My father, William Leslie Ince, died at the age of 94 on 11 January, 2010, having been born on November 8 1915. This is a lightly edited version of my remarks at his funeral, which took place on January 20 2010 at St John the Baptist Church, Yeovil.
I am Leslie Ince’s son, Martin Ince, and it’s a privilege for me to be asked to present this tribute to him today. Catherine [my sister] and I are delighted to see you here in such numbers and to know that our very heavy loss is shared by so many.
Leslie was born during the First World War, in 1915, to a family of modest means, in Birkenhead, the town that faces Liverpool across the Mersey. His grandfather was a sailor. He sailed the big ships from Liverpool to Chile and California. One day the crew had the amazing experience of sailing through the Golden Gate and dropping anchor to see San Francisco in ruins. They had arrived just a few hours after the great earthquake of 1906.
His father built ships rather than sailing in them, at Cammell Laird, the famous shipyard in Birkenhead. His occupation is given on father’s birth certificate as Blacksmith’s Striker.
Although the family were Unitarians, he was baptised in the Church of England at another St John’s, the one in Birkenhead. He was baptised by the Rev Herbert Leigh-Mallory. We will never know, I think, whether the vicar’s son George Mallory, and his friend from Birkenhead, Andrew Irvine, were the first people to climb Everest.
Father worked hard and believed in effort. But maybe one theme of his life is that he was also a lucky man in many ways. One simple example: in 1932 he left school – Birkenhead Institute – and got a job, in the teeth of the deepest recession in world history. The job was with Tate and Lyle in Liverpool. He worked for them till retirement. They are a sugar refiner, of course, and he always did regard brown sugar as somehow dirty. He was then a T+L pensioner for over 30 years (no wonder the world’s pension schemes are in crisis). With that amazing sharp mind of his, always a step ahead of everyone, it is no surprise that he rose from the humblest level of clerk to become a senior manager with wide responsibilities.
Of course Leslie had one enormous piece of ill-fortune to bear, the fact that he lived for 25 years as a widower after our mother’s untimely death at the early age of 64. But he had a tremendous gift for happiness which stood him in good stead in these long years, and which I think we might all regard as an example.
But let’s think about some of the sheer luck he did have on his side. You may know he was an enthusiastic, medal-winning, amateur cyclist. In the 1930s he and a friend, on a tandem trip from Merseyside to Cornwall, ignored the “cyclists dismount” sign at the top of the steep hill into Lynton in North Devon. Maybe you know it: it really is very steep. They lost control of the tandem completely, arriving in the village at massive speed, but emerged unharmed when they could easily have been killed by an oncoming vehicle. In 1940, he was personally singled out to be shot at by a passing Luftwaffe pilot while walking at a navy base, HMS Ganges in Suffolk. The German missed. In 1975, he was driving along the M1 when a lorry knocked his car across the central reservation and three lanes of oncoming traffic, and down a steep embankment. The car was completely destroyed, but he walked away without a bruise. Even our first house was one we could never have afforded without a nice win on the pools.
But he did not have it all his own way. It has to be said that father liked a flutter. He backed horses in the Grand National for 80 years without ever getting the winner or even a placed horse, and the bookies pay on the first four in the National. And in over 70 years of trying, he never once voted for the winning candidate in an election. This gave me some pleasure, as party politics is one thing we never agreed upon.
But perhaps his luckiest night was the 13th of September 1942, when he took part in Operation Agreement, an attack on Tobruk in Libya. Here his good luck consisted simply in surviving that night, because Operation Agreement is generally regarded as one of the worst Allied misfortunes of World War 2. There is a book about it accurately entitled Massacre at Tobruk. HMS Sikh, the ship he had been on, Zulu and Coventry were lost, and 800 people were killed – 740 British as well as New Zealanders and Rhodesians, and 60-70 Italians and Germans. He was in the first wave of the seaborne attack, stuck between the enemy shore and the doomed ship in a group that had quite literally to surrender or die.
Father ended up in a POW camp in Italy, a place where, he soon realised, the guards and the local population were as hungry as the prisoners. In later years he forgave the Italian nation and struck up a terrific friendship with the managers of the hotel in Bardolino which he continued to visit annually until 2008.
But for father, of course, even the horror of war led to more good luck, this time via a twist of Middle East politics that I have not got time to explain. Next thing you know, he is back in England at a cushy shore base and marries the most beautiful Wren in the place. Throughout the war he stuck with his friends – some represented here – and again this was a common pattern throughout his life. Many of you will remember him as a great letter-writer and present-giver.
As well as that sharp mind, father always had great physical fitness. He was a tremendous amateur cyclist and once told me that if he could have done one other thing with his life, he would have loved to be King of the Mountains in the Tour de France. He later refereed amateur football on the Wirral. He loved the beautiful game, especially at Anfield, and had the great good luck to have a season ticket there in the great Liverpool glory years of the 1970s and 80s, when we really did have the best football team in the world.
Of course, father was also a terrific parent. I could talk for hours on this theme, and Catherine could too. But here is just one example. At some point the realisation must have dawned on father that he had failed utterly to hand on the genes for athletic prowess which he had in such abundance to either of us. He never once complained about this, nor about the effort he had to put into getting me and Catherine through maths exams that he could have done without breaking sweat. He was very proud of Catherine’s and my achievements, and he was very grateful for the huge amount that Cath (not forgetting Pete [her husband] here) did to support his independence as he grew a little less capable in recent years.
Father was always one for moving on and he lived lightly – just look, or maybe don’t look, at the huge volume of family memorabilia he threw out. In the 1980s he became a southerner, moving to Yeovil. As he said, this gave him the great pleasure of seeing his grandchildren Jenny and Michael grow up, and he always had a fantastic bond with both of you. He was absolutely tickled by the imminent prospect of being a great-grandparent.
As well as the family, he took pleasure in the networks and organisations around Yeovil with which he got involved, especially this church – he loved the people as well as the building – but also Probus, the Ramblers, the National Trust, and latterly Homeville. He certainly got to love this part of the world. He read his way through Hardy as part of the process of moving here, and walked with enthusiasm the footpaths of Somerset, Dorset, and farther afield in Devon and Cornwall.
My time’s about up. I have not had time to tell you about the most misreported event in the history of sport. Or about father’s encounter with a deer on the streets of Liverpool. Or why the Beatles never played his office party. What have I really been trying to say? Leslie Ince lived a long life, of 94 years, but also a thoughtful and valuable one: he did much good in the world and no harm: he died, with no pain or suffering, in the presence of his children, and supported by his strong religious belief. His absence is a massive gap for all of us. But we should try to be as positive about what has happened as he would have himself.
That’s all, thank you.