Hugh Barrett

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The Independent Online

Hugh Gilchrist Barrett, farmer, writer, broadcaster and teacher: born Colchester 8 August 1917; married 1944 Deirdre Storr (died 1997; two sons, three daughters); died Wissett, Suffolk 19 August 2001.

Hugh Barrett left school in 1933, just before his 16th birthday, to become a farm pupil on a thousand-acre estate in east Suffolk. He told the story of that pupillage in what Ronald Blythe calls "the excellent Early to Rise". Providing a first-hand account of agricultural life in the days before the tractor replaced the horse, the book was first published in 1967 and has recently been reissued in a new edition.

His second volume of autobiography, A Good Living, appeared last year. It covers his years as a professional farmer, from the tough times of the middle Thirties to the rather less tough, if infernally busy, post-war years.

Hugh Barrett was born in Colchester in 1917, "conceived almost certainly", he said, "during a short period when Father was between sentences". Cecil Barrett, a deeply Christian pacifist brought up in the Nonconformist tradition who in his maturer years became a Quaker, and was by trade a builder, was a conscientious objector from 1914. He was "cat-and-moused" till the First World War ended, sentenced to six months for "desertion" and then, on expiry of sentence, arrested, tried and sentenced again for the same offence. His business was ruined, and his wife had a very hard time keeping her boys in any kind of comfort.

Hugh's eldest brother, Alec, 15 years his senior, became a very successful headmaster of local education authority schools in Hertfordshire; the second, Connor, a sculptor. Closer to Hugh was his younger brother, the painter Roderic Barrett, who died last year. Both went to St Christopher's School in Letchworth, where they seem to have begun to blossom. Roderic was now allowed to draw and paint as much as he wished to; Hugh spent a huge amount of time in the school library.

After his years as a farm pupil, Barrett worked as a farm manager first at Appleacre Farm in west Suffolk and from 1949 at Street Farm, north of Ipswich. At this point Barrett's activities became a good deal more public, and his experiences increasingly exotic. From 1953 he built a serious reputation as a broadcaster and scriptwriter, mostly on agricultural subjects, for BBC home and overseas services.

He became a regular broadcaster for On Your Farm on Radio 4 and then presenter of the World Service's weekly The Farming Programme. By the early 1960s, he was also presenting the BBC's early evening regional news television programme from Norwich. His appeal to programme makers and audiences alike was his wide general knowledge, precise yet evocative use of language, unflappability and, particularly on radio, his distinctive voice. At a Royal Show he was talking to a colleague, when he was approached by a passer-by: "You must be Hugh Barrett. We've never met but I'm a ranch manager in Guyana and listen to your programme every week. I'd know your voice anywhere!"

In 1968 Barrett became a lecturer at the Institute of Adult Education in the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania. He went on to work for various government and non- government agencies on projects promoting health and agriculture in five African countries, including Uganda during the time of Idi Amin. His last posting was to Thailand, where he initiated the "group learning" method of education for rural dwellers.

In Tanzania, Barrett was accompanied by his much loved and respected wife, Deirdre, who used this respite from home management to make a series of botanical drawings which are now in the collection at Kew Gardens. She died in 1997.

It is more than 50 years since Hugh Barrett knocked at the door of the cottage I had been lent near Hawkedon in Suffolk, announcing when I opened it, "I'm a visitor." It was a very fine visit: we finished both the firewood and the cognac on the mantelpiece. I wondered how he'd found his way up the long grass track in the dark. It seemed to me that I knew the place where I was staying, but he knew the whole county and everything in it that was interesting.

He opened the window, so to speak. I shan't forget his courage and energy. And then – this is more difficult – that good clear voice and confident manner did a good deal to disguise his sensitivity, which really comes out better in his writing. Though he did – unsentimentally – work hard for the care of refugee children in 1938 and 1939, and he was, quietly, a supporter of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade in his last years.

Oliver Bernard

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