A speech for John Dyson’s memorial

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.


Hello everyone.

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.

16 responses to “A speech for John Dyson’s memorial

  1. What an amazing and lovely tribute.

  2. Beautiful Jack, simply beautiful x

  3. This is wonderful Jack. It seems really unfair that I can’t be there! xxxxxx

  4. spot on jack. beautiful tribute. xx

  5. A beautiful tribute Jack and an excellent song choice. x

  6. Wonderful speech for a wonderful man. Thanks for posting. I’m sad to have been on the wrong side of the world but by all accounts it was a magical day. xxx

  7. An amazing tribute my friend. The apple doesn’t fall far does it? xoxoxo

  8. Antonia Whyatt

    So sad I couldn’t be there with all my Dysons. Thanks for putting this up for those of us oceans away. I always picture your father at the Brown Dog, fresh off the allotment, a horseradish root and some raspberries on the table, ready with a story and an interesting question. xx

  9. Fine words for a fine man. Beautiful Jack.
    Fingers x

  10. Loved every beautiful word x

  11. Anthony and Wendy Peagam

    John was also a hero to many outside the family circle. We shall miss him.
    But always be glad that we knew him.

  12. I have just heard the sad news about John. Many moons ago I had the pleasure of teaching him and Kate Tai Chi and experienced first hand his enthusiasm for life and the joy he got out of learning something new. I am happy I got to know him outside the class, for his wise words, for his signed copy of Pie Wipe after the birth of our Son Patrick and sorry I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
    Our love to the Dyson Family.
    Kieran, Anna, Bella, Patrick and Aoife.

  13. That’s a beautiful tribute, Jack. Sorry I wasn’t there to hear it in person.

    John and I bought identical Honda 150s when they first came out – sounds tiny, but they were a perfect size for buzzing around Hong Kong on assignment. We did our version of “cruising” all over the New Territories and Hong Kong Island from our Kowloon apartment east of the airport. – a perfect central location for our frequent visits to the RAF base (one of his prime interests) or to cover the VIP beat at the airport (one of mine). We also bought identical cameras. We struggled with shorthand and Cantonese – both “required” by the South China Morning Post. We both enjoyed feature writing for the Sunday Post-Herald, although we were first and foremost “hard news” reporters. Because we were both single at the time we got the dangerous assignments from South China Morning Post editors. The Managing Director, T.G.N. Pearce, always insisted that the newspaper take out extra insurance on us for each potentially dangerous assignment – typically a 10,000-pound (UK) term policy to cover potential funeral costs! That was somewhat daunting, especially when you’re jumping out of a helicopter at 1,000 feet! The point was, Pearce new we took risks – sometimes “unacceptable” risks – and the newpaper did not want to be liable for death or injury sustained in the course of our work.

    My main beat was fires and Macao, plus the Army. His beat was (how typical!) the marine police and the British (or U.S.) Navy in Hong Kong; we both covered the RAF, and I covered military operations in Macau, for “Stand Easy: A Page for Servicemen” in the Sunday Post-Herald..

    When he first joined the staff of South China Morning Post (I’d been working there since 1961), he took me aboard the 30′ sloop he had traveled in from New Zealand, and I met the Filipino cook, who with John’s departure was the only crew member left. John felt guilty about leaving the boat and at first tried to convince me to take his place; they were looking for recruits. I’ve always been more interested in flying than sailing, and in any case am a land-lubber, so would have been hopeless on a 30′ sloop. He was more concerned with airing the story of how the boat owners had been held up by pirates in Panama before they crossed the Pacific than he was about telling his own adventure. Typical reporter, putting the other guy’s story first!

    He was a great photographer, too, and before he left Hong Kong already had an illustrated book ready to go to the publisher. That at age 20! It was great to be able to bounce ideas off one another – and we would on occasion cover for each other or work on stories together. Looking back, he was the leader, and an inspiring one at that! I was sort of a Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote – although he rarely tilted at windmills: his obsession was a different kind of sail altogether, so he developed the marine beat, chronicling the comings and goings of small craft at the marinas. We looked at buying a tiny sampan just for the hell of it – can you imagine two white guys working the oar back and forth at the stern of an open sampan in Aberdeen? – but storage proved impractical.

    And yes – there is some truth to the story about his being attacked by a chopstick-wielding opium addict on a Hong Kong junk. He was acting in his capacity as an auxiliary marine policeman at the time – not strictly as a reporter, although that was why we had signed up – to get the “inside” story of people-smuggling (my obsession) and drug-smuggling (his). In the course of his duties he boarded a junk suspected of smuggling opium into Hong Kong. One of the crew members of the suspicious junk decided to take a stand. John was the only casualty. But the auxiliary police insisted that since it was an injury sustained in the course of his duties as an acting police officer, he could not report it (they were probably afraid of being sued by the newspaper, which had not bought a policy to cover extra-curricular activities with the auxiliary marine police. John took this directive to heart. Again, the story wasn’t about him. He regarded this incident as an “occupational hazard.”

    Even at 19, John was an objective and thoroughly ethical newsman. Later, I wrote a series of articles called “Occupational Hazard – the Adventures of a Journalist” about some of my parallel experiences.

    Please send me images of his slides taken in Hong Kong – I might be able to identify some of the people he photographed. Mostly we used Tri-X film. He was big on Nikons.

    Thank you for handing me the ticket for this trip down memory lane.

    Best regards,

    Gary Botting

  14. Excellent and heart-felt tribute to a father who was cherished! At the end of our time on earth, it’s that legacy we hope to be able to leave to the children we raised — that however imperfect our methods may have been as a parent, that we succeeded in making the grade, impressing them with our wisdom, and shaping their lives with our time and loving attention. Surely your Dad must have had a sense of peace for job he did with you…and he should have had much pride in the thoughtful, grateful, and respectful person, his son, become.
    That was a very nice eulogy, indeed.

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