Obituary: Robert Adley
Friday 14 May 1993
ROBERT ADLEY was one of the most endearing, enthusiastic, and idiosyncratic of men. He had a multitude of interests, but there is no better example of his individuality than his justifying his concern with Chinese politics on the grounds that the mainland Chinese government still ran steam-powered trains long after most of the rest of the world had gone over to the use of diesel fuel. Trains were his great passion, and he once observed that the only civilised form of transport was by rail.
Some years ago I happened to be passing an antiques shop in Fulham. In the front window I saw two delightful model steam engines. My home was just around the corner. When I got there I rang Adley. I had no expertise in the matter, but I told him that he might think it worth his while to have a look. The following day he rang to thank me: he had bought the model engines and proclaimed them to be perfect. Rail transport was his main passion, and it is fitting that when he died he was chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport. He never lost the zest of those little boys who sit in railway stations and collect train identification numbers.
Born in London in 1935, Robert Adley went to school at Falconbury and Uppingham. His was a reasonably wealthy family: his father was one of the founders of the employment agency Pearl & Dean. In later life, however, he abandoned his Jewish origins and was thereafter - alas somewhat stridently - opposed to Zionism.
Adley was always above all a rebel. Some of his critics accused him of an almost manic inconsistency in politics. When he entered the House of Commons as MP for Bristol North East in 1970 (having served as a councillor in Slough, and fought a hopeless parliamentary seat) he was an enthusiast for Edward Heath. In 1975 he was an enthusiast for Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, he entertained Conservatives who were in doubt as to whether they should vote for her in the leadership election of that year. He soon turned against her; and his last comment on her was to describe her as 'a fishwife from Finchley'. He was, however, strenuously on her side during the 1984 miners' strike, though, with equal passion, against her on proposals to privatise British Rail.
Nobody who knew Adley, however, could attribute his various changes of allegiance to ambition or frustration. He was very much sui generis. In 1968 he supported Enoch Powell on the matter of immigration. He then visited South Africa (at the invitation of the then government of that country), and promptly came out most strongly against apartheid. He was ever his own man. He made his judgements according to the merits of an issue as he saw it. But no Tory Whip approached Adley for a vote except in trepidation.
His manifold interests included Eastern Europe (and especially Hungary), the Middle East and Africa. But his first love remained, to the end, rail transport. He wrote a string of scholarly books on that subject, and illustrated them with his own photographs. The last of them, Countdown to 1968, on the last days of steam on British Rail, will be published in July.
Earlier I used the word 'enthusiastic' about him. Nobody, I believe, who spent more than a few minutes in his company could fail to be infected by that enthusiasm, or come away without a feeling that they had been in the company of a most loveable man.
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