Obituary: Roger Toulmin
Saturday 14 August 1993
ROGER TOULMIN, outstandingly well-educated, well-read and well-
informed, enriched the lives of his many friends through his ability to communicate and to comment aptly and wittily. His catholic taste in reading included medical texts, obscure French philosophy, opera scores and 19th-century novels bound in multiple elegant volumes, courtesy of the London Library.
Born in Hampstead, north London, in 1926, the third of four children in a businessman's family, Roger was the younger brother of the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, and just as clever, though burdened with difficulty in making himself conspicuous or in committing himself finally to anything. This made him a bachelor and something of a polymath and prevented him from becoming publicly outstanding in any field covered by his many talents.
He was a scholar at Winchester, where a classical education enhanced his gift for writing concisely, precisely and elegantly. While there, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Later he lapsed and, much later, reconverted. When dying, he said he felt comforted by knowing that he had an immortal soul.
During war service with the Royal Navy, Toulmin studied History for six months at Magdalen College, Oxford, and completed his degree after the war. He became correspondent for the Times, first in Paris then in India, where his career faltered when he was one of the few survivors of a big air crash at New Delhi in 1958. Typically (for he was exceptionally vigilant and observant) he believed that he was the first passenger to detect that the aircraft was going to crash. This memory, together with that of fellow-
passengers screaming as they burned, haunted him for the rest of his life. A long psychoanalysis neither laid its ghosts nor solved his other difficulties and in some ways compounded them.
He joined the BBC and produced programmes of serious or intellectual content, including some about psychoanalysis and its insights. He never felt that he was suited to the Corporation and he became a civil servant in the Department of Health and Social Security, where he was also often ill at ease.
Among other things, he worked on premature babies and was at one time requested to rethink, on his own, the whole of Britain's social security system. This he did with enthusiasm and, knowing him, the results and ideas were probably of considerable potential value. However, as he acknowledged wryly, he finished the project in record time but by then policies and politicians had changed and none of his ideas was adopted. Everything he did was done beautifully but perhaps he saw and analysed too clearly to suit politicians and civil servants. He was at his wittiest when commenting on them.
There were other sides to his character, not least his resourcefulness. I was once with him in a car stuck in the sand in the Sahara desert: he organised our rescue with precision and, despite lack of Arabic, without being ripped off. I was also stranded with him and other Brits at Casablanca airport during an air strike. We were told that there was no possibility of getting away for several days, but Roger did not accept this. He found the manager's office and 'borrowed' a world air timetable and other papers from which he inferred that a plane of an obscure airline would be coming up the coast of Africa that afternoon and would land for a brief period in a remote part of Casablanca airfield. Overcoming bureaucracy, he climbed into the hold of our official plane, now idle on the tarmac. He removed all British luggage and had it transported across the airfield. As he had predicted, the small plane from West Africa landed briefly and took us all to London. He even persuaded the pilot to accept our tickets.
He also felt at home with children and young people in both his own and other families. This year, as before, he had organised an 'apple-tree party' to celebrate his birthday. He would provide junk food and prop-up ladders in his small London garden which little children loved to climb between the races and explorations that he organised. Unfortunately he died before the date of this party.
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