At Ipswich School in the late 1950s and early 1960s, one of the Latin masters was James Young. Always well turned out and with a somewhat military bearing, he was nevertheless a poor teacher and an embittered one. He took this out on those of us teenage boys he didn’t like and it amused him to have them seated in the front row where he could direct his habitual sarcasm to the nearest targets, some of whom broke into tears under these assaults while the class looked on, appalled.
At the back of the room were the boys he did favour: farmers’ sons, middle class roughs, toughs and public school thugs, several of whom ended up as officers in the Army. At the front of the class were his four betes-noirs: wimps, nerds and no-good-at-sports weaklings who nevertheless had a habit of scoring well in tests. I was one of them. And here’s the thing: while the biffos at the back went on to be infantry lieutenants, car salesmen and police constables, we four at the front soared away.
We band of brothers
From the classroom wall to the windows, then, we were Kerry Lee Crabbe, later to be a writer, director and TV producer, and a visiting professor at Queen Mary’s London; myself, for 17 years a diplomat in the British Council; Peter Wheatley, since 1999 Bishop of Edmonton; and Roger Thacker, sometime Vicar of Hammersmith and a noted pastor to the people of West and Central London. It is Roger I write about now, for this is his obituary. He has died, after a long illness, at the age of 63.
Roger and his gentle, elderly parents lived in Woodbridge on the river estuary just up the Suffolk coast. He was intelligent, witty and charming, with a ready laugh; but above all sensitive and sympathetic in the truest sense. As such he was an invaluable source of help and comfort to all his friends. It was no surprise when he told me, near the end of our time in the school, that he had just walked up the hill to see the Bishop and offer himself for ordination as an Anglican priest.
Having gone up the rungs of the school together, Roger, Peter and I used our good exam results to get into good colleges in matric year 1965: Peter to The Queen’s College, Oxford; I to St John’s College, Cambridge and Roger to Corpus Christi, Cambridge. No college could have been more suited to him, and he to it. One of the smallest in the university, it seemed more like a little club with better food and better accommodation than most of us had. Roger was given sun-filled rooms in King’s Parade, directly opposite one of the most imposing buildings in the world, King’s College Chapel, and here he, a big jolly bear of a man, entertained his many friends to tea and smoked his pipe and laughed.
Priest in London
After theological college, Roger’s first curacy was at the parish church of St John’s Wood in London, over the road from Lords Cricket Ground and around the corner from the Abbey Road studios. Here he preached densely-written sermons to the rich upper middle class of that district and made himself useful around the vast Diocese of London, at one stage ministering cheerfully to strippers in Soho (and, in clerical garb, beaming at shocked taxi drivers who could not believe he wanted to go where he had just said).
Once he invited me to come and hear him celebrate mass at St Cyprian’s, Clarence Gate, a noted superhigh ‘smells and bells’ church near Baker Street. It was more intense than Roger was used to. At the censing of the sanctuary the thurifer swinging the censer finished a theatrical performance with a grand dramatic swing of the silver thurible right round his own head, billowing out a great ring of smoke everywhere and Roger’s startled eyebrows climbing up his face.
In 1974, Roger became Vicar of St Paul’s Hammersmith, the great tower of which stands next to the A4 flyover on the way in from London Heathrow airport (Peter was not far away, ministering in Parson’s Green in Fulham). The large cosmopolitan community of Hammersmith was not well represented in that cavernous church and Roger set to work rebuilding a living parish for the modern era. The story of how he managed to persuade big business to build a new vicarage with parish centre on the banks of the boat race stretch of the Thames at Chiswick is an object lesson in how priests today have to enterprise and do deals. He visited people dying of AIDS; he put a coffee shop into the side of the nave; he counselled and comforted many. He baptised our daughter Claudia in a side chapel in March 1981.
At some stage after that, things started to go wrong. He told me that he had turned down the offer to be made Rector of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square; I told him he would have been great in that position. What happened after that is unclear to me: we were living abroad by then and all I knew was that he became ill; he got married, to an architect; he was in some way ejected from St Paul’s and went to live for a time in Tring, but Licenced to Preach in St Alban’s Diocese. Later they moved to a flat in London.
I berate myself for not making better contact with him. Peter Wheatley did and I pay tribute to him for being so very supportive to Roger and Anne in his final years.
Three hundred people attended Roger’s funeral last month, including five bishops. He is well-remembered in Hammersmith and many people will have felt touched and sorrowful at the thought of his love and care, bestowed so freely. James Young, wherever you are now: you were wrong about the four of us, but never more so than in the case of the gentle giant and dear friend who has now undertaken his final journey.
“Thou shall keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee.”