Roy Bickerstaffe (my father) 1927-2014, An Obituary

Posted September 20th, 2014 by Dylan and filed in News

Roy Bickerstaffe 1927-2014

These are some brief notes on the life of an interesting man.

Roy married Beryl (nee Daws) and had three sons, of whom I am the eldest.

He grew up in Macclesfield, Cheshire, where he won a scholarship to the local grammar school. He worked for most of his adult life as an acoustical physicist for LNER/British Rail in Derby, and gained degrees in both Physics and Maths whilst working there. The international aspects of his research work led him to learn German in order to better understand technical papers.

He combined an interest in science with a love of music, literature, poetry and history.

As children we grew up with both parents playing the piano and listening to classical music. When I became interested in the rock bands of my youth, I was surprised to find that dad was much entertained by the lyrics of the Rolling Stones and The Who (in particular), and only months before his death he was still to be heard singing Stones songs, such as Flight 505, Stupid Girl, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Street Fighting Man, some of which he cannot have heard me play in 40 years.

Some of this material appealed to his sense of humour, and the catch line, ‘He put the plane down in the sea,’ (from Flight 505) may have had something to do with his own mistrust of aircraft or boats; whilst Street Fighting Man perhaps appealed to his left wing sympathies, though again tempered by amusement, for instance in the oft quoted: ‘Cos where I live the game to play is compromise sol-oo-shon.’ Indeed when I came to compile a CD of the Stones to play at the Celebration we held of his life, I struggled to fit numbers I knew he liked on to a 70 minute CD. The same applied – perhaps to a lesser extent – to The Who, where Won’t Get Fooled Again was often to be heard. He quite liked the wry twists of Bob Dylan too, but many other bands he showed no interest in, and Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Can were largely passed over in silence.

His own interests in music tended towards the baroque composers, with perhaps Bach being the favourite. He also had a liking for some of the more Celtic folk artists like Kirsty Moore. But his tastes extended to the Brecht/Weill 3 Penny Opera, La Mystere de Voix Bulgaire (which I bought for both parents), and much else besides.

I am not really qualified to say much on his interest in poetry except to say that it was lifelong, included many writers, and that I am named after Dylan Thomas who died not long before I was born.

Another passion we inherited as children was history. Holidays in Wales prompted a love of castles, and the reading of Greek myths, legends, and histories led eventually to my life-long interest in Roman history. We were also fed a diet of Icelandic sagas (particularly Njall’s Saga – my youngest brother is named after a hero from this), and fictional works, such as The Lord of the Rings, and the Alan Garner books about Alderley Edge – near where dad grew up. Reading was always the thing, and we did not have a television until after I left home for college.

As children we loved to fight as ancient warriors and constructed shields from oil drum lids. We also took the rubber suckers off arrows and used pencil sharpeners to provide a proper point. This was put a stop to after my flight-less arrows hit my brother in the cheek, and then the leg. We found ourselves becoming properly equipped, shooting at targets, and joining clubs. Both parents became heavily involved in running local archery clubs, then the National Field Archery Society, and also, in coaching. Field archery was always the preferred activity since this simulated hunting in a natural, generally wooded, environment – rather than shooting at targets in rows.

Our dad did, however, have a strong sense of humour, and found it hard to chastise us when we decided to ‘martyr’ a rather decent and pious kid from round the corner, by tying him to the line post and surrounding him (at a little distance) with burning newspaper. We could tell he was trying not to laugh when he found it necessary to stress how dangerous it was…

He also became heavily involved in the study of Saxon/Old English literature from when he joined The English Companions in the 1990s, and liked to translate the original texts for himself. This was also combined with a great interest in Place-names studies.

Other areas of abiding interest were those of polar exploration – with the tales of Gino Watkins, Amundsen, Shackelton, and Mawson still with me today. I was thrilled when I was able to pick up a book, With Stephanson in the Arctic, as a present for my dad because I knew he was interested in Stephanson’s claim to be able to ‘live off the land’ and survive in the arctic, and he did indeed enjoy this book very much, telling me about it in detail!

His own explorations were directed mostly to Scotland where he enjoyed rock climbing and also walking in the Cairngorms. These activities were also continued in the Peak District and Lake District. Travel in Scotland as a family took us round the north coast and subsequently on memorable trips to Shetland and Orkney – where we thoroughly explored the prehistoric and Norse monuments.

He later continued his appreciation of things Scottish through membership of the Malt Whiskey Society, and support of the John Muir Trust, which maintains bothies in the cairngorms.

People who knew my dad knew that he liked to talk! He was hard to get off the phone. When I used to ring up about coming over for lunch, it was generally a good half hour before I could get a transfer over to mother to find out if it was OK. Lunch itself usually featured a blazing row between me and dad over some point of historical or scientific interest, with no quarter asked or given. Afterwards there was no rancour and it was all forgotten. He would then button-hole me as I left and try to press on me, a book that I must read…often one that I had bought him some time before, which he had only recently got round to reading. One of these, I recall, was about the American who had been acclaimed as Alexander the Great by remote peoples in the Himalayas, and provided the inspiration for Kipling’s, The Man Who Would Be King. This touched upon another of his interests: The Great Game.

In his last months he developed his interest in the International Brigade who went to fight fascism in Spain before the second World War.

He was an atheist, and we honoured his memory by not including religious elements in our celebration of a life well-lived.

I cannot put it better than did Laurie Anderson in her song, World Without End:

“When my father died, we buried him in the ground,

When my father died, it was like a whole library burned down.”


Dylan Bickerstaffe