It was agonisingly drawn out and brutally swift. I have already written about the onset of Maureen’s illness, but it didn’t progress the way we had hoped.
For a while, at home, things seemed to settle into a regime of slow improvement. Then, out of the blue, we both came down with covid. In both cases it was mild, though it was enough to cause Maureen to miss a chemotherapy session. But not long after recovering from that, she got pneumonia. That was bad. When, at 1am one morning, we decided that I had to call an ambulance, I used our new oxymeter and found her blood oxygen level was 62. She very nearly died then, but the ambulance arrived in time, with an oxygen bottle, and three strong firemen to help raise her into a carrychair to get out to the ambulance. The next few weeks helped to stabilise her, but the cancer was still there and she was no longer physically strong enough to get about. When the time came to discharge her, she wasn’t coming home but to a care home where she could be assessed for future needs.
The next six or seven weeks at Hawkinge House, she was in a comfortable environment and very caring hands, but things didn’t really get better. She caught a urinary tract infection, which knocked her back a bit, then she developed two allergic reactions, one was to the starch used in the bedclothes which was easily fixed, but the other, more worryingly, was to one of the cocktail of drugs that was part of her chemotherapy.
Then came the assessment for her future care needs, someone from the home (who was very much on our side), someone from the NHS, and someone from social services. It was a tick box exercise, and the questions were clearly designed to avoid paying out. I knew from very early on in the meeting what the result would be: she wasn’t ill enough to warrant continuing care, we would have to pay for any future care she received.
But she wasn’t getting better; she was getting worse, noticeably and rapidly. Exactly one week after that meeting had decided she wasn’t ill enough for continuing care, I sat in on a meeting with the care team at the home and her oncologist at the hospital. The cancer, that had for a while been in retreat, was now back worse than ever. But because of all the infections she had suffered over the summer she was too weak to undergo any further chemotherapy. All they could do was keep her as comfortable and as pain-free as possible. They put another bed in her room so I could move in permanently.
I am not sure how much she was aware of. She was already very confused because of the bone cancer, and she was on a high dose of morphine which left her dopey and asleep most of the time. That final meeting was on Thursday. On Sunday, at exactly 10pm, there was a loud, gurgling gasp of breath and she shuddered and fell silent. Some minutes later, there was another rattling gasp for breath and that was it.
That was Sunday 18th September, the day before the Queen’s funeral (which I very carefully did not watch). My own time, since then, has been taken up with organising her own funeral, which took place yesterday, Thursday 20th October, before a bigger and more varied crowd than I had anticipated.
Organising this was not as miserable a task as I had thought it might be. I had to choose music for the ceremony. At first I thought of finding something by Gerald Finzi, her favourite composer, but I don’t know his work well enough to think of something appropriate. So I reverted to the folk music she had always loved, and here there was almost an embarrassment of riches. I knew instantly that the exit music at the end was going to be “Farewell, Farewell” by Fairport Convention, the version from Liege and Lief because I wanted Sandy Denny singing rather than Simon Nicol. Then there had to be something by Nic Jones, who was probably her absolute favourite performer, and I settled on “Farewell to the Gold” from Penguin Eggs if only because of the word “farewell” in the title. The third choice was more difficult. One of the things that united us when we were first getting together was love of Mr. Fox (in fact I think I was the only other person Maureen had met at that time who even knew who Mr Fox were). But none of the Mr Fox tracks seemed quite right, so I looked to Bob Pegg’s later solo work, and settled on “Starchild” from Keeper of the Fire.
The other thing I had to do, which was even more of a pleasure, was choose photographs for a slideshow to be shown during the ceremony. There was so much to choose from, and I was struck by how many of them showed her laughing. I’ll be using a few of the ones I found to illustrate this post.
This is the order of the ceremony:
I used “Starchild” by Bob Pegg to accompany the entry of the coffin into the chapel. It was a wicker casket: she had seen one at Rob Holdstock’s funeral and declared there and then that was what she wanted for herself.
There were brief remarks by the Celebrant, Geoff Stephens. I had met him some weeks before, and I specified that I wanted this to celebrate Maureen, not mourn her, and that it was to be strictly non-religious since neither of us had any religious belief. And he tried, bless him.
Then it was my turn. After a lot of humming and haaing I decided I wanted to deliver the eulogy myself, because Maureen had been involved in so many different things and I wasn’t sure who else might be able to encompass it all. In the end, this is what I said:
I wasn’t planning to do this. My original idea was to invite a bunch of people who knew Maureen in different contexts to come up and say a few words about her.
Then I started to think about how many different aspects there were to her life. If I missed out some, it wouldn’t give a true picture of who she was. But if I tried to find people to talk about everything from family and fandom to politics and cooking, we’d probably still be here tomorrow.
So in the end, you get me. And like that old Monty Python sketch about the Summarizing Proust Competition, I am going to try to – I don’t know – encapsulate that whole, glorious, multifarious woman who was Maureen Speller.
Or perhaps I should say the woman who became Maureen Speller. She began as Maureen Brown, and then, during a brief and rather disastrous first marriage, she was Maureen Porter, which was how I first knew her. At that time she had been, I suppose you’d say alienated, from her family for some years, largely because of her mother. But gradually she began to reconnect with her siblings, her brother Derek and then her sister, Elaine. When Maureen and Elaine began to get really close again in the last few months, you could close your eyes and not know which of them was talking. One of the things that made Maureen really happy towards the end was planning a big family get together, while this only child of an only child was beginning to wonder what on earth I’d got myself into.
Living in Oxford, as she did, Maureen found herself gravitating towards the university, which she worked for in several capacities, from serving at tables to being a librarian in the Bodleian. Here she made early but lifelong friends, like Sara Fletcher. And she also discovered OUSFG, the Oxford University Science Fiction Group. I have a feeling she was the only non-student who was a member of the group, and that led her into fandom. One of the things that really touched me among all the many tributes paid to her online after her death was the number of people who talked about how important she was as the person who introduced them to fandom, who welcomed them to fandom, who made it worthwhile getting involved in that very peculiar institution.
Fandom, like so much else associated with science fiction, has always placed a high value on writing, and on this score Maureen certainly did not disappoint. The early 80s was the high water mark of APAs in Britain, Amateur Publishing Associations as they were called. She was a mainstay of two of the best, the feminist Women’s Periodical (she was always emphatically feminist in her politics), and Greg Pickersgill’s Frank’s Apa. I remember one issue of Frank’s in which she and I both wrote about a Bruce Springsteen concert we had attended, then published them under each other’s names; the deception lasted about a second, one tends to forget how distinctive one’s own writing style can be. And it wasn’t long before she established her own APA, Acnestis, whose roster of contributors included such prestigious names as Chris Priest. Acnestis had a literary critical aspect, not quite where her critical writing started but a very good platform upon which to establish what she wanted to say.
Also in fandom she produced her own fanzines, including Snufkin’s Bum which went on to win a Nova Award, and she won TAFF, the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund, which took her to the Worldcon in Baltimore and then on a three-month trip that took in New York, Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and god knows how many other places. It was her first visit to America (practically her first flight in a plane) and it awakened a love of the country that took us back there several times in the years that followed.
That fanzine I mentioned, Snufkin’s Bum, was, of course, named for one of her cats at the time, Snufkin, a criminal mastermind who could open any fridge. From her first cat in childhood, Tomlin, I don’t think there was ever a time when she didn’t have at least one cat in her life. And she wrote about them consistently, with wit and sympathy, and an awareness that every cat has its own very distinctive personality. There was one famous example in which she described the ineffable Nicodemus leaping from a window ledge, sliding helplessly down a sloping roof, tumbling to the ground, then looking around at the other watching cats as if to say: “I do all my own stunts, you know.” I tried several times to persuade her to put together a collection of her writing on cats. There were several books on that topic around at the time and I’m sure she would have had a market. But she just said she didn’t want to be known for comic writing about cats. Which is, I have to say, our loss.
I was more successful earlier, not long after we first met, in fact, when I persuaded her to try her hand at reviewing. At the time I was Reviews Editor for Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, and in seemingly no time Maureen became one of my best and most reliable reviewers. She also became involved in the BSFA as an organisation, becoming first the editor of the newszine, Matrix, then taking on the administration of the organisation as a whole. This was typical of Maureen. She firmly believed in putting something back in to such bodies, even, perhaps especially, taking on the necessary, unsung, behind-the-scenes jobs that attract very little public notice or attention. It was an attitude that led her to other backroom jobs, Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons, Assistant Editor at Foundation, and so on. She recognized, perhaps with a modicum of regret, that this approach was never going to win her plaudits or awards. Which is why it was such a shock, and of course a delight, when on what turned out to be the very last morning of her life, I opened Facebook and discovered that the British Fantasy Society had, just the evening before, awarded Maureen the Karl Edward Wagner Award for her services to the genre. I did tell her about this several times that morning, but at that stage I really have no idea how much she was taking in.
Anyway, this sense of working behind the scenes also led her to acquire formal qualifications in proof reading and copy editing, and then to set up her own freelance business, Speller Editorial Services. It never made us a fortune, but then again it never left us in debt. And it kept going from 1987 right up to the time of her death. What she learned doing that, of course, fed directly into the unsung work she did for various publishers, including Gollancz, for Writers’ Services, and for journals like Strange Horizons and Foundation. Again, going back to the online comments after her death, I saw so many saying things like: she edited my first book and made me a much better writer, or: I so valued her editorial input into my reviews. Writing is a very solitary business, but there are always others who interact with the writing. Maureen was one of those. And even living with her, I was unaware of quite how much her input was valued by the different writers she interacted with. Though I do know that my own writing from this point on will be immeasureably poorer because of her absence.
Then there was her own writing, a whole string of essays and reviews and blog posts and articles. She wrote about Alan Garner, Weird fiction, African science fiction, Shakespeare, Native American literature, and so much more. Whatever she wrote, she brought to it the clear-eyed critical attention of a first-rate academic combined with the wit and sympathy evident in her writing about cats. She was just very good at what she did, whenever she asked me to look over some work in progress I was left feeling there was nothing I could say, no improvement I might suggest. I just wish I was able to write as well as she did.
It is a measure of the ability and the intelligence that she brought to her writing that when she was at last persuaded to go to the University of Kent at Canterbury as a mature student she came away with the highest first class degree of the entire year. She went on to do a Masters degree, and had started a PhD in Native American literature when I was made redundant and financial realities forced her to withdraw.
And what does all of this amount to? Maybe at best a quarter or a third of the Maureen Speller I’m trying to tell you about here, trying to memorialize. I hope you all remembered to bring a packed lunch and a sleeping bag.
I’ll try to be a little quicker. Back when we went on the big march against the Iraq War, she very carefully noted all that was going on around the protest. She spotted, for instance, that the political party that had most got its act together for the march was the Liberal Democrats. So she joined the LibDems, going on to be an officer in the local association, active in the regional party, and an occasional candidate in elections she was certain she would not win. Though what I remember most were the party dinners she produced alongside our friend Darren Briddock. Representatives from LibDems in neighbouring constituencies would often complement us on the quality of our dinners, which anyone who ever came for a meal will, I’m sure, readily agree with. One other memory from that time: I recall travelling with Maureen and Darren in his van, going, I think, to set up one of those party dinners, in which our entire conversation the whole way was made up of quotations from The Beiderbecke Connection. Those years in local politics were fun, and even after we left the party Maureen loved to catch up on gossip and natter about the idiocy of local politics of whatever party.
So politics, yes, cooking, yes. She even catered our wedding (which was on 26th June 1993, not 23rd as I mistyped on the slide show captions coming up). One of the things I’m going to miss is the barbecue, something I have never mastered, but which she took to like a duck to water. Of course, the garden in which these barbecues took place remained a work in progress, never quite reaching the state she dreamed of (and circumstances in the last couple of years have meant that the garden is currently in worse state than ever: Maureen would not approve). But the garden was what led her to take a part time job at Victoriana, where she started mostly looking after the website and ended mostly sorting out seeds. But an awful lot of Victoriana seemed to find its way to our garden, and Maureen left behind, as she did everywhere she went, yet more lasting friendships, notably with Tracey Fagg.
And there is so much more. I haven’t mentioned her love of Wales, and the friends we made there, Stu and Ady and Teddy the Welsh Terrier; I haven’t mentioned her delight in watching ospreys. But I’ve been going on long enough. Still there is one key aspect of Maureen I haven’t really mentioned yet. I’ve alluded to her gift for friendship, but what I will always miss is something even more. We met in 1984 at a party in Leeds. I was in the kitchen talking to an Australian visitor, Justin Ackroyd, who was at least partly an excuse for the party. Suddenly he said, there’s somebody you have to meet, and then he disappeared into the rest of the house. A few moments later, Maureen wandered into the kitchen. I’ve always assumed that she was the person Justin had gone to find; she always insisted not. But we said hello and, in that moment, we both experienced something that neither of us believed in: love at first sight. And it is love that has endured, undimmed, through all the years since that meeting. I love you, Maureen. I always have. I always will. And since she always claimed that I first seduced her by reading Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, it seems appropriate to end:
Data Dayadhvam Damyata
Shantih Shantih Shantih
[Apparently, Justin Ackroyd was watching the ceremony online, and I learned at the pub afterwards that he had confirmed that it was, indeed, Maureen he had gone to fine. So it was a wonderful coincidence.]
Next came the slideshow of photographs from Maureen’s life, accompanied by “Farewell to the Gold” by Nic Jones.
Then there was the committal, which, to be honest and for reasons I’m not sure I can explain, would have made me very uncomfortable if not for the cat. The cat belongs to a nearby house, but it often comes to the crematorium because it gets a fuss there. Normally the cat is not allowed into the chapel. But I was the last person to enter, following the casket, and the cat was already inside. It had first gone to Derek, Maureen’s brother, then it came to me, then it moved past me to see Elaine, Maureen’s sister. When it came to the committal, the cat went to sit beside the coffin staring out at the audience, and stayed there without moving until the committal was over. It was both spooky and wonderful, and I know Maureen would have appreciated it.
Finally came “Farewell, Farewell” by Fairport Convention, and after a few moments of not quite knowing what to do, we all trooped outside, where I solemnly shook the hand or hugged everyone who had turned up, before we all set off for the pub.
It was only as I entered the pub that I learned that Liz Truss had resigned. Oh frabjous day! I came close to ordering champagne all round. If I’d known in advance, I’d have added something into my eulogy, because Maureen would have been delighted by this turn of events. There is still a bottle of champagne in the cellar which we got ready to celebrate Boris’s departure, only Maureen was not in a state to have any when that joyous day actually arrived. I suspect that champagne might get drunk up this weekend.
And at the wake I talked to as many people as I could, I drank too much wine, and I felt so much better. So thank you to everyone who turned up. Thank you to everyone who watched the ceremony online and left so many welcome comments. And now, I suppose, I start learning how to think of the future once more.