Dave Robertson’s speech honouring ‘fallen comrades’

Before I set out on the main task this evening, let me say just a few words to the representatives of today’s student body.  Look around you, Danielle and colleagues – this is how you will look in 40 years time. We are the ‘Baby Boomers’ you’ve heard so much about. We burnt all the coal; we’ve used up all the oil; and we ate all the fish. On behalf of everyone here, I’d just like to say Sorry! [lengthy applause]

It’s marvellous to see so many wonderful people gathered here after so many years, and good to be sharing a platform again with Frank Milner. Forty years have passed since we spoke together with great success in debating competitions all over Britain. Then, we used to complement each other; tonight, our roles are different. To Frank, the humour; to me, some words in memory of ‘fallen comrades’, those who would be here, I’m sure, but alas are dead.

I’ve been asked to say a little about several, and a little more about one. Friends in the audience may wish to pay personal tributes later in proceedings, and I hope they do. The names: Charles Adams, Barbara Bagnall, Tim Cooke, Richard Davies, Helen Miller, Averill O’Hanlon, Pete Ryrie, Dick Walker.

Charles Adams, colleague and friend of Phil Gusack, became a highly successful architect. Barbara Bagnall found great success in publishing. Her husband, Pete Duke, is with us this evening. They met at a VSC meeting in Liverpool in 1968, and remained together until parted recently. Tim Cooke became a distinguished and popular Professor of Oncology at Glasgow University. Helen Miller and Averill O’Hanlon met untimely deaths some years ago. Pete Ryrie and Dick Walker remained with us in Liverpool, both dying recently after short illnesses. We count them among the most honourable of our community; and treasure their memory always.

Of Richard Davies, there is more to say. He was of course one of ‘the Ten’, and special to us for that. His early death two years ago shocked everyone who knew him. His funeral in London was described to me by Phil Gusack as “the next best thing to a state occasion.” Celebrated professionally, admired personally, Richard never lost any of his steadfast commitment to truth and justice.

I last met Richard a few years back. He returned for the funeral of James E Brown, the Guild Bursar. Nothing had changed. He remained unassuming and utterly unstuffy. To tease him a little, I asked if we should now address him as ‘Yeronner’ or even ‘Your Worshipfulness’. “Oh no” he said in his gentle Welsh lilt, “I’m not a Judge!” It didn’t really matter if you were, Richard my mate, you weren’t getting called that anyway, not round here. But Richard could tease back too. I recall in 1969 standing in the Union at the foot of the stairs, looking up hopefully as Richard emerged to declare the election result. He caught my eye, and realising I was looking for a private sign of good news, slowly drew his finger across his throat. Thanks, mate, that cheered me up no end! [laughter]

I can’t really talk of Richard without placing him in a line of three Guild Presidents I have been lucky to know, and whom I’ve always admired. The first, Chris Hunt, will be known to few of you. He was President when I arrived in Liverpool in 1966, a kind left-inclined Medic and therefore a rarity. At the start of my second term, I interviewed him for Gazette about student grants. He argued that they were too low – nothing changes! – but I wasn’t so sure. I came from a family of modest means and had a full grant. It was the first money I’d ever had, and I planned to hang onto it. So I told Chris I’d managed to save money from my first term. He looked at me with complete incredulity. “Whatever for?” he said, and so changed my life forever! [laughter] Chris graduated two years later, married Heather, and went to do voluntary work in East Africa. He died in a car crash shortly afterwards.

Pete Ryrie succeeded Chris as President. He was truly ‘one of us’, a principled and devoutly generous man. I used to tremble slightly at his Glaswegian accent, like rusty chains dragged over gravel, whenever he would jab his finger in my chest, and roll his tongue “R-r-robertson!” across my name as he’d remind me not to stray down some frivolous path or other.  Pete was my guiding light back then, and since – the permanent reminder that doctrinal purity can never be a substitute for the basic heart-felt practice of social justice. Pete died recently, his life a triumph of integrity over fame, best summarised by his wife. Sue: “husband, teacher, comrade, friend”. Let that be my epitaph too; it cannot be improved.

So to Richard, the third of this great line. One feature of Richard’s time with us demands particular attention. Here we have a young man in 1969, already student union President, set fair to become a successful Law graduate. The conventional path to future professional success would be to keep one’s head down, graduate, and let events unfold. Yet Richard did none of this. His personal courage and sense of moral purpose propelled him where he had no need to go – into the turmoil of student rebellion. He placed at risk, as did others of ‘the Ten’, future comforts in favour of doing the right thing now. He, and they, deserve our lifelong respect. Now Richard too has died before his time.

What unites these three alone  is not their death, but their integrity. The ancient Greeks explained untimely death, along with other great reversals, as the product of Tyche. We interpret this as ‘Fate’ or ‘Fortune’; the Greeks understood it as ‘the stuff that happens’. In an indifferent Universe, Tyche reminds us that human fortunes are inherently unstable. But integrity – for the Greeks, Arete – reminds us that human behaviour can be constant; that individuals can indeed display great courage in the face of adversity; that through personal example, some are capable of great moral leadership. So it is Arete we celebrate this evening when we hold to the memories of those of our community, now dead. And Arete we pursued together forty years ago.

I had, at this point, imagined that we would pause a moment in silent tribute. But somehow that doesn’t seem right. I don’t think any of our ‘fallen comrades’ would want that. I think they’d prefer that we honour them with a joyful round of applause, and move on with our business [sustained applause].

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