Tom Stacey gave this Tribute to his friend Roddy Jones at the Service of Thanksgiving for Roddy at the church of St Mary, St Cuthberga and All Saints, at Witchampton, Dorset, on May 11, 2017. Roddy Jones had died on April 24.
By Tom Stacey
Some of you know me; some don’t, my name is on your race-card. I have been a pal of Roddy for the past 40 or so years, which is only half his lifespan, but a good start … not least because I’ve been his host and landlord at our rambly family home in Kensington for the past 16 years. Roddy has been an integral member of our household. Life will be that much less without the inimitable Roddy.
I am the choice of speaker here on higher authority – that is, from Roddy from beyond the grave. He has written his posthumous injunction: Keep it brief. I shall do my best, but we’ve got to do justice to the fellow.
Because Roddy was a rare one: he was a one-off. When they made Roddy, as a potter might say, they broke the mould.
Parts of Roddy belong to an earlier, Kipling era of national life. But Roddy was, I reckon, his own man from day one. That probably goes with a certain Welshness: a doggedness, even cussedness, pluck and fortitude, and such a vein of humour … a mix of south Welsh mine-ownership and Carmarthen hill farming in his immediate ancestry.
People like to know ages. Well, Roddy just missed his 83rd birthday the other day. Which means he was born in 1934, and as it happened in Eldoret in upland Kenya on the Uganda border, where his Dad was an electrical engineer in the Colonial service and he and his sister Rhian, a year and a bit his senior, spent their infancy. Thence to Palestine in the late ’30s to Palestine, which we British had the colonial running of for the League of Nations: a significant move in young Roddy’s growth.
War was soon to break out; and the Middle East to be a major theatre from 1940. Roddy and Rhian were among the playmates of the future King Husain of Jordan, just outside Jerusalem. Roddy learned to know and relate easily with the Arabs … while the British at last got Rommel on the run in neighbouring North Africa.
When the going looked good, his parents thought to get the children away to their aunt in South Africa. Their ship had got no further than Suez when, riding at anchor offshore, the Luftwaffe bombed it and set it ablaze. The children and their escort were got out from below decks with seconds to spare, by the gallantry of a crewman … and were spirited back to Palestine. The incident was seared on his memory.
Back home in Wales with his family after the war, accompanied by an Arab stallion, Roddy was packed off to Sherborne School, parents struggling a bit for the fees, where Roddy excelled at sport; and thence to Sandhurst from where, already appointed a Junior Under Officer, the Royal Welch were glad to commission him into their famous and honoured regiment.
In British-occupied Berlin, where he was soon to be stationed, some knew him as Punchy Jones, since he was a dangerous flyweight in the ring. When he headed the regimental boxing squad, there was the famous moment when, about to contest for an inter-army boxing trophy, one of his team was found in the early morning to be two pounds above his weight limit. Welsh honour was at stake, and when Roddy faced a challenge he met it head on. He drove the man out of the barracks to a where a manhole cover led into the under-pavement heating system for the Berlin of the day, and with the fellow’s consent had him squat down there all day to sweat off his extra pounds until the evening bout, which he won.
The fact is the men Roddy commanded would do anything for him.
It was there that Roddy was for a while 2 i/c to a commanding officer named Alun Gwynne Jones, whom later on Harold Wilson would persuade to abandon his role as Defence Correspondent for The Times to join his second administration in various roles as Lord Chalfont.
Roddy went on to serve in Hong Kong and Cyprus.
Now, when he was not to go on to Staff College he seized the opportunity as a still serving officer to study Arabic at the British school of Mid-Eastern Studies in Shemlan in Lebanon. There he excelled, mastering both written spoken Arabic. That was to open a whole new vista in his professional life.
In 1962, as a Major, he was selected for the role of Desert Intelligence Officer at Rostaq, in what we still knew as Muscat and Oman. The covert governmental management by a handful of gifted and dedicated British Arabists, of whom Roddy became one, was propping up the shaky rule of Sultan Said bin Taimur. Before and after that assignment in the 1960s he served spells seconded to the Trucial and Oman Scouts, in today’s UAE, as well as a spell with the Abu Dhabi Defence Force. He had meanwhile fallen in love with another’s wife, Sue Farmer, and married her.
Roddy’s two marriages were not trivial affairs. They ran deep and played their part. Roddy was not geared, I came to see, to the emotional needs of the women in his life; and both Sue and subsequently Gigi, were to experience (how do I put it?) inattentiveness. Yet when all is said and weighed in the scales of the Divine, let us note how the offspring both wives had borne in their first marriages were to develop an unbreakable bond with Roddy … as was true also of their mothers. The presence of various mourners among us in this church today attests to that.
Oman was becoming strategically critical. It commanded the strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf through which half the word’s lifeblood of oil was passing in vast tankers at the rate of two or three an hour. Oman was also wickedly vulnerable from the Marxist regime in South Yemen, after that same Wilson government of the later ’60s had fumbled the grant of independence to the Aden Protectorate; and it was further threatened by the Nasserite insurrection of Taleb and Ghaleb against the Sultan in the country’s mountainous north-east where Rostaq lay.
The old Sultan’s replacement by his son Qaboos in 1970 was to save the day. But Roddy, now as a civilian, had been obliged to find employment with a British agricultural company with a key landscaping and other contracts in the vicinity of Riyadh, in the big place next door. There it was that he gave me a camp bed at the end of his narrow bleak room, and succour in a hundred ways, when I arrived in the mid-1970s to launch a region-wide book-publishing enterprise of my own. His role there was Keeper of the Arabian Horse Stud. He and I shared the company of a ribald and irreverent community of British navvies. Our multifarious enterprises were adventurous and hazardous. We made our own rules, cut our own corners, took daily risks, had formidable fun and were often scarcely a pace or two from calamity.
Apart from the camp bed, Roddy provided me various deep-desert rescues of my succession of erratic vehicles, an intimate reading of the Arab mind, and of course his bar-room humour. His Royal Welch reminiscences were glorious and seemingly inexhaustible.
Roddy story coming up.
Kit inspection in the barrack-room of company X of the first battalion, with the officer in charge doing the rounds of the men’s bed-spaces with each fusilier’s kit immaculately laid out in a given display on the tight grey blanket: kit, which they had been polishing and blanco-ing all day. The kit display on Fusilier Evans’s bed didn’t match the rest.
‘There no small packs, Evans. Or L-straps.’
‘I know Sir.’
‘They’re in the box Sir.’
‘Really? And only one belt …’
‘I know Sir.’
‘Where’s the other belt, then?’
‘It’s in the box Sir.’
‘So where’s this box, Evans?’
‘That the bugger of it Sir. Where is the bloody box!’
Roddy’s job was to look after the plethora of spare horses with which the Saudi princes were wont to dash their friends for this favour or that. His stable team were Pathans from the north-west frontier of Pakistan.. They too became devoted to Roddy.
He was soon to be invited back to Oman, which he loved, now surging ahead and a lot less precarious, to take up a key role in regional intelligence. Characteristically, some while later when he got a bit of leave, he lit off to the Swat valley to visit his former stable team of Pathans in their remote and beautiful highland fastness in Pakistan, who rejoiced at the reunion.
Recruited by Malcolm Dennison, head of Oman’s intelligence structure, Roddy was posted to Musandam at the entrance to the Gulf. There he suffered a grievous misfortune. Clambering amid loose rocks where a new road was to be built, a vast boulder began to slide. It trapped his leg. For some 7 hours Roddy lay there pinned in enormous pain and searing heat. By brilliant surgery and a bone graft, and the devotion of his newly partnered Gigi, his leg was saved. It was months before he could resume his role in Oman, now with a permanent limp. He was not one to be daunted. Now married to Gigi – in Oman to revive the traditional craft of weaving – Roddy was soon to be chosen by Ralph Daly, Sultan Qaboos’ protector of the environment, to take charge of the inspiring project to re-introduce the unique Arabian oryx onto Arabian soil in Oman’s extensive Yaluni reserve.
He gave his all to that project. That eminent biologist Andrew Spalton, who now heads all things environmental for the Sultan of Oman, remembers when Roddy first arrived as Field Manager at Yaluni.
‘We sat the oryx project rangers down for Roddy’s first briefing. He spoke beautiful Arabic for about 20 minutes. When he had finished the head ranger turned to me and asked for a translation. His Arabic was too good for the bedu and for me! He soon adjusted to the local Jaaluni dialect.
‘Each day we tried to go out and see different herds of the re-introduced oryx. We would reach the rangers who were keeping an eye on the oryx and I settled down to watch oryx. He paid little attention to what he called Daly’s wild cows, and proceeded to interrogate the rangers as to who they were, where they came from, who else was in the family, and so on. He noted all this down in a tiny note-book. I sometimes wondered if he was still working for the security service.
‘Roddy loved the bedu and they him.’
For his 5-year contract he devoted himself to that project. Roddy was in large measure a bedu himself: a deep desert man, self-contained, tightly disciplined, stoical, uncomplaining, no filling of silences with chatter, making ruthless demands of his own body.
When he and Gigi returned in retirement to her house in Islington in the mid ’90s he took up all-weather swimming, preferably at dawn, preferably at freezing point. Some while later, 16 or so years ago, he moved in as our house-guest in Kensington. I took to accompanying him to the Serpentine on the first day of each month, down to the plunge point at the Lido, at dawn or pre-dawn, if only for the Scots Guards not to be trumped by the Royal Welch. One never comments on the temperature of the water. Roddy became famous among that hardy group, in his Afghan hat. He was soon to celebrate his 70th birthday with a tandem parachute jump, gammy leg and all.
Now that hat became the symbol of his last great enterprise: the charity his old pal Brigadier Peter Stewart-Richardson, ex-Coldstreamer, had set up, called Afghan Mother-and-Child, to provide state-of-the-art maternity care to the Tajik families in the Panjshir valley in the northern half of Afghanistan. Scrubber Stewart-Richardson and Roddy were hewn from the same rock. Roddy became the charity’s principal operative as fund-raiser, provider of the service on site, and recruiter of relevant skills from such as Sarah Fane and Rupert Chetwynd, who are here among us. Characteristically, Roddy set about learning Dari, to converse with the recipients of this life-saving aid. At least twice a year he would assiduously fly out to maintain the service, either via Kabul or Dushambe, bringing them the latest kit and setting it to work. No wonder the Royal Society of Asian Affairs had presented him a few years ago with their Special Award, citing this selfless work and his achievements in Oman and Saudi.
His last trip to the Panjshir was as recently as last year, when he flew home with a broken hip un-treated and with no painkiller: a two-day journey with a stop-over at Dubai. This was the stoical, uncomplaining Roddy, a stranger to self-pity, in wild pain.
So here we are gathered, in a house of God. Roddy was not a churchy person. I couldn’t get him to join me at St George’s up Campden Hill. Perhaps he had had enough of rote worship on ‘church parade’ or in school chapel. Yet he was a pretty devout viewer of the Sunday evening TV programme Songs of Praise; and Christianity pervaded much of what he did in life, and strove for on behalf of others.
He and I and many of you here belong to that generation growing up in the war when patriotism was a matter of life and death, a stance of faith in ourselves and in our civilisation, with the figure of Christ presiding. We held to what we had learned to sing in childhood: to God, ‘our help in ages past, our hope for years to come/our shelter from the stormy blast/and our eternal home’ which we here are not going to deny now for Roddy in our slack-spirited, secular age … an age where death is shunted on ahead beyond purview or, when catching others, gets its standard counterpane of ecclesiastic ritual and wine and chatter.
The wondrous mystery of the gift of our life, of our presence on earth, has not actually gone away. Death is not what happens just to other people. The soul’s right to repose – Roddy’s right, even to ‘salvation’ (what the pretentious secularity of our age might find itself calling our ‘human right’) – is an actuality. The body of one loved and treasured, now lifeless, is gone into the earth this very morning – and the ’soul’, that church-word, no longer au courant, unuttered in the road outside, not definable, is still indispensable and not after all for us to risk jettisoning.
It is instead the ultimate necessity for each of us and, specifically, right here, a necessity for him we are giving thanks for, by the demand of mankind’s conscious mind to account for mortality’s submission to the eternal and the infinite; and for the ineradicability of the fortitude and fallibility, the light and dark, inward and outward, the gloom and mirth, which was and is Roddy – a child of God like each of us, of divinely mysterious origin, re-delivered to the love of Jesus born of the Virgin dedicatee of this church, and of the God of that abbess Cuthberga, Wessex princess, fellow dedicatee, of the ninth century of our Christian era.
May our silent prayer bear meaning.