Below is the speech I made at Dad’s celebration. It was a fantastic party – he’d have loved it. Barbecue and bluegrass, friends and family. Do please comment below – especially if you would like to share anything – it would be welcome. You can read his obituary by clicking here.
If my voice goes funny, please bear with me!
John Dyson. What a beautiful, beautiful man. This is at once the worst thing in the world, something I would never, could never want to do. But also something I can’t imagine not doing. It’s a real honour to have a chance to say a few things before you all. I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night thinking “I must tell the nose trick story” or “don’t forget the Piewipe stuff”, but there’s just so much, I’m going to keep it simple. It would take more than a book to even begin to do him justice.
I’ve typed out some notes (double spaced of course) because I really don’t want to forget a thing. Haven’t done a spell check, but that’s okay, you’ll survive.
I want to kick off by saying two things on behalf of us all, to you all: welcome, and thank you. Thank you for helping, those of you who have been able to lend your time.
Thank you for your thoughts, all. And also, to all of you, thank you for coming to celebrate with us, together. I can’t tell you how great it is. It’s been a very strange time, but there’s a certain amount of magic here. Dad would love all this.
So, what can I tell you about him that you don’t already know? I can tell you that he grew up with his parents and four sisters a little west of Auckland in a house called Cartwheels – an oasis of Dyson-ness, a private world, a palace of bush carpentry and other projects.
He was writing about it before he died. Talking about what it was like to get home and shout “hello” to the ducks, who’d quack the alert to the other animals: bull terriers called La Giaconda and Botticelli Cherub, grey doves called Confucius and Confusion, twin billy goats Marmaduke and Montmarcey, plus Hairy Breeks and Lady Godiva…not to mention Lonny Donegan the kitten or the seven donkeys, each named after a Dickens character.
He built his own bedroom in the house. Of course it was a ship’s cabin, with a raised bunk that had drawers under it and a board to stop you falling out in heavy seas.
It took him three years of mowing lawns on weekends to save up the money for his round-the-world ticket. At age just 16, a lanky teenager, he bought his ticket and set off to post-war Europe with a spring in his step. Incredible.
He fell in with a buddy, Martien, a Dutchman who was a few years older and about to get married. They were in Camaret near Brest in France when something happened that is just so…John Dyson. Walking around the harbour, he saw a rusty, beaten up old sardine boat for sale. Apple green, with white trimming, covered in grime and flakey paint.
Martien was joking when he suggested to Dad that they buy it, do it up and sail it to New Zealand. Dad, on the other hand, had fireworks going off in his head. You really could do it. Need to make a few adjustments of course, but yes. Why not? Probably only take a couple of years if you made stops along the way. What an adventure. Would it stand up to the big waves? When it gets scary, what matters isn’t so much your size as how well you can stand up to punishment.
On his way back the ocean liner he was on to Melbourne was hit by the most enormous freak wave, tipping the ship almost completely on its side, passengers sliding everywhere, injuring loads of people in the process – he said it was a bit like the Poseidon Adventure, crazy, people came ashore on stretchers. Dad though, was still thinking about his fishing boat. As he put it, “I was fascinated rather than fearful…even on the plane across the Tasman I continued drawing sketch plans of how a 30-foot hull could be divided into cabins and living accommodation for seven – my parents, my four sisters and I.”
That was him through and through though. Big dreams and a great imagination: Tall and indomitable.
Resolute of purpose.
A firm handshake, look ‘em dead in the eye.
Age 19 he worked as a deck hand up through the Great Barrier Reef and New Guinea to the Caroline Islands and the Philippines. It took him to Hong Kong in 1963, where he and his room mate Gary Botting –both working for the South China Morning Post and living in Kowloon – planned on driving their Hondas westward around the world from Saigon. For some reason they had trouble obtaining visas…instead they enrolled as auxiliary policemen and firemen to get the “inside” story for the Post. He took the most unbelievable photos.
I can’t think of a single other person who by the age of 20 had done half of this, by the way.
When I was a kid I was always fascinated by a tiny tiny scar on his chin, which he called his mousehole – he’d always make up the most marvellous stories about how he got it. Usually by a chopstick-wielding opium smuggler on a Hong Kong junk…I always wondered if there was a grain of truth to them, it didn’t matter, as he told us growing up – if a story’s worth telling it’s worth exaggerating.
As a writer, though, he was honourable, ethical and thorough. Blessed with an amazing gift for winkling out adventures and characters. And he had a great fondness for them. He was always amazed by their exploits yet so humble about his own.
From there, he went to England. He said:
“It was there something happened that blue my blue-water ambitions out of the water. I was in Leeds covering a beauty contest for stable girls for the Daily Mail when a tall and good-looking girl working for the Yorkshire Post bumped into me on the steps and asked to share my umbrella. More than my umbrella, it turned out. Four great kids and all their smiles and bills, and their children; adventures all over the world; a big scruffy house with a dog, apple trees in the garden and a great view. When we were married, Kate and I made a deal: ‘I’ll come anywhere in a boat with you,’ she said. ‘Just don’t expect me to walk up a hill or sleep in a tent.’ By and large we stuck to it.”
He always travelled, especially if there was even a hint of anything to do with the sea. It didn’t matter if it was a trawler, an aircraft carrier or a rowing boat.
He went to the Antarctic more than once, he crossed the Atlantic in a replica of Christopher Columbus’s caravel La Niña, he sailed I think every ocean.
A story about the world’s deepest mine led to a story about a man who’d had his arm bitten off by a hippo, which led to another on a man who’d found a leopard in his kitchen and punched it on the nose…he absolutely adored Africa and its energy…he met the most amazing people wherever he went. And he kept in touch with them. Often helping them out after the story was published.
Child soldiers in Sierre Leone, gospel choirs in the mean streets of Soweto, local heroes around the world – the story arc was all; the triumph of human spirit over adversity.
He fought hard for the stories too. Had a great knack of picking an issue often several years before everyone else. I came across a letter to his old editor Dimi Panitza in which he put his case for a commission that was in danger of being squashed, signing off with:
“Anyway, I’m having tea with the High Commissioner of Tonga this afternoon, so I’ll speak to you tomorrow.”
What an amazing working life.
But he always came home. He always came home to the family and over Sunday roast dinner he’d tell us about these people and their extraordinary stories (it was either that or check us on our times tables). Sometimes – in the case of the hikers who were attacked and munched up by hungry grizzly bears – it was a bit much and I’d have to go and sick up a bit of roast potato before I could come back and finish the story.
He had a great way of sizing people up. He’d analyse them for their D.I.Q – desert island quota. The greatest compliment was for him to say – yep, if I was wrecked on an island, so-and-so would keep it together and be an asset. He admired pluck, curiosity and a can-do attitude more than anything else.
On holidays, we’d all be picking our noses and reading Tolkien or Jilly Cooper. He’d wander down to the nearest body of water, where he’d smoke his pipe and look at the boats. Rocking on his toes and jingling his change in his pocket, he’d wonder what this one or that one would be like to skipper. What sort of crew he’d need. Where he’d go. For him, sailing – and life – was all about spirit. The magic wasn’t about the sea or the journey so much as what you all share as a crew in getting there.
Of course it wasn’t all smooth sailing. One notebook from his trips on Sovrana has the short but intriguing footnote: “Naked wrestle with tree. Mud rescue.”
The mind boggles.
His favourite things were the simplest. Picking raspberries, drinking a rum and watching the sun set, looking at boats, having a quiet snooze. But all the time his mind would be firing away, dreaming up trips and adventures.
And with all of the places he’d been and the things he’d seen, he still somehow preserved the most amazingly pure way of seeing things. Naiveté isn’t the right word. Maybe innocence. He somehow managed to be a healthy skeptic without being a cynic. And he was effortlessly, hopelessly romantic. Even recently he sent me a link to a TV thing mum had done with the caption “I married a supermodel”.
Of course, as kids we gave him a good run around. He loved a good water fight. We’d all tease each other mercilessly. Him for his hilarious sneeze, or…well pretty much everything, especially his accent. Though we lived in fear of his tread on the stairs when we were supposed to be doing homework not watching Neighbours. Had getting out of that one down to a fine art – basically by watching telly standing next to the dishwasher so if he came in we could pretend we were doing our chores. A flash of those blue eyes and a steely set to his jaw was not a threat so much as a challenge we’d back down from.
Of course his authority was somewhat undermined when we caught him snoozing under his desk.
As we got older he just got better. He loved meeting our friends and hanging out with them. Finding out what made people tick.
Biggles, Hornblower, part of him was always an 11-year-old adventurer, imagining the enemy fleet over the horizon and how would we deal with it if it really came to it. The truth was, for all the ribbing we gave him, we always believed out of everyone he’d be the one to lope purposefully towards it and just get on with it, whatever the problem or crisis was.
This turned out to be true. The last few months…he handled with such elegance and grace. He seemed to get even more beautiful. His eyes deeper and brighter and more amazing.
He’d have loved this having you all here, but he didn’t want fuss. He said “I’m not going to say anything. You already know what I’d say. It’s all there in how we live our lives.” And it is.
So please, raise a glass. To Dad. To John Dyson. To the finest man I’ll ever know.