Chepstow

Tributes to Stephen Henig

Tributes to Stephen Henig, a long-standing member of our Creative Writing group whom we lost in September, 2020

STEPHEN (Val Ormrod, convener)

‘Oh, am I going to write something?’ Stephen asked at our first creative writing gathering in September 2012 when I suggested everyone took out their notebook and pen. I was never quite sure whether he was joking as he had a wonderfully wicked and well-developed sense of humour that was reflected in his writing. Even when describing some of the bleakest incidents or penning the most macabre fiction, he managed to inject a light touch of humour. But I did have to supply pen and paper for that first meeting!

Stephen had many endearing eccentricities. Having suffered problems with his teeth, he came to our meeting a few years ago smiling widely to show off his new set of sparkling white dentures. A year later, he arrived minus his teeth declaring he’d lost them. After that the appearance of his teeth was erratic, with Stephen pronouncing them either elusive during his search for them or claiming they no longer fitted. It didn’t seem to occur to him to revisit his dentist. Other missing items like reading glasses and socks also seemed to plague him but naturally he claimed that his house was full of poltergeists who moved them!

Stephen continued to attend our sessions every month until early this year when his health deteriorated. I think he only missed 2 or 3 meetings in all that time and always brought along a new piece of writing to entertain us. His writing output was vast and wide-ranging, as was his imagination, although many of his true-life tales were equally enthralling. For a number of years, he was the only male in the group but that didn’t seem to bother him, even claiming that made him the class ‘pet’!

Stephen will be very much missed. Here are some of the things other members have written about him.

***

STEPHEN STORY-TELLER (Barbara Girardet)

Stephen is the only boy
Weirdest, wildest tales his ploy
Ghosts and ghoulies he employs
Often leaves us quite amazed
While he himself is calm, unfazed.
He’s our mascot, he’s our joy
He’s our very own toy-boy!

He sits, plump and smiling, like a happy Buddha. The writers file in and take their places around the table in the upper room of the Church. He greets everyone with an impish, twinkling eye that belies the pain his arthritic body is suffering. Bare feet thrust into open sandals, even on the bitterest of winter days, the only clue that his physical condition is in need of attention. His ailing heart beats with a warmth and a joie de vivre that makes him glow. Beside him large shopping bags are filled with Marks and Spencer ready meals. He enthusiastically holds forth on the good quality of the chunky oven chips and his good fortune at having spied venison sausages and chicken tikka marsala among the reduced items.

He is a kindly, gentle presence, full of old world charm and politeness, with a strong hint of the naughty little boy. He is a great admirer of Shakespeare and Dickens and a knowledgeable lover of Grand Opera. Like all inherently interesting people he has hidden depths. A flip side to his personality. This charming, naughty little boy has an imagination so bizarre he can leave his listeners in fits of laughter, close to tears, or gasping at the horror he is unveiling. All done with consummate ease as he slips from one story to another. He can transform, in a totally plausible scenario, the angelic Tiny Tim, hero of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, into a monster of greed, cruelty and over-weening ambition, set in a London every bit as real as Dickens’ 19C city. He can narrate a hilarious romp, as Santa Claus high on magic mushrooms, navigates around the world delivering Christmas presents to unsuspecting children. He tells chillingly of his stay in the house at Soham where the horrific murders of two young school girls was to take place some years later, using the same bathroom in which the girls would be killed. He ventures into the horror of a prehistoric monster prowling the underground railway system in London, a real threat to our beloved Monarch.

Spellbound by his narratives, waiting for the inevitable twist in the tale, his listeners sit attentive, focused as his gravelly voice rumbles on.

Now, Stephen has ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’, the writers’ meetings will be left the poorer.

***

STEPHEN (Hermoine Ford)

I don’t think you could ever meet two people like Stephen Henig in your life. But I feel lucky to have met one.

Even now, when I think of Stephen, I want to smile in the nicest possible way. There was something so very lovely about his personality. I don’t think he had a bad thought about anybody.

I knew Stephen in the years he came to creative writing. We were among the first to join and none of us wanted to miss a meeting. Stephen was always bubbling with joy and never complained about anything or anyone.

His writing was always weird and wonderful, well written and with great imagination. We all looked forward to what would come next. I really believed that he could have been the next Stephen King, but I think that Stephen just enjoyed coming to creative writing and being part of our group. Certainly we enjoyed his being there and he was usually the only male in the group.

I don’t think that Stephen ever married. His socks were the same; often not matching and sometimes he just had one sock on and at other times, none. We often bumped into him in the charity shops where he ferreted around for suits and other things, which he was proud to show us and tell us how much he had saved. He was without pride or guile – a really genuine and lovely person.

He came to class one day and said he could not find his teeth. This went on for a couple of months, but it neither embarrassed nor fazed him. I wondered how on earth he managed at home and imagined it to be chaotic with Stephen talking away to himself and sometimes getting answers.

Once, I sat with him on a bus to Newport. He did not stop talking for one moment. I did not know much about him personally, but I learnt that he had a brother who was a bishop. This brother was very esteemed in his family and I think Stephen felt in his shadow. He had been a teacher at a private school and I am sure he was very good at his job, but he never thought a great deal of himself, perhaps because his brother achieved so much.

Stephen’s health was not good, but even when he related the many times he had to go to hospital and receive all sorts of treatment, he did not make much of it. I worried about him and felt he needed someone to look after him; he seemed very vulnerable. But he joked about everything and even in his last e-mail to me, I did not realise just how ill he had become.

I am saddened to know that he has left us, but he had a strong, Christian faith. I imagine him in his new, joyous surroundings, amusing all around him with his stories and being his wonderful, lovely self. It was lovely knowing you, Stephen.

***

ODE TO STEPHEN (Shelagh Davies)

We will not forget the royal stain
That disastrous party
The departing train.
We have lived and breathed
Your student days
Your teaching years
Your singular ways.
Though we mourn the loss
Of your extraordinary mind
We are chock-full of memories
Of the very best kind.
A beaming face
An M & S bake
Remarkable writing
(And make no mistake).
The kindest of hearts
Describing a hilarious jape
And whispering
The Yeti’s a bear – not an ape!

***

A PERSONAL REFLECTION ON STEPHEN (Jan Goodman-Butler)

We looked up from our notebooks in anticipation. It was Stephen’s time to share his writing with the group. Sheaves of white paper tumbled from his bag in a hurry to escape. Having known Stephen for some time, I was eager to hear his interpretation of Val’s task, knowing his reputation to go ‘off piste’ and take the listener on a journey into the unknown – colourfully illustrated with references to mythology. Some of us visibly relaxed, as we were aware that time would not allow us to share our own efforts.
Teacher, and often commentator on the world, Stephen’s intellect was vast. Our lives seemed shallow when compared to his wealth of knowledge of different cultures – it enriched his life and allowed the listener a glimpse into his past and to wonder at his reflections. There were moments when he delved into his early years and with tinge of sadness revealed his philosophical attitude to his own life and yet very quickly could counter this with something witty and make us smile. A rare talent.
The room held its breath. We were not disappointed!

***

STEPHEN (Lesley Jones)

Stephen Henig was a ‘tour de force’ in the Creative Writing Group. From the very beginning eight years ago we were all enthralled to listen to his latest offering. Stephen’s imagination was unparalleled. We usually had a topic and a number of words to stick to, Stephen ignored those instructions and regaled us in his own inimitable way with something quite long and of literary genius.
We didn’t mind, as it was a joy (if that’s the right word) to listen to his often gruesome, sometimes blood chilling offerings. That wasn’t his only genre, nothing seemed out of his sphere of knowledge. We learned about distant stars and planets, days long gone by or in the future – his imagination knew no bounds.
The son of a GP, we were often amused with stories about his home life and his schooldays, much of which were based on fact. He even managed to include a visit by the Queen Mother to his school which appears to have been quite a dramatic place.
His first place of work was a high class furniture shop in London, selling beds to well off people. Feeling himself unsuited to that, he trained to be a teacher, a situation which was far more apposite. He appeared to have been everywhere and had some unbelievable experiences, many of which he wove into his stories. We often asked if what he had written was true, it seemed so incredible. Usually it was, if a little couched in his extraordinary writing.
I often gave Stephen a lift home on the first Wednesday of the month. He had given up his car due to ill health, he could get to Chepstow by bus but to return meant his having to leave early. On those journeys back to Mynyddbach we had some lovely conversations. I learned what a kind generous man he was, and also how well-read and learned. His knowledge of literature, the theatre and opera was immense as was his love of history and nature. He would tell me about school trips he had taken pupils on, to see Shakespeare at the theatre especially at Stratford. Unable to go far to enjoy these pursuits in recent years he enjoyed watching television. We often discussed the programs we had both seen, and he loved to watch his vast collection of Opera DVDs.
I hadn’t seen Stephen since February; he was too ill to come in March and I was so sorry to receive the sad news that he had passed away. When we get back together I think we will all agree that we will very much miss the larger than life, unique, lovely human being that was Stephen Henig.

***

MEMORIES OF STEPHEN HENIG (Jude Kelman)

Stephen was a man you could never forget. A wonderful eccentric, a unique and immensely likeable man. Funny, intelligent, someone from a former era.
His writings showed his wicked sense of humour and imagination. Perhaps a frustrated science fiction writer? He had great knowledge of history and literature and could talk for hours on the subjects. His was a considerable presence in the writing group.

It was easy to guess that one of his favourite authors was Charles Dickens, because, from his appearance he was the epitomy of a Dickens’ character, from his mop of grey curls, his round merry face and rotund body, to his feet without socks! As someone who cannot bear the slightest pain in my feet I often wondered why he chose not to wear socks.

Whenever I managed to get to the writing class, my trudge up the stairs was invariably rewarded by seeing Stephen already sitting waiting for the rest of us to arrive, and, as a quiet person, who doesn’t find chatting easy, it was useful for me to have a chatterbox to talk to, as he was rarely lost for words.

Perhaps more than his fantastical writings, which were always entertaining, I most enjoyed stories from his own life. His almost Dickensian school days, which make your hair curl today, especially as they were so recent. And his life as a teacher; imagine, if you knew Stephen, having him as a teacher! Surely there would never be a dull moment. I would have loved to have heard more stories from his life.

When I first met Stephen he was living with his mother and, from his descriptions, they were a good pair! Both interested in similar things. He must have missed her a lot when she died. He did have his brother living with him for a bit, but I don’t think that worked out as they were so different to each other and they disagreed.

He had a gift for making people laugh, and I think he enjoyed entertaining us. When it was his turn to read his story of the month we were laughing even before he began, as
we had a pretty good idea of what was coming. A larger than life person in every way, Stephen will be sadly missed. I have always appreciated eccentrics and, unfortunately they seem to be a dying race.

Thank you Stephen, for lighting up my life a little.

***

GHOST STORIES INSPIRED BY STEPHEN"S OWN STORIES by Laraine Golding

1.
I decided to visit the library and had wandered into the fiction section when I heard whispering. I looked round but there was nobody near me. I leaned towards the W section and picked up a copy of the Time Machine. Behind me, the library dimmed and the shelves disappeared.

I was in a darkish study, with a large mahogany desk in front of the window and an old fashioned leather-seated chair which must have dated from the turn of the century. The 20th century that is. Walking over to the desk, I looked down and saw a notebook, open and covered with writing. I peered at it more closely and then noticed the smell of cigar smoke behind me. Turning quickly, I saw the Great Man himself. He did seem to notice me, but I moved to the bookshelf on the far side of the desk and he sat down. He scribbled in his notebook for some few minutes and then put down the fountain pen he had been scratching away with. It was rather an attractive example, I noticed, a Parker by the looks of it. He then tore a page from the book, screwed it up and grunting in disgust, threw it on the floor. It landed at my feet and I bent down and picked it up. It appeared to be blank, but just as I held it to the window to check, the door opened and a woman walked in. She put her hand on his shoulder and spoke to him, but I didn’t catch what she said.

He stood up and followed her from the room. I moved to the chair and was in the process of sitting down upon it when the light improved and I found myself sitting in the library. I shook my head, thinking that I should really cut down on the whiskey, and put my hand in my pocket for the handkerchief I always kept there. Instead I pulled out a piece of crumpled paper. I opened it and read ‘The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us…’

2.
The secret underground station constructed beneath the British museum has been closed to the public since the war. Stephen unlocked the door and walked slowly down the 39 steps to the ghostly platform. It was eerily quiet now, the last train having been through many years before. The lights, which Stephen had flicked on just inside the door were pale in comparison to a fully functioning, modern underground station. Just bright enough to cast long shadows, they made wavering shapes as he passed by.

He walked to the end of the platform, his footsteps echoing in a padding rhythm and sending up puffs of dust that had settled over the long, silent years. He wished he had brought his stick and then reflected that although it might give him a weapon, albeit a basic one, it would also have made the echoes far louder and sharper, alerting any would-be attacker to his presence.

He peered into the tunnel and thought there may have been a glimmer of light there, swaying, lighting up first one side, and then the other, of the glistening, curved wall. As he stood, deciding what to do, he heard a screech that could wake the dead. It took him a moment to recall the sound, then he realised it was the brakes of a train, hurtling towards him from behind. Almost instantly it rushed past him in a cloud of steam and disappeared into the tunnel again. An acrid smell drifted around him, smoke, and coal, with that touch of metallic heat, unmistakable, of a nineteenth century engine. He had noticed a few of the people on the train, mostly men, wearing a variety of hats. Some bowlers, a few stovepipes and the odd topper. The women appeared to have been wearing bonnets from a bygone era.

As Stephen mused over the strangeness of this, an almighty squeal of brakes rang along the tracks, and the deafening sound of crunching and grinding metal issued from the tunnel. It went on for several minutes, punctuated by what sounded like explosions, and the screams and shouts of frightened and injured people. The glow of fire reddened the darkness and air poured onto the platform as if pumped by a set of bellows.

Then, silence. And in the gloom Stephen could just make out a signalman, waving his lantern from side to side in warning, as he slowly exited the gaping maw of the now dark-again tunnel behind him.