Robin Somerville’s Address for Nick Somerville’s memorial service

Brigadier Sir Nicholas Somerville CBEBrigadier Sir Nicholas Somerville CBE

Brigadier Sir Nicholas Somerville CBE

Brigadier Sir Nicholas Somerville CBE

First of all on behalf of the family may I welcome you all here to Odiham and thank you all so very much for coming. Thank you, Philip Morgan, for officiating and thank you, Philip Napier, for your wonderful tribute to my father’s military career. May I just add that we had hoped to have my father’s brother in law and very close friend Jeremy Nash here with us today, but as some of you will know sadly he passed way last Friday. So our thoughts and prayers today are also with Naomi, Angela, Veronica and the rest of Jeremy’s immediate family.
Having discussed how to sum up my father’s qualities in some depth with my sisters Pippa and Penny we thought we could best do this in four distinct ways.

The key attributes that made up his persona – wisdom, integrity, compassion and courage – were evident throughout his life, not only to us his children but also to everyone who knew him.

Let’s take his wisdom first. My father was always someone who people went to for advice. He had an uncanny knack of not only being interested in any kind of difficult situation or challenge but of putting himself in the position of the person concerned, understanding the scale of the challenge and what might be done about it. This mind-set was routinely applied to all kinds of situations throughout his life, but perhaps was best evidenced by the way he used the experience gained during his last Army posting at the RCB in Westbury to help so many young people, particularly from this area, to gain enough self-confidence and self-belief to do themselves justice when being interviewed for university.

He was appointed by a number of prominent independent schools to visit the school and give individual instruction and coaching sessions to sixth formers, and the fact that these appointments lasted for so long a is a testament to how effective they were. Indeed, the letters which my mother has received from so many people, now not so young, of the help, encouragement and support that he provided bears testimony to this tremendous quality of his.

Of course, we as a family have all gained as well from his wisdom. Let’s start with the basics – I guess I’m biased, but marrying my mother was a pretty wise choice. Deciding to build onto his mother in law’s cottage was another wise decision as the current Deptford Cottage was built, a home that has brought pleasure to so many.

Then came more wise moves – perhaps one of the best was using a couple of unexpected family bequests to invest in his beloved Castletownshend – the first of these being in 1969 with the purchase of Seashell Cottage, the scene of some wonderful holidays for his children in particular during the heady days of the 1970s, and the second in 1983 when he was wise enough to invest in a ruin overlooking the harbour, which he and my mother transformed and named Cashelmara – which translates as a pile of rocks by the sea –which then heralded a further remarkable era during which he and my mother presided over the most wonderful holidays with their seven grandchildren.
But back home in England, my father’s wisdom helped each one of his children in so many different ways, and always when we really needed his help and direction.

He always encouraged us to form our own opinions about everything and was quite happy not to agree with all of it – indeed he actively encouraged the development of other points of view. That being said, he had no expectations about his children and always respected the choices that we made, even when he had no experience of what we wanted to do. For example, he always encouraged Pippa into going into medicine while never, thankfully, expecting me to follow in his footsteps as a soldier!

For my own part, I’ll never forget the wisdom that he displayed during an incident that occurred at my own 21st birthday party in 1980 when four or five mean looking gate crashers managed to mingle with the guests. He dealt with the situation with an absolute minimum of fuss, ensuring that the party continued on and that the people concerned left quickly without leaving any impression on the event. It really was a masterpiece of diplomacy that was so typical of him.

So all through our lives, through all the ups and downs as our personas have evolved, my father has always been there for us, always interested, always caring, always doing everything he could to help. We’ve all befitted so much from it.

Away from the family, it was another wise decision to accept the offer to take on the challenging task of redesigning the entire interviewing process for selecting Conservative MPs, as he proved his ability to overhaul the existing system so well, and so thoroughly that even Mrs Thatcher approved – quite an achievement!

I think it’s fair to say that the Conservative party of the 1980s was not necessarily an institution that instinctively knew the right qualities required for a successful candidate in the new social structures and norms which were beginning to emerge during this period, but in many ways my father was ahead of his time, and maybe that’s why he was subsequently honoured for his work. Having been brought up at Winchester to question widely held social assumptions, my father had exactly the right mind-set not only to challenge the existing orthodoxy but to suggest an alternative strategy that was not only workable and effective but also persuasive enough to convince the powers that be that it was going to work.

The second aspect of my father’s personality which was evident to all who knew him was his integrity. Like his own father, he was as straight as a die when it came to his dealings with all who he came across. He was a man who could be absolutely guaranteed to be absolutely true to his word. We always trusted him. We always believed him. We knew he would always deliver.

But what’s more, others did too. Perhaps this aspect of his character was brought out most strongly during his long tenure as Commodore of the South Cork Sailing Club from 1987 to 2005. During this time the club, which had seen its numbers reduce a little during the 1980s, went from strength to strength as, in partnership with the redoubtable Robert Salter-Townshend, more and more members joined, the procedures were simplified, and the social activities vastly improved.

It was a wonderful time for the club as between them my father and Robert oversaw the transformation from Anglo-Irish institution into a modern Irish holiday club, with those in charge able to communicate effectively with all members, old and new. Throughout his time as Commodore I think it’s fair to say that all the club members felt included and that their opinions were listened to, and I guess the proof of the pudding was the wonderful reception that the whole club gave to both of my parents at the flagstaff on the occasion of their golden wedding in 2001.

The third key aspect of my father’s personality was his compassion. He cared. About people. About issues. About the things he believed in. Philip has already addressed this side of my father’s personality in terms of how he cared for the soldiers under his command, but the Army was by no means the only beneficiary of his compassion and care for others.

I’ve already mentioned how all our family have befitted from his wisdom – I guess his compassion helped us enormously when times were tough and we instinctively reached out to him for help. We in his family have always felt it when times were tough; where other parents might have been tempted to be judgemental and critical, he never was. He just felt for us deeply and was always looking for solutions to our trials and tribulations rather than any recriminations.

As well as Ireland, My father cared deeply about this wonderful part of Hampshire. I’m not sure that everyone here knows that for many years he was the local branch secretary of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. He was always to the forefront in promoting and protecting the integrity of Greywell as a village and felt passionately about the danger of over-development.

Although he was always pragmatic enough to realise the inevitability of change, he was determined that the wonderful character of Hampshire village life should be preserved as far as possible and that change should be blended in gradually rather than all at once.

My father also served as Church Warden at St Mary the Virgin Church in Greywell for many years, leading the amalgamation process of the five parishes which constitute the current structure of the benefice. During this time he led the annual carol service in the village hall and read the names of the war dead on Remembrance Sunday. His quiet faith was more about deeds than about words but was by no means less genuine for that.

Finally, his fourth major quality – my father was a man of courage. Perhaps that goes without saying – he was an army officer after all. But there are lots of different forms of courage. Philip has talked about D-Day, about Malaysia, about Aden.

But I just want to mention the incredible courage and fortitude shown by him over fifty years of suffering from arthritis in his hips. Despite a total of five hip operations, the technology available to him in the 70s and 80s was not advanced enough to deliver pain free, flexible movement and sadly he was never to move his legs really freely again.

But he never complained, not once. Not even when one of his artificial hips snapped one day when he was catching a train home from Waterloo station in the early 1980s and he had to drag himself onto the train, lie on the floor of the train all the way to Hook and then drag himself over the railway bridge and to a phone booth to phone my mother, who as luck would have it was thankfully at home at the time. Even at the end, in hospital following his stroke, where he was looked after so well by Pippa, Penny and his grand-daughter Em, during his lucid moments his thoughts were only for my mother and her wellbeing.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen – a man of wisdom, of integrity, of compassion and of courage. My mother, Pippa, Penny and I and the rest of the family all miss him dreadfully already. But we remain so proud of him. So proud of the man that he was. So proud of his achievements. So proud of his wonderful personal qualities. But above all, speaking for all of us, we’ll miss his sense of fun, that twinkle in his eye. He had a wonderful sense of humour and always loved a party. He would have been in his element greeting everyone today, and would have been so interested to hear how you are all getting on. Thank you again for coming.

(Thanks to Richard Salter-Townshend for forwarding the text and to Emma Bunting for persuading Robin to send us a copy)