Reflections on My Grandfather

The last 3 months have been somewhat trying for me. I caught COVID, which took me out of action almost completely for a month. My Grandad, who I grew up with and was incredibly close to, died shortly thereafter.

Every evening, without fail, until I left home at the age of 18, we would spend 30–90 minutes a night together. I probably did more one-on-one chatting with him than I did any other single human being between the ages of 5 and 18.

At an early age we played word games and he taught me maths. As I grew older, we watched the news together, and discussed current affairs (each and every eve). Throughout my teens, more and more of our conversations were taken up by religion and politics, until his Alzheimer’s worsened.

Caught up in World War II, he arrived in the UK as a displaced person to work in the mines. He went on to become a baptist minister, and pursued Near Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford — where he was awarded the Kennicott Fellowship, which he turned down (for love!) and moved to Edinburgh.

He wrote extensively, publishing commentaries on the Psalms (New Century Bible) and on 2 Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), while conducting original research on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Emeritus Professor George Brooke at the University of Manchester, who early in his career was a contemporary of my grandfather, noted that he was “known especially for his collaboration with John Allegro in the production of volume 5 in the official series of publications of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (of Jordan) … [and conducting] original research on the Scrolls himself, writing a notable article, that is still cited, on the spirit in the scrolls.” When Allegro’s interests wandered, my grandfather “acted as his main motivator in pulling the principal edition [of DJD V] together. Allegro was very grateful to him and insisted that the final volume should have your grandfather’s name on the title page to mark his contribution.” Following his own retirement, Allegro entrusted all of the original photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls included in DJD V to my grandfather.

Grandad was assiduous about putting things into their proper context. When I would come home from bible study group, to sit with him and debrief, he would tear his hair out that we’d spent any time at all debating the reason God had “chosen to use a particular word” in a passage (as bible study group leaders were so fond of discussing…) when the word we were looking at was a particular English version’s translation of a derivative text whose provenance and context was probably not fully clear at the time, let alone thousands of years later. The main thing he impressed upon me was the degree to which doubt must be cast upon even the most seemingly simple and straightforward translations — let alone interpretations. And that general principles, moderation and reasonableness are far more important than literal interpretation and uncompromising dogma. “To be roughly right is better than to be precisely wrong.”

Besides their relationship as colleagues, my grandad remained a good friend of John Allegro, until his death, and eventually presided over his funeral.

I was amused to see an article about Allegro’s most notorious book, “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross”, on HackerNews just a couple of days before my grandad’s own death. My grandad would raise his eyes and tilt his head whenever I tried to engage him in discussion of Allegro’s more colourful work. But while my grandfather was a man of faith, he was never dismissive.

My grandad had every right to be an asshole. The world was not, in his early years, a kind place. Fascists and communists alike attacked and destroyed his family, friends and home. He arrived in the UK with quite literally nothing and no-one. And yet, in all my life, he has been the most unequivocally kind person I’ve ever met. He had no off moments. He never once raised his voice. And he was always generous to all those around him.

When I told him a few years ago that I had a boyfriend, I initially thought he had not understood what I meant or fathomed that I was in a relationship with another man. In fact he had — entirely — but was so unfazed by the idea that I misinterpreted his response entirely. In turn he was baffled that I thought he might not have been entirely okay with it, and in his mind the world had moved on a long time ago.

He was wickedly smart. He had a special appreciation for bad jokes he knew were bad (in every sense). His love and loyalty were immense, and he died at the age of 97 surrounded by family.

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