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Wensum column: Friends and family of former Fakenham writer Caroline Gilfillan sombre for her loss but grateful for her life

In his weekly column, Fakenham writer Jim Harding discusses the death of a published poet and author…

The death of Caroline Gilfillan recently was marked by a gathering of her many friends at Hempton Village Hall.

Somehow with an enlarged photo of her smiling face in one corner, her presence was almost tangible as contributions of her poetry, prose and music were performed by many of those in attendance.

Published author and poet Caroline Gilfillan
Published author and poet Caroline Gilfillan

Yes, we were a bit sombre for her loss but also grateful that this multi-talented lady had lived such a full life shared in one way or another with us all.

Personally, I got to know her after she moved to Fakenham in 2004 and joined some of the classes I attended at our Sports Centre.

I soon started to appreciate some of her writing skills, which is a territory I've much enjoyed myself down the years.

My favourite poetry collection of hers was entitled Yes, a nostalgic reminiscence of her early family life and particularly her father.

It was recognised as worthy of best poetry book in the annual East Anglia book awards one year.

Determined to write a series of crime novels, Caroline upped sticks from Fakenham and retreated to a quiet corner of the Lake District, presumably to find sufficient peace to work on these books.

I'm no great fan of this genre but what appealed to me as I read the first couple was the references which clearly stemmed from living in our town which she had got to know so well.

One of her most ambitious challenges was to combine a small group - including me - to perform extracts from her version of Samuel Pepys' Diary at an arts festival based in Holt.

In retrospect it was great fun but I reckon most of us were unsure just how well it might be received as we rehearsed this sometimes scary account of Sam's life in those deprived days when medical resources and much else were so scarce.

It even makes me wince now when I recall the passage about 'removal of the stone.'

I was less aware of Caroline's musical talents which were expressed by joining a number of groups - famously the Stepney Sisters who wrote and performed songs that targeted sexism and feminine struggles.

I can quite believe that this feisty girl sub-titled these recordings as 'beer swillers, women's libbers and bolshie Sheilas.'

Caroline was diagnosed with cancer in 2020 and fought it with her customary zeal, trying to carry on against the odds.

I last met her briefly six months ago when she 'dropped in' at the Sports Centre just after I'd finished a class there.

It's to her credit that we were able to chat and she never mentioned what her struggles were.

Although somewhat diminished in stature, I was unaware of her condition.

Sadly, as with so many others, she eventually lost the battle.

My personal tribute in Hempton was to quote from memory some lines from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, whose monument in north west Iran I'd paused at in the hamlet of Nishapur.

Offered space on the library floor there I was deeply moved by the verses displayed around the walls.

This one must suffice:

'We are no other than a moving row,

Of magic shadow shapes that come and go,

Round with the sun-illumined lantern,

Held in midnight by the master of the show.'

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