Neil Robbie, John’s son-in-law, spoke of family memories in his tribute to John at the Thanksgiving Service:
When we remember John Turtle, what will it be about him for which we will be most thankful? What qualities, actions or situations will come to mind and make us glad to have known him?
Since John died two weeks ago, many people have written kind notes to Jenny, Amanda and Josie or called and spoken with them, and it is in those messages of support and appreciation that we are aware of just how much John meant to so many people.
There are stories of his kindness and generosity, his mentoring and encouragement of people in their working lives, his enthusiasm and interest in so many different things, his wit, his endless store of funny stories to fit every occasion.
There are members of the Mill Hill Preservation Society and the CPRE who speak about his deep desire to stand up for the protection of the Greenbelt. One person wrote, “John was a larger than life character, and he really did make a difference to people’s lives.”
John was born in Hunstanton, or Hunstun, in Norfolk to Jack and Dorothy. He was an only child and was schooled at King Edward VII School in King’s Lynn and he maintained a lifelong association with the school. He was instrumental in helping to revive the Old Lennensians Association in the last 10 years or so.
John was proud of coming from Norfolk and was an extremely good example of the Norfolk motto, which is ‘Do Different’.
So, how was John different? What did he do differently?
Well, in many ways, John preferred to live in an earlier, gentler age. Someone once described him as a relic of the Raj. When it came to matters of the church, he preferred the 1662 prayer book and even the 1388 Wycliffe Bible. John described modern liturgy as being ‘in the language of the dog licence’.
He was a member of the Savile Club, where he was well known and made good company and it was the Savile where he hosted the annual Old Lennensians lunch. He always had great stories to tell and he held the slightly eccentric offices of Keeper of the Snuff and Head of Billiards – or Savile Rules snooker. Don’t ask! I played snooker with John at the club on a number of occasions and still don’t understand the rules.
Jenny reminds us, with a broad smile, how at home, John had very strong preferences and slightly eccentric behaviour, which was not always easy to live with. For example, he would only drink tea if served in a cup not a mug. He would only eat pasta if it was spaghetti. He only used Pears soap, which left sludgy brown deposits on every sink. He liked Ambrosia rice pudding, hot.
If John had a cold, he would not use tissues, but very large red or blue spotted cotton handkerchiefs. Which also turned into a puppet called Mr Handkerchief used mostly (but not exclusively) to entertain young children.
His taste in clothing was old-fashioned. He wore tweed or linen suits, and corduroy jackets and trousers, which were slightly short, and fancy waistcoats and club ties.
He played a strange selection of musical instruments, including the banjo, the concertina and the harmonica, not always competently, but enthusiastically. He had recently returned to the flute, which he learned as a teenager, and he had started lessons again in the last year of his life. The flute was something which Jenny actually enjoyed listening to when John played.
The music he listened to was not mainstream. As well as trad jazz, he liked marching bands, Scottish country dance, music hall songs, Richard Tauber and of course, being from Norfolk, The Singing Postman. Josie remembers the trad jazz in particular and, although not highly enamoured as a teenager, especially when John played his music at 8:30am on a Saturday morning, Josie immediately associates trad jazz with lazy afternoons at jazz clubs and with the tapes John would record for her and Amanda whilst they were at university.
John loved his cats, Wetherby, Morrison and E.D. Wivens! Names with literary sources, which stemmed from John’s insatiable appetite for books of all kind, but especially literature of an earlier age, Dickens, P G Wodehouse and Rumpole being favourites.
John was a generous grandfather to his four grandchildren Isha, Gillis, Elliot and Rachael. He especially wanted his grandchildren to have a model railway, so he could share his enthusiasm for rail with them. Indeed he was very pleased to have in Martin a son-in-law who knew a thing or two about railways, old and new. He passed on a love of silly jokes to Gillis, a love of detective fiction to Isha and Elliot, as well as his love of music, which we can also see developing apace in Rachael.
John wrote verse, usually comic. He nearly always wrote poems for the family and for a few close friends to celebrate birthdays or other important occasions. Two years ago, Jenny secretly collected together John’s works and had them printed, for his Christmas present. Copies have been ordered and will be available for everyone. Please, to receive your copy, write your name and address on one of the envelopes that are on the table near the entrance to the church, and if you miss that opportunity, they will also be available at the Clubhouse afterwards, or contact Jenny, Josie or Amanda, whose email address is on the Order of Service, and you will be sent a copy of John’s poems after the books arrive from the printer.
Just to give you a sample, here’s one of his favourites, which he’d regularly repeat to Jenny with a laugh.
My son-in-law out in the east,
Does not like his job in the least,
So he’s finding a way,
Though it’s very bad pay,
Of becoming an Anglican priest.
John did different.
John also did difference. John made a difference.
There have been messages and letters from people whose careers were changed because of John’s wise advice and his willingness to give people a chance to use their gifts.
He made a difference to BBC Radio Training and consumer programming, he made a difference to Mill Hill and the Greenbelt through the Preservation Society and CPRE, he made a difference to the Old Lennensians, and he made a difference to his family.
John and Jenny were married for nearly 52 years and had known each other for 55 years. They celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary at the Savile two years ago. They met when Jenny joined the Stage Committee at UCL. John had left college but he still came in at weekends to help backstage. They married as soon as Jenny graduated and lived in north London, in Hampstead and then in Mill Hill.
John and Jenny both worked for much of their lives, but also travelled extensively together to India and Nepal, New Zealand, South America, Cuba, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and even sailing in Thailand. They owned three boats, not all at once, and spent long summers on the channel and west coasts of France, and even sailed to the Baltic, fulfilling John’s long held ambition to sail to Denmark to visit friends there. Sometimes on long trips they sailed with friends, many of whom are here today, but often it was just the two of them.
Jenny, you say that those times at sea and in foreign ports were the best times for you and John. Amanda and I with our three children were delighted that for seven of the ten years we spent in France, we met you on your boat in Normandy or Brittany, where Isha, Gillis and Elliot were able to sleep over and have lessons in tying knots from their grandfather and crab fishing off the marina, or being hoisted up the mast.
John’s skill as a navigator and his technical knowledge of boats meant they were always safe and he never put anyone at risk, except for some of his crew who could be hideously sea sick!
Jenny has reflected on why these sailing trips were the best times for them. She says “On a boat you have a very small space to live, eat, sleep and relax, but you have everything you need and it is all easily within reach. The clutter of life is pared down to its essentials. At home, John was not a tidy person, but on the boat there was a place for everything and everything had to be returned to its place, in case you needed to find it in an emergency. He had his books, his harmonica, his comfortable bunk, he was truly relaxed and happy in his own kingdom, the Captain of his ship. And this is how I will remember him best.”
John’s health deteriorated slowly over the past three years, yet it was during that time that his 1662 prayer book and bible became more precious to him and at Christmas he prayed for his gathered family as we sat down for lunch. Three days before he died, John asked Jonathan to come to hospital to take communion with him.
John did different and he made a difference and it is for all these things, and very many more, that we will be thankful to the Lord for John Turtle.