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Tribute to my uncle, John Garle

April 25, 2020 Leave a comment

My uncle, John Acton Garle (29.6.1936-9.4.2019), died a year ago in a care home in Fareham, Hampshire.  I was with him, for which I’m grateful, now that we’ve seen such heart-searing scenes of separation due to the coronavirus epidemic. Several members of our family were able to join together for his cremation in nearby Porchester. This is the tribute I wrote for him.

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When the registry office asked what Uncle John did as a profession, I didn’t know what to say.

John often told me he wanted to invent a business, just like his father. He tried buying and selling boats. Sailing as a charter captain. Importing Dutch tiles. Fitting out yachts. Designing chairs. Redoing houses. Importing teak picture frames hand carved for him in Indonesia.

He showed me a moving draft of a letter to his father saying how much he wanted to study economics. But he couldn’t go to university because he had no Latin diploma.

John might have been a good economist. He read widely. He was sceptical to a fault. He was quick to spot pretension. He trusted nobody’s judgment except his own. This seems to have made him a good speculator on currency and other markets.

But none of these was really his profession.

One thing is certain. He loved boats and the sea. An early picture is of him as a child rowing his “duckling” dinghy. He tried to join the navy, but couldn’t because of our family colour-blindness. He kept a sailing boat until the end. He organised all the essentials of his life in waterproof map cases. After he died, the one hanging from the back of his bedroom door still had a nautical chart of the Solent and a two-way marine radio.

He built himself a splendid yacht, the Ocean Tiger. He sailed 3,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean with just one crewman. But when I tried to tell him this was a great achievement, he brushed my words aside.

John told me he feared he had failed. He often told the story of finishing a cross-country race in Harrow. He was in the lead, winning at last. Then he saw his oppressive housemaster inexplicably rushing forward and gesturing wildly at him. He slowed down. Then another runner, whom John hadn’t seen just behind him, overtook him and won the race.

John saw the world as being full of such traps. He believed that he had to rely completely on his own resources. Each of his cars, his houses, his boats, his room in the care home, his whole life, in fact, were kitted out like a lifeboat for solitary survival.

For decades he kept his mother, sister and family at arm’s length. All of us can remember times when he stood us up, didn’t reply to letters, or contacted us in brusque or clumsy ways.

Ten years ago, he began to move back to England and reached out to us. He told me that he thought it was the right thing to do after turning 72. I got to know him as an acute and amusing observer of life.

Still, he had no long-term friends. None of his crew stayed in touch. I could only find one, John Webster. In 1962 they sailed to Portugal together aboard his 46-foot yawl Fiara. This is what John Webster remembered of our uncle:

“One day, on my birthday, John and I were on Fiara in northern Brittany. We had that day visited the castle which makes much of a victory by the French fleet in a skirmish with the Brits. (The Brits, of course, never mention it). John took me out for a birthday dinner and after much wine we decided that we should make a gesture to restore British pride.

“So we returned to Fiara, picked up the Red Ensign and scaled the wall of the castle.  We then raised the Ensign on the castle flagpole, fixed the halliard as high as possible to make recovery difficult, and sailed off into British waters before dawn. 

“John was fearless to the point of being slightly crazy. He was dreamy. He had no sense of time – or tide! But he was a splendid companion.”

I wish we had known more of that John. But I am glad we got to know him as much as we did. And in answer to that question from the registrar, I said I wanted John to go down in the official record as a “yachtsman”.

John, on whatever seas you are sailing now, you have found a safe harbour in our hearts.