Obituary: John Hodge (SU 1939-43)

My father John Philp Hodge was born on the 12th December 1925 at Newport Isle of Wight. His father Archibald was descended from several generations of Fifeshire miners. He was named after the Philps who were apparently philanthropists in the area. I was told there was a statue of a Hodge in or around Kirkcaldy but that has failed to materialize. The best we can do is the statue of Doctor Johnson’s cat Hodge in Gough square. The family migrated south and morphed into barristers and respected solicitors with their own firms with the assistance of a bit of local freemasonry His uncle was Alfred Leete, who was the Great War artist responsible for “your country needs you”. Another uncle was Uncle Jim, a theologian, barrister and MP for Preston, a Lloyd George liberal, who crossed the floor of the House to join Ramsey Macdonald’s labour party and earned the undying contempt of my grandmother by coming down to Devizes in his Rolls Royce to borrow money from my grandfather an unbending Tory. In 1926, John’s father, my grandfather was awarded the job of Town Clerk of Devizes and built up his own practice emerging as a popular celebrated figure there for the rest of his life. My father enjoyed his early childhood there and in particular outdoor activities like riding his bike and walking down Drew’s Pond Lane. He was sent to board at St Peters Weston Super mare, being the same prep school attended by Roald Dahl but thought the great author was rather unkind about the headmaster. Boxing and diving were his best sporting activities. Although the advice of the headmaster was that he should go to Radley a suitable choice for a shy boy, my grandfather knew Jumbo Jennings, the future Registrar and he went to Marlborough. This was wartime. There was the dread of bad news which had to be managed by staff. House captains left never to return. It was a good time for bicycling and on one occasion he cycled up to Lords from Marlborough ( a similar feat achieved by Doctor Roger Bannister from Bath) to watch the Rugby/Marlborough cricket Match only to faint on arrival and miss the fun. There were no doors on the lavatories. It was Spartan. I started there 16 years after he left. There was little difference. I had the same beaks and the same door less loos. Flogging continued but father would have missed the pinko politics. His was not another country as far as I was concerned. Duty prevailed over rights. He was not keen on History or team games although without knowing it he was a team player unlike my lot where the aim is to be in the team regardless of self-sacrifice… When 70 years on I used to drive him on the short journey from Bishops Cannings to Etchilhampton he enjoyed looking at Mr Ryder’ s hedges but looked with dread at the little victims playing cricket beyond Spaniel’s Bridge. Maybe he was put off by his fellow prep school boys running around throwing cricket balls saying I am Larwood. He excelled at French and German all requiring the natural discipline that would be a feature of his later life. He liked Jumbo Jennings who was a classicist and I was set to join his house despite the fact that my aunt had blotted her copybook working as the Master’s secretary. Jumbo Jennings was delighted in my time to be caught by my father reading Ovid in the back of his car at Devizes Station. Father was not so lucky with his relationship with his housemaster if his parting words in 1944 are anything to go by. After saying his goodbyes, he exclaimed the assembled boys “thank god I will never see that man again”. The housemaster summoned him back but that was the end. He was still at the school during my time but I kept my distance. We were both very happy at Marlborough.

He went up to Oxford, where he befriended Christopher French another shy studious man, who at that time remained below the radar. At 18 he joined the army as a junior officer in the Grenadiers, a life changing experience. Christopher French’s father (Father French) was a clergyman in the east end of London and on enlistment day he staggered through the bombed out ruins to join him.

The military liked immaculate and disciplined men like my father but he was due to meet a completely different collection of individuals. His knowledge of French and German enabled him to become a war crimes investigator from the age of 19 to 22. Christopher French got through because father taught him an elementary poem “du bist wie eine blume…” Christopher went on to be a very successful barrister and judge and it is interesting to see what the papers said in May 1993 under the headline “Former Guards officer is in fine fettle to tackle Marathon case”…”as a person he is a very nice man. You would pick him out as a former guards officer. He is very stiff-backed.. He is always well prepared and extremely studious. He advised on Exercise that will make you puff”. Father in his understated way had similar attributes. He too was to succumb very soon after the trial to dementia.

Father was based in Baden Baden as liaison officer to the French zone but the biggest bonus was the rations (French, British and American). He was answerable to my future godfather and nightclub king, who styled himself Major Peter Davies of London and Alexandria. First though there was the little issue of Berlin 1945. The Russians were there first but father was in the first jeep in there. As a result of this, a couple of inferior German landscape paintings adorn my children’s playroom walls with greetings to the Fuhrer on his birthday in 1936 and 1938 except they have the wrong date. Hitler’s telephone book is in with Jennifer’s cookery books. If you rang A2 6451 IN 1940, you might have got Herman Goering. We used to have a selection of iron crosses but these seemed to disappear when my friends the Vermin came to stay from Cambridge. One wonders if The German government or the Hitler family will demand restitution. The Russians were as terrifying as their often usual repute but apart from the trophies from Hitler’s desk war criminals had to be arrested. Investigation methods were eccentric to say the least. SS reunions would take place as black tie and dinner jacket occasions when out from behind the curtains would emerge my 19 year old father with a set of handcuffs. Then there was Hornets, a fairly lowly fellow in the food chain of Nazi War criminals. In Hitler’s telephone book there is a sheet of paper from Peter instructing my father to go into Fulda in the American zone to arrest this character. Hoenitz was to be arrested in the dead of night in this village. Peter and my father had a pencil drawing of Hoenitz who at the material time was in bed with his girlfriend. There were no lights. Peter struck a match so that they could compare the drawing to the man. They slipped the handcuffs on him and off they went through the woods. However, the local villagers were not pleased and there was a rumpus. Hoenitz got away to be recovered by the large and menacing Peter Davies. This was April 1946 nearly one year after the German surrender. They pursued this trio. Shots were fired at short range and father was wounded in the calf, in what became an incident and earned father a feature in the Wiltshire Times and national press, the former feat I was to achieve at the same age when I wrote my mother’s car off after drinking too much Cocola down whistley Lane. His grandson did the same at the same age but luckily did not make the wiltshire News. Our mother’s took it all in good spirit. Father liked rolling tanks but his parents would not have known. Anyway Hornetz went to the gallows and that was that.

There were trips to Switzerland to interview various suspects and offers of Mercedes. Father got his exercise as he swam the Rhine at Bonn and walked in the Black Forest.

The future nightclub king of the Saddle room in Park lane was brought up in the Wirral. A childhood friend of his was Diana Pratt, who had two daughters. They encountered each other again either in post wartime London or Liverpool. Diana said she was off to a place called Baden Baden. Peter said he was going too. Our futures were sealed. My parents met and indulged in what might be described as a courtship in the Black Forest in 1946. Marriage may have been discussed because my mother would tell me from time to time that father, who was under 21 , had to seek the consent of his parents in Devizes, who were not keen and only gave in at the very end. Father was apparently sitting on the roof at Widdington in Devizes. I am not sure when my mother discovered my father’s age because she assumed him to be 25 or 26 like Davies and his pals. You can imagine her surprise when she saw his passport showing that he was in fact under 21, which was almost as great as my surprise when I found that my birth was registered when I was 15 with father’s rank as solicitor They could not have reckoned on the internet which showed that they were married in 1954 when I was seven and the date in my mother’s diary is marked as a conference. Anyway this union threw into the mix of genes a totally dysfunctional family of natural 4th class honours men with short bursts of flair and with a little hard work a la Evelyn Waugh mode would achieve upper thirds or in my uncle Lawrence’s case a special.

My father’s innate self-discipline and love of the country enabled him to widen his interests out in Baden Wurttemberg. He took Peter’s boxer dog Ricky out for walks in the Black Forest. He learnt to ski on mount Feldberg. He had several daredevil qualities; whereas my mother was the only person I knew who would go down the mountain in a ski lift. He must have learnt to ride here as Peter was dead keen and his last words on earth were “did I do a clear round” when competing in some horse trials aged 58. His love of horses and riding stayed with him throughout his life. His innate discipline and riding skills made him very popular in the Hunt as he did not annoy the Field masters, which I frequently did because I could not control my horse. In the 1970’s he bred several foals and really got some satisfaction with this.

It was Davies, who was alleged to have been married to a Turkish woman Semiramis and subsequently obtained a talaq divorce and who introduced him to eastern religion. Davies moved around with his eastern thoughts and when I last saw him aged 21 he seemed to be following a fellow called Puck Subud. Father though took to the Vedanta, a form of Hindu philosophy that stayed with him for the remainder of his life. Ever since I can recall i.e. from 1950 onwards he had a shrine in the house where he would meditate twice a day with incense, josticks and photographs of various Indian gurus like Swami Vivekananda. There were elements of reincarnation but the main thing I believe I understood was the diminution of the ego. This was all pretty secretive and not something I ever ventured to discuss as I felt it out of bounds. My mother’s attitude to religion was much similar to that of King Henry IV of France. On her first marriage she became a Catholic and in the 1970’s had the swamis down to their house at Parkdale in Devizes who taught her how to make poppadum’s on the aga. Father was not a figure I ever wanted to challenge but I really thought his main guru Swami Ghanananda was a saintly man. One of my prized possessions is a version of Palgrave’s golden treasury given to me by Ghanananda in 1959.

He had some wild friends in the army who continued to be wild when I knew them in my teens and early twenties at the dinner table and would not have gone down well with my grandparents. There was Charles Kaiser, who jumped out in front of a retreating German brigade with his dog Lord saying “ I am a Breetish offizier” and took the surrender of the entire brigade. I remember the excitement in April 1960 when my parents returned to the Tirol for the first time for thirteen years and they heard Charles was in Innsbruck. My mother’s diary reveals they were talking until 3.30 am with Count Trauttsmandorf in Alpbach. There was John Lubbock, who got into terrible trouble in the army when his telephone calls were taped and sent to the Brigadier (the record of the conversation was “who is more common than the Brigadier? Answer “his wife”) and for putting a lot of RAF men’s hats in the bin lorry when they were having dinner. Lubbock would ask his colleagues if they were descended from a saint. August bank holiday was known as St Lubbock’s day because he was instrumental in setting this up. Lubbock ( a Bob Hope character) was on his 5th wife when I knew him. Peter Davies and Lubbock both went on record as being snobs which did not faze my father because he was happy doing the things he liked with his horses, skis and dogs. There is a flip side to snobbery that involves pride in high standards and loyalty. The snobs in the 1950’s terrified me because unlike my father I stood out. Whether it is with the Hunt or in the courts you don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons unless you really are brilliant. I notice from the picture on the front that his shoes are immaculately whereas you can see the filth on the shoes of the prep school boy standing in front of him. There are photographs of my grandfather appearing at a funeral in evening dress instead of morning dress much to the amusement of my father. I mention this because father was now in a completely different milieu to his parents, who had their set pews in the churches in Devizes usually at the front if I recall the position properly. Although my grandfather fought throughout the whole of the Great War as an officer his brother uncle Jim, the former MP and barrister, held in contempt for his activities . The idea of my mother, a married woman with two daughters, snobby regiments and eastern religion would not have gone down well and father had to go underground to practise his religion just like the recusants in reformation times.

Discharge from the army meant father had to get a job. Father worked for Andre Morariev in advertising in London but tragedy struck when in March 1948 my eldest half-sister Maryvon died in Putney and my half-sister Brigitte were removed to France never to return until Christmas 1957. They had had enough and bought a farm in Devon called Coltsfoot in the time of the depression in agriculture. It was at this point that contact had to be made with my grandparents, who came down to Coltsfoot and persuaded my father that he was doing no good and should qualify as a solicitor.

They moved to the Lodge at Steeple Ashton in 1949. These were good years as far as my recollection goes. We had stables. Gerald Balding, the trainer in Bishops Cannings lent him a racehorse Prince for a season. He bicycled to Devizes to work so that my mother could have the car, rode with the Olympic team in Porlock, hunted with the Avon Vale and took the dogs rabbiting on the aerodrome.

My recollection of him as a solicitor in those days was as a disciplined advocate, who wore smart suits, as well as being disciplined on his paperwork. He was best suited to defending criminals because he had the respect of the court. He may have been reckless in his physical activities but was a safe pair of hands in his legal career. He lived in the shadow of his father, who was the First freeman of Devizes as I lived in his shadow lacking the secure hinterland of his eastern philosophy and having no side to him. His good manners aided his advocacy , which was good because of his innate self-control. He did not need acting ability to aid his presentational skills. For my part I had no natural discipline or acting abilities that have skipped a generation. We were all very happy to live in the shadow of the next generation.

In the end by the time although we were totally different we were in our late 60’s , my grandfather, father and I, doing similar things like making deathbed wills. When the nurses in St James or any hospital said “Mr Hodge is here”, you probably knew your time was up. It could have applied to any of us and this pastoral side of the job is fulfilling although we are told judges are not keen on deathbed wills. Sometimes I have had to tell a dying woman that her plans are not sensible and bring her into line even when on oxygen. If we did not get it right then a certain Mr Price, not Vincent nor Denis but Oliver, could challenge our wills. We also scattered ashes together.

Finally it was dementia that killed him. He died with Jennifer holding his hand and me present with his dog Harriet. Having been present at three births by her side it was good to have her support at the death and we cannot thank Jackie and Dauntsey House for the dignity that he maintained to the end without losing the ability to recognise those who were important to him or go to the lavatory on his own without aid. He spent life trying not to get noticed but loyally supporting anyone who needed that support. We were lucky to have him but I still do not know him. One is left with a feeling of gross inadequacy.

Michael Hodge (LI 1960-65)