Lives Remembered: John Dawkins

Richard Dawkins
Saturday 11 December 2010 01:00
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My father, (Clinton) John Dawkins, who has died peacefully of old age, packed an enormous amount into his 95 years.

He was born in Mandalay in 1915, the eldest of three talented brothers. John's boyhood hobby of pressing flowers, reinforced by a famous biology teacher (AG Lowndes of Marlborough) led him to read Botany at Oxford, and thence to study tropical agriculture at Cambridge and ICTA (Trinidad) in preparation for posting to Nyasaland as a junior agricultural officer. He and my mother, Jean Ladner, began their idyllic married life at various remote agricultural stations in Nyasaland before he was called up for wartime service in the King's African Rifles (KAR). He wangled permission to travel to Kenya in his own rattletrap car rather than with the regimental convoy, which enabled Jean to accompany him – illegally.

John's postwar work as an agricultural officer back in Nyasaland was interrupted when he received an unexpected legacy from a distant cousin. Over Norton Park had been owned by the Dawkins family since the 1720s. Cousin Hereward Dawkins, casting around the family tree for a male heir, could find none closer than my father, whom he had never met and who had never heard of him.

Hereward's gamble paid off. The young couple left Africa to run Over Norton as a commercial farm rather than a gentleman's estate. Against great odds (and discouraging advice from parents and family solicitor) they succeeded, and they could be said – by hard work and versatile intelligence – to have saved the family inheritance.

They turned the big house into flats, specialising in colonial servants sent "home" on leave. Tractors didn't have compulsory cabs in those days, and Farmer John, wearing his old KAR hat (think Australian bushwhacker) could be heard across two fields bellowing psalms at the top of his voice ("Moab was my washpot") on his diminutive Ferguson tractor (diminutive was just as well, since he once contrived to run himself over with it).

Equally diminutive were the Jersey cows that graced the parkland. Their (now unfashionably) rich milk was separated into cream, which supplied most of the Oxford colleges and lots of shops and restaurants in the area, while, in a neat display of what John called "music and movement", the skim milk nourished the large herd of pigs. The cream-separation apparatus itself was automated in a virtuoso display of John's characteristic Heath Robinson ingenuity, lashed up with binder twine – the inspiration for a rhyme composed by the long-serving pig farm manager, which included the lines, "With clouds of steam and lights that flash, the scheme is most giganto / While churns take wings on nylon slings like fairies at the panto."

John's binder-twine ingenuity extended beyond farming. Throughout his life he took up one creative hobby after another, and all benefited from his resourcefulness with red string and old scrap metal. Each Christmas there would be a new crop of home-made presents, beginning with the toys he made for me and my sister, moving on to equally beguiling contraptions for four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, his special art form being the use of two projectors to "dissolve" slides into each other in matching sequence. Each performance had a theme, and his themes ranged from autumn leaves, through his beloved Ireland, to abstract art created by photographing the spectral patterns lurking deep inside cut- glass decanter stoppers. He automated the dissolving process by making his own "iris diaphragms" for the alternating projectors, held together with rubber bands. Inexpensive, effective, and utterly characteristic.

He and Jean (who survives him) celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in 2009. In his nineties John slowed down and his memory slipped peacefully away. He learned to laugh at his infirmities with the benign cheerfulness that often deserts the very old. It inspired deep love in the large extended family, living in four separate houses all within the dry stone wall enclosing the ancestral land that he and Jean had saved.

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