My Uncle, Bill Halpin, died at the end of March at the age of 82 at his nursing home in the Prime Minister’s constituency. His memorial service was held yesterday in the presence of his wife, Audrey, and his large extended family.
Bill left school aged 14 to work on the railways. Over a career of more than 40 years, he worked his way up to be station-master at Paddington and on many occasions he was in charge of the Royal Train, taking the Queen and her family on their official engagements around the country. As kids we would sit enthralled by his stories of sharing Dundee Cake with Her Majesty, and Prince Philip telling him off when the train arrived a minute early. On one occasion, he answered Princess Anne’s remark that she hadn’t slept well on the overnight to Scotland by saying: “Oh Ma’am, you should have sent for me”. He would still blush about that decades later.
After taking early retirement in the early 1980s, he took a new job that would have seemed extraordinary for anyone but Bill: helping Mozambique’s Marxist FRELIMO government to build a railway to the coast so that it could trade freely with the world, something Apartheid-era South Africa and its RENAMO guerrilla stooges were determined to stop. On arrival at his office in Maputo, Bill immediately replaced the photos on the walls of President Samora Machel and Fidel Castro with portraits of the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. When challenged by his new employers, he eventually conceded that the four leaders could adorn his walls together, surely the only office ever to see such a combination.
The job would have destroyed the soul of a lesser man: every time he got the railway up and running, RENAMO would bomb the tracks or derail individual trains, and he was back to square one, as well as having to deal with the terrible human cost of the drivers and guards killed in attacks. He spent as much time designing bazooka-resistant shields for the drivers’ carriages as he did laying new track. He never stopped working, and even tried to soldier on through a bout of acute appendicitis rather than let a Russian surgeon operate on him, only conceding defeat after the ‘bloody Commie’ told him he was going to die.
If he was passionate about his work, it was as nothing to his devotion to his wife and his family, from taking my mother on his shoulders to her first Arsenal match to the delight he took in the astounding and varied successes of his 5 children and umpteen grandchildren. And despite the demands of his immediate family, he always had time for his nephews or nieces; he remembered our favourite subjects at school; our football teams; and our best fielding positions at the cricket matches he’d arrange in his garden.
He was a wonderfully old-fashioned man. I remember him catching me with my lip starting to wobble at his younger brother’s funeral, and telling me that I had a very important job for the day: to offer a strong arm to any of my female cousins who were getting tearful and upset. He also had that trait which I associate with old-fashioned Tories: a sense of duty to his employees and more generally to his fellow man; a duty to ensure that everyone was treated fairly and equally, and given an opportunity to get on. And above all, like all good Uncles, he was a very funny man: an hour in his company would leave your face aching from laughter.
When I think about what is great about this country, I will always think of my Uncle Bill: the respect for tradition; the insistence on fair play; the love of debate; the adventuring spirit; the obsession with cricket and football; and the sense of humour. I always wondered why he never had a MBE or an OBE. Of all the Queen’s citizens during her long and distinguished reign, I can think of few who served this country or what it stands for better than him. Rest in Peace, Uncle Bill.