was in Basildon hospital. I drove down to see him, and we spent a couple of hours talking. He had nothing but praise for the nursing staff and had been charming and funny with them, even though fearful and experiencing considerable discomfort. Despite his illness, I had always assumed there would be another chance to sit and talk, to laugh about the world and simply enjoy each other’s company. We texted and emailed and phoned in the eighteen months after, his texts always accompanied by a little waving emoji. We would talk about health and politics, missing the old days and those weekly gatherings that anchored our lives. In our last exchange, he bemoaned the state of the world in general, and Trump in particular, his humour as dry as ever, and I smiled imagining him saying it all over dinner. It never occurred for a moment that they would be his last words to me.

Now, I simply miss my warm giant of a friend.

Sleep gently, Stephen.

Or, as you might say in that unique and comforting baritone, and with a twinkle in your eye – dormi dolcemente.


Walking in the Air, played by Stephen Cave at Hillcroft, 18th December 2011

The Funeral

The Funeral

We drove through the grey mist, wordless and blank-eyed,
The windscreen cracked and split by endless rain,
Our meter the rumble of tyres on tarmac
And an occasional sad sigh of rubber on glass.

Our hours were silent hours, lost in half-memories,
Each of us reflecting on a common private guilt:
Our promises to see more of one another
So casually made and then forgotten.

Once there, in throngs of strangers, we saw at once
We could have known her better than we now pretend, 
And offered solemn nods and awkward sympathies
As we sought those few we recognised and loved.

We embraced them and wept, smiling through our sadness, 
The warm handshakes of old friendships  undiluted 
By the years between, though fewer we counted, quietly,
Some borne away on the rivers of our seasons.

Then, after we had gathered and sung our life-filled hymns,
And drank to past times of happier communion,
We renewed our promises with easy earnestness
And, lastly, bid each other fond farewell and left.

Poem: Hands, Fingers and Seasons

I wrote this a couple of years ago in memory of my Grandfather, a farmer. I used to spend a lot of time at the farm, seeing the land change from the barren dark of fallow fields to heaving with its bounty of grain, roots and grass, cattle trooping into the parlour for milking. Something reminded me of him today and I thought to dig this out.

Hands, Fingers and Seasons

Thick, strong hands, they were, that lifted me to

The battlements of my straw castles,

Roughened by the scratch of twine and scrape of Summer’s bale.


A worker’s loyal touch it was, that raised the song of Harvest home,

Fingers thick with bean soot and the dusty flours of wheat and barley grain.


Worn, safe hands, they were, that made a man of me

In black-earth fields of buried treasure, and

Toughened by the bite of frost and soak of Autumn’s mists.


A lover’s gentle touch it was, that held a wife and the bounty of a quiet faith,

Fingers rich with tenderness and friendship’s honest clasp.


Torn, scarred hands they were, that told the story of his days,

Shaped by tractor’s diesel roar and

Sweet-spiced carolling of Winter’s lamp-lit song.


A servant’s kindly clasp it was, that welcomed friend and stranger,

Fingers which turned both page and slide, and, in deeper reverence, praised.


Wise, weathered hands they were, that counted out our seasons,

Ploughing fields and scattering seed, and

Carefully coaxing out Spring’s calf to startled breaths.


A musician’s chords of Eventide it was, the easier, ebony press of old, familiar hymns,

Fingers that broke Heaven’s morning in gentle smiles of knowing kindness.


Yearly sown –

All now safely gathered in.

Lights Under bushels – my little cousin’s travel writing

So I have always loved my cool cousin and not just because he is called Kit. Which is definitely cool.

It turns out that he likes German – and for his year out he is working at the Hotel Gasthof Stern in Gößweinstein, where he seems to be having a whale of a time. Bernd and Heike run Gasthof Stern with all the love and attention they would expend on their own home. Kit seems to be fitting right in and will be looking to help see them bumped up from a four to five on Tripadvisor.

Anyway, the main reason for writing this post was to give a plug to Kit’s blog. Funny, well-written and well worth checking out, he seems to have been keeping this talent for word-smithing very quiet.

Hope you enjoy his musings.

“Men of the Hills”: Reflections on a Winter’s morning walk and the frosted beauty of Langdon Hills

Ever since my childhood, there has been an association between walking around Langdon Hills and Saturdays.

Autumn walks particularly are fixed in the memory, the family – not just parents and siblings – slipping into boots and pulling on coats and setting out into Coombe Woods an hour or so before dusk  (Coombe Woods is known to many as “The Bluebell Woods” for its stunning spring carpet of bluebells as far as the eye can see). Five youngsters with over-active imaginations would pass through the gate into the tunnel of trees that lead from Dry Street deep into  a darkly magical woodland kingdom that could only harbour wraiths, twisted goblins and other spectres between the creeping shadows and tendrils of mist.

We would march determinedly past the ponds, past “The Woodpecker Tree”, to the edge of “The Valley”. There, catching our breath, we would gaze out towards the pines that that comprise “The Creepy Copse”, standing tall in silent sentry over the winding path – far below them and us – that leads to “The Ski Slope” (what was then a broad and open slope, lined on each side with pines and with a glorious ancient oak at its summit). “The Woodpecker Tree” has long since fallen, but for years it stood as an object of wonder, its bark-less, limb-less trunk giving it an almost prehistoric appearance. It got its name from the holes that punctuated its upper reaches. Whether or not woodpeckers ever dwelt there I’ve no idea.

If we were feeling brave we would run down the valley into the trees, follow the path through its twists and turns, past “The Sandy Hill” (site of numerous stick battles and rope-swing disasters and not to be confused with “The Sandy Hills” of Westley Heights) before clambering up to “The Ski Slope” where we would follow the upper path towards the old cricket ground at the top of Dry Street. En route we would gather chestnuts from the piles of leaves to roast on the fire before heading back down Dry Street. The smell of creosote on the handrail of the newly-created ranger path was a welcome return to the safety of civilisation. The wraiths and goblins slunk back into the darkness, watching our descent under the comforting yellow glow of the street lights from from their lairs amongst the shadowy twist of brambles.

Reaching home and back indoors, fingers clasped around mugs of tea would ache with that satisfying gnaw of heat on bone. The fire would be lit and stoked to a blaze before chestnuts were roasted in the embers and crumpets toasted on an ancient fork and then buttered and piled high on an old plate, itself precariously balanced on a low brass stand by the kindling. Cousins – who despite their gender were all “Men of the Hills” – would plan their next adventure before settling back, bellies full and imaginations fired, to play and draw and, when we could get away with it, watch The Dukes of Hazzard.

Times change, of course, and “The Men of the Hills” are reunited for their walks less often, though I like to think that we all retain similarly fond memories of those childhood woodland adventures.

Saturday walks for me are now more usually taken in the early morning.

Yesterday, having not enjoyed such an excursion for quite a while, I decided to get up at 6am (something of a feat as I had only gone to bed at 3am!) and head out into the hills. Porridge and tea delayed my start, but at about 6.40am I set out from Gernons, wellington boots on and staff in hand and Radio 4’s Farming Today on my headphones. I walked across Eastley green and used the cut-through (that really must become an all-weather path – it is used by so many), heading down the college entrance road to Nethermayne. As I walked past St Luke’s Hospice and Basildon Hospital, the clouds above the estuary were a spectacular and angry inky swirl against a dark steel blue sky that only lightened towards the horizon.

Despite the day and the hour, traffic was already heavy and it was a relief to turn into Dry Street, the reassuring forms of Dry Street Farm – where so much growing up was done – quickly coming into view. From Dry Street I headed up past Dry Street Memorial Church towards One Tree Hill.

The view from One Tree Hill across the Thames to Kent and then up the river to London is one of the most spectacular I know. We too often take these places for granted, but such open and sweeping vistas are rare and, when the air is clear and the sky light, the views are inhibited only by the quality of your eye-sight. From One Tree Hill I headed through Northlands Woods, before picking up the bridleway through to Hall Woods. Here, switching off the Today Programme to listen to the morning chorus, I could hear a woodpecker drilling and I felt a thrill to be outside in such beauty, the sun now throwing a low and soft golden light on the frosted fields that I could see through the trees.

Walking the unmade roads past the settlements and farm buildings, I headed into Coombe Woods, past “The Ski Slope” and “The Creepy Copse” and stopping at the head of the valley – “The Valley” – to admire a beautiful sunrise on a now cloudless January Saturday morning. Finally, I headed down to Dry Street and the familiar outline of “Hillcroft”, detouring briefly around Northlands Approach and Coombe Drive so that I could enjoy the garden on my way to Mum and Dad’s back door.

As I opened the door I realised I had seen no-one at all until Coombe Woods, where I met a ranger making his way past the ponds, picking litter.

I am going to make the effort to walk this more often through the year, enjoying the very different ways it feels, looks, sounds and smells as season slips to season.

Even at 37 I realise that there are still adventures to be had for the “Men of the Hills” in their old hunting grounds – have your own and see what an incredible place we live in.

Below are the pictures I took as I walked.

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