One autumn day in 2010 I took a call on the business phone. “I need a website,” the caller said. “I don’t really know why, or how they work, but I’ve been told I need a website and I gather you’re the person that does things like that.” The caller’s name? Candida Lycett Green – author, writer, Champion of England, daughter of poet John Betjeman, and my first “celebrity” client – though she laughed raucously when I told her that
At the time I hadn’t actually been building websites all that long. I’d built my own in WordPress, and a couple for friends, and a couple for trusting clients, and I’d only just started advertising it as a service. Candida had somehow found my details via Google; to this day I don’t know what she searched for, as my own website wasn’t performing too well in the search engines back then.
We arranged to meet at Candida’s house in Uffington, and despite feeling overawed about the whole situation, from the moment I spotted the welcoming “Green and Co” sign on the gate I had a feeling things would go well. After waiting what seemed an age for someone to answer the door, Candida appeared in jeans and scruffy jumper, showed me up to her office and told me to let myself in next time because “nobody bothers with the bell”!
For two hours Candida and I talked about her website, what she wanted to do with it, what she actually could do with it and how much it would cost. We got on fantastically well, not least because she swore like a trooper, which made me feel very relaxed, and I really warmed to her. “No wonder you’re called The Proof Fairy,” she told me. “It’s just like having the doctor here. Actually no, it’s more like seeing a psychiatrist. You’re solving all my problems!” However, when we were finished she flicked me away with her hand and returned to her own work without a word. I was surprised at being left to let myself out, but there was something charming about her even in her offhand dismissal.
I put together a website for her, added lots of her Oldie articles and really enjoyed reading her beautiful prose about unwrecked England. Over the years I’ve continued maintaining the website, adding articles every week, finding appropriate photos to match the outstanding writing. I read a couple of Candida’s books, learnt about her childhood in rural Farnborough and her road trip around the country on horseback following a breast cancer diagnosis. Through Candida I met Justin Gowers, the driving force behind the John Betjeman Poetry Competition for Young People, and I built and maintain a website for him too.
The ongoing work led to many return visits to Mill House, and Candida came to my house too. I met her delightful husband Rupert and her much-loved Jack Russell, Spot, who licked my shoes while we talked. She name-dropped constantly – David Hockney, Nicky Haslam, Prince Charles – but I soon realised this wasn’t in any way meant to impress me: these people were just part of her Iife; indeed Prince Charles was a personal friend. I was invited to drinks at Mill House one Christmas, encouraged to bring my children, and my daughter – who was a huge Harry Potter fan – was awestruck by a story Candida told about meeting Robbie Coltrane.
When Candida’s last book, Seaside Resorts, was published I typed up extracts from the hard copy to post on the website, because she’d misplaced the electronic manuscript, and sourced images from Wikimedia Commons when she couldn’t find the originals. She gave me a copy, which I treasure; inside she wrote “To Alison, the wonder woman.” My own favourite seaside resort, Cromer, was described as “a magical place” in the book and we discussed it at some length one morning. I was also amazed to discover Candida was a regular visitor to Dahab, a little-known Egyptian Red Sea resort I was about to go to. It was little things like this that transformed Candida from ‘just’ a client into someone I’d consider a friend. She knew how to make one feel special, and she did it so very well.
One day Candida said she wanted to get into Twitter because her friend Susan Hill used it all the time, so I helped her set up an account and showed her how to tweet. It took her a while to get the hang of it – or the point of it – but after a few aborted starts she became quite the Twitter convert, sharing her views on the English countryside, and photos of Spot. Candida and Rupert supported Spurs and I was a Chelsea fan; every now and then I’d get a personal tweet about a game, usually (but not always) berating her team: “@Proof_Fairy O Spurs why do you not mark the mighty Ben Fica strikers? #depressedinuffington”. They always made me smile, as did her emails, with their multitude of kisses.
But then I received an email no one wants to read. “I’ve got some pretty nasty cancer going on (much worse than the first and inoperable) and am in a chemo tunnel at the mo, which has no real light at the end, only a possible slowing up. Meanwhile I’m trying to work as normal. Love Mrs Green xxxxxxxx” Candida had beaten breast cancer some years before, and I assumed she’d overcome this cancer too. She continued sending new articles for the website for several months, and we spoke on the phone a few times too. The chemotherapy had shrunk the tumour, Candida said; treatment was going well. But a few weeks later I heard from Justin that there were further tumours and the outlook was bleak, and then, in August, Candida passed away, peacefully and surrounded by her family. Her death touched me deeply; she was ‘only’ a client, I’d known her for less than four years, didn’t know her all that well really – but she’d become part of my Iife and I’d grown very fond of her.
Yesterday was her memorial service, a celebration of her life, and I was honoured to be invited. The small church in Uffington was packed, as was the marquee outside where a big screen relayed the proceedings, and, fittingly, the order of service read like a Who’s Who of Candida’s England: Georgie Fame sang the opening songs, Edward Fox and Kenneth Cranham did readings, Jools Holland turned the musical score’s pages for the pianist of the gospel choir, and Prince Charles and Camilla were in attendance too. It was a beautiful service, full of beautiful poems and music and memories, and it suited perfectly the beautiful person Candida was. Partway throughthe service a butterfly fluttered through the church door and surveyed the aisles; in a fanciful moment I thought perhaps it was Candida, come to visit.
Following the service everyone was invited back to the house – or rather, a large marquee in a field behind the house. Not being a Royalist, I wasn’t looking for an introduction to the Prince so I was rather staggered when he walked over to me and started chatting! He shook my hand, asked me if I was local and how I knew Candida, and when I explained I managed her website he told me how clever I was to do such a thing. It’s a sentiment I’d like to think Candida shared.
Farewell, Mrs Green …. Gone, but never forgotten. I miss all those kisses in my inbox.
Candida Lycett Green: 22.09.1942 – 19.08.2014