Robert Alexander Facey 1951-1989
Born 16 October 1951; died 2 June 1989
Robert’s ashes were scattered in the rose garden at Beckenham Cemetery six weeks ago by his brothers, Christopher and Peter, near those of their mother and father. Today we are here—family, friends and colleagues—to celebrate his life, a life he lived to the full, to the end.
All through his life Robert made friends and kept them. Some of us came to know him in his student days, some more recently. All were beguiled by his vitality and brilliance as a conversationalist. He made us laugh. And he made us think.
What a good talker he was. And how good to talk about. He talked about us, too, of course. Robert loved gossip, but he was loyal to his friends and shared them with others. Many of us here would not be acquainted with each other if it were not for him. The enduring friendships between us are his best memorial.
He made friends in half-a-dozen different countries. Still more of them would be here if they could. There are friends from Ghana, Nigeria and Brazil, relatives in the West Indies, and British colleagues who are posted abroad. Robert enriched and enlivened all our lives.
Robert was born in 1951, thirty-eight years ago, in Croydon. His father was a draughtsman; his mother was from Trinidad. He was raised and educated in South London with his two brothers. In 1970 he went up to Oxford with a scholarship in history at Christ Church.
Our years at Oxford came in the aftermath of the student movements of 1968. Old-established undergraduate stereotypes—the aesthetes and hearties chronicled in Evelyn Waugh’s Bridehead Revisited—had been augmented by hippies and Trotskyists. Robert entertained all factions. He joined the Oxford Union—he claimed he thought it was a trade union—but preferred the anchovy toast to the political debates. On a few occasions, after some arm-twisting, he wrote stylish pieces for the university magazine, Isis. He made cover art for Isis also, using the talent for design that he inherited from his father.
In retrospect, Robert was biding his time. Perhaps his even-handed attitude recommended him to the civil service, which he joined on graduation in 1973. He passed the civil service exam with flying colours and was gazetted for the diplomatic corps. It was a moment of triumph for him. He yearned to travel. And he fell easily into a consular role.
In the Foreign Office
In his first year at the Foreign Office his work took him to Geneva and New York. Then, in 1974, he was sent to West Africa. It was a fateful posting. He fell in love with the tropics, with the landscape and peoples of the continent. He was overwhelmed by the elegance of traditional forms of African life, by the grace and friendliness of people he met. He was beguiled by the high art of Ife and Igbo-Ukwu. He studied Twi, the language of the Asante people. He loved Ghana, and Ghanaians, in particular.
While in Africa Robert fell ill with paratyphoid and nearly died. When he came back to England on leave he had become ethereally thin. At the same time his experiences in Ghana and Nigeria gave him gravity. In this sense, Africa was where he grew up.
At the outset he was what was known as a high flyer at the Foreign Office, destined for rapid preferment. In the diplomatic corps he found an ethic he could believe in and a discipline he tried to accept. In spirit, perhaps, he belonged to an earlier and more splendid era of diplomacy, the era of Duff Cooper and Lawrence Durrell. If he did not fit the modern image of a Whitehall bureaucrat it was not because he did not measure up, but because he overflowed the mould.
Many of us have had our perception of the world around us expanded by Robert. It began at his place of work. Who knew that beneath the Ministry of Defence lay the remains of Henry VIII’s wine cellar? Or that the Cabinet Office had once housed a Tudor bowling alley? Or that the apparent verticals of Lutyens’ cenotaph in Whitehall are imperceptibly convex, converging to a virtual point a thousand feet in the air?
But it was more than historical understanding that informed Robert’s vision. The world was bright to him. He saw beyond the ordinary. This sense of the vividness and intensity of things raised the spirits of those he interacted with. He was able to translate his way of seeing, his love for things and people, into language of Chestertonian vividness and Johnsonian gravity.
Robert loved Africa, but he loved England too. He loved the city and he loved the country, Yorkshire and the Welsh marches above all. From his schooldays he had visited and worked at Croft Castle, a national trust property in Herefordshire. Here he was befriended by the Croft family—by Diana Uhlman and her late husband Freddy, and their daughter Caroline Compton and grand-daughter, Sarah. When Robert was posted back to London Diana Uhlman offered him the tenancy of a flat in her house in Hampstead, fifty yards from this church. For the next three years Robert lived here. With him lived his friend David Derrick and others, including Peter Ash, who conducted his first London concert here in St John’s, a recital of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Tamsin Dives, today’s soloist, in the role of Dido.
It was after this concert that Robert gave one of the many parties held in Downshire Hill. Perhaps it was the one with fireworks and waterbombs. Or the one that ended with fifty people dancing to Ghanaian drummers on the lawn and the surviving members of the orchestra grouped at the bottom of the garden, as Robert put it, like antelope round a water hole.
Robert had a genius for entertainment. If you weren’t being entertaining yourself, you could be sure he would be. He was a perfect host—and a perfect guest. Well, maybe “perfect” would be putting it too strongly. As anyone knows who visited Downshire Hill, Robert was not much good at washing up. But he was a remarkable and energetic cook, journeying to Brixton to buy akee and saltfish and breadfruit, or to Shaftesbury Avenue for water chestnuts, capable of spending all day in the kitchen perfecting a recipe for lettuce soup. In Rio de Janeiro he once cooked a curry for sixty; in Finsbury Park I saw him organise a Yoruba feast featuring twenty different dishes, with palm wine and imported Nigerian Guinness.
Robert loved many things, but he loved food most of all. He cooked with a sense of occasion, of ritual, of loving awareness of the materials he used and the culinary traditions he worked in. It was his way of taming gluttony, his besetting vice. It was also a way of celebrating the physical world and sharing it with his friends. The flat in Downshire Hill became a lively meeting place. We were all sorry when the house was sold. But by that time Robert had been posted abroad again, as commercial consul in Rio de Janeiro.
He was fascinated by Brazil, a country where African and European influences blend in a unique and remarkable way. He became fluent in Portuguese and applied himself wholeheartedly to his diplomatic work. He gained intense satisfaction from the daily challenge of living in another society, learning to read the hidden signs of culture and difference. In this sense he was a natural anthropologist. In Africa the old-established cultures of Ghana and Nigeria had lived up to his expectations; in Brazil, though, after an initial period of intoxication, he was disappointed. He found the country seductive, but without the spiritual depth he had found in West Africa. The glaring social inequalities of Brazil both excited and disturbed him.
Like E.M. Forster Robert sought to be loved and trusted across barriers of income, race and class. Being gay was a fate he did not complain about. But it was his misfortune to come to full awareness of his sexual orientation only after he entered the Diplomatic Service, where homosexuality is proscribed.
Gay people learn when young the art of the bluff, unconsciously developing techniques of dissimulation and concealment, not giving anything away, leading a double life. These are also the arts of diplomacy. Robert was a master of the facade. And he was, by all accounts, an accomplished diplomat. He believed in his work. He served his country with loyalty and discretion.
This loyalty did not fail him in his illness. Up to the moment of his collapse in 1985 Robert was a mainstay of the consulate in Rio. But the conflict between his work and his private life took its toll. There was no suggestion of indiscretion or scandal. He often spoke, however, of the necessity of abandoning his career in the diplomatic service. Afterwards, in England, when he had regained the balance of his mind for a time and was working again at the Foreign Office, he argued eloquently against the regulations that discriminate against gay people in the diplomatic service. At that time he could, perhaps, have found a position in the home civil service, but he knew that he would be doubly disqualified from foreign postings, by his sexual inclinations and his psychiatric history. This caused him considerable distress.
A fine-tuned sensibility
Robert’s most striking gifts were those that have often been associated with a homosexual temperament: a fine-tuned sensibility, a way of seeing and feeling available only to those who stand at an angle to the social universe, a quickness and empathy denied those whose path through life is straight. In his illness these gifts were not obscured, rather intensified to an unbearable degree.
He had no history of mental illness until 1985 and no intimation of the sudden collapse he experienced in Rio in the autumn of that year. For the following three years he rode a roller coaster of desperate elation and terrible despair. He was diagnosed and treated as suffering from manic depression, but treatment brought only brief respite from his suffering. And Robert suffered harshly from the memory of what he had lost—not status, which he learned to scorn, but a role in life that he could occupy with dignity. He sought a new vocation. It was hard to find.
Robert was born into faith. His parents were devout Christians. In adulthood his faith grew dim, but he did not quite cease to believe. His love for the church was expressed through a passionate interest in ecclesiastical architecture and the old forms of prayer. Towards the end of his life, in his time of trouble, he came to feel the presence of God strongly. This was accompanied by an overwhelming sense of sin. During this time, ecstatic religious experiences alternated with sensations of abandonment, and a state of despair, which Robert believed to be the sin against the Holy Ghost. In the depths of his depression he felt convinced that he was already in hell.
In the manic flights which alternated with these long reaches of depression Robert discovered religious truths on which he hoped to build a new life. And in times of remission from the extremes of his illness he tried vigorously to rescue these insights from what he described as the slag heap of his mania. In the struggle with the forces of darkness Robert’s spirit was never broken. But he preferred, finally, to retire from the fray.
Let me conclude with two images of Robert. One is in the woods above Croft Castle in Herefordshire, that part of the country he loved more than anywhere else. Robert’s knowledge of local history imbued it with a powerful sense of antiquity, of the continuity of our time with the past. There is an iron-age fortress here, Croft Ambery, with views up and down the marches and into Wales. Robert loved to walk and talk here; for a time, after his return to England, he lived close by with his brother Peter, a loyal friend to him throughout his time of tribulation. Here, we hope, some trees will be planted in his memory.
And now picture Robert in his last days, when he was sectioned in the Maudsley Hospital in London. Even during the worst of times he made whatever place he was in a better place to be. He did not take kindly to confinement and never tired of schemes to transform his ward into a weekend house party. When he ceased to enliven others, he ceased to want to live.
Perhaps only Robert could have conjured the following event into being: on a gloomy afternoon at the hospital enjoining silence on his fellow patients to ask his visitor to sing for them. Imagine the long corridors, and the drugged lassitude of the hospital, the grim weather and the plastic chairs. And Robert, bent on transcending the circumstances that had dragged him down, once again beguiling a friend of his into something beyond the ordinary.
This was just a few months back. Now Robert is forever beyond the ordinary. But his friend, the soprano, Tamsin Dives, is here with us today. The song she sang for Robert was the old English folk song “Waly Waly”.
The water is wide. I cannot get over.
Neither have I wings to fly…
Now she will sing it once more, for us, and for Robert, in the beyond.
One of Robert’s fellow-diplomats, though he hardly knew Robert, was moved by his fate to write an account of a meeting with him in 1988, including an interpretation of his breakdown. He also linked Robert’s career to an account of the subsequent evolution of gay rights in the British Foreign Office.
Order of service