Joseph Philip Gibbs

A Tribute

Joe did not like a fuss. To have a website flashing photos of him around the world would not be his chosen cup of tea, but sometimes the softly spoken people in life are the at the very heart of a moment and I am not willing to let this moment pass quietly without recording here my friend, cousin and sometime housemate, Joseph Gibbs.

In an age of modish fashionistas all scrabbling to be seen to be ‘woke’ and stylishly threadbare, Joe was the real deal. He did not vary his style one iota in the last thirty years, and neither did he need to. Joe was comfortable wearing what was comfortable to him – this was more than a look, it was an outlook.



Compared to the authentically cool Joe, I was a denim-clad whirlwind of inconsistencies when we first met in the Summer of 1990. It was an interesting time for me – a pivot point that would see me setting off to boarding school in England bathed in expectation that I would emerge rather less Irish and rather more grown up.

It came as a pleasant surprise to me that I had a band of long-lost English cousins. Chances are that my ignorance stemmed from not having listened very carefully. It therefore transpired one evening that my Dad had two sisters in England whom he had not seen in many years. 

They had been there on his wedding day to Mum and on the Christmas card list thereafter, but as I explored the wild woods with blithe abandon that Summer I could little have suspected that for some thirty years to follow the family that were making their sedate progress towards our corner of Northern Ireland were going to become a cornerstone of my years ahead. I was so very Irish, they were so very English but at least there was one boy the same age as me with whom I could surely communicate.

Joe’s sisters, Flo and Dot, recall this about the first moment that we all met: I saw them, then disappeared. I hid (outside / attics / cellar / elsewhere) until summoned. From what I recall, these five new members of our family stood, firmly, undeniably real, emanating good cheer and otherworldliness.

Joe was the only one who looked like he could handle a bow and arrow and, after a moment being twirled about the room through a mobius band of commentary I was free again, but I had gained a foot-soldier. 

I have no doubt that Joe was at once obliging and open to new adventures. We would probably have first retreated to “The Hut” which stood defiantly leaning its green corrugated super-structure up against frowning granite walls. The bare facts would have been quickly established: they were going to be staying for a week or so during which time we were all to get to know one other and make up for the gap in the Seventies and Eighties during which time our parents hadn’t seen much of each other.

There were two sisters, both younger and over enthusiastic. He knew about music, outdoor activities and a great deal more that he would barely have hinted at. That was to be a pattern in later years: Joe could surprise at any moment with an unlikely nugget of knowledge: he had a real interest in quirky places, artistic movements and counter-culture events. At this stage I just needed to know that the sisters could be evaded and that my plans for the week ahead (revolving as they would have around keeping a low profile and building something, somewhere that was suitably technological) could progress without too much distraction.

What Dad and Mum hadn’t told me about the boarding-school-in-England thing was that I was about to be drilled and dragged through a process of alteration that would leave me quite a changed young man when I washed back to Irish shores five years later. 

The 1980s in Northern Ireland were a time of provincial turmoil and sectarian skirmishes, yes, but they were also the 1980s. With the arrival of the 1990s there was a dawning realisation that those 24 pleat trousers and that stone-washed denim jacket that had seemed so modern and cool was actually quite concerning. The High-Tech Athletic trainers that were all very Back To The Future in 1986 were just not going to adorn the feet of Nirvana. The awakening process – as a floppy fringed butterfly might stretch his skinny wings from a chrysalis of gauche denim – was some way off arriving into Northern Ireland – but I was not to know that. Unless that is some fine emissaries were to tell me.

There was another deeper lesson to be learnt from Joe, Flo and Dot that Summer. More accurately it came from their parents Julian and Juliet. Juliet was Dad’s Sister – half sister really as her father, my namesake Philip had married twice: Dad was born to his first wife Eleanor and Juliet, along with her sister Sarah, were born to Claire Anley. Julian and Juliet brought with them an air of refinement and cultured equanimity that was a balm to my stubborn uncouthess.

Their preternatural composure (as it seemed to me) belonged to dinner parties and terrace chatter. They actually took turns around the garden. To be fair to my Mum and Dad this was the very embodiment of what they sought for me. They too were cultured and able to hold their own in polite society but their son was inescapably rough around the edges. He had embraced the wild Irish air and taken on the ungainly personnage of a ruffian in their midsts. 

A five year plan was unfolding and here, before it even got going, was an Orient Express tour of what genteelness could look like. The rickety tram that I loved and clung to had got me this far but Joe and his family had come to show me that there was a bigger world still beyond my molehill. Any other thirteen year old would have laughed his perfectly mismatched socks off at the proto-personnage that appeared into his view that Summer.

Joe was as kind, as gentle and as patient as could be: he started from the beginning and worked with what he found. In the years ahead we would both face challenges but at that moment the only challenge uniting us – and easily overcome – was how to translate to each other what we had absorbed over our respective and varied thirteen years, into an understanding that would last another thirty years.

Phil and Joe’s Gardening

Fast forward to 2002. In the intervening years Joe and I had both survived our teenage years and public school. Julian and Juliet had looked after me some term-time weekends in their beautiful rectory in Stanton-Upon-Hine-Heath. Over endless jugs of Juliet’s home-made lemonade served in a sunny corner of the garden in their sunny corner of England I learnt about National Trust properties and point-to-points. Joe persuaded us to the urban symmetry of Telford for cinema trips and the girls were vastly more fun and interesting than I had given them credit for at our first meeting. We even ventured over to the West of Ireland together where I took a turn at revealing some local cultural wonders, although I did this in hushed tones lest English accents might raise eyebrows!

Joe was biding his time and content to explore his newfound interest in graphic design in his own way and at his own pace. Joe would presently study at the Camberwell College of Arts. The remarkable skills of draughtsmanship and perspective that he would come to develop into architectural creativity in future years was already becoming manifest.

Having topped up my Irishness by choosing Dublin for my student years, and with changes afoot around my home in Northern Ireland, I was ready for a new English adventure. Although a little weary and in need of some time to reflect, I knew that there was an opportunity for a new context were I to relocate to England. I also knew the very man to share that experience with – if he was up for it.

Joe didn’t even hesitate. He was free and keen to see where we could find. I suggested somewhere with history. Bath and York were prime contenders. We ended up finding a top floor flat in the town of Bradford On Avon. The name of our flat was The Shambles. With a modest seeding of distressed but otherwise thoroughly solid furniture, our new accommodation was ready.

The need for graphic design artists and English Lit graduates in BOA was limited. None discouraged we hatched a plan: there were any number of fine gardens in and around the town. Surely they would need gardening services. “Phil and Joe’s Gardening Services” was born. 

We knew so little about gardening that every plant was in danger of being declared a witch and pulled out {with gusto}.  

The locals were terribly understanding, all things considered: going out of their way to educate us as to what was, and was not, a weed.

Joe taught me how to enjoy a gentle pace of life; how to relish the uncomplicated business of clearing the undergrowth; and to accept as preposterous the idea of rising early to achieve what could be done in one’s own particular time.

Some minor major gigs followed, culminating with the Lady Mayoress’ gardens and the feeding of badgers for the duration of a holiday – lest the garden visitors were to go hungry. Marmalade sandwiches.

Joe was handed the keys to a curious little van, the rear end of which was entirely given over to a mighty water tank. His new mission was to stand under each of the hanging baskets that bedecked the streets of BOA throughout the Summer months pumping a tumbling fountain of water over each. He would arrive home in increasingly quick order, showered and smiling. 

Time for Hobbies

There was a common theme to the various hobbies that Joe pursued. Firstly they cost an appreciable amount, and secondly they required the storage of apparatus. Whizzy mountain bikes arrived, soon to be joined by windsurfers and sailing boats. The shore at Norfolk was a favourite haunt of Joe’s and a great place to sail. The bottom of our stairs provided a hill climbing challenge for the mountain bike – which spent most days in repose, waiting for the next adventure, as did we.

Around this time Julian and Juliet settled in Lyntt Farm House, near Highworth. This was nearby to us and so started a period of time in which we could pop over to the spacious comforts of his parent’s house. Our catering arrangements had been rudimentary. Having family in the vicinity who catered in abundance did nothing to spur on our culinary skills or hasten an inclination to learn to cook.

Lemons functioned as a means to stave off scurvy and we invested in a George Foreman grill, the better to ensure that our protein intake was sufficient. The local Chinese restaurant provided us with Vinegar Chicken – a bespoke delicacy that involved the cooking of a chicken that was then liberally dosed in vinegar before our appreciative eyes. We both sought and found vinegar aplenty. A speciality of Joe’s was Pasta And Tomato Ketchup, the ingredients for which were delightfully succinct and readily sourced.

Joe could eat spicy food which was beyond the reach of many. A vindaloo did not cause his eyes to water. The number of chilli icons served as a guide for Joe rather than a warning to be heeded.

A convenient clerical error which led to the National Trust sending out a duplicate life membership card for his father, allowed Joe unfettered access to all manner of places. On top of that Julian and Juliet would take us to visit those places that one really ought to have been. As one who still sought to capture a flavour of England before returning to Ireland, it was a great chance to be shown what curiosities were spread about the island. 

Flo and Dot came with us sometimes and friends visiting from Dublin appreciated that Joe was both interested in the fabric of the place and able to guide us from his understated yet voluminous knowledge of the round and about.

Joe knew a good pub when he saw it. The Trout at Lechlade was one such find. After a Sunday meal (replete with all trimmings lovingly served up by Julian and Juliet on floral china plates with a flourish of cutlery) Joe would encourage us to decamp to a local pub where he would smoke contentedly and watch the world go by.

Joe was interested in people but not overly critical. Where some surveil, Joe would prefer to survey. He wanted to understand what made people tick rather than to be critical of them. He could be cynical naturally, but not for the sake of it and always with a willingness to reconsider if there was more to be gleaned.


Assuming there was no urgent gardening work to attend to, which there wasn’t, our conversation of a late morning would be brief and to the point: where could we conceivably go today? Either the idea would take flight, as a pair of lumbering geese might saunter heavenward, or it would slip quietly under the armchair for another day.

In this fashion Joe and I would launch ventures to some unlikely corners of the UK. Stonehenge was one such jaunt; Weston Super Mare (we were both missing the sea); and various hilltops – always with an urge to gain perspective.

More recently we visited Joe’s Uncle George which was doubly inspiring as we could find out more about the man that our grandfather Philip had been. Philip was a military man, as had been Philip’s father and grandfather before him. Of more interest to us was hearing about what fun he had been – joshing and playing practical jokes.

Thinking back to when we first compared notes on the subject of our grandfather – with neither of us having met Philip – we sometimes felt on a shared mission to discover more about where we were coming from. It is fair to say that at that time we were more interested in where we were coming from, than where we were going.

In September 2004 I enrolled on a teacher training course which would ultimately see me move further West. During the next two years I met Rachel, who was to become my wife in 2008. Joe was the first of my friends to meet Rachel and the first sense of my family that Rachel got. When she came to visit The Shambles it was to find the very epicentre of those care-free years. Strata layers of dust, newspapers and sketchbooks spoke of a kind of stillness. Calmness had come to us in those days and from that place we grew stronger in a very Joe way: without hurrying.

The three of us went camping in Cornwall. The tent that I had found was barely suitable for garden use. Joe could have survived the Arctic. As the rains came down Rachel and I were frantically weighing up local accommodation potential. Joe, warm, settled, plumes of cigarette smoke curling out of his tent door, had the look of one who would withstand anything that was coming, for how would anything dare to disturb that scene of serene contentment?

Upon our engagement in 2007 Rachel and I made straight for Julian and Juliet’s house where Joe was waiting. Champers flowed and a new chapter began. I feel privileged to have shared the great romance of my life with Joe. Rachel understood where Joe was coming from, which meant that Joe could share with Rachel where I was coming from. The Bradford On Avon years were an exercise in soft, graceful landings. Joe knew how to set sail for the calm waters. 


Joe has left us now and we will miss him always. It has been hard to write about Joe without covering what was going on in my life at those times. Perhaps that is because it is so easy to see through Joe’s eyes: those interested, amiable, equanimous eyes which would not seek to judge, but rather which sought to understand and lend support.

Joe’s gentle nature, his abiding company and his quizzical humour will stay with us. He got on with the business of making sense of the hand he was dealt and in so doing he inspired us to look more carefully at what we were doing and at what tempo.

Julian and Juliet did a wonderful job of bringing Joe up to be a beacon of kindness and patient dignity. He was a caring and protective brother for Flo and Dot who took the time to engage with their lives and to follow their interests. For their part his sisters were twin towers of strength and energy for Joe to turn to when he needed to. The type of family that Joe belonged to is that most precious creation: open-hearted, loyal, generous and giving.

Joe was blessed to be born where he was and when he was. Those of us  fortunate to have known Joe are a merry bunch now which, through the sadness, I can imagine Joe chuckling at: he has reached centre stage now and can relax – he is safe, leaving us, I hope, with a wonderful sense of what a life led gently can be.

Four generations ago..








Three generations ago

Two generations ago

One generation ago

Joe generation