We Never Said Goodbye – but we never really said Hello either

Barry. Barry John if he was being told off by his mother, Dad to me and my brother Mark, Grandad to Fred and Zoë, or Barry the Boffin if you were a 1960s journalist. Dad was born in February 1933 in Basingstoke, in the fabulously named Tally Ho Lodge. He was the son of Arthur, a gifted violinist who earned a living as a tax inspector, and Edwina, an extremely talented pianist, and he had an older sister, Daphne.

Soon the young family moved to Shalford, near Guildford, before being evacuated in 1940 as a family to near Penmaenmawr in north west Wales.

Dad and Wales never got on. Every boy was expected to audition for the school choir so, aged 7 or 8, he decided to sing a plucky solo of There’ll Always Be An England.

When the war ended, the family moved to Worthing, where he continued to study at the town’s High School for Boys. At the age of 18 he deferred National Service to go to Brighton Technical College where he got his Bachelor of Engineering degree from the University of London. He then started his Masters at Imperial College in the Aeronautical Engineering Department. This was switched to a PhD route in 1957 and he was formally appointed as a lecturer in the autumn of 1962. He stayed there until he retired in the 1990s.

When he was in his late 20s, he met an acquaintance from school times at Three Bridges railway station. Letty was a laboratory technician at Reading University. In August 1962 they married, moved into a top floor maisonette in Reading, into one of what was supposed to be flats for retired people.

I arrived in October 1963 and ended Dad’s playboy lifestyle. He had to sell his beloved Sunbeam Alpine sports car to get something more practical. The regret obviously wasn’t enough, as Mark was born in April 1969. In 1971 we moved out of the maisonette to a detached house in Burghfield Common. He never moved house again.

As a child, I only really remember Dad at weekends and holidays – basically it meant that Dad was fun. We made things out of Lego, watched the house shake to Mars from the Planets Suite at full volume, and took endless sideways looks at the world with wordplay. We were happy, self-contained, and given quite a lot of latitude.

Each school holiday also meant a day in London. A late start, then lunch around either the Science Museum (somehow we kept visiting the top floor with the aeroplanes) or the Natural History Museum (where we found the moon rocks strangely magnetic), then at some point in the afternoon we would end up with Clive Mott. Dad and Clive would sift through resistors and capacitors, draw diagrams on boards, wield soldering irons, and crack stupid jokes. We’d usually not leave until early evening when, during the summer, we could see the queue around the Royal Albert Hall for the Proms.

For someone who loved music, he made little effort to go to concerts. I think he realised at an early age that he was unlikely to produce anything of the quality he would hear at home on a regular basis. But he would listen, really listen, to music. Hi-fi was always of a good quality, some of which he augmented with his own electronics.

Dad would also delight in solving problems – at least on an intellectual level. It didn’t matter if the solution didn’t make it to actual practical completion. The important thing was that he knew he could solve it. Therefore the house was full of half-completed projects – cupboards, cars or electric circuits. There was always something new to think about and distract him from the earlier problem. It also meant that mealtimes were dangerous, as he would periodically bring out some lateral thinking question.

A friend of mine recalls going for a university entrance interview at Imperial’s Aeronautics department, only to see one of his prospective fellows stagger out of Dad’s office. Seeing a fellow comrade in arms, this chap walked up to my friend, grabbed his arm and gasped “helicopters. He asked me about helicopters. I don’t know a thing about helicopters.” “Don’t worry”, said my friend, “he’s always doing that.” And he was right – Dad was always doing that.

Another love of his was photography. He had a study in which he not only had a lathe, but also blackout curtains and an enlarger. Throughout our childhoods, Dad used to make our own Christmas cards, which involved finding a vaguely seasonal photograph, using Letraset to add a vaguely seasonal message, then developing dozens and dozens of copies. With Dad’s inevitable sense of timing, this day-long task was usually done around 22nd December each year.

Dad was into computing in a big way. The subject of his Masters degree, started in 1956, was about how computers could assist with flight.

Some of his early work was genuinely groundbreaking – using rudimentary computers to do things like track insects through their pheromones, or investigating the use of LEDs to heal wounds. His avionics work was probably contemporary with what was being used on the Apollo moon missions.

In 1961, he made the national press by measuring how fast a football had been kicked by professional footballers. In the 1970s he was pictured in the Times having measured the bowling speeds of legendary Australian fast bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Dad’s research led not only to fantastic technology like Wimbledon’s Hawkeye, but also to speed cameras. I apologise on his behalf.

But we always come back to aeroplanes. A childhood hobby of his was flying model aeroplanes, something he took up again in the 1970s. He put his engineering rigour to good use, and designed models which looked wonderful. The problem was his flying ability. I think the average number of flights per plane was 3, and Dad would invariably arrive home with a plane in bits. But that was merely a spur to designing and building another one.

Around 1980 he joined a small team led by Jerry Jackman which was making the world’s first model jet engine capable of powering flight. Dad’s role was to build the airframe, although he ended up helping in the design of the engine as well. This was a true world first when it flew from the former Greenham Common airfield in March 1983.

Between 1987 and 1992, he lost his sister, his mother and his wife. It knocked a lot of stuffing out of him, as it would anybody. He met Joan within a year and they were together for almost as long as he was married to Letty. Joan remembers coming to see him when, shortly afterwards another potential flame arrived, knitting in hand. Dad was apparently baffled to discover that it’s not generally good practice to invite 2 potential girlfriends around at the same time.

Life went on, with more projects, but around 15 years ago he lost most of his eyesight through untreated glaucoma – just as his Dad had before him. That put an end to most of what he loved doing – driving, flying and photography. He kept himself busy with computing – flight simulators were a particular favourite. It didn’t matter how many times you crashed, because you could just start again.

Over time Dad’s health deteriorated. He said the problem with hospitals was that they were full of sick people. But he found himself having to stay in them more frequently, and sometimes had problems getting back out again. Towards the end of one hospital stay he was asked to prove his mobility. Off he trundled with his zimmer frame to the toilet at the other end of the ward. A few minutes later he emerged from the toilet, holding his zimmer frame over his head and slowly, extravagantly danced back down the ward.

He survived a nasty bout of pneumonia a couple of years ago, then amazingly recovered from advanced sepsis at the beginning of this year. But the infection never really went away, and he died at home, as he wished, after another short burst of severe illness.

Dad was my hero. He hated conflict. He loved learning. He was clever, shy, inquisitive, stubborn, generous, inventive and funny. I miss him.

Barry John Belcher, b 2 Feb 1933, Basingstoke, d 24 June 2019, Burghfield Common

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