FUNERAL ADDRESS for KEITH FRANK ROGERSON
My father was a Naval officer and a Hampshire County Councillor who served God and his country. He was a Tory of the old ‘one nation’ school - who believed in service and the importance of both family, church and community. He revered the Queen and the Pope but instinctively distrusted just about everything else.
He cut a distinctive figure with his great Punch-like nose, the glow of health on his red cheeks and a pair of enormous shaggy eyebrows which veiled his bright blue inquiring eyes. I can see him now tending to his evening tasks, bending down in the late afternoon light to fill a watering-can at the rivers edge, then lean over the fence to look at his livestock, check on the chickens before returning to feed his dogs and then with a twinkle in his eye, pour himself and my mother a glass of whisky.
My father never showed any aptitude for making money, or even for that matter bargaining with what he had, whether he was buying a hunter, a second hand speed boat in the Highlands or a teapot in Morocco. When he was thrifty it was always for the sound reason that he was currently short of funds – for like his father before him he was by nature a spender. I remember after years of home-brew and then buying gut-rot wine from a hose-pipe down by the Gibraltar docks the time when the cheque from a family legacy finally came in. A week later he was near-drowning his hundred new friends in Gibraltar in vintage Taittinger champagne. For alongside such upright heroes as Nelson he also delighted in those hopeless Hanoverian Dukes and regency dandies who could wager “All England for a China orange.”
My father was a man who always loved a good party and certainly knew how to give one, indeed some were so good that they were also near disasters. He was good company: witty, clever and funny but he could also be fantastically indiscreet, devastatingly critical and dearly loved an argument. Everything was up for debate though each inch was fought over - with no quarter offered or expected. Despite his love for the good things in life he also prided himself on self sufficiency – cleaning his own drains, growing his own vegetables, building his own boat and splitting his own logs. Aside from the odd night on the town for the ballet or a dinner, urban life held no real attraction for him. For he was a Countryman through and through, a man who could name the stars on a midnight walk, identify birds from their flight and wild shrubs from their blossoms. He was at his most gentle when handling some injured animal, calming a frightened horse, inspecting the torn coat of a wounded dog or stroking a frightened chicken that had been half-mauled to death by a fox.
He had an instinctive passion for plants and a love of gardens and gardening. As well as Waterside I remember the energy he threw into making gardens elsewhere, like in the back terrace of Scud Hill in Gibraltar, full knowing that in two years he would move on. He was generous with his energy. On our family camping trips, whether in some deserted cove of the Yugoslav coast or in an American wilderness, he was always proud to leave the place looking in better state than when we arrived. In Virginia Beach he organised all the local scamps into clearing the dunes of rusting metal cans by paying them 5 cents a tin. Typically he then went rather over the top by making a large pyramid from these cans in the front yard, and hoisting an 18th century flag with a notice that the British had at last returned to clean up America. He was not however to be numbered amongst the “Neat-Pots” and was always a “Shambler” – one who allowed weeds there place in a garden and preferred a muddy track to a tarmac path.
Though physically strong he was a determined anti-sportsman all the days of his life, strenuously avoiding all team games and anything that involved a moving, spherical object. Although he accepted my mother’s passion for tennis he threatened her with divorce if she ever took up golf. His interests were exclusively directed towards horses and hounds, whether hunting as a young man alongside his brother Barry, his elegant step-mother Olivia and his father the Field-Master (and once again when he left the Navy) replaced in later life by race-going and fence judging. Dogs were not considered companions they were his real friends, as deserving of affection, concern and proximity as any mere human. All his children were brought up amongst a sea of bassets, indeed I believe my brother James was very nearly born with one on the bed. They would sleep on our pillows, wriggle their way into all the best seats of the sofa and drink from our bath water. On all the most important family occasions they would escape and for hours the surrounding woods would be filled with bellowing calls and the cracking of whips – and we would yet again be the family who turned up four hours late for an appointment. Three generations of home-bred bassets later – and with Juno consigned to the sea with full naval honours in Gibraltar harbour – came the momentous shift in loyalty to bloodhounds.
The half-insane Kimberley, who would claw her way through a dining room wall in Kyle of Lochalsh, trash the interior of an Admiralty car, leap over walls to assault motorcylists yet proved herself to be an excellent tracker – and the apple of my father’s eye. She would also save my brother David, then recovering from a broken back when the house at Balmacara caught fire. Two further generations of bloodhounds (with Liberty and Jollity staying-on at home) delighted him with manhunts organised over the hills of Wester Ross and the downlands of Hampshire. Student friends, hung-over cousins all made good prey. Then to the secret relief of his family and friends the decade of bloodhound slobber and pungent ears was replaced by the current era – which began with his daughter Dido’s inspired gift of Gracie – a coal black lurcher puppy from the west Coast of Ireland. A litter of puppies later saw the arrival of the mad but devoted Billy, the superb brindle matching pair to Black Boy, and the 70 year old Commander was now equipped with just four dogs to control with his customary tangle of leads, whistles and hunting crops. This pack of lurchers added just the right level of anarchy and excitement to my fathers expeditions along the Meon Valley as well as terrorizing the local wildlife. But as I overheard the old Droxford postman once observe,
“Alls well with the world, there goes the Commander out for a shout with his dogs”
My father loved the sea, was indeed a natural seaman who never felt seasick and was intensely proud to have been a navigating officer in the Royal Navy – a job that we children thought the most important in the world. For it was Dad who got to hold the sextant, to take star sitings, to plot the course of the ship and to mark up the charts, to observe the winds, tides, dangerous headlands and shifting sandbanks. We loved the stories he brought back, as well as the presents and the hand-drawn birthday cards sent back from exotic places. In ships such as Morecambe Bay, Crane, Puma, Vigo, Cochrane, Trafalgar and the great aircraft carrier HMS Eagle he sailed the seven seas helping keep the Pax Britannica over the worlds sea-lanes. There were some great commissions, such as when his friends Peter Troubridge and Tommy Young all commanded their own Motor Torpedoe boats as well as the job of racing Marabu – Goerings old yacht - under Sam Brooks’s command across 1,400 miles of the Atlantic, to a heroic welcome in the flesh-pots of the post-war Carribean. But there were also the occasional horrors – of being struck by jet-launched rockets in the Red Sea and as a midshipman fishing up dead bodies blown up by mines in the straits of Corfu.
Our favourite story was always “muffle your oars” – an incident during the Korean War – where a brave but dim detachment of marines had set off on their covert operation into the enemy controlled coast with whispered instructions to muffle their oars with sacks, though by tie-ing these sacks to the blades of the oars and not – as they should have – to their rollocks they created an extraordinary effect as they splished and sploshed their way across the sea.
Though enchanted by the sea, he was not I think, a natural cog within any system. When they shared a cabin together, Andrew Waugh, remembers how my father used to ‘lose’ a portion of the paperwork by posting them into a crack he had opened into the metal bulkhead. His last three jobs in the Navy – Commander of the Barracks in Portsmouth, Queens harbour Master in Gibraltar and then running the scientific research station in Kyle of Lochalsh – were not at the sharp end of the Ministry of Defence planning but he enjoyed every minute of his command over these three little kingdoms, chatting dock hands out of strike action, quietly cleaning up corrupt practices, as well as running a newspaper, an 18th century library with helicopter taxis and an elegant launch at his disposal. Leaving the Navy was good for him, especially his brief career as a salesman - trying to sell “Isle of Wight Cider” a murky, alcoholic brew to a few tough-minded independent shopkeepers before the whole enterprise collapsed. The contrast with his grandfather, who made a fortune from brewing beer in south London provided much mirth. During this period my father also raised money for the Winged Fellowship charity by organising concerts in Winchester Cathedral and worked beside two old colleagues, Colin McMullen and Alec Weir as a marine consultant, the three of them saving beaches, unblocking harbours, mending bridges and surveying new anchorages in Devon, along the Thames, in St Lucia as well as designing a safe mooring for the historic ironship HMS Warrior back home in Portsmouth.
After one such long evening of marine consultancy at their office in London he returned to find himself selected as the Conservative candidate for the Meon valley. He loved campaigning, treasuring the real voice of the valley in the demands for “a few less of those uppity ladies on horseback’ and “you can let in the Jacobites for all I care” amongst the more public squabbles over planning, education and police budgets. He was very proud to have been an integral part of the campaign to save Droxford village school from closure from bureaucrats with “eyes like tills and a heart like a cash register.”
In the last fifteen years of his life – with funds once again refreshed by a second family legacy – he became a relentlessly keen traveller - burdened like the navigator that he always - was with maps, schedules and a keen eye on the prevailing wind direction. With his daughter working as a homeopath on her goat-farm in the Burren mountains, a son mapping the gold mines of South Africa and then the jungles of Venezuela, another son exploring North Africa and his youngest son, a polo-playing cavalry officer turned techno-entrepreneur based in Germany and Switzerland, there was plenty of need, as well as the opportunity to travel. These twice yearly travels to catch up on the grandchildren always contained an element of near farcical disaster but nothing, not being mugged in Caracas, nor cliff falls in Ireland, nor childbirth in a Swiss blizzard, bomb threats on the rail journey to St Petersburgh, diminished the joy of these expeditions. Once, having survived yet another near-death experience whilst travelling with my parents - near drowned by a flash flood in the Sahara - I asked him the closest he had ever got to the grave.
He told me then about taking a ship through a week long Arctic storm (so violent that they could only head on north further into the weather) on a near empty fuel tank without letting the rest of the crew realize the extent of their peril. What did you do then? I asked. “Oh I just carried on and tried to look confident”, he replied. It was this sort of discipline and self-control that he would later use in his two year battle against his cancer, executed with a truly magnificent sang-froid and a complete lack of self pity. A manoeuvre so successful that many friends did not even know that he was ill, let alone dying. Only a fortnight before his death – at a time when he could neither hold down food nor drink and when he had very, very little strength left in his legs – he managed not only to get himself dressed up for the opera but to return entranced by the music.
But to truly understand my father you have to know that he had only one real passion in his life which gave him all the self confidence, love and humour that he needed. When he stood beside my mother he always looked like he was the cat that had got at the cream. It was a love affair that had began as a boy – for they were both in the same pony club and their fathers, Major John Harvie and Commander Hugh Rogerson, both hunted together with the Puckeridge and Thurlow. This love took him through the whole voyage of his life. He used to declare that without my mother he would have become a Benedectine. You would have made a very bad monk, was my mother’s habitual reply.
For this love, and all the many other graces that have been bestowed upon him, I humbly thank God.
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by Barnaby Rogerson