Life & Culture

Me & You 'John would pitch up in a crisis'

After the sudden death of Fiona Starr's husband, family friend John Libson stepped in to help sort out her paperwork


John Libson is a retired accountant. Following the sudden death of Fiona Starr’s husband, the children’s writer Jonny Zucker who took his own life in 2016, he supported and helped her organise the family’s finances.

Fiona on John:

I think the first time I was aware of meeting John was probably at his son James’s wedding in 1993 although, to be honest, I had probably met him before then. We came across each other a few years later because he owned a canal boat with a friend of his and Jonny and I often used to make trips on it with James and Anne. We called John ‘The Admiral’ and he would usually pitch up when there was a crisis. I have funny, fond memories of getting stuck on Regent’s Canal, and another time in Hackney. But, sometimes, he would just join us for fun. Those barge trips were a huge influence on me. In fact, this summer I went on a canal boat holiday with my three sons, aged 21, 18 and 14 and our dog.
Jonny had always been responsible for our financial paperwork — I had never got involved with it. I did the cooking. That’s just how it worked. So, after he died, it was down to me. I hadn’t paid any attention, but it quickly became apparent that all matters financial were left in chaos. I guess this lack of organisation and focus could have been a consequence of Jonny’s depression, or it might have been just him.
Admin like this is so boring to me and the sort of thing I’d usually leave. And after a tragedy like suicide, you don’t have the head space to think about it. I didn’t know what to do so James suggested that his dad could help me. Initially, I saw John every couple of weeks. He’d give me paperwork jobs to do in between visits. I’d do it, usually at the last minute. But he was a good motivator because I always wanted to “keep in JohnLibson’s good books.” I call him JohnLibson — all one word. I don’t know why, it just comes together! Maybe because there are many other Johns in the world, but he’s JohnLibson.
It took ages to try and sort everything out. It was so complicated. In fact, it’s only recently, after nearly five years, that all this stuff has settled. I like to get jobs done quite quickly and tick them off the list! I had no idea.
I remember when he first came over to my house and sat at the kitchen island. Everything was totally overwhelming. When there’s a shocking death like Jonny’s, it’s such a comfort to have someone like JohnLibson. There was no one I could rely on about such matters. I know it was a shock for him too, certainly initially. He saw a lot of raw moments. There were occasions when he sat there, maybe not knowing quite what to do — what with my emotional state and people coming and going in and out of the house.
One of the key reasons I’ve managed to get through this is JohnLibson’s guidance, particularly in those first few months. He helped me with something I knew nothing about. At the start, it was like dealing with a different language, this ‘accountant-speak,’ but thanks to him I can now translate and know what words mean. It’s fantastic, very empowering.
JohnLibson is absolutely solid, a rock. So calm, especially in that adversity. He’s a very grounding presence who doesn’t talk down to me. I could be quite incompetent and incoherent, but he was really respectful. Just wonderful. He and his wife, Maxine, came to my youngest son’s barmitzvah last year. That was so kind. After all we had been through together, it was incredibly special to have JohnLibson with us that day.

John on Fiona:

Fiona’s name was familiar through Anne and James but five years ago, if I’d walked past her in the street, I wouldn’t have recognised her, but then I don’t recognise many people that I walk past! Obviously, I knew Jonny too. I can’t say I knew him well, but when we talked together he was always friendly.
I retired as senior partner at the accountancy practice, Nyman Libson Paul, 18 years ago in 2003, but continued to do bits and pieces for people. When James rang me and told me about Jonny, he said that Fiona was in some difficulty fathoming out all of their finances and was there anything I could do. I agreed to meet with her and see if I could help.
Before our first meeting, I was quite concerned because I didn’t know what I was going to find, and when I got there we ended up looking for information — in drawers, files, wherever.
We had to do a lot of digging over a long period of time. I gave Fiona jobs, which she did, and I had certain things that I could do. It was a slow process but, eventually, we put it all together.
There were times when I’d be at Fiona’s house and not know quite what to do. Understandably, there were a lot of tears. Being with anybody who, unfortunately, is in that terrible, terrible, terrible situation is shocking. Not just Fiona, the whole family. It was completely traumatic. And it’s not the sort of thing that anyone has any experience of.
My relationship with Fiona developed as we sorted everything out. She’s coped so well. As well as dealing with her finances, Fiona also had her life to lead: her job [she is associate professor of clinical psychology at Middlesex University] and her boys. After working with her over this intense period, my perception of her is that if she puts her mind to anything, she does it.
Fiona isn’t my usual client. They were mainly in showbiz. I suppose my professional relationship with people is that I’m also a semi-psychologist, but with no training! It’s just the way I tend to treat people, because whatever they’re telling me is terribly important to them.
Obviously, she was totally knocked off her feet by what happened and to start with had no idea about her financial situation and was worried about whether she had enough money to live off. She’s now so much more in control and feels more secure, as she knows exactly what she has, which is a great relief to her.
I’ve seen how she’s changed. To recover from what happened is brilliant in the first place. It’s not so much to do with me. Fiona has taken it on, dealt with it bit by bit as needed, getting to where she is now.

For help with suicidal thoughts: Call 116123, free
For help with paperwork:

Read more:
Me & You: 'We drive eachother mad'

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