I was lucky enough to be working in West London in 2012 so I helped John move to Rosemary House. Then, when he became ill and was in hospital, I visited many times. After the vasculitis, when John had memory problems, I referred to some of the paperwork that was rescued from 28A to stimulate some of the long term memories. The majority of the early period of John's life comes from talking to him, reading the paperwork that was rescued and from his brother and sister.
Back in 2012, John moved from his home of 33 years in Park Avenue to sheltered accommodation. When clearing the old flat and sorting through his possessions, there was an old suitcase filled with papers. John took a quick look and said there was nothing in there that he wanted, but, knowing how easily things can get missed, we were checking everything, and there at the bottom was his birth certificate, and in the section for Place Of Birth, it read Casablanca.
John’s father, Robert, was the son of a vicar. He married Helen Mary nee d'Este. The house of Este can trace its roots back to the Italian Renaissance period and the Borgias, something that could be mentioned at mealtimes should mother have been doing the cooking. Robert was in the consular service and was stationed in various locations across North Africa and the Middle East. By 1932, the family was in Casablanca, Morocco hence John's birth certificate identifying that town. In 1939, they had moved to Harrar in Abyssinia, modern Ethiopia. John said he had some very hazy memories of the place; quite why he got embroiled into smuggling a live calf into the family dining room I will leave to his co-conspirators to explain. With the outbreak of war, they were recalled and in 1940 took a train to Djibouti. A boat to Genoa (arriving 1 week before the Germans started invading France) followed by a train to Paris and then the Channel coast, crossing France whilst the Germans were invading. They caught the last boat from France to England.
John was sent to Bigshotte Preparatory School, Crowthorne. There, he heard, and felt, the effect of a V1 flying bomb, known more commonly as a doodlebug, and was evacuated to the countryside.
From 1945 to 1951, John attended Clifton College, Bristol. The written reference he got from the principal states that he was an effective and sometimes witty speaker in public and private. Whilst there, he managed to persuade the authorities that he wasn't going to do cricket or rugby, or any other ball sport, and used to spend the time cycling out to look at historical buildings. I cannot see that being allowed in this day and age. The reference also notes his interest in classical music, drawing, medieval history and craftsmanship, as well as describing him as being a tough cyclist who covered great distances on an ancient machine.
He was a member of the school archaeological society and wrote the end of year report for the school magazine in December 1950. The society tended to look at historical buildings rather than go digging. As a member of the school cadet force, he was able to convince the sergeant major that he wouldn't be any use at any of the outdoor military pursuits and took over doing the corps paperwork instead.
From Clifton, John went on to The Queen's College, Oxford, where he read Modern History. After graduating with a third and receiving his degree from Maurice Bowra, the English classical scholar and academic, John worked on several archaeological digs. In 1955, he worked under Sheppard Frere at the Roman town of Verulamium, modern St. Albans, on a rescue dig on the site where the new visitors' car park was going to be built. This was followed in 1957 by a site in France, a small hill fort close to Le Charlat, near Ussel, between Limoges and Clermont-Ferrand. Again he worked under Sheppard Frere.
By 1962 he was back in the UK and working at a dig in Caister-on-Sea, Norfolk. He led this excavation and it is his report that is filed in the archives. During the dig, Sheppard Frere was called away to London and before setting off, demanded that John find him a hand axe before his return. When Frere returned he asked about his axe only for John to say which one, as they had found two.
During the later 1960s, John started work at a solicitor's office and eventually took his articles, specialising in conveyancing. He would hold this job until long after he could have retired, partly due to the fact that the solicitor was in prison for fraud and John was running part of the office.
Throughout most of his life, there has been classical music. Whilst living in Eastbourne, that is sometime between 1952 and 1957, his parents insisted that he get headphones to listen to his music – so that they didn't have to. Noisy kids - nothing ever changes. John was passionate about Wagner and Verdi (amongst others) but it wasn't just the work, the conductor's interpretation of the music was crucial to his enjoyment. He always regretted that he never saw Arturo Toscanini conduct. His friend, Thomas Heinitz, who owned the HiFi shop where John bought his equipment from, had seen Toscanini and John was highly envious. Amongst his other favourites was Sir Thomas Beecham and he saw him a couple of times back in the early 50's. Simply mentioning names like Wilhelm Furtwangler, Hans Hotter, Karl Muck would have John reminiscing about concerts he had been to or records he had owned. Just don't mention Solti. A long time attendee of the Royal Opera House, John had to queue overnight on a several occasions (including co-opting Frank into saving his place) to make sure he secured tickets for the slips – his favourite seating area. When there was something that he considered special, he would buy, or attempt to buy, tickets for every performance.
John's passion for Wagner led him to Bayreuth, where Richard Wagner had commissioned the building of his own concert hall specifically for the performance of his works. The Festspielhaus was, and is today, a place of pilgrimage for those who wish to enjoy Wagner's works at the annual Bayreuther Festspiele.
When we cleared 28A Park Avenue, the 33 and 78rpm records were collected and, when stacked together, measured about 14 metres from one end to the other. The 33s were sold to a dealer for £1200 and we fed John for about a year with that money. Disposing of the 78 rpm records, a mere 2.5 metres, was more problematic.
John's passion for medieval architecture started in Perranporth, Cornwall where he would cycle out from his grandfather’s house. It would stay with him for the rest of his life. He loved the craftsmanship of those long forgotten masons and had been in the process of cataloguing the window tracery of churches so that he might produce a distribution map of the workers based on their styles. He cycled to St. David's from the school at Bristol. Then, in the last term, he cycled to Cambridge, The Wash, Lincolnshire, York, Beverley, Wensleydale, Cumbria, along the Roman wall, back to York before finally getting a train to Bristol. He reckoned it was about 900 miles in total. On another occasion he did a cathedral tour across N and NE France on a bone-shaker. Sadly, Reims cathedral was shut due to war damage.
John relished what he called church crawling. The Church Monuments Society as well as historian John Vigar both run tours to parts of the UK and visit historically important churches. These could be day trips or long weekends, and John went on many of them. He would also organise his own trips, leaving the flat early and taking public transport as far as possible, finally walking the remaining distance to a specific church. Then he would reverse the journey and come home – one long day to do one church. Later on, Annie and I started treating him to his own customised tours, John would choose what and where (usually opting for the more isolated churches) and we would sort the logistics of getting there and back. These got more and more complex as the close-by churches were ticked off, and day trips turned into over-nighters, and then a whole weekend when we went to Somerset and Devon. I still have his proposed itinerary for the 2013 crawl in Wiltshire that we had to cancel when he fell ill and he never recovered enough for us to take him.
If you ever received a Christmas card from John, the chances are that it had a hand-drawn picture of a church from that year's crawling.
It was Christmas 1940, that John was given a copy of Tolkien's The Hobbit by the family's governess, Mavis Reynolds. This is possibly the start of John's love of that author. He joined the Tolkien Society in December 1979 and was a regular attendee of Northfarthing meetings, the first being in May 1980, and the last, a smial meeting at his sheltered accommodation in February 2015. He was at several Annual General Meetings and Society Seminars, and attended many Oxonmoots, the most memorable occasion perhaps being when he acted the role of the Parson in the Society’s production of Farmer Giles of Ham in Oxford Town Hall in 1989. He was also one of the singers, along with Priscilla Tolkien, in a scratch choir formed for a rendering of Paul Corfield Godfrey’s choral piece Narn i Hîn Húrin performed at the Cotswold Lodge hotel during the 1982 Oxonmoot.
He made many contributions in the form of reviews, articles and his inimitable cartoons to Amon Hen and Mallorn, as well as other publications. In Mallorn especially, he contributed some very fine, learned pieces, such as ‘The Legendary War and the Real War’, ‘Tolkien and Beethoven’, ‘Gandalf, Bilbo, and Sherlock Holmes’, ‘Tolkien’s World and Wagner’s: the music of language and the language of music’, and ‘From Fëanor to Doctor Faustus: a creator’s path to self-destruction’.
However, it was in the publications of the Northfarthing Smial (which contained many of his cartoons) that he displayed his genius for parody. ‘The Adventure of the Morgul-hai’ in The Northfarthing Post in 1984 explored the remarkable connections between the world of Sherlock Holmes and Middle-earth. The ‘Dear Bil’ Letters in The Farthing in 1984-5 were an account of the events of The Lord of the Rings as seen through the eyes of Celeborn in letters to ‘Bil’, i.e., Bilbo in Rivendell. They were based on the ‘Dear Bill’ letters then current in Private Eye. ‘The Alternative Hobbit’ in _The Farthing_ in 1985-6 was a retelling of The Hobbit in the style of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories. Here, a hobbit-version of Jeeves himself accompanies Bilbo on his adventures. ‘Yes, Mr. Frodo’, in The Farthing in 1986-7, was set in the modern world in a format suggested by the Yes, Minister television series.
John was assistant editor Mallorn for nos. 30–32 and 34–44. Inevitably, as the years passed, he was unable to take so active a part in Society activities but belonging to the T.S. always meant a great deal to him and he was generally content just to be at its meetings.
I would like to record my thanks to Charles Noad for the Tolkien Society information and also to Stephen for supplying the music.
You are all invited to the reception at the William IV where we hope to have readings from some of John's parodies including the “wool” ones.