CECIL WALLACE NOEL PLANT

 

I stand here at something of a disadvantage to many of you because I’ve known Cecil for only half of my life.   His friendships go back so many years, and have lasted through generations -  because we were all so fond of him.   How could we not be?    He was the epitome of charm, unassuming and modest, always delighted to see you, even if you were male. 

He was forward in his hospitality and a perfect guest:   I don’t remember a quiet moment in Cecil’s company because he seemed to feel the need to engage with people, all the people around him, and to make them comfortable – or sometimes uncomfortable – with words.   Light words, nothing too alarming.   The duty of courtesy was very strong in him, so strong he made that duty a pleasure, and yet he was inherently shy.   Placed in a situation, Cecil would exceed expectations, but even in his middle years he was so diffident that he would be reluctant to raise a foursome from strangers at the golf club.

He also had an academic thread in his makeup.    Reg, Cecil (also known as Tink, for unknown reasons) and Barbara were born to Charles and Lizzie over five years at the time of the First World War, and their paternal grandfather was a scholar who read books in Latin for pleasure.   He infected Cecil with a liking for the language.   

Perhaps that’s one reason why, after marrying, he found it comfortable to support Annie by regularly attending her Roman Mass despite his C of E origins.    And why, having come to like its traditions, and after years of “leaving Annie to do the serious praying”, he was eventually, in his late years, received into the Catholic Church.    


This Latin was also a help when it came to entering Oxford, where he studied History, but of course his formal tuition was at school, Ludlow Grammar, where in his final year he won the Old Ludlovians ‘ prize for Latin – and the prizes for English and French.    He and Reg had extraordinary sporting success at Ludlow Grammar.    This is from a history of the school, dealing with 1933:

“CWN Plant headed the batting averages for the fourth season in succession and was also athletics and fives champion as well as Senior Prefect for the fourth year and Captain of Cricket.  As he also won a scholarship to Oxford, where he was to play golf for the University, he might truly be said to have had a brilliant career.   He was certainly the outstanding all-rounder of his time at School.   He did everything well and retained a pleasant personality.   This was regarded as due a great deal to the good influence of his parents and of his elder brother.     GR Plant was inclined to be put in the shade by the achievements of his junior but he was a fine young man and had the satisfaction of achieving the distinction of being captain of both major games, which CWN could never manage.”

What that account doesn’t relate was that both boys were also well acquainted with the School song, which on a much later visit to Ludlow with their wives they felt compelled to sing out loudly while walking down the main street.          Singing came back to Cecil in his late years and he’d frequently be heard entertaining himself with a hymn or an old song.      He was also well known on the Golf Course;     on that visit to Ludlow so many years later an ancient groundsman, on spotting him, said “Good Lord, not Cecil Plant?”    Clearly Cecil’s subsequent blue was no surprise to Ludlow.

 

At Balliol he did manage to do some work:   from a reference written for him: “Mr Cecil Plant made very good use of his time at Balliol.” – well that’s a bit two-edged.  “He won great distinction as a golfer, but did not allow this to turn his head or to distract him too greatly from his work, and he took a creditable Honours degree.”   And from another: “He has quite a good head, and all he does is sensible and level-headed, while - at its best - his work is often really acute.”  
And, discussing his tact on the Golf Course: “ I have often admired the way he is able to defeat his inferiors with mechanical precision, yet without condescension!”         Obviously Cecil was competitive, but as ever it was the way he did it that mattered.   Mind you, I have it from a victim that at tennis in later decades he would pick up a racquet only when he’d calculated that the odds were suitably in his favour, and he’d then take great,  if quiet, delight in thrashing men half his age.

During his vacations he spent much time as the companion, and effectively the sporting tutor, of Robin Vanderfelt at Cookham, and inspired great affection from that family that lasts to this day.    The Vanderfelts became family to him too, and he spent much of his twenties with them, and lived with them when he was working in London.   

 

On graduating, he was obviously equipped for diplomacy, and he wanted to travel.   So  he applied to the Indian and then to the Rhodesian Civil Services, countries he was keen to see, but in both cases he failed on medical grounds.    And the same was true when the Second World War started and he tried to enlist.    As a result he spent the war years in management,  the career he started in the late thirties at Walls, the ice cream makers.      To get to his interview the dapper Cecil had borrowed a rather smart Vanderfelt car and had inadvertently parked in the Chairman’s spot by the front door.   When they were descending the stairs after a successful meeting his interviewer saw this, turned to Cecil and said “Plant, do you actually need to work?”

 

He worked for Walls for twenty years but got rather bored there and left;   he may also have been rising to a prominence with which he was uncomfortable.      Thinking he’d never get married he indulged in some travel and at one point could be seen buzzing round Rome on a Vespa.   But eventually Cecil found another job in London, at Neilsons, a Canadian ice cream maker controlled by Garfield Weston.

Perhaps through the trade Cecil became friends with Veronica, the daughter of Tony Askey, of the wafer makers;   she for some reason gave him the nickname ‘Pepperoni’.    At the time, 1960, Annie’s father was a chief buyer for Woolworths so Tony Askey asked Veronica to strengthen her friendship with Annie, and Veronica set out to be her match maker.   At  45 Cecil found himself on a blind date with this girl 20 years younger than himself.   

His chosen ground was the Cumberland, and then a night club on Park Lane.   Annie clearly intrigued him immediately, for the next morning he phoned her to say   he had to come to London that day and was she in for coffee.   Annie quickly phoned Veronica to say she’d had a nice evening with this chap - but where was his wife, and she took some persuading that Cecil really was available.

They dated for a little while, then Frank, thinking this all quite unsuitable, arranged a job for her in Cannes.    But the letters back and forth were almost daily, and on Annie’s return after three months Cecil went to meet her at the airport with a dozen red roses.     Unfortunately Annie’s hair was now cut short, so Cecil didn’t recognise her and walked straight past where she was standing.

But since then, even in these last months and years when other people became a mystery to him, Cecil has always immediately recognised Annie, whatever the haircut, as his friend, his support, and his only love.   

One of Cecil’s traits has been   to be very convincing when telling a whopper, and no doubt he was very taken with Annie’s ability to see right through him.    But she was occasionally wrong:   in 1951 Cecil had at last got into the forces as a 2nd Lefttenant in the Royal Rifles, so when later he told Annie that he was in the Army,  and she scoffed,   he turned up at her home in Cobham in the full dress of the Royal Bucks Hussars to amaze her.    Of course this was ten years since he’d joined up, so he’d had to squeeze into the trousers in her drive as there was no way he could get out of his car still wearing them.

In fact although Cecil asked Frank for Annie’s hand, he never asked her.   On her return Annie got a temporary job as lift attendant at Simpson’s in Piccadilly.   It seems that when Cecil visited Annie at work they got into the lift as friends and got out as fiancees, on the basis of Cecil’s suggestion that they ought to go and get a ring.    They then went up and down in the lift a few more times until a porter asked Annie if this man was bothering her.

Neilson’s was taken over by Lyon’s Maid in 1962 and Cecil didn’t want to work for a large corporation again, so he left.    With his experience he was soon offered a directorship of a UK holding company for ice cream biscuit businesses.    He worked closely with a particular Canadian, one Gordon, but some years later he was offered the opportunity to join a plot against Gordon, and to take the MD’s position.    Rather than have anything to do with this betrayal, Cecil, when Gordon was ousted, resigned as well.

So, there he was in 1968, aged 53 with Annie and Nick and nearly Jo, and without a job.   And they’d just moved.   Cec and Annie had lived in Cookham for some years, at Pound Cottage and then at Tremayne, but Annie had spotted Stud Farmhouse, at Skirmett.    Their silly offer had been accepted, so despite Cecil’s dismay at seeing stables, and the paddock, and guessing what was ahead, they moved in.   

Cecil was reluctant to work far from home but fortunately a friend had a vacancy to run the East Arms at Hurley, a restaurant and reception venue.    Here Cecil worked for three years, from morning to late in the evening, exhausting himself with the staff management, the responsibility and the public face.    He was popular – can you imagine him not being? – but despite being close to home he was there so little.   He was missing the lives of the children and so eventually he resigned.   

So that was four times that Cecil resigned from positions with no immediate prospect to go on to, and with increasing responsibilities.    In my view that takes a character with no fear.    Annie’s relaxed and practical style was undoubtedly a support to him in those decisions.   And I think that this is one of the greatest parts of Cecil and Annie’s legacy to their children.    Simon, Jo and Nick have no fear, they are adventurers, and they have bags of style.    I do admire this family.

We’ve arrived at the happiest period of Cecil’s life.    Golfing with Geoffrey Bass in particular, and with Reg when he was over, living with Annie in that intriguing house, Stud Farm – Jilly and I have a specially happy memory of it as Cec and Annie gave us a base so we could be married at Turville.   

He had a fascinating job as administrator of the British Trust for Ornithology in Tring.   All of these made a happy life in which they could watch the children grow up - and create the usual parental agonies on the way of course.    Resigning himself to the inevitability of the local Pony Club he became its treasurer for fifteen years, and did his share of fence judging and commentating – and that must have been worth hearing.  

He knew his place in the household – some way behind the ponies.  

Interestingly, he was very hands-off when it came to teaching sports to the children;   he’d watch hockey and football but when it came to participating he seemed to need to play with those who were, if you like, fully developed.   And oddest of all was that despite holidays at Swanage in the 1950s he never learned to swim.

It has always been impossible to rile Cecil, although I have known him get sufficiently steamed up en famille that he’d slip out for a walk to cool down.    Annie says she’s not seen him lose his temper - unlike her solution, she says, which is to slam the door.   Cecil’s response to that   is to chide mildly that it damages the plaster, which of course makes her slam the door again.

The BTO was a very happy home for him.    As the senior man he was the father of the adminstrative staff.    He played the part with his natural elegance, always smart, appropriate, necktied, and with his trademark coloured pullovers    He was a confidante to staff and quietly gave enormous help to those who ran into difficulty.     He shared confidences by telling people of his pride in his children.    From 1980 it was his proud boast that he was drawing his pension and child benefit at the same time.     His shoulders bore the strain of organising the Trust through its financial difficulties in the 1980s.   But most importantly his off spin bowling gave the Trust crucial victories in matches against the RSPB.    

 

Cecil arrived at the BTO as a non-twitcher but he did over time come to extend his appreciation of birds to the feathered variety.    There is a fine photo of Cecil having rushed down and outside from the bathroom at his sister’s house, poised with binoculars to his eyes and wearing one of Annie’s nighties for modesty.   

The tale is told at the BTO that while driving to work Cecil ran into the back of another car:   it wasn’t until very recently that Annie learned of his confession in the office,  that he’d been distracted by a very long-legged short-skirted girl walking along the pavement.    “But,” said Cecil, “what gorgeous legs.”     One does wonder if the move to their final home was Cecil’s last fling, the challenge of charming Salome.    Or maybe it was just that after 24 years there was no undamaged plaster left at Stud Farm.

 

Britwell Salome did take to Cec and Annie.   They have made many friends, and without all her friends Annie could not have managed over recent years as Cecil’s dementia got worse.   Mind you, Cecil’s instincts never left him – he had a couple of girlfriends at the day centre and was often reluctant to leave when Annie came to collect him.  

 

And his muscles never lost their memory for a ball:    even just a year or so ago he could be offered a golf club and some air balls in the garden and would pitch perfectly, showing just how it should be done.

 

Amiable, companionable, talented, sober, kind, loving, witty and always worth listening to.    At the 200th birthday party three years ago Cecil stood up and said “I have absolutely no idea why I’m here.”    We do, though, Cecil:    you’ve been here for us.

 

 


A Shropshire Lad                                   (AE Housman)

 

XXXVII

 

As through the wild green hills of Wyre

The train ran, changing sky and shire,

And far behind, a fading crest,

Low in the forsaken west

Sank the high reared head of Clee,

My hand lay empty on my knee.

Aching on my knee it lay:

That morning half a shire away

So many an honest fellows fist

Had well nigh wrung it from the wrist.

Hand, said I, since now we part

From fields and men we know by heart,

For strangers faces strangers lands,

Hand, you have held true fellows hands.

Be clean then; rot before you do

A thing they’d not believe of you.

You and I must keep from shame

In London streets the Shropshire name;

On banks of Thames they must not say

Severn breeds worse men than they;

And friends abroad must bear in mind

Friends at home they leave behind.

Oh, I shall be stiff and cold

When I forget you hearts of gold;

The land where I shall mind you not

Is the land where alls forgot.

And if my foot returns no more

To Teme nor Corve nor Severn shore,

Luck, my lads, be with you still

By falling stream and standing hill,

By chiming tower and whispering tree,

Men that made a man of me.

About your work in town and farm

Still you’ll keep my head from harm,

Still you’ll help me hands that gave

A grasp to friend me to the grave.