Brian Burgess – Obituary by his son Stuart

Many thanks Mark and hello everybody.

There are many faces here I know, but there are also many that I don’t, so for those of you I don’t know, I am Stuart, Brian’s son. And the fact that I don’t know you all is enormously gratifying as it means that there are people that I have never met in whose lives Dad played a part, and who cared for him enough to come today. On behalf of myself Carol, Kate, Toni and Dena, we would like to thank you all for the cards and kind messages of support you have sent. Also, thanks to your donations to the Alzheimer’s Society, we have currently raised over £1,100.

So, Dad, Brian, Burge, Uncle Brian, Grandpa, most of you here will have known Dad by one of those names. For the purposes of today, to avoid any confusion, I will call him Dad. Because to me and Kate, he was Dad. But he was also all of those other people too. To Carol. He was Burge, to Toni and Dena he was Uncle Brian, to his many friends and colleagues here today, he was Brian, and to Eleanor, Francis, Alice and Tom, he was Grandpa

No matter how well you know someone, there are always parts of their lives, or parts of their character about which you know very little. For instance, I know very little of Dad’s work life. I knew what he did, I knew he was successful, but I never saw him in action, so to speak. I never saw him as his work colleagues saw him. Also, there are many of his old colleagues here that may never have seen him as, and may find it difficult to imagine him as “Grandpa”. With this in mind, as well as myself, there will be some other people speaking today. Dad’s great friend and long- time colleague Phil Brown will tell us more about what Dad was like to work with, and the grandkids, will tell us about Grandpa. Between us, hopefully we can pull together the various strands that made up his character, and give a flavour of all of the elements that made him the man he was

He was born Brian Edward Burgess in Camberwell South East London on 1st June 1941, to Robert and Iris Burgess. For the first 4 years of his life, his Dad, (henceforth known as Grandad Burge) was away fighting in the war, primarily in Italy and North Africa. (If you have read Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, Grandad Burge was involved in the same manoeuvres as Milligan’s regiment). As a result, Dad spent his early years primarily with his Mum (henceforth known as Nanny Burge). Nans sister Auntie Beat lived nearby with her daughters Margaret, Jean and Maureen, and Dad grew up very close to his cousins. I am delighted that Maureen is here today together with Don, Andy, Melanie, Debs and Linda and it’s also great to see Margaret’s son Paul here with his wife Chris. 

Shortly after the war, Dad’s brother Peter was born and the family moved into a new council property in Edmund Street. The family were not poor, I don’t want to overstate things, but they were certainly not wealthy. Grandad Burge worked as a carpenter and Nanny Burge did various factory jobs to keep things ticking over. Now one thing we can probably all agree on was that Dad was very focussed, hard-working and ambitious, and I think these early years helped to shape his drive and his determination to better himself. 

He won a scholarship to Haberdashers Askes school at the age of 11, and at 18, became the first member of his family to go to University, studying Electrical Engineering at Northampton College, which is part of City University. He was bright, but he was also a believer in the phrase, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”. He worked hard to achieve his goals, and he continued to work hard throughout his life.

He joined the London Electricity Board (or the Liquorice Light Board as he insisted on calling it for some reason) and during this period he married Mum and had two children (me and Kate). After a few years Dad decide the LEB did not offer enough opportunity and he left electrical engineering to join the Management Consulting Firm , PE Consulting. I am not sure how long he had the urge to work abroad but I do recall some talk of us moving to Nigeria in 1970. This did not happen but 2 years later we moved to Rhodesia, where Dad joined RISCO, (The Rhodesian Iron and Steel Company) based in Redcliff. This was Dad’s entry into the mining industry, an association that would last the rest of his working life. 

Redcliff was right in the middle of the country, and in terms of environment, about as different from Camberwell as you could get. And Dad loved it. He embraced the African lifestyle, and indeed he went on to spend the best part of 20 years working in Africa. There was a real feel-good atmosphere in Redcliff, a lot of young bright ex pats working hard and affording themselves a life they could have only dreamt about in the UK. However, after 5 years or so, the political situation in Rhodesia was becoming increasing volatile so in early 1978, Dad moved to Rossing, part of RTZ, based in Swakopmund in Namibia. 

At the time of moving to Rossing, Mum and Dad divorced and Kate and myself returned to UK with Mum. We lived apart from Dad, indeed several 1000 miles apart for the best part of 15 years. During that time Dad never let me or Kate feel as though we were unloved or that he did not think about us and our welfare every day. We knew he loved us, cared for us and fiercely wanted the best for us and would do everything he could to help us achieve it. 

Around this time Dad, married Carol and became “Uncle Brian” to her young daughters Toni and Dena, who I think were 7 and 5 at the time. Again, they were never in doubt that he loved them as his own and would do anything for them. He never took his parental responsibilities anything less than seriously, and none of us are in any doubt that he did everything he could for us.

As I said earlier Phil will be talking of Dads time with Rossing and RTZ shortly, so we now fast forward 20 years to 1998.  Dad and Carol had returned to the UK, and were living in Ewell and Dad had just retired.

Now I think it’s fair to say all of us were worried about Dad retiring. He was so dedicated to his work, so focussed and driven that I think we all feared he would go crazy with boredom, not to mention what his continued presence in the house would do to Carol. But Dad just focussed his drive and energy into other areas. He and Carol travelled widely, Cuba, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and many more, often in the company of Carol’s sister Thelma and her husband Roy, and it’s great to see Thelma here today. He was an enthusiastic member of the Old Askean’s Rambling Association, and took on the role of treasurer for around 10 years. He also, together with his partner in crime Charles French was a stalwart member of the Seymour Avenue resident’s association, and again it’s good to see so many of his friends, neighbours and fellow ramblers here today. Most crucially though, when he retired, he had just become a Grandpa, as Eleanor was 6 months old. And Dad absolutely loved being a Grandpa. But there are people far better placed to talk about Grandpa than me, so I will leave it to them shortly.

On a wider level, family was always very important to Dad. He loved seeing Maureen and Don for lunch, and kept in regular contact with his brother Peter’s wife Carol. When we kids started to form relationships and get married, he and Carol embraced our partners into the family. My wife Debbie was welcomed by Dad and Carol from the word go, and both Kate’s husband Jon and Toni’s husband Jonathan managed to attain “Approved Son in Law” status, which is no mean feat. He was even prepared to live with the fact that Jon is Welsh. Though Jon has observed that Dad was always very quick to text when England beat Wales at the rugby

He loved family gatherings. In his later years when the family were together, he would usually start tapping his wine glass and then launch into a speech about how much he loved us all, and how proud of us he was. We never doubted it, but he felt the need to remind us. He would sometimes get tearful and say how he wished Nanny Burge could have been here to see all the Grandkids and how well they were doing. But mostly he would tell us how lucky he was, though in truth it was us who were the lucky ones.

Dad always enjoyed a good debate when the family was gathered and politics was a favourite topic, with Dad being a life-long Tory voter. We kept hoping that he would see the light and embrace socialism but he never did. This lead to some hearty family discussions, which usually panned out as Dad versus the 4 kids. Toni always said that Dad had raised us to stand up for ourselves and not be afraid to argue our point of view. He then seemed a bit affronted when it transpired that our points of view did not always align with his and we started arguing with him. We always said that it was a testament to his good parenting that he had raised 4 socialists. And Dad loved a debate right up until the end. Toni’s husband Jonathan remembers at family gatherings that Dad would tip him the wink and then throw a conversational hand grenade, usually involving Boris, or Jeremy Corbyn, just to see who would react. And we always did.

Dad also had a great sense of humour. Many of you here today have commented on how funny and quick witted he could be. He had a few “go to” gags: whenever anyone told him he had food in his moustache he would say he is saving it for Ron – later Ron. He also used to do this thing when he said he’d only had one glass of wine and then slip his elbow off the table – all the kids will be able to demonstrate this to you later.

He enjoyed a good laugh and when he lost it his shoulders would go up and down, and tears would come into his eyes. He had an eclectic taste in humour. He loved the Goon Show, Bluebottle, Eccles Major Bloodnok et al, and Dad would frequently for no apparent reason say, “He’s fallen in the water”. One of his favourite bits was Eccles having the time written down on a piece of paper. Think about it. We were considering playing the Ying Tong song as you were coming in to the service today, but Carol actually does a great version of it so we might be able to persuade her to give you a rendition later.

As an aside, I had to register Dad’s death at Guildford registry office. This is the same place that Peter Sellers got married to Britt Ekland in 1964. As a Goon fan, Dad would have loved that.

Other of Dad’s favourites were less sophisticated. The Mel Brooks movie “Spaceballs” which was a take-off of Star Wars would have him giggling his head off as the leading character “Dark Helmet” accelerated his space ship from Warp Speed to Ludicrous Speed. He also really liked, and I will say this only once, “Allo Allo”. There’s no accounting for taste

He was not a religious man but he did seem to think there was some supernatural force controlling all the traffic lights to turn red just as he approached. Also, in the last few years when he begrudgingly agreed to give up driving, he did not let this stop him from hurling abuse at other road users from the passenger seat. “What’s that clown doing?” “Get a move on”. You get the picture. Patience may be a virtue, but it was not one of Dad’s. This trait he seems to have passed down the family.

He wasn’t perfect- he could be bad tempered, cantankerous, he had a short fuse, and Carol bore most of the brunt of this. But Carol was a wonderful foil for Dad, supportive but not afraid to take him down a peg or two when required. And it was required fairly often. He ate and drank too much, again traits some, if not all of us kids have inherited. Though I think only Kate has taken on his partiality to bacon fat. The doctors constantly told him to cut down. He did for a period of about 6 months a few years back. But it made him unhappy, so he started again. I think his philosophy was that he would rather have 2 years enjoying life than 5 years being miserable.

So whilst it is very sad that he has gone, it is very easy to celebrate him today, because his was a life well lived. Everyone who met him mentioned that he enjoyed life, he was a character, he was the life and soul of most gatherings he attended. And as I said at the start, he made an impact on many, many people.

On a personal level, some people have said that I am like him. They may mean I am a grumpy and cantankerous old git who drinks too much. But I am always flattered when people say this because Dad had so many positive characteristics. He was very generous especially with good food and wine. Funny, clever, kind, fiercely loyal to friends and protective of his family. 

He had such strength of character and strength of purpose, nothing daunted him. If confronted with a difficult situation at work I would often think, “How would Dad have dealt with this”. Sometimes this helped. Being honest sometimes it made things worse, but hey no one has a 100% success rate.

There is a song by Peter Gabriel called “Father Son”. If you haven’t heard it, please take some time to listen to it, it is one of the most moving songs I have ever heard. It contains the lines

“I can hold back the tide, with my Dad by my side”

And I think that was how all of us felt about Dad. His strength of character somehow rubbed off on other people. He somehow made people feel stronger, made them feel emboldened, just by being there. And that’s not a bad legacy is it? So that’s all from me. I am now delighted to welcome Dad’s great friend and long-time colleague Phil Brown to tell us more Dad’s working life.