Professor Ken Lockridge
Memorial service address
St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, London
April 18th 2001
courtesy of Professor Ken Lockridge
I have been asked to represent the years you sent Walter and Elizabeth to us in America, for which we are very grateful. Walter and Elizabeth came to America in the early 1980s, and Elizabeth suggested that they live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the University of Michigan was located. She thought they should live there because that was said to be where the intellectuals among the leadership of the Ford Motor Company lived, although, as far as I know, there’d only been one, and his name is Robert McNamara. Nonetheless, it was the right decision because Walter and Elizabeth were intellectuals in the best sense, in the most marvellous and enthusiastic ways, thrown into our little university town, and for many of us, they were like rain in the desert.
I met them when Elizabeth came into my classes in American History at the University. She was perfect with the students. She was relaxed, irreverent and funny. She virtually staged a revolution on me and it was needed too.
As it turned out, she and Walter lived nearby, so Helena and I and other neighbours set out to make them feel welcome, but I’m not sure they needed us because, pretty soon, they were the neighbourhood. They gave it a life it had never had before, and I’m sorry to say has never had since. The four of us, my wife Helena, and Walter and Elizabeth, began spending some evenings together talking, talking and talking and talking, and laughing and laughing, and I suppose we all needed the relief it gave us. Amid the laughter, and to stay sane, Elizabeth had the idea that Walter and I should write a screenplay and a treatment for a seven-hour television series on the life of William Byrd, an early 18th Century Virginia planter and politician and writer, who kept quite a spectacular diary. I’m not allowed to give you the details of the diary, but if you will consult me later, I’ll be glad to do that. Walter had some wonderful scenes in mind. Unfortunately, just as Walter and I complet our screenplay and treatment and we got a cable from the BBC indicating some interest – I believe Margaret Thatcher sent the BBC a cable indicating no interest at all and their budget disappeared. But it was fine – it was a great try.
I got to observe Walter at the Ford Motor Company in various ways through these years in the early 1980s. In some ways, you could say he was wonderfully outrageous, walking out on meetings to pursue other things, which just wasn’t done in my country, operating as a creative freelance in a way I suspect the American company had never seen before, and that was so liberating; but behind that, it seemed to me lay a powerful sense of confidence – and I appreciate Richard’s help with these remarks – a powerful sense of confidence, and a sensitivity to culture and to style, that the company needed desperately in those dark days when, to some of us, it seemed as if it might go under. That’s why, for example, in the midst of the crisis, Walter got Ford to sponsor a great exhibit on the Treasure Houses of Britain. He wanted, in every way he could, to deliver Ford from the next year horizon of the bean-counters. He wanted to give the company confidence and to re-awaken it, to re-awaken it to a sense of its place in history, and in my view, he was one of the four or five men who helped turned the company around in the early 1980s, and I can’t tell you how important that victory was to us in Michigan and in America.
In 1984, he and Elizabeth moved back to England, and Walter and I continued work on various projects that grew from our mutual interest in history.
First of all, we tried to find someone who could tell the story of the Ford Motor Company’s return to life from what had appeared to be near-death. Simultaneously, he helped me write a biography of William Byrd, which grew out of our screenplay together – without the screenplay, I would never have written the book, so the book is half Walter’s. The good half is his; the other half is mine. And I helped him to write ‘Henry’, his far-sighted and graceful memoir of Henry Ford II. I helped him mostly by giving him wrong advice, so he knew what not to do. It worked very well. And it’s one of the special lessons of my life that we continued to correspond for 16 years, with occasional visits in between, and we shifted gradually from projects and from histories to simple friendship that kept our families in touch. He and my wife shared old churches because they both worked on the Churches Trust, he in England and she in Sweden, and we shared most of all the experience of growing older.
Walter, who found joy everywhere in life, taught me to find the joy in old books, in old friends, in grandchildren, and, to him, these things had equal meaning and equal delight with all the wonderful
things he’d done before in his life, so I suppose you could say that, having helped each other stay sane, we helped each other grow old. Of course, Walter never did grow old.
As evidence that he didn’t grow old, I’d like to return to the book that Jeremy mentioned, ‘The Captain from Nantucket and the Mutiny on the Bounty’. I am, after all, an historian, not a terribly good one but an historian, and I’d like to like to utter a judgement on this wonderful book that Walter wrote, quite late in his life, and I’d like to use it as proof that he didn’t grow old.
The research for the book actually began with sources he found in the Clements Library in Ann Arbor, but it took him all over the world. It’s one of the finest sea stories ever written, one of the best historical studies ever written about the 18th and 19th Century Pacific. It tells the previously unknown story of how an American sea-captain found the last mutineers from the Bounty hiding away on Pitcairn Island, 18 years after the Mutiny, found it quite accidentally. The American sea-captain, Mayhew Folger, sent a letter to the Admiralty to let them know, which wasn’t a very nice thing to do but he did it anyway. Folger’s letter reached the Admiralty, it was leaked to The Times, published in The Times, and suddenly here public opinion made a hero of Alexander Smith, the last of the mutineers, and it is this wave of sympathetic public opinion for the great last of the mutineers that stayed the Admiralty’s hand and prevented it from taking revenge. As Walter tells this story, it’s full of the most amazing coincidences and ironies. It is, in a quiet way, a major historical achievement. You don’t have to take my word for it because Greg Dening, a well-known historian from Australia and a winner of Australia’s highest book award for his own tales of Captain Bligh’s Pacific, read Walter’s book and, in 1997, wrote him a letter, and Walter sent me a copy of Greg Dening’s letter. Greg Dening, I suppose, where Pacific studies are concerned, is second only to God, if I’m not blaspheming here. Greg Dening, with Walter, one of the men I admire most in all the world, wrote to Walter and said: “What a beautiful book you have created.” This was in 1997. “How I admired how you unravelled the story. This is expert work, exhaustive and creative research that has done you proud. It is a wonderful contribution to Pacific studies!” Walter then wrote me a little note and he said, “Dening was, he said, basking in it, generous but”, added Walter, typically, “I think I can now see how to do a better book.” Well, I’m going to second-guess Walter: I don’t think books come better than that, and I hope there’s a publisher in the house.
So, you see, the book is my evidence not only that Walter became a truly fine historian – and you must read it, it’s a beautiful, beautiful book – but that he never really grew old. In all seasons too, he was a good friend. I miss him a great deal. I give thanks for his life.