John has been a wonderful friend to me for nearly 45 years – and I hope you allow me to share some thoughts and feelings just a few days after his death. They are only my thoughts and feelings: they may not be true, they may not be yours, and they certainly will not capture more than a small part of John’s rich life. I will be happy to correct any errors, and add any memories you wish to share here, if you send me them (email@example.com)
John has been taken from us in his early 60s after nearly 50 years of consistent service to our Club and the broader game: club secretary, treasurer, tournament controller, librarian, many-times team captain, successful player.
Chess was the first and continuing bond between John, the Club and us. He was a fierce team player for the Club; integral to many local and county title-winning squads. Awoken by Tal, he fed on the ‘Fried Liver Attack’ and the like in his youth; before refining (though never quite trusting!) the Alekhine Defence and honing 1. Nf3 with white, and the Grunfeld as black, in middle-age. He was never a fierce individual competitor. If he had been, his peak grade in the 180s could have been much higher. And as he aged, he fell out with competitive chess for himself. He still loved a beautiful attack by Tal or Bronstein or Shirov; but the purity of an endgame, or of a beautiful puzzle, or a deep study, perhaps by Kubble or Troitsky, became his real chess passion. Yet, though he played less and less “for himself” – he always continued playing and encouraging competitive and strong chess for others. He was the keenest and best in the Club at playing and encouraging and developing the weaker player, or the new member, or the junior; happiest to see them sparked into love and interest for the game (though not unaware of the opportunity cost of that engagement). He was generous and selfless in developing new, less strong and young players.
White to play and mate in 2. Y. Afek
Yet his service to those who knew him eclipsed all of this. His presence and character held us together and gave us strength.
John brought a steady, clear stream of life and ideas to people he could sit and talk with There was barely a topic on which he did not have something to add to brighten a conversation. His knowledge and understanding of the arts and culture was encyclopaedic. He read prolifically and was an avid concert and theatregoer (aside from a gap when he took on the role as main carer for his mother in her final years). Any distinction between “popular” or “high” culture meant nothing to John. He was passionate about Shakespeare, Dickens, Chekhov, Flaubert, de Maupassant, Katherine Mansfield, Howard Jacobson, Julian Barnes and many poets; but just as fond of Sherlock Holmes or Bertie Wooster stories and The Simpsons, or of the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, Les Dawson or Al Read. His musical tastes were equally eclectic and unprejudiced, and his knowledge equally deep: from the Ramones and the Pistols, through the blues, jazz and folk, to his beloved JS Bach – and everything that was good and above all honest and genuine in between, from any era. He introduced me to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell’s music in the 1970s – and to so much more that I will always cherish. If you were lucky enough to share a drink with John, you could always – every time! - find out something new, interesting and memorable. It could be a challenge to one’s self-esteem! Often I’ve found a tune or story line or idea on something, and thought: “I’ll share that with John”. He always welcomed that – and then would spontaneously expand or develop the idea from his memory of reading the book or seeing the play decades before! It was a challenge to be with him – and an honour.
But it was never a lesson or a lecture – it was always a laugh. I feel safe in saying that he has made more people laugh in the Hull Chess community than anyone ever! His legendary telling of “The Glove Joke” the St Johns pub in 1982 made people unwell with laughter until closing time, and John’s dear friend Roloef Westra has often told of how uncontrollable laughter at the joke led him to swerve his car dangerously several times on the way home that night. This was a regular event. Shared memories, evoked by John, of a thousand moments of absurdity and farce brought laughter through decades at the club: snowballs landing on Mike Smith’s head; Dave Milton wrestling with Gerry Hildred; Pete Brown farting loudly at Carron House; me and John getting drunk at Martin Clancy’s wedding in Newbury, walking round Greenham Common (including the Peace Camp) and sleeping in a bus stop in 1982 (?); Roloef and John Lawson’s towels; etc etc etc. All are trivial - and will fade away with time. But they are the stuff that has enriched, through John, the lives of all who knew him as a friend these last 5 decades.
Another great passion – and immense mind-space – for John was sport. It seemed he knew and followed all sports. Cricket and Rugby League were his real passions though. He was steeped in the history of Yorkshire cricket, from Hedley Verity to Brian Sellers; was there when Yorkshire beat Surrey to clinch their hat-trick of Championships at the Hull Circle in 1968, and at Lords when Jim Love guided them to the B&H trophy in 1987 – and at many more games since. For interest, see here a report he typed and sent me of a day spent watching Yorkshire play Surrey at the Oval in the 1980s. Though sometimes ridiculed for it (especially by his 'Black & Whites' friend, our President, John Scotter), he was a passionate Hull Kingston Rovers fan – through thick (occasionally mentioning something about a match in 1980) and (more usually) thin.
His love of the arts and his pleasure in sport was never purely vicarious and passive. He wrote poetry (having one or two pieces published) and songs. You can find here two poems he sent me to read in the 1980s. I show them not as any particular example of his talent or indicator of his thinking – they are from a long time ago, and not intended for publication. But they do show that he was thinking, searching and yearning for deeper understanding – which continued throughout his life. He played guitar – folk acoustic and electric. He was an excellent school and social cricketer: a stylish left-hand bat; and even better right arm off-spin bowler. He always engaged himself fully and generously in his passions.
When talking to Roloef once about why we liked John so much – we decided that it was, above all, his honesty. His unwillingness to compromise and lie on what was right and important to him – above all in the way he dealt with people and the way he thought they should be dealt with.
That honesty did not always go down well. He was an iconoclast; he could not tolerate pomposity and self-importance; if someone was self-serving and over-inflated, he just had to prick them – usually with a sharp edge of humour. Once, like Bart Simpson with Moe, he passed a message to a rather pompous controller at the Hull Congress - just before he was to make his announcements. The controller dutifully read out the message to 150 people: “Will Mr Boyle please move his car parked on Hymers Avenue; it is a red Ford. That is - Mr LANCE D Boyle”. The controller could not understand why people were smiling at his good work. Much earlier, in the mid-1970s, similar ‘naughtiness’ by him and his teammates at the time (Nigel Culkin and Ian Sugarman I think, and maybe his good friend Jim Hawksley) led to serious discussion ‘at Committee’ about “what was to be done”. Pete Brown, trying to be the emollient Chair, tried to cool things down with the classic misspeak (another source of shared laughter long after): “They are only young; it’s just a phrase they are going through – it will pass”. But it wasn’t just a ‘phrase’, nor even a phase; and it didn’t pass. Throughout his life he was in rebellion against what he saw as cant and officiousness, rules at the expense of individual people; false claims of superiority and privilege. It was the same motivation that split the Hull Club from the Yorkshire Chess Association after years of success and a century or more of friendly participation. A breach of the rules under his captaincy – silly, but with no impact on the result, and of no concern at all to the opposing team – nevertheless led to a penalty being imposed by the YCA. John was never going to back down – and his friends were never going to not support him. The YCA had the rules on their side (vague though they were); but so what? What about the history and the actual people concerned?
John’s response to other peoples' thoughtlessness was either to disengage and avoid conflict when he could, or to argue his case with his sharp wits when he had to. Some took offence at this. John could be infuriating: certainly so for people who deserved to be taken down a peg or two; but even to some good people, trying to work for our club, who found him harsh at times. I do suspect that some of this was in that period when he felt the loss of his father and the illness of his mother most acutely. When his good friend Martin Clancy asked me a while back how John was doing (he had not seen him for some time), I replied: “Much as ever – but a bit more Crusty”. John liked the reference to his favourite clown from the Simpsons. It’s easy to think of people becoming more bitter as they age. But John held no sour taste or grudges. He was far too aware and intelligent ever to seek, let alone claim, “happiness” in this decaying country and planet. But that was alright: his philosophy was that of his beloved Joni Mitchell: “There's comfort in melancholy/When there's no need to explain/ It's just as natural as the weather/In this moody sky today”. Just so long as it’s mixed with light. And John cast and found so much light.
There might have been even more light in his life. I’m not sure who John was really close or closest to: I was not close enough to him myself to say for sure. I hope I'm wrong, but I am only aware of two or three short relationships – each with women that were not I think able/ready to commit to something more permanent, even if John was. He could seem stuck in some of his ways. He could sometimes appear narrow and stubbornly 'English' in his thinking and terms of reference – although his culture and interests were really so much wider than this. He was a child of and believed in the welfare state, and the decency of Atlee’s 1945-51 Labour politics and administration; but he was basically a radical, English liberal - who could not allow himself to be tied to any ideology or to automatic positions of the Left. This sometimes made for positions he later regretted, I think. He just preferred not be cornered and pigeon-holed.
It’s easy to think that his occasional crustiness and sadness reflected frustration: he had so much talent and charisma – shouldn’t he have achieved much more? Maybe so. And yet he had no interest at all in the conventional measures of success. He did not want more power or a ‘career’. He worked as a civil servant, at the DWP, sorting out people’s benefits ‘behind the scenes’ for many years – and took pride in knowing the ‘system’ and finding ways to stretch and even subvert it to help “clients” whenever he could. He was incredibly generous to others, but lived quite frugally himself: so long as he could stand his ‘round’ and afford the theatre visits and Yorkshire matches etc. He told me recently that he still had the legacy he received from Bob Ross in the bank; and that the over-time he earned from weekend work at his DWP job went straight to charities; and I believed him on both counts. Success for John was in the cultivation of his mind and imagination and the maintenance of his integrity – especially in his personal relations. In some ways these are limited ambitions – leaving lots unanswered and many painful problems unaddressed. But they are important and noble ambitions: and in these terms his life was a triumph – that brought lasting joy to many, many people.
John sent me an e-mail last Wednesday, December 23rd. It included the problem from Afek given here. He wished me a happy Christmas – and closed with “See you in the new year. It will be new won’t it?”
I responded on Christmas eve – with a what I am so relieved to say was a thoughtful and hopeful e-mail. I hope so much that he had chance to read it. Yet it also occurs to me that he might have read it before he set off from work on Tuesday evening – and if so, I will forever wish he hadn’t.
How much I wish he hadn’t taken the cycle ride that seems to have taken him away from us far too soon and too young.
But then I think of the many thousand cycle rides he took to be with us in our Club and in the pub. The many thousand rides he took on country lanes, to pubs on summer days, to ancient churches, to cricket matches all over Yorkshire. And I think of the joy it brought him; and the joy it brought me.
I am weeping for what we’ve lost. But I also weep for what we’ve had. And I will try, with you I hope, to take strength from what John gave to us as we move on.
I ended my e-mail to him: “Have a drink for me John - I will for you.”
And so I will my dear friend. Rest in peace.
Some thoughts from SIMON PICKERING - one of John's great friends
It is still not really sinking in that such a wonderful man has been taken from us way too early.
Lots of people from John’s work are devastated especially the ones that had a close relationship with him (most of whom considered themselves “his girls”) who he looked after in bad times and they loved and looked after him as much as John would allow, baking biscuits, cakes etc that he would enthuse over. My other half Carolyn was very close to John and looked after him at work, letting him do pretty much what he wanted because she knew that whatever John did was geared towards helping people, also knowing that he wouldn’t do anything that he didn’t want to anyway. Carolyn tells me that at work John would make up client names and have people scurrying around to find the files on them, Jose Pipeband being a particular favourite of his. He would have colleagues playing cricket with him in the building, leaping with joy at every wicket taken.
I am glad that John came round to our house in Hessle the Tuesday before this terrible accident, we drank beer (“his first in 44 days”) watched some of his loved music on YOU Tube and reminisced about cricket matches we had watched together, the love of Sherlock Holmes (“This is a three pipe problem”) and my lack of appreciation of Rothko (“It’s not emulsion you philistine”).
As with your good self I weep and bite the bottom lip at memories of John who would be shaking his head at “all the fuss.”
Please do keep in touch regarding my support of a lasting memorial at the club in John’s memory.
Your thoughts and recollections on knowing john are beautiful and bring me to tears as I type this, thank you for your loving words. The picture of John was taken at the Granby pub in Hessle where a few of us would meet most Saturdays to do our football bets, John’s of course being worked out on how far the away team had to travel or what he thought of the place.
On the subject of his funeral I have replied to a text from Rachel letting her know that the executor of his will has contacted us to inform us that it was John’s wishes not to have a funeral (typical John no fuss wanted).
I would hope that people could at some point meet together to celebrate his life whilst no doubt shedding some tears – let me know what you think. [What a thing to look forward to in the Spring! - JGC]
Some people are going to sponsor the ball at HKR in John’s memory, when we can finally attend such events (most of whom are Black and white supporters – which will make him chuckle)