For the Grandchildren

Peter and Jean (Jeannette) Ellwood write about John:

He made a difference—a good one

Thoughts on the loss of a contemporary for the grandchildren he leaves behind

Even though I lived near him for my first 15 years, I hardly knew my own grandfather. You, John Edward Turtle’s grandchildren, have already enjoyed much better. Your Grandpa was really good at the grandfather job. But you cannot yet know and thus remember your late grandfather as you would were you already grown up—what his friends, work colleagues, associates, acquaintances and adversaries (we all have a few) thought of him. Others will tell you of his wit, his many stories, his skill with words—as a broadcaster, writer, public speaker and more privately as a poet of the lighter variety—his yachting skills, his near professionalism in legal matters and his voluntary advocacy of civil causes. Your mothers, and especially your grandmother Jenny, will fill you in with details. For in the end, his legacy is largely in our own minds, what we remember and why we like to remember it.

Just now we are all sad, especially you and your close family. Someone who seemed to be forever is suddenly not there. We who have known him longer can at least look back and say—as we do not say of everyone—we’re really glad he was there, as our friend, our source of ideas and experiences, as someone we could absolutely rely on, in our case as literally and figuratively our best man.

John was always a leader, but not ostentatiously so. Was he Head Boy at King Edward Vll School in King’s Lynn? We don’t know, but he could have been. [Not Head Boy, but he was a Prefect and House Captain]. Certainly by the time he arrived in London to study for a Bsc. Econ at University College London, he had the necessary qualities. Not yet the performer and sketch writer he ultimately became, he joined the Dram Soc as a techie—building and painting sets, learning how to rig and run the lighting and to stage manage the productions. As residents in the nearby Bentham Hall, in contrast to others in digs a long tube ride away, we no doubt spent more time building flats, making props and sourcing costumes than was good for our academic studies. As Stage Director and chair of the Stage Committee, it was John who first brought in students from the Slade School of Art to design and decorate the sets. It was he who negotiated with the luvvies (the actors) and their producers so that college productions were practical as well as fanciful. Then, as probably now, there was friendly rivalry between student techies and luvvies: it was John who came up with the idea of dispensing with the luvvies altogether, replacing them with cardboard cut outs while the rest of us shifted the scenery and ran the lighting. It was his idea too to drop a large cardboard donkey from the flies on the final night of an opera where the plot had called for a donkey to be lost. Such were the harmless excitements on the tiny stage lodged at one end of the UCL college gym in the late 1950s.


A rare photo of stage crew assembled for the University College Opera ‘The Barber of Baghdad’ in 1959. John is second from the right in the front row, Peter is behind him.

One characteristic already evident in those days, was the care John took never to lose touch with those he met along the way. He didn’t, as so many of us do, simply move on, leaving friends, colleagues and acquaintances behind. In that sense he was a networker extraordinaire long before the term was invented. To this day (in the mid 2010s), a group of former stage committee members from his time in the 1950s meets for curry lunches in London. John, by now recognized as a writer and broadcaster, is remembered in that circle for his sketches for their Stage Committee revues. The Old Lennensians—a group John himself was instrumental in helping to revive —comprises John’s contemporaries and successors at King Edward Vll School.

Of all his attributes, a scourge (someone who can cause great trouble) is how a few may remember him—always, however, in the service of a good cause. As one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Factories, his first job after college, he was responsible for enforcing health and safety on ships and port activities in London’s docks. Despite his relative youth, he quailed many a gnarled ship’s captain using his special voice of authority to lay out just where they were falling short of legal safety requirements, and what would happen if they delayed any remedies.

As a BBC broadcaster, he was a scourge of a gentler variety in his next jobs—as a producer in Further Education Radio, then a producer and editor of current affairs and consumer programmes, and finally in radio training. A large part of his legacy should be preserved in the BBC archives of scripts and recordings, including ‘You and Yours’, a programme still going strong. [We have not found these, but it is possible to hear John present ‘The Learning World’, a World Service series about education, with his programmes archived from 1989 to 1993].

Much later, John returned to high scourge mode, when, long into retirement, he donned the last remaining suit and tie to defend north London’s green belt. Taking on greedy but extremely well-heeled developers and their lawyers, taking on council planners who were often uncomfortably close to them, John represented the interests of opposition groups, chief among them the Mill Hill Preservation Society. He planned the attack, hired the lawyers where funds permitted and at some inquiries challenged the professionals himself.

John ended his time with the BBC as Head of Radio Training, thereafter enjoying generous redundancy and early retirement when two training departments were amalgamated. Such were his reputation and skills as a broadcaster and trainer, he embarked on a third career as a consultant in broadcasting and radio training—travelling the world to raise technical and professional standards in radio broadcasting. Radio Nepal, in particular, should have a plaque on the wall, saying “Trained by John Edward Turtle, former BBC broadcaster”.

Radio Nepal course 1989 001
John introducing one of the many training courses that he organised for Radio Nepal staff in Kathmandu

Training of another kind came out of his BBC time—in yachting skills. Although brought up in King’s Lynn, John only learned to sail when he joined the BBC and sailed on Ariel, the BBC Yacht Club boat based on the Hamble. Later, as a yacht owner himself with progressively larger boats, he trained and entertained many of us in the arcane and already dying skills of navigation using only charts and a sextant. Not that he eschewed the advance of electronic aids; but, so he said, he alone would have survived when a giant wave took out the yacht’s power supply. Voyages across the channel to Normandy ports with Skipper John were never dull, however little the wind. He took particular delight, having acquired an AIS transceiver that tracked and identified nearby commercial vessels, in calling them up on the VHF. A typical communication with a fast-moving Dover-bound ferry would be: “This is the Yacht Flora calling Pride of Le Havre…Are you aware that your port side navigation light is not visible from a point abeam of your present position..”

imageSailing with Jenny further and further down the French Atlantic coast became an annual event, for them and the many others who joined on the way there and back. Good food, trips to the local markets and evenings in local French restaurants were enjoyed by all. Not for John, however, were long walks up the Normandy coast hills, visits to local museums or entertainment such as classical concerts. His preference was to stay behind, perhaps with the chance of a long conversation in interesting, and no doubt entertaining, French with others in the marina. Lines, halyards and sheets had to be whipped, stopcocks checked and navigation for the next day worked out. But this was also the time for another talent, another aspect of writing and one that does have a permanent legacy: John’s poems and other verses. Jenny put many of them together in a slim volume; elder daughter Amanda quoted one on Messiness in her own book The Ministry of a Messy House:

So, come and talk, some tea and cakes,
To love one’s neighbour messy makes,
There’s just no time to tidy up,
We always need another cup,
For family, friends, and cruel distress
Come first, and so you see
A mess!

Not, John would be the first to admit, the greatest lines ever penned. But all the ones he quoted to us had some point or other—from the basic rule about which lights are red when sailing into a foreign port at night to just how the EU, the UN and boat yards in general were not quite as perfect as they would like us to think.

Another network of his retirement years, one of which John was justly proud, was the members of the Savile Club-a dignified London club you join on recommendation because you are a respected journalist, broadcaster, actor, writer, musician or something closely related. A raconteur himself, John was as welcome at the club bar as for his service on club committees, of which curating the notorious Savile rules for snooker will long be remembered. Many of us will cherish the day we came together at the Savile for his and Jenny’s Golden Wedding anniversary  lunch, especially happy in retrospect that we could celebrate their life while still together.


John sharing a joke with friends at his and Jenny’s Golden Wedding anniversary lunch at the Savile in September 2014.

Of all John’s networks, the yachting one was possibly the most enduring. As others have found, having to give it up when illness took over was a big disappointment. He was happy, though, that his last boat went to a young couple who plan to take her on a voyage around the world. Debilitating as that illness was, John did not give in to it. Nor did Jenny, who became instrumental in continuing their life of travel to France, to Denmark, to Scotland, to catch up with their networks of friends. And in the end it was Jenny who became the scourge—of the medical establishment which dithered to the point of life risk in January 2014—thereby giving John, his family and the rest of us two more years of his wit, wisdom and company.

Such are some of the memories of two who knew your grandfather for most of his life. We, like you, are sad. But we are also glad for the life he led, and the way he enhanced ours.

Peter and Jeannette in front of their cottage in Castle Carrick, Argyll, when John and Jenny visited them in May 2015

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