EULOGY TO JACK LEGGETT
By Mark Leggett
Welcome everyone, thank you for coming. As you know we’re here to commemorate Jack Leggett’s life. And for those of you who don’t know, I’m Mark Leggett, Jack’s son, and I’ll do my best to give you a sense of Dad, of the man he was.
To do that, I’ll take you to three of the places that influenced Dad the most: England, Switzerland and New Zealand.
Dad was the younger of two boys, born in Tooting, South London to Wilfred and Kathleen, on St Valentine’s Day in 1927. Wilfred was also a London boy whose father, William George West Leggett, was a celebrated, published draughts problemist, although of too nervous a disposition to play professionally. Kathleen was a Dines, a Cambridgeshire family of market gardeners, and by all accounts, of which there are only traces, a graceful lady.
Of the 6 men of his generation on both sides of our family who served, Wilfred was one of only 2 who survived the Great War.
He was the only one from his platoon pulled alive from a pillbox outside Lille which had been attacked with artillery and gas shells. Wilfred came out of that conflict, into a world without post-traumatic stress counselling, damaged both physically and emotionally. His experiences affected both him and those around him profoundly.
From the little Dad revealed, and from what his brother Peter and sister-in-law Kate have told us, life at home in the 30’s could be dire. In 1932, Kathleen died of cancer.
At 5, Jack was sent to boarding school, along with Peter. Wilfred married again to a woman who disliked children. When the holidays came around, Jack was not always called home, but remained at school, alone with the skeleton staff. After Wilfred left his second wife, he moved from flat to flat in London. Life for Jack was unstable, unpredictable, sometimes fearful and often lonely.
Crucially, Peter was just a little older, a little more resilient. He turned outwards, became extrovert. When I met him in England he wrapped me in a bear hug. Being hugged by a Leggett was a new experience. As a younger boy, Jack was more vulnerable. He turned inwards.
Of course, despite everything, Jack loved his Dad. Throughout his life, Wilfred walked. He marched out of the army and kept walking, every chance he got, all over England. Wilfred communed with nature, writing poetry, drawing what he saw.
Sometimes he took Jack. Sometimes they slept in hedgerows.
In their time together, Wilfred had a great influence on his son. Given his own experiences of wartime and a post-war depressed working world, Wilfred had forthright views on generalship, politicians and the establishment. Throughout his life Dad had an affinity for the common man. He had a finely tuned nonsense detector. He detested pomp and circumstance, had little time for the views of his so-called “betters”, and was suspicious of self-appointed authority. Truly, New Zealand was going to be the right place for him.
The Second World War brought further strife for this little family. Peter entered service while Jack was initially evacuated from London to billet with an unfriendly couple in Melksham, Wiltshire. Back in London after the initial scare, Jack saw fighter plane wings flutter down from the sky like sycamore seeds and heard the engines of V1 bombs cut out overhead. The war saw the boys separated by their ages and obligations and grow apart.
But it was during the war that the first of two wonderful women entered Jack’s life. Wilfred, woman, Iris had a positively mellowing influence on Wilfred. She bore him a son, Stuart, who became a little brother to Jack and, for the first time, Jack had someone who unreservedly loved him.
Jack put himself through night school, graduating as a mechanical draftsman.
In 1944, while clearing bracken in Cumbria with the youth service volunteers, their camp leader suggested a “bit of a mountain climb”. The group ascended a rough track and, in a couple of hours, arrived at the summit of High Spy at 2,143 feet. After consuming lunch, they set off on a gradual descent over Cat Bells to Borrowdale. Standing on the summit of that fell, with a view of mountains to all points of the compass, brilliant skies and the Irish Sea way over to the west, Jack found his mojo.
Climbing gave his life and travels a purpose. The next few years saw him scrambling in the Lakes District, North Wales and Scotland and taking a climbing holiday in Switzerland with workmates Chris and Trevor.
His modest nature gave rise to a self-depreciating humour which you would all be familiar with. One of his favorite stories, which bears repeating, involves him returning fully kitted from a climbing weekend away and descending into the bowels of one of the main London stations, to the loo. Striding down the stairs, gear clanking and swaying, he hit the slick tiled surface in his hob nailed boots and slid, making a noise like a derailed loco, straight into the urinal, next to a tall, bowler hatted gent going about his business, who turned to him and murmured “steady on, Hillary”.
If England remained a relatively closed book for the rest of Dad’s life, which he only opened occasionally for us, Switzerland was writ large on the page. If to us Dad could seem fixated on this part of his life, it cannot on reflection be a surprise. It was here that Dad blossomed; in his career, in his sport, in love. Switzerland was where his lungs, heart, muscles and mind expanded to fill the landscape.
The danger and physical and mental challenge of climbing, allowed him to cool his mind by focusing on the task in hand. Turning inwards early in boyhood had made Jack an intensely shy man. Settling down with stein or two afterwards with Chris, Albert and Trevor and other likely lads and lasses to review the route taken, gave him an opportunity to relax socially and develop lifelong friendships.And if you don’t think climbing is dangerous, whilst ascending the Wildstrubel, and taking along his employer’s family, Jack slipped, careered down a snow slope, and fell into a crevasse pulling his employer in on top of him. Jack’s water bottle still has a dent caused by Herr Wyssen's boot ... and here’s that dent.
Dad found joy too in his work at Wyssen Seilbahnen in Reichenbach, with Chris and Trevor, working on designs for log recovery systems. He grew to love the matter-of-fact, unpretentious ways of the Swiss-Germans. And it was at Wyssen that he met Martin Ough Dealy, a similarly energetic young man (described by Jack as lean, hungry looking and cheerful) on leave from the British Army and looking for some practical engineering experience, and it was through Martin and in Bern that he met the second of two marvelous women in his life, Charmian Ough.
In 1958 Dad and his mates were obliged by Swiss visa limitations to leave their beloved Reichenbach. Herr Wyssen, a generous employer, presented each of them with a sky blue tie with the Queen's portrait embossed thereon, a kind thought and proudly worn on taking leave; safely in the carriage and around the first curve - off they came.
England in the mid to late 50’s may not have been the most inspiring place to be, especially to a young man recently returned from a life-changing four years in the Bernese Oberland. He finally hit on New Zealand, as opposed to Canada or any of the other Dominion options. As Stuart suggests, we can speculate why he chose a place so far away that once you’ve gone past it you are on your way home again.
But you know, it did have mountains, and it needed men with Dad’s qualifications and can do attitude. You know how when you get to a place you know you have committed to, how wide awake your senses are? Imagine coming into Wellington Harbour in 1958, having travelled for 6 weeks across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal, and across the Pacific, stopping off to drop cargo on wild looking Pitcairn Islanders en route. In 1958, in New Zealand, the 6 o’clock swill was in full swing, Nash was the Prime Minister, the Black Budget had been released, and Jack was commuting to his drafting job at the stolid Ministry of Works and Development.
There must have been moments of doubt, but the Tararua Ranges were just up the road.
Jack had further solace. Now Mum may in her words have played “hard to get”, but Dad was nothing if not tenacious. Aerogrammes were winging their way back and forth between Wellington and Cambridge, and eventually an engagement ring found its way to England.
Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise obliged Charmian to pay 50 pounds for the privilege of securing her ring, on the understanding that it would be paid back by the government upon her departure, sans interest. Thus bonded, Charmian had no choice but to venture via her parents’ home in Mexico to New Zealand, a country she really only knew about from Jack’s letters and her Jamaican high school geography lessons, and to a man she hadn’t seen for 5 years. A very brave young woman.
And Jack was a very fortunate man.
One thing that Jack and his brother had in common. They were family men. Despite or perhaps in reaction to their upbringing, Peter and Jack both carved out prosperous, enquiring, adventuresome spaces for their children. Being a family man might not have been a natural state for Dad, and at times it was a challenge for him, Mum and us, but you know he pulled it off.
Sally will share with us how Dad was “just there”. He could also be compassionate, and like many of his pre-texting generation, he could write. Here’s what he wrote Peter when Wilfred died in 1968 ...
Having been successful at holding down his feelings over the years, Mum remembers this time as the only time Dad that cried, so far from the Dad he felt so conflicted about.
Dad was also generous. He subsidised a passing parade of animals, in order of size from mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, to Sox and Marmite the cats, Sam and Mickey the dogs and Shady the horse. Trucks delivered a piano, and a shed for a never completed model railway.
He took us skiing, to Mount Egmont, to Ngaruahoe in eruption, to Cape Reinga. We explored the Urewera with the Woodrows, Dad pulling us up a ridge for every river John took us down. He pitched the family tent and held on to the central pole during cyclones, or dug perimeter trenches furiously into gravel while we lay in our camp beds listening to the rain.
He knocked up hutches and a tree house. He recovered our broken down cars from all over the countryside. He even influenced our own vehicle choices: we’ve had three Volkswagen beetles between us. But really, what he taught us was that experiences, not acquisitions, were important.
He continued to maintain a complete disinterest in many things. He was not interested in rock and roll, r ‘n’ b, disco, punk, new wave, metal, electronica, shoe gaze, or new generation folk. He did not listen to our Solid Gold Hit records volumes X through X. He had no time for UFOs, Hollywood, Bollywood, Wellywood or celebrity “culture”.But he had a thirst for knowledge. His life and that of our wider family had been pushed this way and that by two terrible outbreaks of violence. He wanted to understand what had given rise to these and other failures of the human condition. He read voraciously. As do we.
A man of the world, Dad could be incredibly unworldly. We lived in mortal fear of him embarrassing us as teenagers. On one occasion, driving down the grandly named Strand in Whakatane, he suddenly decided to visit a music store to ask if they stocked door knobs. Dismayed, we pleaded with him not to go. Adamant and jaw set, he parked up and marched across the road. We imagined the staff coming out to look at us and laugh and point. I foresaw an article in the Whakatane Beacon.
Eternal shame. He returned, empty handed. We were confirmed in our righteousness. Looking back on it now, as a father myself, I think I detect mischief at work. Perhaps a faint trace of a smile as he got behind the wheel.Jack. Husband. Son. Son-in-law. Brother. Brother-in-law. Uncle. Father. Grandfather.
A great-grandfather in the last week of his life. Friend.He loved and he was loved. That’s a great place to be in this life.
Copyright M.& M.M. Ough Dealy
This page last modified on Tuesday, November 01, 2016