All things considered, I think John would have approved of this morning’s arrangements.
He’d have approved of the setting, the music, the sense of occasion. He would most certainly have approved of the National Anthem featuring in the programme. He would have approved of all of you being here – so many friends and acquaintances, representing so many aspects of his life – though, in truth, he might have wished to see a few more Norwich City scarves being worn.
John would have approved of the fact that fellow students, past students, current students from the school he loved so much are sitting in those North Aisle pews just where he sat as a young grammar school boy from 1959 and, subsequently, as perhaps the proudest member of the Old Burians’ Association we’ve ever known. Yes, he would most definitely have approved of that, of a current generation sitting side-by-side with former generations, a continuum, a tradition that he helped to forge.
A tribute to John Ottley has to deal with a few facts. I’ll get to them in a moment. But the more I talked to people who knew John, in the many dimensions of his life that we celebrate here today, the more obvious it became that whether it was as the earnest and scholarly schoolboy, the talented musician, the meticulous BBC Radio Suffolk receptionist, the dutiful son, the indefatigable Secretary of the Old Burians’ Association, the accompanist to various choirs or organist at various churches – in all of these roles he was essentially the same man, exuding a deep sense of pride and decorum, a love of things being done properly, and a curiosity about other people’s lives and stories – as well as someone we’ll all remember for that audacious booming laugh of his. In fact, if John were here now in person, sitting where you are, I would be pausing at this point to let his laughter reverberate unstoppably down the aisles of this magnificent cathedral that meant so much to him. There has been many a school concert, or Christmas Show, or presentation evening where even if you couldn’t see quite where John was in the darkened auditorium, you soon heard where he was.
Almost no one here knew all the different public dimensions of John Ottley – his student life, his working life, and his rich web of outside interests. Yet John is what brings us here and unites us. We all knew him and yet there may be aspects of his life we didn’t know.
John was born in February 1947 in the nearby village of Rougham, in the house where he lived for most of his life. His father was employed on the Rougham Estate where he never drove a tractor but – giving us a glimpse into a way of Suffolk life that is closer than we might have realised – his father worked with heavy horses until he retired.
John was a schoolboy at Rougham Primary from 1952 to 1958. One of his school friends, Barry Thomas, is, I believe, here today. John had a year at Beyton Secondary Modern School before – with enormous pride – gaining a place at King Edward VI Grammar School – or, as it was accurately called then, and less accurately now, simply KEGS. He was a student there on the Vinefields site from 1959 to 1965. Here he was studious and remembered also for his sense of humour, being taught by a panoply of teachers who were rarely known to the boys by anything other than their madcap nicknames, including the legendary female Biology teacher Miss Kilpatrick known by the boys simply as ‘Sir’. At the Grammar School, John studied O-levels in English Language, Literature, Maths, Geography, History, French, Spanish and Latin. But in truth it was Music that was his passion and he studied this for a year at A-level in the Sixth Form, whilst also for three years receiving organ lessons here in the Cathedral from one Harrison Oxley – an early link with this cathedral church that John always maintained.
Music was inevitably to be his future. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and gained the Archbishop’s Diploma in Church Music. From 1965 to 1968 he trained as a teacher of music in Middlesex and gained the College Music prize and a certificate of education from London University’s Institute of Education. In 1995 he would become one of the first people to be awarded a degree and diploma in Music from the Open University. For five years after college, 1968-73, John taught at St Andrew’s Junior School Chesterton, Cambridgeshire, giving special emphasis to music, whilst also serving as organist at St Andrew’s, Chesterton, and accompanist to the Mid- Anglia Police Choir. Then he went to study full-time at the Royal School of Church Music, soon joining the staff there. In this period John’s gift for music led – as it always has – to involvement in various groups and societies. From 1974 to 1989 he was church organist at St John’s Church, Selsdon, and rehearsal accompanist of Croydon Bach Choir. Friends from all of these stages of his life are with us here today.
Then in 1989 John returned to Suffolk, to the home he grew up in, in Rougham from where he would cycle through all weathers several times a week to fulfil his duties as organist at Great Barton Church. Later he would play for the benefice of Rougham, Beyton and Hessett. He was playing the organ at Rougham Church, in fact, that Sunday in December before he died, all those years on from when he began, aged eleven.
In 1990 John became deputy conductor and accompanist for St Edmundsbury Male Voice Choir. Many of them are here today. Amongst many other things, he was enthusiastic in supporting plans to develop links with other choirs both in UK and abroad. Over the years there were various tours abroad, and the Choir’s conductor Mark Jefferson recalls how John sometimes would use his charms to make the flights memorable. On one – a tour of the Balkan Countries, taking in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – John was able to persuade the pilot to come over the loudspeaker system and sing a solo version of happy birthday to a choir member. Naturally, the choir had to respond. So an Easyjet plane hauled itself from the tarmac, nosing its way into the clouds, memorably accompanied by men’s voices from West Suffolk with John leading a performance of Verdi’s ‘Speed Your Journey’.
It was also around this time – in 1991, in fact – that John began his job as part-time receptionist at BBC Radio Suffolk – a role for which he won Receptionist of the Year and where he would occasionally take to the air as self-styled Royal Correspondent. John, if you hadn’t guessed, was an ardent royalist. He met the Queen Mother on a number of occasions, going to the Sandringham flower show annually, where she was always in attendance. He said hello to her each year, and worked in his own garden to develop a new strain of sweet pea, which he named after her, calling it – we think this is right – ‘Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’ – and proudly presenting her with a posy of these flowers the following year.
Many of John’s Radio Suffolk colleagues were keen to share memories with me of someone who clearly made a huge impact on the team, and several of them are here today. Linda Walker remembers what she describes as his ‘wonderful bouncy voice’ greeting you with a smiling ‘helllooooooo’ as you walked through the door. She recalls his obsession with dark Kit Kats and his gift for photography. Stephen Foster recalls how John loved meeting all the guests, immediately putting them at their ease, making them feel welcome. Stephen also recalls once – just once, note – taking John around the corner to watch Ipswich Town take on John’s favourites, Norwich City. In a phrase we don’t often hear, Ipswich Town won. John didn’t go again. Lesley Dolphin, presenter of the afternoon show, may in fact be able to claim the credit for John’s appointment as Receptionist. In her early days, Lesley presented a Saturday morning cross-county general knowledge quiz. You can tell it was a simpler age because the prizes included gold stars and Brownie points. John would phone up and suggest new clues, leading to Lesley driving in the early hours of a Saturday morning via the back lanes from her home in Long Melford to John’s hard-to-find cottage in deepest Rougham, and then driving him to Ipswich where he would co-present the quiz. It opened the doors to his permanent role as Receptionist. John would make other occasional on-air appearances too, such as on the time one Christmas when he joined Lesley in the studio and gave a bravura live performance of a cook making the Christmas pudding whilst partaking of too many glasses of sherry. The result was an audio clip that became an annual favourite with listeners. John’s shifts at Radio Suffolk were in the morning. He navigated the public transport system – the trains and buses of Suffolk – and would give detailed accounts of every fraught journey. Then, when it was time for Helen Abbot to take over the afternoon shift, John would inevitably use the same familiar set of words announcing loudly: ‘Ooooooh dear – it’s the changing of the guard’. If you knew John even remotely, you can imagine him saying that, and repeating it, and everyone laughing with eye-rolling affection.
So: this is John’s life and this is his legacy. His is a template of long-term commitment – to the church in Rougham where he first played aged eleven, to the choirs and ensembles for whom he was the accompanist for so many years, and as the extraordinarily tenacious Secretary of the Old Burians’ Association – our school’s alumni organisation – which he first oversaw from 1968 to 1974 then on his return to Suffolk from 1984 until his death just before Christmas. That’s when I got to know him, appointed as the rookie new headteacher in 2002. The first person I met on my appointment was the then Chairman Peter Howard, who immediately put me in touch with John Ottley. Thus began a friendship that grew and thrived. He loved becoming a part of the school, a kind of mascot, meeting students, attending assemblies, laughing his way through the bawdiest bits of the Sixth Form Christmas Show. He loved the way students began to want to be part of what John called ‘our family’ – the current and former generations of students united by a school with common values. It’s no coincidence that so many former students have sent messages of condolence to a man so much older than them and yet always so young at heart – including those who have travelled here today, often from far away, because they want to be here for this final part of the John Ottley chapter.
Old Burians’ dinners changed as current and recent students joined us. The age range shifted downwards. There were other social and sporting events. There was from John a determination that the school we are now would tell its story and celebrate its successes to the generations that had gone before.
In all of this, John was John – entertaining, funny, caring, sometimes exasperating, sometimes infuriating, but someone who left you feeling that however grim, however dark the world can sometimes feel, when John Ottley was around everything became lighter, more joyful, more generous.
On his death, when he bequeathed to the school his grand piano from his own front room, he won’t have known what happened to it. But I know that he would approve. John’s piano now sits proudly and publicly at the heart of our Reception – the first item seen by visitors. Once it has settled, students will be encouraged to sit and play for visitors, for fellow students, for our staff. John, I think, would have loved that. It’s our way of putting him and our memory of him at the epicentre of our school.
John Ottley was our royal correspondent, our link between a school of the past and a school of the present, a person who in his quiet, unselfish acts of kindness has brought so many of us here together today, many from far away, to say, publicly, thank you. Thank you for the laughter; thank you for the music; thank you for the life of the endlessly life-enhancing Mr John Ottley.