Tuesday, January 24, 2012


On 11th January 2012 my Father passed away. We gave him a terrific send-off, with more than 300 people cramming in to the beautiful little village church he loved.

If you knew my father in the later stages of his life you will have witnessed his gentleness, his kindness to others and his courage in the face of significant disabilities; in seeing this astonishing generosity of spirit you will, no doubt, have felt enriched by it.

Still, we all, perhaps, came to see him as a benign and lovely old gentleman. He was that, but he was also much more than that.

He was a man who loved deeply, vigorously and faithfully; he loved his family, his friends, and his God – I’m not sure of the order in which they came, but before all of these came his wife, our mother, Ann.

He was a man who keenly felt the common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility which exists between soldiers, and was committed to their service and the service of others throughout his life.

He was a man of great passions; for sport, for music, for gnomes, and for beer.

He was also a very big man, and a very noisy one.

Dad was born in London in 1934 where he grew up in the West End around Shepherds Market. His mother Joan worked at Derry Toms (the big Department Store on Kensington High Street – now closed). His father was a greengrocer (supplying Clarence House no less!).

During the war he and his mother evacuated to her home county of Hertfordshire and he attended Sherrardswood School where he was taught by the inspirational John Norseworthy. During his late teens his parents’ difficult marriage broke down and, miraculously, John Norseworthy paid for his last year’s school fees when Dad’s father was unable to do so.

John Norseworthy gave my father many things; a love of poetry; even in his last days my father asked us to read him Rupert Brooke – repeatedly. (You’ll find Dad’s favourite poem, The Rolling English Road, below). John Norseworthy was responsible for his interest in Shakespeare and amateur dramatics in which Dad excelled in such diverse parts as The Sea Captain in the Tempest (performed in Malta in front of Prince Charles) and of course the memorable Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz with the local amateur dramatic society.

John Norseworthy also brought the little Cottage in Cumberland into our lives; a constant refuge during our peripatetic life with the army and a place for Dad to put down roots.

I know my father had many friends, but I witnessed his relationship with John Norseworthy (our Godfather) more closely than any other.

They were two definitively different people – the one intellectual, the other instinctive, whose lives were so deeply intertwined that they could have been father and son. They loved one another dearly and of course when John Norseworthy was being infuriating my father would simply tip a jug of cold water over his head.

Sherrardswood also provided the backdrop for the most significant moment in my father’s life. While visiting the school as an old boy he met again the then retiring head girl; my Mother. She whisked him home to meet her mother. When offered a drink by my Grandmother, Dad drank his whiskey neat. Gran was horrified.

My Father spoke of his great love for my Mother often during their 50 years of marriage. In his eyes there was no one more beautiful. She was, for him, the perfect companion, friend and confidant. He celebrated and honoured her at every opportunity. Together they were incurably sociable, making friends in all walks of life wherever they were posted. She was a constant support throughout his long military career.

Dad loved soldiers. Through Sandhurst, The Kings Regiment, 3 Para and the Royal Army Ordnance Corps he found immense friendships amongst his senior and junior officers and men (I believe some of them nicknamed him the Jolly Green Giant). As a Lieutenant Colonel he enjoyed three command jobs; at Blackdown, Thatcham and Bicester, but he always said that serving with the Airhead Company was the most fun he’d ever had in the army.

There are many stories of his escapades in the army - he was known (I think) as ‘a bit of a character’ in the Corps - but his career was dogged by injury;

From acute asthma and an allergy to my Mother’s cat resulting in hospitalisation, to breaking his ankle while doing P-Company the first time around. Parachute training with the handkerchiefs they used in those days left his knees in a terrible mess. Boxing for the Kings Regiment (Army champions for several years in the 1950s) had a significant effect on his memory in later life.... not just the shape of his nose; his trainer used to say that if John was as skilled as he was brave then he could have made a great fighter, not just a good one. And of course he also fell off Ben Nevis with Chris Bonnington and was lucky to survive at all.

All of these physical injuries and disabilities he bore with courage, patience and equanimity – right to the end.

At retirement, and with my parents’ move to Wiltshire, Dad looked for new challenges in public service.

Work with SSAFA meant that he continued to look after the soldiers he adored – Christmas was always punctuated by telephone calls from his appreciative ‘cases’ – notably ‘Marine Lovell’. He was on the Board of Visitors at Earlstoke Prison, where he formed strong relationships with officers and inmates. He was deeply interested in education, not just that of his children, grandchildren and godchildren, but of all the young people he encountered. He became chair of the governors of our local primary school here, overseeing its re-development and earning the respect of many in his handling of it.

And he loved the little church where he worshipped every Sunday; managing the fete which raises money for it (running the bottle stall in particular), carving the ham at endless functions, acting as a sidesman, charming and engaging all with his humour, vitality and loving kindness. I think these ‘doing’ things were in some way an expression of his particular faith. Staunchly Anglican, but really quite high; we would often trip over him as he genuflected unexpectedly. His faith was confident and unshakeable; “I believe”, he would say, “that nothing can separate us from the love of God”. He knew where he was going, sure that his few mistakes would one day be washed away.

And we all, who knew him, surely must forgive him too. Forgive being bear hugged so that our ribs cracked, forgive being wrestled to the ground and rubbed with his unshaven chin, forgive being picked up and thrown on sofas (which is disconcerting as an adult), forgive being bellowed at for minor childhood misdemeanours but then immediately reconciled, and embraced when we had done something spectacularly stupid; elbows on the table inspired rage – my rustication from school was a mere nothing.

We can forgive too his terrible, loud singing in church and the excruciating and complicated camping arrangements that we endured, and you may have watched as bemused or amused neighbours.

I know that you will all miss his warmth, humour and spirit. All of the Old Codgers (I think that’s what the boys who meet up in the Churchill on Thursdays call themselves), the parishioners, care-groupers, former and serving soldiers, governors, friends, in-laws, out-laws, cousins and godchildren will all miss him.

But I fear we of his family will miss him most. To me, and to my Brothers, he was an extraordinary Father, by example, and through his endless love and support.

His daughters in law he cherished beyond measure, embracing them as essential elements of his family, loving them without stop or reservation.

To his grandchildren I think he was a kindly, interested, gentle giant; he loved them absolutely, without the worry of being responsible for their table manners.

And you know he’ll be missed most of all by my Mother, who knew him at his very best; witnessing at first hand the way he looked after his mother-in-law, my Grandmother. Gran lived with them for 11 years after losing her sight and Dad always treated her with the utmost respect. This noisy, boisterous man was, after all, capable of the most gentle care of her in her last days. At his request Dad’s ashes will be placed in my Grandmother’s grave where, in the words of Rupert Brooke, he will have gained a peace unshaken by pain for ever.

But what are we to do now, we who miss him so much? Well, I think we should know that he loved us – all of us. He picked us out with his steely blue eyes and held our hands and told us how marvellous we are, told us what we are capable of achieving. In that, he has marked us, forever.

We are all privileged to have known him, to have been loved by him and to have loved him in return.

-- 0 --

The Rolling English Road

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,

The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.

A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,

And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;

A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread

The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,

And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;

But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed

To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,

Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,

The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run

Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?

The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,

But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.

God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear

The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,

Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,

But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,

And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,

Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cometh the hour

Some time ago Nike used David Beckham to promote a major football tournament – posters carried a dramatic profile with the slogan ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’. The phrase has been a regular cliché in the sports writer’s canon, at least since 1948 when it was uttered by the England cricketer Cliff Gladwin after scrambling the winning single against South Africa – off his thigh! Beckham's tag line carried with it all the weight of expectation of the English, but launched with promotional dollars, bound up in marketing spin and ultimately without substance. Poor chap. But then he is just a footballer.

Beckham’s inability to carry that weight of expectation might be contrasted with the broad shoulders of General Sir Richard Dannatt, who was speaking recently at a Bible Society lecture. Sir Richard is the former head of the army, ex-chief of the general staff, who, in his calm and reasoning way reminded us of the military covenant between England and its army. It’s not something we civilians think about very often, but thankfully soldiers do.

This from the Ministry of Defence;

Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices - including the ultimate sacrifice - in the service of the Nation. In putting the needs of the nation and the Army before their own, they forgo some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service. In the same way, the unique nature of military land operations means that the Army differs from all other institutions, and must be sustained and provided for accordingly by the nation. This mutual obligation forms the Military Covenant between the nation, the Army and each individual soldier; an unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility which has sustained the Army and its soldiers throughout its history.

Did the Labour politicians who sent our army to war in Iraq and Afghanistan understand this? Does the current administration, with its desire to downsize the army, understand this? I am not convinced.

General Dannatt's style appears to be cerebral but we must not forget that he is also a man of action. He was awarded the Military Cross as a platoon commander of just 22 years – he won the gallantry medal for "anti-terrorist operations", but is appropriately reticent about discussing it in public.

He is also, being a man of strong faith, concerned at the moral vacuum he sees at home that threatens our National life. The more I learn about him, the more I like him. Perhaps he makes a better role model than Beckham despite his years, his lack of hair and his quiet demeanour.

When so much is in flux in England, with its crises of faith, economics, and culture, is he the man - or, as seems more likely, one of the men - for this particular hour?

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Lord of Thunder

“Duty is the great business of a sea officer; all private considerations must give way to it, however painful it may be” wrote Nelson. You can’t help but feel the conviction of this statement. It speaks not to ones emotional being, or ones imagination, or even ones intellect. It speaks to ones very backbone!

I know it is terrifically popular to debunk anyone faintly heroic or famous, but the reassuring thing about Nelson is that his contemporaries knew his faults and still loved him. Whilst taking on board the fact that he was obsessed with glory and at times rather unpleasant to his wife, you have to feel the greatness of the man.

I was thinking about what to say to my children about Trafalgar and how to celebrate it. We are no longer at war with Spain or France so it’s not so much the victory that needs celebrating, but rather the spirit, intelligence and bravery of the Englishmen who delivered that victory.

On the 9th October, 1805, Nelson wrote his battle plan, aboard Victory, lying off Cadiz. He had a clear vision of his own abilities, and the abilities of his commanders, ships and men. He was keen to pursue his old strategy of going right at ‘em, but knew that chance played a significant part in any great endeavour.

The divisions of the British Fleet will be brought nearly within gun shot of the Enemy's Centre. The signal will most probably then be made for the Lee Line to bear up together, to set all their sails, even steering sails in order to get as quickly as possible to the Enemy's Line, and to cut through, beginning from the 12th Ship from the Enemy's Rear.

Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a Sea Fight beyond all others. Shot will carry away the masts and yards of friends as well as foes; but I look with confidence to a Victory before the Van of the Enemy could succour their Rear, and then that the British Fleet would most of them be ready to receive their twenty Sail of the Line, or to pursue them, should they endeavour to make off.

That tactical directness paid dividends for us as a nation, but… well we all know what happened on the 21st October.

Interestingly he signs his dispatches Nelson and Bronte. In 1799 Ferdinand, King of the Two Sicilies made Nelson Duke of Bronte in acknowledgement of his help in suppressing an uprising against Naples. I think there may yet be a fortress or ruin there called Castello Nelson.

Apparently he was rather proud of the title since it translates as Duke of Thunder – I am not sure if that is a sign of vanity? Perhaps it just made his mistress Emma Hamilton giggle with excitement - as it does my children.

Anyway. We talked about it in the end, my children and I, but did not celebrate. We will however go to church together on Sunday – 13th November. While we certainly remember the dead of two world wars, we might also think of all those men and women who have given their lives, down through the ages, to make this country free.

First time out

Well, you have to start somewhere - so here it is.

It occurs to me that it's worth laying before my fellow citizens a diary, by an Englishman, for English men and women.

I say Englishman because that is what I feel myself to be.

I do not feel very British (despite some Scottish ancestry), and certainly not European (despite my father’s profession of Huguenot roots), and my use of the name English does not deny that I share many things with my fellow men in countries near and far. In fact, far from it. Rather it expresses some of what binds me to my nearest neighbours and friends. It brings into sharp focus what we, my fellow Englishmen and I, share in terms of common personality and ancestry.

Incidentally our name is alleged to derive from a comment made by an early Pope at a slave market in Rome, who described a blonde, blue-eyed British slave as looking like an Angel – or Angle - from which England was arrived at via Alfred's Wessex-based Anglo-Saxons.
I am not entirely sure what we English are, other than a small beleaguered tribe surrounded by Celts and seawater, but in this diary I hope to remind myself, and others, of where we English have come from, what we have experienced, what we have achieved - and what we could yet accomplish with a little self-assurance and a following wind. We shall see how I fare - no doubt someone will tell me if I stray from this rather grand mission!