The Reverend Donald Service-Epitome of “Scholar and Gentleman”

Meking_Delta_SMThe year is 2008 and I stand on the Bluff at the entrance to Durban harbour. A helicopter whirrs lazily overhead shuttling the one of the harbour masters out to pilot in the huge Panamax super class container vessel awaiting entrance into the Port. Built by Vinashin of Hanoi, I ponder how the Vietnamese economy has thrived subsequent to their drawn out, crippling war some 40 years earlier.

Indeed, my own brother Philip has been inextricably involved in that very war as an Engineering Officer with Royal Dutch Shell shipping aviation spirit up the Meking Delta to Saigon. Although financially lucrative, a somewhat ominous, hazardous occupation and not for the faint hearted.

Meking Delta circa 1969/70. US Gunboat 142 escorting the Royal Dutch Shell SS Hemisinus (The Saigon Flyer)

My mind wonders further, the years recede and peel away. It is another time and another place nearly half way around the globe.

It is the summer of 1969, the Vietnam War is at its height, flower power is blooming in San Francisco, the Mama’s and Papa’s have been born and Twiggy is modeling in Carnaby Street, London.

I bask in that sun drenched summer marking the end of my schooldays. GCE “O” levels completed I await for the end of term with some degree of confidence. Outside of the cloistered school gates a world awaits to be explored, savoured and representing a veritable oyster. Sunlight streams down and is filtered through the leafy foliage and filigree of the Chestnut trees at Balls Gap. This subdued delicate pastel green hue starkly contrasts against that deep blue cloudless sky. The sweet smells of freshly mown hay laying in bales in adjacent fields make that moment in time more vivid.

From the distant Bradford House jazz cellar, Thunderclap Newman is belching out “Something in the Air”. Indeed, the air is electric with anticipation, vitality and optimism. Momentarily, the peace is interrupted and erased by the overhead throaty roar of a formation of jaunty red Hawker Siddeley Gnats of the legendary “Red Arrows” from nearby RAF Little Rissington.

Those golden, precious water shed years heralding the onset of adulthood of nearly half a century ago. Life was simple, we were complacently naïve and insulated from the complexities and intricacies of our lives to follow.

In the nearby Severn House resides a motley band of four bachelor masters presided by the dutiful Mrs. Mac. All single, all exiting their particular years of golden youth, all occasional enjoying a Hook Norton bevy or two at their local Silent Lady pub. All destined to be hoaxed into the vows and web of Holy Matrimony!

They are James Woolliams, John Essame, Patrick Gilmore and the Reverend Donald Service.

Motor cars have always fascinated me and I still uncannily associate people with their cars. Respectively, they drove a Triumph Herald, Humber ex bread delivery van, Morris 1000 Countryman and Renault R16. Donald’s lime green Renault R16, was sporty , state of the art, leading edge technology at that time. It upstaged every other car on the Hill and surrounding villages.

Living and worked in South Africa for the past 32 years, I have been somewhat “out of the loop”. It was only relatively recently that I learned of the sad passing some years ago of the Reverend Donald Service. It greatly shocked me as he represented to me the very vigour, vitality and enlightenment of life itself. I pay tribute to that wonderful man, in my own personal way and attempt to capture the great admiration and fondness that everyone on the Hill held towards Donald.

Even today, Donald so much reminds me of his namesake, the actor Sir Donald Sinden, with the same plummy rich voice, mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. The similarity is uncanny to me. It was as if our own Donald had personally coached Sir Donald for his role as the Vicar in the series “All gas and gaiters”

The Reverend Donald Service was my Class Master in Lower 2 and my English Master.

In English he used to play an interesting, fun game where you would choose an obscure, unheard word from the Oxford dictionary and he would tell you the meaning without any reference himself. His vocabulary was awesome and it was very seldom that you would catch him out. Even if you did, with a dead pan, poker faced he would bluff his way out by an eloquent and convincing fabrication of a totally fictitious meaning. He was so good that you would humbly reference your dictionary to check whether the word selected did not have a double meaning. He then would chuckle privately to himself with great mirth. As the terms passed by our dictionaries became more dog eared and well thumbed as we became totally obsessed with catching him out. Upshot was that we all developed a fairly robust vocabulary!

His very life was the wellbeing of us lad’s on the Hill. One would think that he would tire of their company after a tough weeks teaching and on a Sunday afternoon you would further ponder that he would have liked to have taken some time out and to have “chilled” in his own company. Not so.

On many occasions I was invited to accompany him for a drive in his R16, with several other selected lads, around the leafy Cotswold country lanes and villages. We would return to his Severn House rooms where he would treat us to Earl Grey tea, buttered toasted tea cakes and strawberry jam. It was always a welcomed relief to venture out of the cloistered school grounds for an hour or so of freedom. In retrospect it was a hugely kind gesture and deed.

The Reverend Service was a true evangelist but never directly imposed or forced his beliefs. Rather he subtly sawed the seeds to make one curious and rather stimulated questioning engagement and debate. I was not converted during my time on the Hill but it was both Donald and the Reverend Wilkenson who greatly influenced my particular thoughts of a higher intervention. Many years later I converted to my wife’s faith of Catholicism. Donald would have been extremely proud of me today.

I remember him taking us to a Billy Graham gathering in Oxford. On another occasion he took us to a Christian youth group film show in Moreton in the Marsh. Exiting the show, Michael Clutson and I sneaked off and made a beeline to the local fish and chip shop. There was a very long queue and because of our selfishness and disregard for the rest of the party Donald left with out us and made us walk home. We arrived back on the Hill very late at night. However, Donald like a good Shepard was waiting for us. He took us back to our Norwich House and apologised to our Housemaster telling him that the school bus had been plagued with a faulty fuel line making its progress very slow indeed. Partially but not completely true, he thus rescued us from his wrath.

A further master stroke in his evangelistic vocation was to invite various fascinating speakers to address us at Sunday evening chapel. A common bond and thread was that they all had a rather dubious if not colourful past. However, they had all subsequently received a greater intervention which had completely turned their lives around for the better.

One evening it was a short stocky gentleman with a weathered bellicose face, bulbous plum red nose and Cockney accent. A former boxer of some note, he had gone on to be the henchman for a notorious London East End gang led by two well known brothers. His recollections really fascinated me and I was starting to consider a similar glamorous career. Then came the twist to the tale. He had subsequently done a lengthy spell of “porridge” breaking granite boulders in a quarry on a very windswept Dartmoor. Furthermore, several of his old mates had ended up being eternally encased in the concrete pylons supporting the newly constructed Oxford flyover. I then surmised that although an engineering apprenticeship in Birmingham might not be quite as exciting, there was at least a better prospect of some semblance of longevity.

If I close my eyes and think of Donald the same scene floods back time and time again. He is refereeing on the rugby field, his arms are flaying wildly, whistle blowing, he is briskly striding up and down the field. He is wearing a Bumble bee stripped rugger jersey and baggy knee length shorts from which his spindly lank legs protrude. His strong noble facial features are made more aristocratic by his chiseled, well defined but somewhat beaky nose. In brief, he has the appearance and nature of a well humoured and amicable heron. His enthusiasm is infectious and he is spurring us on irrespective of the frozen pitch and the searing icy Cotswold winds. Chivying and coaching the weaker players with warm, kindly encouragement to a greater relative level of feat and performance. It was as if that very playing field represented a microcosm of his own life and on which he projected his value and belief system.

I am not sure exactly when Donald passed away. I estimate it might well have been about the time of the passing of Roald Dahl, one of my favourite writers, from the identical illness of Leukemia. But a common thread runs here. Knowing that his days were numbered and his mortal life was drawing to a close, Roald Dahl wrote a very poignant poem. It would be his very last and the opening sentence goes thus; “And a book never ends when it is full of your friends……….”. My interpretation is that whilst our mortal shell will reduce to dust, fond memories carry on and in particular when immortalized by encapsulating and committing to the written word.

Indeed, I believe that the Kinghamhillschooldays web site is developing into that veritable never ending “book full of friends” to be enjoyed and appreciated by generations to come.

Furthermore, although nearly two decades divided the relative age of Donald and myself, I considered him a friend. A person who you could trust, confide in and solicit sound advice. But above all a person with whom you have found a connection, an alignment and synchronisation of the soul, a closeness of association and fondness.

So Donald will always feature in my own special and personal “Book of Friends”.

Donald lies at rest and in peace in Street, Somerset not too far away from the final resting place of my own dear parents in the Quontock village of Nether Stowey.

Authors own 1978 MG Midget parked at his home in Umhlanga Rocks, South Africa. SL Worsley, Durban, South Africa. 29 February 2008

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