Eulogy for a father
I’m not a man of mathematics but the equation that ran through my head when I sat down to write this was family occasion + speech = Dad. For landmark birthday parties: my 21st, Nat’s 21st, Granny’s 90th, he was the go-to-booking. Likewise at family funerals he was the obvious and right choice to speak. Guests at those parties were naturally impressed and his ability behind the lectern caused word to spread. If you want some added production value to your upcoming do, they said, make sure you ask David to ‘say a few words’. Over the years I’ve witnessed him give ringing affectionate tributes for children of family friends he really knew very little about apart from the fact it was their birthday. But he pulled it off. Every time. And now that ‘family occasion + speech = Dad’ is for the first time an unsolvable equation it’s worth thinking why it served us so well for so many years.
Of course there was the oratory and intelligence honed at Oxford that drove him to the Presidency of the Union. There was a sense of humour that drew from intelligent wordplay but appreciated a good schoolboy jape. There was a love of performance that allowed him to become a prominent broadcaster for 40 years. But above all there was a warmth and generosity of spirit, a love of humanity and the ability to see and celebrate the best in everyone. It radiated out of Dad and instantly connected with an audience. Even if you’d studied (as he had) the finest political orators at first hand and recognised the methodology Dad was employing, it still didn’t in any way interfere with the sentiment of his words. In those many speeches – be it praising the achievements of his grandmother’s life, or celebrating a child’s 20m swimming badge as if it was a Nobel prize for literature, his audience knew he meant every word.
Although he’s got a pretty good reason for not being able to make this particular speech, making excuses was never part of Dad’s DNA. His sense of duty was almost superhuman. I only ever recall him having one day off work in his entire career – Even during months of chemotherapy – the medical profession’s best attempt at recreating Hiroshima on a personal scale – he continued to turn up for every media training session he was booked to give and never gave any hint that he was unwell. If
you asked Dad to be there in a professional or personal capacity he would be – he was truly ‘David the Dependable’. It prompts the unavoidable and tragic cliché. It’s only now that he’s gone that we can truly see what a presence he was in our lives.
Not giving excuses to others and crucially not allowing himself to accept his own excuses allowed Dad to get so much done. Ask him to perform a task and he’d just do it – immediately. “David can you go to town and buy a lightbulb, David can you write a quick speech for a leader of a major political party, Dad can you pick me up from the party I’ve underestimated the distance to the location of and turns out to be 50 rather than 5 miles away?” I’m on way, of course, I’ll be there as soon as I can. He thought his attribute was anything but an attribute. He considered it perfectly normal. Yet we – the vast majority in the ‘I’ll do it in 5 minutes’ camp know what a remarkable a trait it really was.
It was why – in perfect tandem with his enormous brain, he did so well academically. The hurdles of school and university examinations were overcome with ease and aplomb. Scholarships to Charterhouse, Trinity College Oxford, and the great honour of being a Kennedy Scholar to MIT all followed. Admittedly this eagerness to cram the maximum amount of activity into a day very occasionally had its drawbacks. On Christmas Day (as on every other day of the year), he’d be up by six at the latest, have all the veg for Christmas dinner peeled by 7.30, whereupon he and I would commence our annual argument about why it wasn’t a good idea to put the roast potatoes on at 8 in the morning when you were planning on serving lunch at 3.
Dad’s skills in the kitchen were never hugely developed. With one notable exception. Scrambled Egg. He made the best scrambled egg this side of the Bosphorus. It was a curiosity. After all if he could do great scrambled egg why was his mash lumpy, his steak overdone, his spaghetti all stuck together? Could it be that hidden in the beaten egg mixture lay a deeper symbolism. For the uninitiated Scrambled Egg on Sunday night is something of a Walter / Lacey-Thompson family ritual. Dad grew up having Scrambled eggs on a Sunday night, as his parents had before him. Family tradition – and by extension family itself – was hugely important to Dad. With that in mind I like to think Dad subconsciously took it upon himself to not only be able to cook Scrambled eggs, but do it exceptionally well and keep the tradition alive. It didn’t stop there. He wrote witty rhyming couplets indicating your
place at the Christmas table as his grandfather had done before him, so too he set clues in rhyme to help us hunt chocolate Eggs at Easter. These were just some of the symptoms of a pride he had in his heritage, his upbringing, his family. He was a wonderful father to Nat and I, a devoted son to Granny & Grandpa Basil, a loyal brother to Uncle Christopher, a loving husband of more than 40 years to Mum. Not to mention a steadfast uncle, grandson, cousin, nephew and last, but very much not least, master to his beloved dog Ben.
I’m not going to go into Dad’s career achievements in any great detail. We’d be here until next week if I did and to compress them into a few sentences seems to somehow diminish them. The many, many wonderful tributes composed by colleagues from journalism and politics have done that job more eloquently and with more precision than I ever could. However Dad’s career was obviously remarkable. Although they work in the same universe political journalists and politicians are two clearly defined tribes yet Dad was able to operate at the highest level amongst both. As has been pointed out time and again in tributes from colleagues, he was the last to recognise and celebrate his own achievements. But ultimately personal achievement wasn’t the be all and end all for him. I think the chance to work and interact with like-minded intelligent people – whatever the arena – gave him the most satisfaction. I have never seen him happier than chatting over lunch to former colleagues about old times at ITN and the BBC, about getting one over a cabinet minister or doing a live broadcast from a dodgy phoneline in the middle of no- where. In those conversations his energy level increased and you could almost see the pride bursting out of him.
That change in mood, that ability to alter the tempo of his personality was career defining. I heard him describe it once as flicking a switch from his off screen persona to his on-screen one. I did have the pleasure of working with him a little over the last few years – sometimes doing the camera work for his media training – and saw the switch being flicked at first hand. It was quite a transformation. The latest trainees – usually executives of the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Arts Council would file in to a meeting room whereupon Dad would engage them in a typically friendly, and genuine, chat about their latest project or how they were settling in to their new job. After a few minutes Dad would politely ask them if they didn’t mind, as long as they felt they were absolutely ready, had definitely finished
their coffee and biscuit and had had a chance to answer that pressing email that had just popped up on the blackberry, that perhaps they could try a practice interview? “No problem” came the reply, and you could see them thinking ‘I wasn’t really looking forward to this but he’s such a nice bloke – what’s the worst that can happen’. I would press the button to roll the camera and smile, knowing that Dad was about to flick the switch. The first question usually boiled down to “So you’ve just started this job, Everyone including me thinks you’re absolutely useless, and you’ve got no hope of succeeding in this moribund pathetic excuse of an institution. What have you got to say to say for yourself?” Almost to a man the interviewees virtually fell off their chairs.
The switch flicking was wonderful for us – it meant we got our lovely mild-mannered Dad in the evenings and weekends and it meant that his colleagues got the friendliest and most generous of comrades. But it still allowed him to be a devastatingly good journalist and political operator when the need arose. However in the same way that Clark Kent was passed over for promotion at the Daily Planet because he was too modest to tell anyone he was pretty busy being superman, Dad’s personality gave the more myopic TV news executives or party elite an excuse to pass over his candidacy for jobs or indeed for electoral candidacies. Their brain circuitry forged in the hardened world of politics made them mistrust Dad’s approachable geniality. How he didn’t make it into either of the House of Parliament whilst patently inferior candidates did reflects incredibly badly on the ‘so fair it’s unfair’ Liberal Democrat candidate selection policy and more importantly the British political system as a whole. But let’s face facts – Dad was a million miles away from being a failure. Of his many successes the ‘switch flicking’ was perhaps the secret to Dad’s greatest achievement, and hopefully his legacy – namely being a truly nice guy that succeeds in an environment traditionally populated by absolute bastards.
He clearly helped so many people. In the many letters of condolence we’ve received they’ve often contained anecdotes about how he was so encouraging to people at the key moments in their careers or took the time to give advice or lend a hand. I know helping others gave him great satisfaction. In fact he told me a few weeks ago – obviously having mused on his life quite heavily whilst in hospital – that had he had his time again he would have liked to have been a mediator with the UN – helping warring factions to come together to benefit the greater good. If he put half the
energy into helping world peace that he put into supporting my sister and I there wouldn’t be a single nuclear weapon left on the planet by now. Whether it was helping Nat to learn lines or making vast detours on the way home from work to buy a special book I needed for school nothing was too much trouble. He never missed a play Nat was in or one of my gigs – in my case trekking across vast swathes of far-flung London corners, often alone, to watch me do 20 minutes in a sweaty pit with 10 random teenagers for fellow audience members. He basically did my Latin homework for me for about 6 years when I’m sure he would have rather been reading or doing the crossword. I would sit there every Thursday evening getting the latest translation hopelessly wrong with Dad trying his best to help me understand my dative from my vocative. Some weeks I did better, some weeks I did worse but we developed an unspoken pact that sooner or later until he would just start dictating the answers. A couple of days later with another 10 out of 10 safely in the bag the Latin master would hand back my exercise book with the words ‘excellent work Walter’. Little did he know I was NOT the Walter he was really congratulating.
Although his pronounced modesty would have had him squirming in his seat by now at this much praise I do want to briefly touch Dad’s wider palette of skills. He was a talented lyricist and actor, an enthusiastic sportsman and a dedicated patron of the arts. He was a gregarious party host and a welcome guest. He was, lest we forget, the author of four books. He was a genuine world traveller, was fluent in French, virtually fluent in Italian as well as being proficient in German and Spanish. He was a constant imbiber of culture. He usually read three newspapers a day and a couple of books every week. His general knowledge was staggering. I was the one with a history degree but he knew more about the subject than I ever will.
It all adds up to a huge list of achievements as a scholar, a broadcaster, a politician, and most importantly as a human being.
I was listening to a comedian the other night who said you grow up hero worshipping your father, boasting to your mates in the playground about how ‘my dad is better than your’s. Then, he said, you get to about 12 and you suddenly realise your dad’s an arsehole. While that might be the experience for many, it was never mine. My Dad – David Charles Walter – always was, still is and forever will be my hero.