Sunday, 8 November 2009

Remembrance Sunday

Julia and I have just observed the Two Minutes' Silence, sitting late over our breakfast. We had decided not to go to our Buckingham church of St Peter and St Paul, just three minutes walk up Bristle Hill and then right along Castle Street. She will be going on Wednesday to Friends' Meeting in Aylesbury on the actual eleventh day of the eleventh month when the armistice ending the war was signed. Then it was known as the Great War and dubbed The War To End Wars. Only after an even bloodier war was it renamed World War One.

Her father's eldest brother, Claud, was killed on the Western Front serving in the Royal Naval Division. Most unusually, none of my close relations were killed. My father joined the fledgling Friends' Ambulance Unit in 1914 but, when it appeared that there was nowhere it could usefully serve, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and in 1915 was shipped off to the Mediterranean theatre. After a while he reckoned that stitching people up to fight again was morally no different from fighting himself, which is why he joined the Royal Flying Corps in Egypt. Many young Quaker men went through the same process, reckoning that their pacifism had to be put aside because this was a Just War. I never asked him more about all this. I still wonder how much he made these changes on moral grounds rather than because he was just attracted by the life of action of a pilot.

My thoughts turned during that silence to the poem For Johnny by John Pudney, written on the back of an envelope during an air raid on London in 1941.

Do not despair
For Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound
As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.

Better by far
For Johnny-the-bright-star,
To keep your head,
And see his children fed.

JFR aged 27: AGR aged 20

This led naturally to my thinking about my brother Johnny and how I had used this poem at the end of the address I gave at his funeral in January 1997. This eulogy is not the only thing I want to write about this splendid chap whose life was blighted by Parkinsons at an unnaturally early age. He started writing an autobiography about this which he titled with typical wit A Hole in the Head – a reference also to the trepanning operation that temporarily halted the disease's inexorable impact. I must ask Vicki whether the manuscript still exists.

John Fisk Randall 1927–1996

We are come together in this quiet country church [Motcombe, Dorset] to say farewell to Johnny, the husband of Vicki, the father of Sali, Simon and Jamie, the grandfather of Jake, Ben and Jas, the son of Harry (widely known as George) and Elsie (widely known as Katie), the brother of Pushie and me, and the relation or friend of many of us gathered here today.

Those of you who only met Johnny during the second half of his life can have little idea of what manner of man he was during the first half of it, before he was afflicted by the cruel disease from whose clutch he has now been mercifully released. Let me therefore tell such of you something about Johnny Randall in his prime.

As he was growing up he was active in all the sorts of ways that you would expect of a lively and spirited boy. His activities with Meccano were a foretaste of what he would achieve later as an engineer and a formidable tinkerer with cars. George encouraged his interest in photography, something with a natural appeal to someone who combined an artistic temperament with mechanical aptitude. This interest developed alongside his early interest in astronomy. He took this very seriously. I remember him seeking to persuade George to let him remove a portion of the roof of Sandilands, the family home, so that he could create his own observatory in the attic, and being most indignant when this (in his view, perfectly reasonable) request was turned down. Despite this setback, he became the youngest member of the Royal Astronomical Society and maintained an interest in stars in their courses throughout his life.

It was as an athlete, though, that he really made his mark. At Leighton Park, the Quaker school he went to, there was an outstanding gym teacher, known and revered by generations of Leightonians as Hoppy. He was a peppery little Welshman who exhorted us to impossible gymnastic feats. Johnny responded enthusiastically to these exhortations: although he was large in stature for a gymnast, he twice won the school gymnastics championship. I remember him and a friend, during the summer holidays, competing to see who could do the highest number of consecutive flick-flacks up and down the lawn at Sandilands.

On this same lawn I remember him batting in the nets to the bowling of a couple of local lads that George had hired to help develop his cricketing talents. They were twins: they were Alec and Eric Bedser, who went on to great heights wearing the chocolate brown caps of Surrey and the white one of England.

These scenes epitomise the memories that I have of Johnny as he was growing into young manhood and developing into a stylish and versatile athlete.

  • Put a cricket bat into his hands, and he transforms it into a willow wand wafting the ball past cover point to the boundary: Johnny captained the 1st XI at Leighton Park.
  • Tie a pair of rugger boots to his feet, and he is a vigorous, mauling wing forward: Johnny played in the 1st XV for his school and for his college.
  • Let him get hold of an oar, and he is rowing up the Cam in the power house of the King's College Rugger Boat: the crew dubbed themselves 'Poetry in Motion' which may have been some consolation for being bumped more than they bumped-but bumped, let it be said, by full-time wet-bobs.
  • Give him a racket, and he is volleying and smashing on the lawn tennis court: he played for the King's 1st VI.
  • Strap a pair of skis to his feet and he is sinuously sliding clown an alp with his skis perfectly parallel: well, pretty parallel!

In the athletic sphere, it can truly be said of Johnny that Nihil tetigit quem non ornavit: he touched nothing that he did not adorn.

This list of his athletic accomplishments should not lead us to ignore his academic achievements. He read engineering at London University and economics at Cambridge, although I am sure that Johnny would wish me to state on his behalf that he would never let his studies come between him and a party.

Johnny loved parties. Johnny was gregarious, Johnny was charming, Johnny was witty: the phrase, the life and the soul of the party, was doubtless first coined for some medieval or renaissance Johnny who would have rejoiced at seeing his worthy successor in full revel. I see several in the congregation today who partied with Johnny much more than did I – John Dalrymple, Mickie Chater, Mike Bate – and they will be able to regale you afterwards with details of some of the memorable thrashes they had together.

And Johnny loved motor cars. His first car, a 1933 Austin Seven, was too small and too slow for someone of Johnny's temperament, so he acquired a 1926 Ballot brougham. Those of us who are not car buffs won't necessarily know that Ballot was a French marque, and that its brougham was built as a kind of bourgeois Bugatti Royale, a huge high-performance tourer. But, as a brougham, it didn't quite mesh with Johnny's dashing image. So, what does he do? He converts it into a convertible. Even car unbuffs will know that a convertible is a car with an open body and a retractable roof. Well, Johnny manages the first stage of the conversion just fine: he removes the original coach work. It was the second stage that was the problem. We will never now know for sure whether the decision to dispense entirely with any form of protection against the elements was dictated by financial or aesthetic or practical considerations. But what we do know is that, when planning his first continental expedition in the Ballot, he found that the car ferry charges – which of course are based on length – were almost as much as he had paid for the beast in the first place. Lesser men would not have cut this particular Gordian knot in quite the same draconian manner. What does he do? He simply cuts the chassis in three, throws away the middle bit, welds together the bits left over and postpones sine die the retractable roof!

The expedition finally set out: 75% of its members are in this church today. The survivors will be able to tell you what it was like to travel in an open car in mid-winter to the Alps. Pushie will be able to tell you about other design features that made the expedition memorable. For a start, there was – of course – no heating. Secondly, there were no seats in the back. Thirdly, there was no boot, and – of course – no luggage rack. Johnny solves all three problems with characteristic simplicity and directness: get the girls to sit on hot water bottles, and then pile the luggage on top of them, and then – as the cherry on the cake – crown it all with the spare wheel! I leave it to you to judge how successful this solution was by citing the fact that Pushie has never since travelled to the Alps by car: once frost-bitten, one might say, twice Pu-shy.

This portrait I have painted might lead you to suppose that it was difficult for me to grow up as Johnny's younger brother, in his shadow: not so, even though I could never reach his athletic standards. It is the nature of a natural leader like Johnny – he was Head Boy at The Downs, he was a School Prefect at LP, he held Her Majesty's commission – to inspire others by example and to show that a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? Thus it was that, in January 1952 at the Aircrew Selection Centre at RAF Hornchurch, when I was asked the question, 'Why do you want to be a pilot?', I was able to give the simple but convincing answer 'Because my father was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and my brother is learning to fly in his University Air Squadron.'

This heralded the time in our lives when he and I worked and played a great deal together. Because he had not done his National Service before going to university, it happened that he started it shortly after I had started mine. We then started our Wings courses at virtually the same time, I being posted to RAF Dalcross (now Inverness airport) to fly twin-engined Airspeed Oxfords and Johnny to RAF Cottesmore to fly single-engined Boulton Paul Balliols.

Let me read what they wrote about Johnny in the RAF Spittlegate newsletter at that time.
Officer Cadet John Randall left us a few weeks ago to join his new unit at Cottesmore, when his long-awaited transfer to the General Duties Branch came through. Johnny was a most popular member of the course and combined a remarkable number of qualities: he was a fine sportsman, a skilled technician and an excellent speaker (unrivalled as a raconteur), as well as being the holder of two university degrees and the possessor of a very wide knowledge of varied topics. Above all he was a good companion. We miss him, and wish him the very best of luck on his new Course.

The Balliol which Johnny flew at Cottesmore was exactly the right kind of aircraft for a pilot of Johnny's temperament: it was powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin, the engine that powered the fighters that won the Battle of Britain and it was highly manoeuvrable. As a gymnast, Johnny took naturally to slow rolls, stall turns and the like and went on to win his course trophy for aerobatics. However, he was less excellent at instrument flying: he failed to get his White Instrument Rating Card at his first attempt, which led me to tell Johnny that he was a better pilot upside down than the right way up.

You can imagine the spirit of friendly rivalry that there was between us. He was brotherly enough to fly up from Rutland to Scotland to attend my passing-out parade, but this did not stop me from crowing for the next fortnight at his wingless state. His magnanimity was such, however, that he did not crow over me when I was transferred to the RAF Education Branch, while he reached operational status on a Gloster Meteor fighter squadron, in the country's front line of aerial defence. Our rivalry extended to every area of life, and sometimes reached ridiculous lengths. Thus, when I received a telegram from him in 1955 saying 'Have got engaged', I promptly proposed to my then girl-friend and telegraphed back, 'Snap!'.

Johnny went on to marry Vicki, and a life that was all too soon to be blighted by the onset of Parkinson's Disease. During his gradual but inexorable physical decline, two things struck everyone who met him.

Firstly, this athlete who had rejoiced in his physical prowess never railed against his misfortune. He was a veritable Mr Standfast. More than anyone I have ever known, he was able to meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.

Secondly, the comfort and support that his wife gave him throughout his illness is beyond any words of mine to praise. Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her ... she will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. Such a virtuous woman was, and is, Vicki.

Now Johnny is dead. For all of us who loved him and thought highly of him, this is a time of grief and yet it is also a time of relief, now that he is at last at rest. Let the verses I am about to say – written for another Johnny, another pilot, long ago-speak for all those who grieve for Johnny this day.

Do not despair / For Johnny-head-in-air: / He sleeps as sound / As Johnny under ground.
Fetch out no shroud / For Johnny-in-the-cloud; / And keep your tears / For him in after years.
Better by far / For Johnny the Bright Star / To keep your head / And see his children fed.

John Fisk Randall was, truly, Johnny the Bright Star. During his long illness he proved himself to be Mr Standfast: throughout his life he was also Mr Valiant-for-truth. So let me end this eulogy by telling of the death of Mr Valiant-for-truth at the end of The Pilgrims Progress.

He called for his friends and ... said he, I am going to my Fathers, and tho with great Difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the Trouble I have been at to arrive where I am.

My Sword, I give to him that shall succeed me in my Pilgrimage and my Courage and Skill, to him that can get it. My Marks and Scarrs I carry with me, to be a witness for me, that I have fought his Battels, who now will be my Rewarder.

When the Day that he must go hence, was come, many accompanied him to the River side, into which, as he went, he said, Death, where is thy Sting? And as he went down deeper, he said,
Grave where is thy Victory? So he passed over, and the Trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

Ave atque vale, Iohannes! Hail and farewell, Johnny!

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