Richard Charles Visger Awdry would settle happily for the word, “Writer” to describe his occupation in his passport. He wrote volumes. Thinking of him as a published work, The Book Of Richard itself is 85 years long and a fabulous read.
From the cover alone, there were the big cheekbones; green/brown eyes; thick, leonine, brushed-back hair. A face creased from smiling. Hands that would part stroke, part thump the dogs with affection, often with split thumbs in winter. But rather than judge him by the cover, there were many, many chapters to his name.
Christmas Day baby. Chippenham infant. Cleveden schoolboy. Evacuee. Geelong Grammar School student. Sheep station hand. Marlburian. 2nd Lieutenant, Somaliland Scouts. Agricultural student. Farmer. Tea planter. London stage writer. Author. Advertising copywriter. Churchman. World Traveller. Gardener. Golfer. Raconteur. Pipe smoker. Labrador man. Clattery typist. Cricket lover. Incessant reader. Fellow well met.
Dutiful son. Happy Brother and Uncle. Charismatic Father, Stepfather and Grandfather.
And honestly, above all, both the loving and loved husband of two remarkable women in two, remarkable marriages.
Richard was an irrepressible force of nature. With clay feet, he kept his gaze on the stars or, more likely, some obscure story he’d just discovered and would repeat to the next person he met. Everybody who Richard encountered became swept up in a world of stories. They weren’t always told the same way, but they were inexhaustible.
Born to an unassuming country solicitor and his strong-willed wife, early life was St Mary Street in Chippenham. At prep school in Cleveden, Somerset, escaping German bombers ditched their 500 lb bombs destined for Bristol on the playing fields which slithered towards the goalposts but miraculously did not go off. The boys were fascinated.
As the war dragged on, his parents evacuated him to Australia with his brother Philip. He loved it. Looked after by Aunt Katie on the sheep station near Corrawa, he developed a view of farming both pragmatic and poetic. Aunt Katie kindled his passion for the Old Testament, reading him passages every night. His affection for the Sargood family never dimmed and he returned with Gill in later life, connecting with subsequent generations. At Geelong, in the same class as Rupert Murdoch (Richard loved dropping names), a passion for literature ignited.
Back in England at Marlborough College, he was the fifth generation of Awdrys to attend. He used his time wisely. It shaped his view of society and friendships forever. He loved Old Marlburian days and catching up with contemporaries, if only to check how much older than him they looked. Instinctively – and at some cost – he sent his four children to the school too.
National Service in the Wiltshire regiment took him, eventually, to the Somaliland Scouts in the Horn of Africa. A lieutenant and peacekeeper, he was granted a huge constituency, a string of Polo ponies and a fund of deeply improbable stories.
In England again, he attended Cirencester Agricultural College, his mind set (he thought) on farming. The most exciting distraction was to appear in the shape of Jocelyn Poole, the daughter of local and colourful parents in Coates. She was a beautiful singer and one time secretary to the Third Programme at the BBC. Swept off their feet in the giddy post war climate, the glamorous couple married in 1952, both aged 22. It was a marriage that was to last 37 happy years of absolute, mutual dependency.
From Cirencester, he scurried off to become a tea planter on Mount Melangi, in what was Nyasaland. Jocelyn followed a few months later. For two years, they lived a charmed existence, thrilled by Africa, Africans and a curiosity of friends. Amanda, their first born, arrived in the local hospital. Using the very expensive phone to tell Philip, his brother, the news back in England, Richard mentioned Amanda’s name and sex and not much else, instead jumping to unseemly jokes to our mother’s exasperation.
Returning first to Essex, then London, Richard got a job in advertising. Populated by lively minds from all walks of life, it was a world made for him. He wrote a review for the stage called Take To The Hills that was produced with Hughie Green and Gerald Harper in starring roles. He published a thinly veiled account of family eccentricities as a novel called A Pride Of Relations. (Radio 4 revisited it as book of the week about 10 years ago.) He also created a number of short stories, published in Argosy and other magazines, a habit he continued right up to a few months ago. And, two years after Amanda, Julian was born to join the family in the little Wandsworth house.
Richard stuck with advertising through the Sixties and Seventies, finally spending 10 years penning an agricultural digest as “Walter Strong”. The family moved to the Chilterns. William was born in 1961, Emma 1963 – the Hamiltons – growing up with Amanda and Julian in Little Downham, the draughty Victorian home for nearly 30 years.
When Jocelyn became ill with cancer from a melanoma in 1988, Richard took on the role of stalwart supporter. Over two, difficult years, he was unfussily dependable. He would set off ‘up the village’ with a wicker basket on his arm to do the necessary shopping.
Reeling from Jocelyn’s death in 1990, he met Gill – then a Coles – who had suffered the same terrible loss with her wonderful David. It was actually at a bereavement bash organised through the Church that they came across each other. Richard had the four grown-up children; Gill two in the shape of Philip and Richard.
They were married in June 1991 in Buckinghamshire. An alliance that was mutually supportive, clearly – to the rest of us – developed into something far more loving very quickly. Together, he and Gill set about creating a new home in Beaconwood and a life that included their combined six children and any other appendages already in place or that that hove into view. They worked at forging bonds with family and with friends new and old. Beaconwood was seldom theirs alone for more than a day or two.
Their joy in life and the genuine excitement of what lay around the corner was palpable and remained so. They went to Africa and the old haunts, to America, Australia, all points in between, some of them on ships. Gill helped Richard enormously, a life support machine when he needed one (not that he’d ever admit it) who tolerated his peculiarities, encouraged his enthusiasms, gave him license to address any and everybody he met, which seemed to be a growing, rather than reducing, number.
Of course, there were the odd fiery moments, more often than not occasioned by events in the family. In choppy seas, the Richard and Gill alliance remained a Fastnet Rock of continuity over 24-and-a-half years. It was a joy to see how happy they could make each other, although they weren’t beyond winding each other up something rotten every now and then. Richard was very human.
He loved Gill’s two boys. When Philip was considering particularly big decisions in his life, Richard – perhaps uncharacteristically for him – actually listened hard and ventured useful advice. To Ritchie, he provided both a constant and also a sounding board, talking over the steps of his life, one of the biggest being the jump to Australia.
To his four children, he remained an inspirational father. For instance, Julian, living in Oregon, wrote to him last year saying:
“You gave a small boy the courage and the confidence to go out and explore the world, to try and tread where his father had trod, and to venture to places where there were no footprints to follow. I always wanted to come home, and to be able to share that with you; and to catch the warmth of your smile and the touch of your hand.”
During the last years in Poole Keynes and Kemble, Richard plunged in to local life with his customary enthusiasm. He was a great chatterer. The many wonderful cards from local people following his death stand as tribute to his enviable sociability. Having attended him through two complicated aneurism operations, neither a walk in the park, Gill’s observation strikes as particularly apposite. “He wasn’t frightened of dying but he loved living”, she said.
He himself was delighted by an African proverb he found in a copy of The Week. “When an old man dies, a library burns down.” What a library to have have lost.
Richard Awdry: Who observed with an artist’s eye and wrote with a writer’s pen.
Richard Awdry: A gentleman who was loved and was loving.
Richard Awdry: Whose philosophy of life was perhaps best captured in the very last line of his book, A Pride Of Relations:
“Everyone … has some kind of importance.”
Richard Charles Visger Awdry: 25.12.1929 – 27.12.2014