Alice Sykes (MM 1992-97) sadly died on 6th August aged 44. Her memorial was held on 6th October in Barnes, London, and was attended by many Old Marlburians. Kate Faber (MM/CO 1993-97) delivered the below eulogy and would like to share this for those that knew her.
A tribute to Alice Sykes
As I thought about standing up here today in front of you all, the question came to my mind –
How do you sum up a life so rich in joy and lived to the full, yet which also endured such great challenges and heartbreak, as was that of my dear friend Alice?
Astonishing resilience perhaps.
Along with unwavering enthusiasm, and an extraordinary strength of character and optimism.
Personally, however, there are a few things that always immediately come to mind when I think about Alice (or Lice, as she was affectionately known to many of you here today):
She was very small;
she was very naughty;
and she was, without a shadow of a doubt, the bravest person that I’ve ever known.
All of you will have your own memories of Alice, as someone who filled our lives with such joy and fun. And I probably knew her as well as anyone – having first met when we were about five years old, and with a deep friendship ever since.
But despite our long-lasting friendships, and the longevity of our relationships with Alice, what has struck me the most over the last couple of months as I’ve tried to digest the news that I hoped would never come, and seek to make sense of our near-40 years of friendship, is that there was so much more to Alice than met the eye.
She was always surprising. Often a collection of amusing contradictions. Perhaps even something of an enigma.
But never boring. Never lacking a sense of fun or mischief. Always kind, interesting and interested.
She was a daughter. A sister. An auntie. A sister-in-law. A godmother. A partner in crime. A friend to so many.
She was a force. And I, like you all, loved her very much.
One of the last times I saw Alice we talked about how she should write a book about her life – what she went through, what she achieved, what she overcame. She had so many extraordinary stories, and lived a life that, fortunately in some ways, most will not have to.
The first chapter of our story together began in Westport, CT in the 1980s.
My first memory of Alice is arriving at her family’s house in Westport to see a tiny little girl, with long flowing blond hair, dangling her legs over the edge of the pool, as if carefully contemplating her next naughty move.
She was in the year above me at school, and so we led separate lives during the week, but we were always friendly when saw each other, and when our families came together throughout the year, we were the best of friends.
I’d like to claim that it was Alice’s natural mischievousness that from time to time led me astray and down a few, by now notorious, roads of misbehaviors that our parents have never let us live down. But the truth is, we were co-conspirators who spurred each other on, and we had great fun in the process.
Setting fire to a treasured Sykes family painting during the annual Boxing Day event in Westport, not to mention scorching the wall in the process and nearly burning down the family home itself, while playing with candles.
Getting caught shoplifting sweets in the Bahamas aged 7.
The first illicit sips of alcohol. The first cigarette.
All adventures we proudly undertook together in our early years, and that we would build upon later on in life!
And of course, it would be impossible to talk about Alice without mentioning the infamous doughnut shop incident. I was filled with awe the day my mum received a panicked call from Alice’s sister Lucy (while Patti and Richard were out of the country on the QE2), to let her know that both Alice, aged 13, and a car that had been parked in the driveway, were missing! Lucy tracked her down at the local police station to learn that Alice, along with some friends, had taken the car and driven down the road to the local shops to buy cigarettes. Unfortunately, as they were leaving, Alice, who most likely could barely see over the top of the steering wheel, put the car into Drive instead of Reverse and went straight through a the window of a doughnut shop (which fortunately had no one in it at the time). It can be no coincidence that Alice turned up at boarding school in England soon after!
While there is a sense of pride still to this day in these naughty accomplishments of our early years, our early friendship was about much more than just getting up to trouble.
Or at least a little bit more…
I fondly remember playing together in the snow in the pristine, white New England winters;
Jumping in the swimming pool during thunderstorms, much to the obvious terror of our parents;
BBQs at Burying Hill beach;
Thanksgivings at Longshore Country Club;
Blazing a trail together for women’s football while playing for the Westport Chargers;
Boxing Day games, diligently put together by Richard every year
And studying together for Common Entrance as we both prepared to leave America for the strange, unknown of a secondary school in England.
Thanks largely to Alice’s impressive powers of persuasion on my father, we both eventually ended up at Marlborough College, now in the same school year, with our parents living just a few minutes’ walk from each other in London. And so, perhaps inevitably, Marlborough and London provided us with a new blank canvas for mischief…. and we didn’t waste much time…
Along with Zoe, we always carried with pride the title of ‘first personal bust by Mr Gould’, the new Headmaster at Marlborough – caught smoking together in the public loos in town during my second week at the school – very classy! Needless to say, our parents were thrilled…
We were ‘Nightwalking’ experts – climbing out the Millmead dorm windows and out into the Wiltshire countryside using ropes forged from tied-together bedsheets.
We hit the pubs and clubs of London with fake IDs, once going as far as escaping over the wall at Hurlingham so we could sneak to Crazy Larry’s, or the likes, while our parents believed us to be at a wholesome teen event!
And so onwards. Always close. Our lives seemingly invisibly intertwined.
Family holidays to Provence and Val de Lobo.
Family weddings – Lucy to Anil, William to Lisa, James to Charlie. My wedding. Her wedding.
Beyond Marlborough, through university (her at Oxford Brookes, me at Leeds), and beyond.
Our friendship never wavered. We did our own thing. We had our own lives. But Alice was always the one person I could be sure to see whenever we were both in London. She always made an effort, and so did I. Because of course that’s what great friends do.
It was effortless, and it was without consideration.
And then her life changed forever.
It is impossible to consider the totality of Alice’s life, and all of our relationships with her, without considering the effect of the terrible waterskiing accident in 2002, while on holiday with friends in the Caribbean. Her life as she knew it changed forever in an instant. She would never again be able to do any of the active pursuits that she so loved – skiing, tennis or even dancing without suffering the next day, to name a few. She would never again live without intense physical pain in her life.
No one should have to go through the pain, the knock-downs, the 27 operations, the two deep brain surgeries, the brain hemorrhage.
Most wouldn’t have endured the endless challenges to their spirit that Alice had to. Challenges that would have diminished the optimism and destroyed the sense of fun of most.
But not Alice.
It would be wrong to say that the accident shaped her, because Alice never allowed it to. But the impact it had on her life was obviously immense. It was also, however, in some ways a stimulus for her to achieve a number of amazing feats.
It saw her fight. She fought harder than anyone I’ve ever known. She was determined to live her life. She never lost her spirit, her joy, her uniqueness. She always had a positive outlook, and she was never grumpy when spending time with her friends.
Her positive attitude manifested itself in ways that turned challenging situations into opportunities. And it was in those opportunities that one finds some of the most amazing and surprising accomplishments:
After the accident she took a Masters degree in Physiology and Nutrition, and later had a small practice on Harley Street.
She worked with Chelsea football club as a nutritional advisor which, as a staunch Man United supporter, was perhaps one of the other great challenges she overcame!
She did volunteer work in Tanzania and traveled across India with friends, hopping off trains, planes and other vehicles without complaint, and lived for a while in California. She took up yoga. She lived her life.
Perhaps most memorably, she had a starring role on the cult BBC3 TV series that undoubtedly had the best title in the history of television – ‘Fat Men Can’t Hunt’!!
Fat Men Can’t Hunt requires its own chapter in anyone’s eulogy! My memories of this TV masterpiece are muddled by the blur of age, and a fair bit of confusion about exactly what on earth Alice was doing on it! And so, in preparing for today I re-read the BBC synopsis – it is so bizarre, and in some ways so typical of Alice’s personality, that I thought I had to read it out here today:
Eight western couch potatoes, all of them obese and whose idea of stressful eating is waiting for the pizza to arrive, are put to the biggest test of their lives: living with a bush tribe.
For a month, the contestants are thrown into the depths of the Kalahari desert in Namibia to live with the Khoi San Bushmen – living in a style reflecting our pre-historic ancestors.
The tribe are completely detached from modern society; their existence revolves around utilizing the land on which they live.
Under the tutelage of 10 San Bushmen, the contestants integrate into tribal life; build their own straw huts, make fires, gather food, hunt and cook roots, nuts and, hopefully, animals.
How will the contestants cope in the desert?
The effort of hunting food each day should prove to be a lot more exercise than our fat contestants are used to.
They’ll be straining from sugar, caffeine and nicotine withdrawal as their bodies undertake a complete detox. How will this make them feel?
Will they relish their new-found back-to-basics lifestyle or will it all prove too much for them? Will they become lean, mean killing machines?
Or will they simply be too heavy to hunt?
And so – into this reality TV nightmare in the African bush strolled an articulate, highly judgmental, small, blond lady from Kensington, with a somewhat undefinable accent, opining on a daily basis on the horrific habits, shameful bodies, and dreadful diets of the motley bunch of fame-hungry participants.
Of course, to those of us who knew Alice, and watched this latest career move from our sofas with a combination of admiration and astonishment, there was one enormous and obvious contradiction.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, and with an email signature containing more letters than the average Welsh town.
A reality TV dietary expert, who advises Premier League football clubs, with her own private medical practice…
And yet Alice was well known for her penchant for diet coke, Marlboro lights, and, of course, a good party!
The hilarity of the contradiction was not lost on Alice either.
And that was not the only seeming contradiction.
The heart of every party, Alice was probably never happier than with a cup of tea, a good book and some peace and quiet.
Never shy of offering an opinion, or dare I say a criticism, and with little tolerance of boring people, she was, at the same time a doting aunt to her nieces and nephews, Thomas, Ella, Harry and Imogen, and the most caring of friends – always kind, always wanting to listen, interested in her friends, their lives and their children, no matter what she was going through herself.
And never an ounce of self-pity.
Alice had a resilience which very few people, faced with such adversity, would ever get close to mustering. Her wedding to Charlie sadly did not endure – she was badly let-down and suffered further as a result – a compounding of pain that no one should have to experience. But Alice got on with life, and I can honestly say I never saw her once wallow in self-pity. Instead she looked forward. She stayed positive. She was, quite simply, extraordinary.
Despite that fact that the marriage did not last, and that her diagnosis with an aggressive autoimmune disease came just prior to her wedding, and the unbelievable misfortune of being burgled on her wedding day, I still remember with great fondness how happy she was on that day in South Africa. She was in pain, she hadn’t slept and she had suffered a series of such unfair set-backs, but she was radiant. Full of life, hope, and happiness. Her true self. A shining light with a smile that stretched across any room. It is how I choose to remember her – fun, loud, joyous, and the centre of attention.
In the end her body couldn’t cope any longer and the illness took hold, and even the numerous bouts of chemotherapy didn’t help. Sadly, many of us didn’t see Alice much, or at all, over the last couple of years, as she gradually withdrew into the illness, and the pain of lockdown. But even in the heart of Covid lockdown, she managed to find the energy to take up the piano.
She was supported throughout all by her parents, Richard and Patti – in the aftermath of the accident and beyond, along with her sister Lucy and her brother William. She certainly kept them on their toes, but she appreciated all they did for her, and she loved them dearly.
A fighter to the end though – she wasn’t going to give in to dying in hospital. At the very end she took herself home, despite how ill she was, to be in her own bed surrounded by her beloved cats, where she finally passed away.
No one deserves to have to endure what Alice went through.
No one will ever endure it with more grace.
It may be a cliché but she is now out of her pain, and I hope in a better place.
Wherever she is, she will light it up.
Whoever she is with, she will be making them laugh.
My dear Alice. I miss you so much, and I will never ever forget you.
So, how do you sum up such a life? Like this:
You made our lives immeasurably better. You made us all happier. You were a constant source of sunshine. Thank you.
“God saw you getting tired
and a cure was not to be
so He put his arms around you
and whispered “Come to Me.”