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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  News & Events  /  News  /  News Archive  /  2014  /  August 2014  /  Tribute to Bill Mead by his friend Bill Willett

Tribute to Bill Mead by his friend Bill Willett

Delivered at Aston Clinton service

Tribute to Bill Mead by his friend Bill Willett

We are here to remember this unique, distinguished and wonderful man who has given us so much pleasure and has done so much good. He said he wanted this to be a merry and cheerful occasion. Except for the last few weeks all my meetings with him were happy and jolly and fruitful. I am sure that goes for all of us. He was a story-teller and almost everything that I have to say came from him.

He was by no means a shy man but very self-effacing. In his diaries of this decade he recorded the number of people that he conversed with on a particular day. One of my memories of him would be seeing him sitting next to someone turned towards them and chatting away. It could be the crowd of Aston Clinton locals on their way to Aylesbury on the early bus, the lady in The Half Moon at Wilstone or, dare I say it, the Ambassador to Finland. He knew so many people that you rarely went anywhere without Bill knowing someone who was there. And he was always meeting with past students and colleagues many of whom are here today. And they were jolly chats.

Bill was a rich and complex person with so many interests and while he was distinguished, he lived among us, by himself, cooking his meals, tending his garden, travelling to Aylesbury, into London, to Scandinavia and to the South of France, riding his bike to go horse-riding.

Bill loved Gossip. He liked Aubrey’s Brief Lives and was delighted to find that the owner of Chilton House was related to the same as Aubrey-Fletcher. His stories were never malicious in any way. ‘Do stop me if I have told you this; I must have done’. But they were always worth a retelling.

How typical of the man we came to know, that he took his first degree as an external student from London University. His Father, and that was the word Bill used, was a grocer who paid for him to attend Aylesbury Grammar School, and was not part of the ‘hoity-toity’ brigade, again, a favourite Bill word. To me he always seemed to be suspicious of Oxford and Cambridge, and was critical of their attitude to expenses when he went there as an external examiner. Bill was very proud of his family background, farmers of central Bucks, Stewkley, Aston Abbots, Quainton, and in his nineties he visited the farmhouses there. Bill’s own mother died when he was an infant, and Mother, again a Bill word, was a Sister in the Bucks Infirmary who nursed Father in the late 1920s and who she eventually married. Bill’s diary entry of Easter Monday, April 1st, 1929 reads, ‘Quelle un surpris: Sister and Daddy got married’. They eventually retired to what was to become Bill’s house in Aston Clinton. This diary of a boy of thirteen records the plant seeds that he bought and what they cost and what they produced, and the accumulated cost of fireworks through October. An early interest in the world of husbandry which in a few years would lead to his interest in farming and rural economy of his own county and the country that he came to love, Finland. But also it points to an exceptional and different boy. If you read a diary of 1928-1930 and one of 2008 you would know that this was the same person. He said that his love for geography came from his childhood walking and riding in a pony and trap through the lanes and fields of his homeland.

Bill and clothes. He did have a summer panama and of course a riding-hat but I never saw him with a hat. He was always smartly dressed: a check sports jacket with a silk handkerchief in the top pocket, a Viyella check shirt, often sand coloured cords and desert boots. And a knitted tie. And the University scarf. The suit when needed and all the appropriate evening dresswear. The degree ceremonies in Scandinavia would again have the proper rig; the black breeches and frock coat and beretta like this one and the gold laurel wreath. Speaking of his riding clothes he was always properly dressed with riding boots or knitted knee length socks, jodhpurs and shoes. And the white hunting mac. A lady of Wilstone with whom Bill was on very friendly terms said: ‘Oh the Professor, he was always so smart and his horses were always good looking, never nags’. He had grown up with the farm horses and he acquired his first horse, as he said, when he could afford one. They had lovely names: Lotty and Christmas Carol. When out riding he met some famous people. Nubar Gulbenkian and one of the Hambro bank people, the latter being Danish. Hambro would say: ‘Morning Mead. Scandia’ or some such name, touch the side of his nose and trot off. Bill invested appropriately and it was always good.

Bill and ladies. It was a regular question of why this very attractive man had never married. While he was in Canada in the War he met with Peggy. She must have been sweeter on him than vice versa, for Bill actually assisted her to do a Gretna Green – his phrase, and she eloped with someone else. He was in touch with her till a few years ago when she died but was still in touch with Peggy’s children. Bill’s own mother died when he was three. His family was full of Aunties. He had many female friends: in the parish, from Aylesbury, the pianist Harriet Cohen, the head of Nursing in the NHS, many of the somewhat formidable early female geographers and historians - Eileen Power, Eva Taylor, Hilda Ormsby, Eila Campbell, Helen Wallis. He chortled in talking of the latter few, of the unusual romantic lives of Eva Taylor and Harriet Cohen, and a common feature of many of them was that they carried all their academic belongings in big shopping bags. And many of his parish friends were female who kept him supplied with cakes and jams. He loved dancing and in his nineties he danced down the main street in Reims. It was, of course, never a topic to enquire about but I think that if pressed he would have said that wives, along with television and cross-word puzzles, would waste valuable time. With men, while he was interested in all sorts, he was more interested in them as friends if they could produce print. ‘I thought there was at least three books there’.

Others will talk of our distinguished friend’s academic world, and there will be another occasion in the autumn when this will be described, but it is appropriate to think that our friend Bill, apart from a brief period in London or elsewhere, lived in this village and home, this was his small region. But for a moment let us reflect on it. He attended Aylesbury Grammar School of which he was very proud; he became Chairman of the Governors and wrote the history of the school. He goes to Finland and then to Canada. Before the War he has published papers on some aspects of farming, climate and the great movement of the Karelians into Finland. Incidentally, he was a good linguist. Apart from Swedish and Finnish, he spoke French and German. He said that French was the language of Geography. When he comes home in the mid 1940s he had to consider many opportunities. He was interviewed by Arnold Toynbee and offered a Scandinavian research post in the Foreign Office, Hull University offered, McMaster in Canada also, but then he came under the spell of Clifford Darby who was at Liverpool. Bill was always finely attuned to atmosphere and he thought it was fine in Liverpool and he thought Darby was the man of the future, which he proved to be. When Darby moved to University College London Bill followed and eventually became Professor before Darby returned to Cambridge.

Degrees followed: Honorary from Lund, Helsinki, Turku and Uppsala. Bill became Head of Department and many of his students and appointees went out into the ever-widening world of the new geography. President of the Geographical Association, of the Institute of British Geographers, Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society, Honorary Secretary of the same institution for ten years. Fellow of the British Academy. Gold medals from the Royal Geographical Society and the Scottish Geographical Societies, from the Geographical Societies of Finland and Sweden. Fellow of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. President of the Bucks Archaeological Society and the Governors of Aylesbury Grammar School. He was awarded national awards from Finland and Sweden. Chairman of the Anglo-Finnish and Anglo-Norse Societies. The Queen had to approve these foreign awards and yet he received none from Britain. I asked him if they had ever been offered and typically he replied that why should they have been. This was a man of our village and our friend.

Bill and Music. Bill had music and piano lessons as a child. He sometimes played the organ at church. He sang in choirs. One of the reasons that he and brother Jack went to Finland in 1937 was to seek Sibelius. He attended Sadlers Wells, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne. His evenings were usually listening to the music on the radio. He had no recorded music. The radio was a large part of his life especially in his latter years. He founded and financially supported the Drayton Beauchamp Music Festival.

Bill had good health. In his later nineties he said that he couldn’t understand it. Bill said that! What he couldn’t understand was that what happens to most men in their seventies and eighties caught up with him after 95. Few men buy a new horse as he did, when they are 92. This horse fell and Bill broke his foot. He had a minor stroke which took his ability to write and eventually his speech. Both of these things happened to the Bill we knew. But he produced more books especially with the help of John Smith. His last work he saw in more or less final form in his last days and it will be produced in the Autumn. He had good neighbours. Phil and Rosemary who renewed his theatre visits. And especially Tracy. Without her he would not have got to the eve of his 100th year. We thank you deeply. His last weeks were truly him raging against the dying of the light at close of day.

Bill wasn’t interested in television or the computer but with Tracy he Skyped. But in this amazing age that we live in, do ‘Google: Bill Mead Interview’. That is an hour of Bill talking. Bill is in his fifties. It is all there. Bill the academic, the conversationalist and storyteller, almost the actor.

Farewell then, great, kind and generous soul, Christian, gentleman, teacher, scholar, teller of tales. And, above all, Friend. Farewell Dear Friend.


Bill Mead

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