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Friday, 17 June 2011

My dad - Richard Overton

Even though my dad dismissed Father's Day as a bit of American nonsense dreamt up by the card industry, I am nevertheless going to post the obituary I wrote about him, when he died four years ago.

Richard Charles Overton

My father, Richard Overton, was born on 18 May 1923, in Blundellsands, a suburb of Liverpool, and grew up as the eldest of four children, his parents having lost their first child to meningitis before Richard was born.  He and his two brothers were sent to prep school at Tre-arddur Bay, Angelsey.  The Headmaster, Ioworth Williams insisted on two things: first  that the boys would learn to swim by a dip every morning in the icy waters of the North Atlantic and second that they would learn to skip.  My father took to the swimming, even though it was combined with Mrs Williams’s obligatory prophylactic of raw egg and milk, but skipping was a skill he never mastered. 

Richard moved on to Sedbergh in 1937, another school with physical rigour at its heart.  The ten mile run over the Cumbrian fells was an annual tradition to which he returned regularly over the years.  Richard flourished at Sedbergh - academically, socially and in sporting achievement.  He left both schools as head boy and with a constitution that would see him through the physical hardship of war and a career in the Colonial Service. 

Leaving Sedbergh in 1942, Richard joined the 9th Border Regiment, and began his army career as an NCO, in charge of a group of conscripted Liverpudlians who didn't take well to the early morning starts demanded by the army.  Such was the 19 year old's difficulties in rousing his squadron, that he was reprimanded by the sergeant major.  How, the superior officer asked, did Corporal Overton expect to lead his men into battle if he couldn't even get them out of bed?  Richard was commissioned in Bangalore in l943.  His arrival in Burma coincided with the start of the 180 mile retreat to Imphal, a difficult and dangerous trek across mountainous terrain in monsoon conditions.  The soldiers were ordered to abandon all but the most basic kit, each carrying what he would need on his back, including guns and ammunition.  Richard later wrote to his mother that despite these orders he had managed to hold on to several books.  The Division suffered severe loss, but were successful in their return to the Imphal Plain which would later become the springboard for victory.
Richard 1943

On demobilisation in 1946 Richard went to Magdalen College, Oxford, to study History, a lifelong passion of his.  Oxford was a divided place immediately after the war.  Students arriving straight from school must have seemed immature, untroubled and naïve to the men returning from the front, and Richard reported that some tutors too seemed ignorant and largely uninterested in the traumas these young men had been through.  He transferred to Law, before settling on the Colonial Service training in which he found his true motivation and purpose. 

Richard with the Fon of Banso January 1957
Richard joined the Colonial Service in 1950 and his first posting was to Calabar in Eastern Nigeria.  The Colonial Service offered Richard the perfect career as District Officer.  The role, broadly defined as running the colony on behalf of the Queen, in practice involved a vast miscellany of disparate and at times extraordinary activities.  One day he would be determining appeals on complicated legal questions - polygamous inheritance, custody of children or ownership of land; the next he might be returning an illegally incarcerated chimpanzee to the jungle, or hearing a village's complaint about an elephant that had been causing havoc with the banana crop. 

Richard enjoyed this job enormously, and it's not difficult to see how close a fit it was with his interests and talents.  His passion for fairness, his slowness to judge, a natural tendency to listen with patience and empathy together with his sense of humour equipped him perfectly for the judicial element of the role; his love of the outdoors and walking fitted him well for the long treks to remote stations, often for weeks at a time.  His innate courtesy and good manners and his meticulousness in matters of writing and administration qualified him for the ceremonial and official duties.

Not all tours were spent in the bush and in 1955 Richard was posted to the government headquarters in Buea, Southern Cameroons, as the colonial equivalent to Secretary to the Cabinet.  It was here he met Susan who had recently arrived as secretary to the Commissioner of the Cameroons.  They were married in November 1957 and spent the first years of their happy marriage in Mamfe, making many good and lifelong friends.

Nigerian independence signalled the end to Richard and Susan's time in West Africa and they returned to England in 1962 with two young daughters, a third born later in the year.  Richard worked for a short time in the Drapers' Chamber of Trade before taking up a post at  the Commission for the New Towns in Crawley in November1965, their newly born son completing the family.  Richard remained in this job until early retirement in 1983.   

Richard was never quite complete without a dog. When Susan first met him in Buea, he was caring for a sick dog, a fierce ugly brute (by all but Richard's accounts), which was discovered, on its death, to have been suffering from rabies.  Consequently, Richard had to undergo a long course of painful injections, administered by the wife of a close friend who happened to be the local nurse.  A costly business it turned out to be, both physically and in quantities of whisky the patient required to get through it. 

Richard and the golden retriever, Truman (1982 -97) were a familiar duo around his village, Warnham in West Sussex.  The impartiality Richard maintained in his judicial role in the Colonial Service seems to have been forgotten when it came to this animal.  Whatever the evidence to the contrary, Truman was always assumed to be on the side of the innocent.  I remember one infuriating occasion when the dog disappeared on a walk.  I spent over two hours calling and searching, but in the end was forced was to the house without him.  Dad immediately returned to the spot,  only to find the dog casually waiting for him.  Truman’s word or mine – there was no point even trying.  During the late 80s and early 90s Richard  took Truman on several long walks, including the Coast to Coast from Whitby to St Bee's.  It is typical of Richard's mixture of practicality and eccentricity that he organised, with the precision of a polar expedition, the dog's food parcels to be sent (by Susan) to a series of landladies in advance of their arrival.  And I have no doubt there were, once again, several large hard-backs in his rucksack. 
Richard and Truman

Richard believed in the right of all living things to be treated with kindness and respect, whether they be rabid dogs, hedgehogs, stray cats, stick insects, guinea pigs or, perhaps especially, birds.  An interest in ornithology began early, documented in his first letter home from prep school at the age of 7.  Upper lip remaining firm, he assured his parents of his happiness, remarking upon some "very interesting ducks" to be found near the school.  I remember many family journeys being delayed by the car sidling to a stop, often without use of indicators, as Richard, craning out the driver's side window and peering into the sky, while simultaneously reaching for his binoculars, would declare some indistinguishable dot in the heavens to be a kestrel or a buzzard, waiting until it disappeared into invisibility before resuming the journey.  He put empty beer barrels into the chestnut tree to encourage owls, and nesting boxes on carefully chosen walls to entice flycatchers.  Sometimes his passions would conflict:  the swathes of netting he placed around the lawn to stop the cricket balls getting lost in the hedge could prove lethal to hedgehogs.  A familiar sight during the autumn was Richard, after his nightly inspection, painstakingly disentangling the string from a tightly screwed up ball of prickles.

Since retirement, Richard became increasingly active in various political and environmental campaigns.  Two years ago he attended the end of the Aldermaston walk and only last year, Parkinson’s Disease making such trips very difficult, made it into central London for the CND Conference.  Despite the strongest of political feeling, he never lost sight of his priorities; categorically declaring that "one should never demonstrate on an empty stomach" he bought me a good lunch on both occasions.

Global warming and the threats to the environment were another pressing concern for Richard.  As his illness progressed, he became more lively and intense in his campaigning zeal, writing letters, attending meetings, and finding opportunities to inform and agitate.  He had been hoping to deliver a paper to the Horsham Natural History Society on global warming the day before he went into hospital in January.  His work was characterised by tireless research, reading and discussion.  However strongly he felt, Richard always expressed his opinions with respectful acceptance of a contrary view.  Ultimately optimistic about humanity and permanently questioning, Richard never lost his belief in the possibility for positive change.

Richard is survived by his wife, Susan, his four children, nine grandchildren, and his dog; he has left a deep and resonant impression on many more lives.

Born 18 May 1923, died 11 February 2007

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