Thanks for Everything, But He’s Gone

Colin Barnfather_2The Agony of Waiting for Bad News

The last four days have been unique in my experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to have never had a relative go missing. And then my uncle, Colin Barnfather went missing up in the Scottish Highlands. He’s been found, but he’s not coming back.

My Mum and her husband have been up there for the last few days with the Fort William police and the Mountain Rescue teams, scouring the huge and beautiful wilderness. They found him today. It seems he fell from a ridge and likely died on impact. That was at least five days ago, so he’s been dead since before we thought he was missing.

And what have I been doing in this time? There was almost nothing I could do. The most useful thing I’ve done is share a picture and some words. I guess that’s a lot more than we could have done fifteen years ago. I’m very grateful to all our friends, family (and complete strangers) who have passed on his details through this vast extended network we now have. Lots of people have also sent their best wishes, which is very touching.

I only had one uncle, and he was an enigmatic, funny, interesting guy. I find it hard to say at what point he became a major feature in my life. He’s a quiet man, with a ridiculous loud laugh that always instantly pinpointed his location in a room for me.

When I was much younger, probably as far back as I can remember, Colin was a quiet smiling dark presence and a moustache. Ah the moustache! He was probably the first person I’d seen or knew who had a moustache. I do recall being fascinated and possibly slightly scared of it. In my memory he seems so tall, but in fact he ended up being somewhat shorter than me. My god but he stood up straight. I don’t think I’ve known many people who were fitter, despite being twenty years older than me I was frequently shamed by our relative fitness. But then I do have twenty years to catch up and get fit (this is not going to happen).

I don’t think he really knew what to do with us when we were very little (my brother, sister and I), other than be there at family occasions, smile and sometimes be slightly gruff. I find myself the same with my nieces. In very many ways Colin is the family member I considered myself to be most like: I don’t look a lot like my Dad or my Mum, or very much like Colin for that matter. But we both have rather nice eyebrows – and a moustache. So that made sense. He often seemed a quiet, introverted person, which was certainly something I could associate with in my teens.

What drew us together I think, was fantasy and SF. He got me onto the Discworld novels. By then I was already well saturated in SF, but Pratchett shifted the relationship to one of ritual and tradition. For years I’d get the next hardback Discworld novel for birthday or Christmas (not always from Col), and if not that then some other relentlessly awesome SF or fantasy. Eventually I was able to take great pleasure in returning the favour, seeking out newer, weirder and sometimes better SF and fantasy for both Colin and my Mum. It became one of those things we talked about. SF does seem to run down both sides of our family, which is an immensely satisfying legacy to drown the generation in.

I’m not certain when our relationship shifted beyond that of biannual gift giving. I think it must have been around when my Nanna died, leaving Colin and my Mum alone. I don’t think either of them ever really got over that.

I just had a flashback to being at Nanna’s house when she lived on Lawn Avenue in Allestree. I was fascinated by the room that Colin used to have there – I should mention that our family are terrifying hoarders, I mean really awful at throwing things away (it’s possible that my siblings have partially evaded this curse / gift) – and his old room still had intriguing things like a globe of the moon and odd little cars and a duvet that felt enormous.

Anyway, it must have been around then that we found a certain kinship in humour and attitude to life. That is to say, somewhat cynical, often sarcastic (and often hugely unpopular). I think that’s why both Marilyn and I got on with Colin so well – we made each other laugh. We also seemed to naturally slide into the pen for the darker sheep of the family side (which I was happy to take from my brother, once he turned all respectable). For reasons that were unclear to any of us, people felt they should just leave their kids with us at events. It might have been because we all gravitated towards the toys and colouring pencils, but a trio of people less likely to look after your kids would be hard to find.

He became a much more regular facet of my life when we started doing monthly improv comedy shows in Nottingham. To both of our surprises he was there virtually every month. It is immensely satisfying to make your family laugh, and his distinctive laugh made me laugh too whenever I heard it. It’s also been very personally rewarding to have that support. I hadn’t realised until a few days ago just for how long and how deeply embedded Colin had become in that monthly event – not just for me and Marilyn, but for the rest of the gang. From the chaotic days at the Art Org where we’d do the show and then have to break down the set, with Colin always helping and chatting, to the new days at Glee where we can go straight to the bar and get an hour or so of conversation and socialising. He’s been a proper fixture, and all the messages of support and comments from our mutual friends have been wonderfully uplifting.

Colin and me, doing what we did most of the time that we were together.
Colin and me, doing what we did most of the time that we were together.

At times I worried that he was lonely – he was a single man living on his own (with heaps of stuff), and it sounded like a lonely life. Except it wasn’t – there wasn’t just us looking forwards to seeing him, there was everybody else he saw at work and in his insane fitness regime. It’s sad, but these past few days have put me in touch with so many people who loved Col just as much as I did and saw him even more often. I’m delighted (entirely the wrong word, but I don’t know what to use instead) to find that he affected so many people, made so many people happy with his cheerful, determined personality, that he was loved so widely for being exactly the person I loved.

There are a great many people who will miss my uncle. I will miss Colin. He was like the big brother I never had. Thanks Colin, for being yourself – that’s I liked about you. That has always been inspirational to me – you can fit in without giving up anything you hold dear; something worth knowing.

While I’m sad that he died alone, far away from everyone it is exactly the sort of place he loved – alone, far away from everyone. So it’s hard for me to feel too bad about his dying there. If he could have chosen to, he would have come back, so that he could go out and off on his own another time. In this case, he couldn’t choose otherwise and I feel as if he would have accepted that, in his fall and known it was a beautiful place to die.

The place where they recovered Colin's body yesterday.
The place where they recovered Colin’s body yesterday.

For Others 

That said… if you are going to go out walking alone, or even with others – leave a note. Tell people where you’re going. I’m so grateful to the people who helped to find my uncle, from the Fort William police to the Lochhaber Mountain Rescue team who recovered his body, to the RAF and navy helicopter crews who dropped teams in the wild. Finding Colin a few days earlier wouldn’t have made any difference, but it might to someone else.

http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/news/clive-campaign-aims-to-speed-up-rescue-call-outs/009623/

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45 Comments

    1. I know! I’m only just realising how many people knew. I suppose we usually only see a person in one context or another. This is sad, but lovely.

  1. Of the many fine words you’ve drafted in memory of your uncle the one that resonates most is enigmatic. He most certainly was ; as well as determined, charismatic, dedicated and immensely professional. I worked with him for many years and will miss his inquisitive nature and unique sense of humour.
    RIP Colin.

  2. I’ve been following this story all week, and am so sorry to hear the sad news. Lovely piece about a lovely man.

  3. I dont know you or your uncle but your words are a wonderful tribute to someone you very obviously admired and loved…. Very poignant! Sorry for your loss.

  4. I knew Colin from Air Cadets over 15 years ago, but I knew him as Flying Officer Barnfather of course, he was a great bloke and I had the pleasure of trips to the Peak District and Snowdonia with him doing what he loved best. The walks and trips made during my time at cadets gave me the bug and a hobby that I still enjoy to this day and I would like to thank Mr Barnfather for his part in that initial experience. Rest in Peace.

    1. Thanks for commenting Dave, if you have any stories from back then (and would like to share them) we’d love to hear them. I’m glad he passed on his love of walking out in the wilds.

  5. High Nick. So very sorry to hear the news about Colin. I knew him from work. We worked together in the early 80s and I believe he used to go on family holidays with his parents, his sister you three children and the rest of the family. I recall him mentioning his brother-in-laws dad’s dog on a number of occasions. He also talked about you ( his nephews and nieces) he said that those children know no fear! They jump off cliffs and into swimming pools even though they can’t swim. At that time Colin was a bit of a boy racer – he drove an XR2i and told stories of how he had sped around Markeaton Lane and it gave visions of him taking the bends on two wheels.
    I haven’t seen much of Colin over recent years but I have come across him in a set of Lunchtime across country races of a handicap nature and the last time we competed he came storming past me just before the finish.
    I really enjoyed reading your tribute and could well relate to parts of it like his very loud laugh.
    He was well respected at work and was always very self confident right from when he first joined the company. I can’t believe that he won’t just come back non chalantly telling us that it was just a trip and he is fine now. God Bless.

    1. Hi Andy, we did go on holiday as a family group in the ’80s, up to Kirby Lonsdale – some of my favourite memories are from up there. I also broke my arm when the three of us decided it would be a good idea to jump off a really high wall: fearless/stupid. This is a wonderful insight to a part of his life I really don’t know!

  6. I knew Colin through the ATC and I respected him and the work he did. He will be sorely missed. I feel for you in your loss and your words really struck a chord with me.

  7. I’m very sorry indeed to hear about this, Nick, and sincere condolences to you, your mum and family. I worked with Colin on and off at RR, and I like many others heard the news on Friday and hoped for a better outcome, which was sadly not to be. However, as you have alluded to, and as clichéd as it may sound, it’s not a bad way to go, doing something you really enjoy. But he deserved 20 or 30 more years of hiking and adventure holidays, and that’s the tragedy. All the very best to you, and RIP Colin.

    1. Thanks Will. I agree, it seems all too soon. While I’m sure he would have chosen to come back it’s exactly the kind of place I can imagine him being quite happy to stay in.

  8. I too knew Colin through the ATC, as Flight Lieutenant Barnfather. The squadron today announced the news and our ensign flew at half mast as a sign of respect. To do what he loved best, our squadron spent the night doing fitness and sports in dedication to Colin. He was a great man and loved by all, a Guard of Honour should be attending his funeral.

    1. Thank you George. It makes me feel very proud of my uncle to hear that. I don’t know how to arrange a guard of honour…

  9. Beautifully written. I only met Colin last year but your words truly resonate with my experience of him. An understated, hugely generous man, his loss will be felt in many, many places xx

  10. Jill and I are still here in the highlands waiting to complete the tasks and paperwork associated with the tragedy. We are presently sitting on yet another supermarket car park waiting to undertake the next step. We know all the supermarket car parks in Inverness! We have stayed in three different hotels Since Colin was found and his body recovered. Our main consolation at present is that we can read all the tributes and feel a continuing closeness to Colin as people record their memories. Thank you all, keep the thoughts flowing. We will continue to find supstores with WiFi access!!!

    1. Thanks for the update Mike. We’re thinking about you guys too. And I expect a full review of Inverness’ carparks on your return!

  11. Beautiful words Nick. My thoughts are with your family. Only met Colin once but I remember his laugh. (Worked with your mum at Springfield) Pass my love on to your mum

  12. What a really nice and well written tribute. I worked with Colin on and off for the last 12 years or so, and much more closely of recent times. I always found his directness and utter integrity and honesty refreshing. Probably the most professional individual I’ve known, with a great sense of humour and as you rightly note a very loud laugh! All my best wishes to you and your family at this difficult time. Rest in Peace Colin.

    1. Thanks for your kind words Iain. I’m going to be searching for a recording of his laugh – we must have one somewhere!

  13. Beautifully written, Nick. It’s really hard to write a eulogy but, you seem to have captured the essence of a wonderful man in this piece. I can tell he was a wonderful man because of his love of science fiction – it could be no other way. 🙂

  14. Thank you for such a wonderful eulogy. Colin lived but a few doors down the road from where I used to live as a child and I attended ATC where he was an officer. More than twenty years on I can still remember his enigmatic personality and passion for life. Although I’ve not seen Colin in a few years I know that he’ll be missed by all that had known the pleasure of his company.

  15. Colin alway brought focus with his ability to see the wood from the trees. I worked with Colin over the past few years and have benifited from his wisdom. Sadly missed

  16. Lovely tributes. LA Fitness friends Graham and Sarah will be joining other gym buddies in the Pitcher and Piano tomo evening from 8p.m to toast the generous, energetic, determined, self assured and peaceful man we all knew, loved and exercised with Please join us if you can.

  17. A lovely article Nick. Still coming to terms with the idea that Colin isn’t coming back. I’ve known him for around 20 years and we have spent many hours working together and many a lunchtime playing bridge. In fact he was supposed to be playing next Tuesday night at the Brunswick after he’d been to the gym as we have been doing for several months now. We will all be raising our glasses to him.

  18. Nick, your article is a lovely and heart warming tribute to Colin. It sums him up perfectly. I knew him from work and I will remember his laugh and his smile. It’s still hard to believe that we won’t see him again.

  19. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this tribute – it sums him up perfectly. Colin was a regular fixture at the gym and I can’t believe he’s gone. Last Saturday the instructor set up his equipment for him, in his usual spot, so it was like he was still with us. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place. RIP Colin – you were fab x x x

    1. Assume this was body pump class Isobelle? We were not there but what better tribute, Thanks for sharing x x Sarah and Graham

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