REMARKS BY TOM GROSS AT THE FUNERAL OF JOHN GROSS
January 14, 2010
My father was an exceptional person. I have known that all my life, of course, but nevertheless I have been taken aback by the outpouring of grief and admiration for him in the last three days, including wonderful letters and emails from all over the world and magnificent tributes in the press on both sides of the Atlantic, and in continental Europe too.
My father had an outstanding intellect. But because of his modesty I hadn’t quite realized to what extent his intellectual prowess went back to his earliest days, until reading some of the tributes this week.
On Wednesday, in The Times, a Mr Derek Taylor wrote a letter to say that he had been at the Perse school in Cambridge with my father. Mr Taylor wrote: “There was a school debate one day in 1946. The speakers were always sixth-formers. But John was 11 at the time and astonished the audience by standing up to make his point, quoting for his purpose the Russian Foreign Minister of 1927. It was a moment not to be forgotten.”
And yesterday in The Times, Gillian Tunkel wrote: “I have never forgotten the comment that John’s English teacher wrote to John’s parents at the end of one of John’s essays when John was 14: ‘I am not sufficiently equipped to mark this!’”
People who didn’t know my father, might have assumed that someone as erudite and bookish as he was, might somehow be deficient in common sense or worldly wisdom. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had unerring judgment and good sense in matters great and small.
He was unfailingly kind and sensitive too. He was always courteous and patient. I’ve never heard him be rude to anyone. He was immensely generous in every way, especially with his time and with his knowledge and advice. He would spend hours on the phone with people he hardly knew who had rung to pick his brain. And, as one of the many friends who have written to me said, he never looked over anyone’s shoulder at a party.
He remained friendly and totally unpompous to the end. Two days before he died, when I was urging the staff at St Mary’s, Paddington to do all they could to comfort him, a West Indian nurse said to me “Oh we all know about Mr Gross. He is the best conversationalist we’ve ever had here”.
My father’s intellect was also in tact until his final days. When he was almost unconscious, one of the doctors said to him: “Mr Gross we are moving you now, from the Samuel Lane ward to the Zachary Cope ward”. And my father, with his eyes still shut, suddenly mumbled “Ahh, Dr Zachary Cope – the famous abdominal expert who wrote an article about Jane Austen’s last illness.”
My father loved London. He delighted in taking visitors round tours of the East End, and literary and other places of interest elsewhere. As one American friend, Roger Kimball, wrote to me yesterday “John knew the city as well as any London taxi-driver – better in fact, because he could not only take you to any address you named but he also knew what had happened there from the time of Julius Caesar until the day before yesterday.”
My father loved literature and theatre, and all things English, but – without being religious – he had an intense sense of Jewishness too, hence his childhood memoir A Double Thread, and his groundbreaking study on the uses and misuses of the character Shylock over the last 400 years.
He also had a very happy temperament and a great zest for life. And because of this, after my sister has spoken and after the rabbi has offered the final prayers in Hebrew and said kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead — as we say goodbye to my father, we will conclude with an uplifting song (Tumbalaika) that my father liked in Yiddish — the other ancient language spoken by Jews of east European origin, the culture, literature and theatre of which my father adored almost as much as he did English literature.
(One of the last lively conversations he had just before Christmas, when he was rushed to hospital by my mother, was to show visitors, with the greatest of pleasure, a rare Yiddish edition of Oscar Wilde.)
Everything will be duller, and sadder without him.
He was also, of course, a fantastic father. I couldn’t have asked for a better father, and I feel privileged to be his son.