Tuesday, 11 January 2011

My father, Roger West

Below is the text of the tribute I gave to my father, Roger West, at his funeral yesterday, 10th January 2011.

Wasn’t he a lovely man!

Dad was born in Ashford in 1926, but his parents moved to Coventry when he was four years old. He was bright and got into trouble from time to time for answering back at teachers, and worked out his 7 and 8 times tables by himself from the other tables. He took his 11+ a year early and passed, and because Bablake School didn’t have a first form, he went straight into the second form there. So he took his School Certificate exams (equivalent of GCSEs) two years early at just 14, and went on to study science in 6th form.

He was at home in Coventry the night of the terrible bombing raid in November 1940 which devastated the city and burned the cathedral to the ground. The school buildings were damaged and it was decided that the school should be evacuated to Lincoln. He didn’t have a happy time there, but one very important event occurred while in Lincoln. He turned on the radio during a broadcast of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, just at the start of the slow movement. He was so captivated by it that he immediately decided that he wanted to learn an instrument so he could play music like that. A second-hand clarinet was found for him and he started lessons with a local teacher.

He then went to Queens’ College Cambridge to study Natural Sciences, which included Physics, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Maths and Electronics (valves, not transistors in those days!) He continued to learn clarinet, and in July 1945 he first fulfilled his ambition of being able to “play music like that”, taking part in a performance in Kings College Chapel of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.

After National Service as an RAF Signals Officer he obtained work in the electronics industry, and eventually became one of the world’s leading authorities on the manufacture and performance of capacitors. In 1956 he was asked by his employers to look into why the company’s factory in Chessington had such bad manufacturing yields for its capacitors. His report so impressed them that he was appointed Chief Engineer and told to implement his own recommendations.

For 20 years he was chairman of the British Standards Institute technical committee which wrote all the British Standards for capacitors, and he travelled the world representing UK industry at international standards meetings on that subject. I was once told a story by one of his work colleagues at the time, when they were travelling down to London by train to attend a BSI meeting together. After a few minutes chat at the start of the journey, Roger said he would have to stop talking and study the papers for the meeting. He explained “I must maintain my reputation for omniscience.” When he finally retired from the chairmanship, BSI awarded him a Distinguished Service Certificate in a ceremony at BSI headquarters.

As a young man Roger met and married Beryl Hyde. She had spent the war years in Canada with cousins, and had returned to her family in the West Midlands. They set up home in Harrow, and Matthew and Barbara were born to them. Beryl’s increasing mental health problems eventually lead to divorce, with Roger being given custody of Matthew and Barbara. Matthew and Barbara spent a year living with grandparents, until Roger could set up a new home in Twickenham and hire a housekeeper to look after them.

Roger joined the Harlesden Symphony Orchestra, later renamed the Willesden Symphony and later still the Brent Symphony Orchestra. It was as a result of his membership of the orchestra that Roger met and later married Janet, a marriage which lasted until Janet’s death 42 years later, and which resulted in the birth of me and Joanna. Even though the family moved to various addresses in London as he took different jobs, still Roger and Janet would make the weekly trip to the Brent orchestra rehearsal every Wednesday evening. It was only when we moved to Norfolk that they left the orchestra.

Roger and Janet were both founder members of the Edinburgh Rehearsal Orchestra, which met for a residential course during the Edinburgh Festival each year – and does so to this day. Rehearsals would take place during the day, and members were free to go out and attend festival events in the evenings. Their trips to Edinburgh were a regular feature of their summer for some years.

When helping us with our homework, Dad would always insist that he wasn’t just going to feed us the answers, though for the most part he knew all the answers perfectly well. Instead when we needed help, he made sure that he would help us understand how to work out the answers for ourselves. It was exceedingly irritating, but very good for us!

At home, Dad was a source of lovable little eccentricities. For instance angles for slices of pudding or cake would usually be expressed in radians rather than degrees or fractions. “I’ll have pi by 3 radians please.” And at meals he would go round offering seconds to everybody, and then solemnly offer some to himself. “Roger, would you like some more? Yes, thank you Roger, that would be lovely!” and then would serve himself a generous extra portion. At restaurants when the dessert trolley was brought up, he would often ask the waiter which one was the most fattening – and have that. This would occasionally bring forth an exasperated exclamation from Janet “Roger, think of your waistline!”, to which he would reply “I am thinking of my waistline!” Made-up words or odd phrases have become part of family discourse – a tree or lamppost leaning at a drunken angle was “slopendicular”, waiting or resting might be described as “intensive inactivity”.

He had a kind but extremely dry and deadpan wit. On one occasion one of Janet’s friends whom Roger had not previously met was coming to stay for a few days, and had said she would arrive at 3 o’clock. At 2.55, the doorbell rang, Roger opened the door, and accusingly said “You’re early!” – and just for a second, she thought that he meant it! Of course, his normal welcoming smile followed immediately after. A few years ago when Hyacinth and I were visiting at Christmas the conversation light-heartedly got round to the subject of new year’s resolutions. Did he have a new year’s resolution? “Oh yes”, he answered in all seriousness. “This year I’m going to avoid organic food.”

On moving to Norfolk to take up the position of Quality Manager for Erie Electronics at Great Yarmouth (later ITT Components and then STC Components), Roger and Janet both joined the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra, which Roger remained a member of for over 30 years as second clarinet and bass clarinet, and was orchestra librarian for 27 years.

In 1978, Roger and Janet formed the Brundall Music Club, which formed a huge part my and Joanna’s childhood. The club held 9 concerts a year, all performances given by members and their friends, and developed a regular and loyal audience of over 100 for every concert. Roger announced every item and was very much the face of the club, while Janet’s talents as an accompanist were relied on almost every concert. They made a great team.

At one November concert, he had two clipboards in his hands, which he announced would be handed round, for people to write down if they could volunteer to bring mince pies for the Christmas concert the following month – one clipboard would be circulated round the right-hand side of the hall, the other round the left. And as he gestured to the right and the left, the two pencils attached to the clipboards became tangled together on their strings. He had a clipboard in each hand, and had no free hand to untangle the pencils, and he just stood there looking slightly helpless as the audience fell about laughing.

Roger played clarinet many times at Music Club concerts, either with Janet accompanying on piano, or in other chamber groups, and in the Music club’s final concert laid on in honour of Roger and Janet, he played two movements from the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, accompanied by an orchestra made up of past and present music club members. Performers and their families would be invited back to our house afterwards and offered a glass of Dad’s homemade wine – parsnip, rhubarb and lemon balm among others.

Roger and Janet had been regular members of Postwick Church since we moved to Norfolk, and on his retirement he studied to become a Lay Reader. Once he qualified, he took most of the services at Postwick. He also joined the diocesan finance committee and was involved in finding a fair and equitable way of allocating the “parish share”, a thankless and impossible task if ever there was one. But after a few years of this he announced that he was going to give up church committees and take up bowls instead. And for a late starter he became surprisingly good at it, and occasionally arrived home in proud possession of a trophy or prize he had won in a club competition.

He also sang for many years with the Brundall Singers, and I would like to thank you for coming today to lead the singing.

In the weeks and months after Janet died, it was clear and obvious how much respect and affection there was for him, if only from the number of cakes baked for him by the ladies of the village. Ladies, let me tell you now – Roger had an extremely sweet tooth, and he ate and thoroughly enjoyed every single one of those cakes!

Mary became a close companion after Janet’s death, and Roger and Mary decided to marry. This shouldn’t be regarded as a footnote to Roger’s life, but an integral part of the story of it. He had clearly become devoted to Mary, and from the incredible kindness and heroic effort Mary put into looking after Roger as he became ill, it is obvious that the devotion was returned. At intervals, we would come over to look after Dad for a few days while Mary took a break. It was a wonder and a pleasure to see how his eyes lit up with joy when she returned.

I don’t pretend to be able to explain or even understand how monstrously unfair it is that Mary had so little time with Roger in full possession of his faculties before his decline started. All I can do is to say thank you on behalf of Matthew, Barbara, Joanna and myself for the utterly devoted and unstinting love and care you gave him. We know the decision to move him into Brundall Care Home was a difficult one, but it was absolutely correct and necessary, for the sake of your own health as much as his. We know also that you don’t think of yourself as a hero, that you just carried on day by day doing what had to be done. But that is exactly what real heroes do.

As dementia advances, sometimes a patient displays what care staff euphemistically call “challenging behaviour”. But there was none of that with Roger. His inner traits of gentleness, acceptance, calm and dignity came to the fore, and the staff at Brundall Care Home became very fond of him, and cared for him with great kindness.

The last time I saw Dad was a fortnight before Christmas. He was only occasionally conscious and clearly fading. Joanna had brought her violin into the home to play some carols to the residents. To my surprise, Dad woke, and was obviously trying to sing along to the chorus of O Come All Ye Faithful. Little or no noise was coming out, but he was quite definitely mouthing the words “O come let us adore him” in time to the music. It is completely characteristic of Roger that about the last remaining conscious corner of his mind involved both his faith and his love of music.

When he died peacefully on the morning of Christmas Eve, Mary was at his side.

Roger lived such a full life and brought light into so many lives that even we, his family, don’t know the full story of it. If you have any anecdotes or reminiscences of Roger that you can share with us, we would love to hear them. My sister Barbara will be collecting them into a “Book of Memories” for the family.

If you knew Roger and have a story of him that you would like to share with the family, please email it to me at jonathanwest22@googlemail.com, and I will forward it to Barbara for her to include in the book. It is not intended for publication, just for members of the family to read.


  1. Please accept my condolences on your loss.

    Best regards,

    James Boldin

  2. What a wonderful life! Thanks so much for telling these stories.

    There's simply nothing like losing your father and mother. Laurie Anderson sings somewhere the death of her father was like a library burning down and that's so very true. Your collecting stories is a fine idea.

    Wishing you and yours all the best,

  3. A very moving tribute. i wish that I could have spoken so eloquently when my mothet died. I am sorry for your loss.

  4. I'm so sorry about your loss, Jonathan. Thanks for this very interesting and moving tribute - a great idea to collect the stories into a book.