Simon Moore’s incomparable funeral eulogy for Phil English.
Simon Moore is a highly respected Crown Prosecutor and long-time friend of the late Phil English.
The following is the eulogy he presented at the funeral service for Phil. Thanks to Simon and Michele Hewitson of the NZ Herald for sending it to me.
Eulogy for Philip Russell English
1953 to 2011
On the 3rd of February 1959 a tiny figure, clothed in maroon, shuffled self-consciously through the imposing brick gates of Kings School. At that time neither of his accompanying parents, Russell and Mary English, could possibly have guessed that while this event signalled their youngest son’s formal introduction to education, their apparently unremarkable, but deeply loved, 5 year old, would in his own and utterly unique way educate so many of those whose lives rubbed up against his own in the 52 years which would follow. He would influence so many in those core qualities of humour and human kindness. For if there is anything which summarises Philip English it is that he was the kindest and the funniest of men.
Philip Russell English’s passage through the 13 years of school which followed that event in 1959 was characterised by intense and prolonged periods of inconspicuous normality. He turned being inconspicuous into an art form. For him, sport and recreation held none of the allure which more prominent school boys thrived on. I am certain that if he had aspired to succeed he would have. But he found the whole sporty thing puzzlingly pointless. It was hard to argue against him.
Those 8 years at Kings Prep were sublimely happy ones. Wonderful life long friendships were forged and it is heartening, but not at all surprising, to see old friends from our Year 1 class here this afternoon and to receive messages of love and support from others like Chris and Marlene Palmer in Paris. Phil’s nickname from those days was Pinkie. Not even Phil could remember quite why. But it stuck right through to university.
I well remember one afternoon standing outside the school gates on Remuera Rd with Phil and Ken Whitney. We were about to finish our last year and were discussing how much fun we had had. Surely life could not continue to be this much fun.
How right we were. It wasn’t. We went to boarding school.
Phil’s five years at the College were as unremarkable as his primary years. He perfected the elusive art of cultural camouflage; never drawing unnecessary attention to himself; although he did join the choir at his mother’s insistence. Which meant that I followed. He and I chortled tunelessly from the front row of the stalls for nearly two terms before Phil was fired at the start of Term 3. I followed a fortnight later.
However, there are three qualities which emerged in those school years which, I am certain, were formative in terms of his later life.
The first was the development of Phil’s fascination in the natural world. At primary school he had devoured every David Attenborough book ever published. After his dismal choir experiences he joined the Bird Club under the inspirational leadership of teacher Dick Sibson, an ornithologist of national standing. Almost certainly this experience was formative in Phil’s insightful understanding of the environment whether it was Godwits at Miranda or possum control in the Waitakeres. It was this interest which decades later made so obvious his appointment as the Herald’s environmental correspondent. He was easily the best they ever had because he loved the subject and truly understood the core issues around bio-diversity and sustainability long before it became fashionable.
The second was his natural creativity. He was a talented artist although his profound colour blindness resulted in some unusual effects especially after he made the error of trusting me to tell him which colours were which. He was also an accomplished writer. He loved and excelled in the subject. His career choice, even if he did not know it at the time, would prove to be a perfect forum within which to indulge those skills.
The third was his approach to others. He was not the sports jock. But he was popular; very popular. And that popularity flowed from his unadorned and plainly evident lack of any form of malice or self-importance. He treated everyone the same. He never had a bad word to say about anyone. He just got on with his life. Having said that, he was ruthlessly intolerant of unfairness. Where he saw unfairness he did all he could to right it. In that sense he displayed the same sort of moral courage which in later years we all so admired.
In 1972, along with just about everyone in our year it seemed, we headed to Dunedin to do Med Intermediate. Phil and I enrolled at Selwyn College. It was an utterly mad year of excess in every conceivable way. With the shackles of school conformity removed and with Selwyn’s healthy tolerance of eccentricity, we were all allowed to became 9 year olds again. And so we played like 9 year olds….for nearly a year. It was over this time that Phil’s wonderfully creative sense of the ridiculous began to emerge properly.
His musical tastes were unconventional (at least for a 19 year old in 1972). The cool music at that time consisted mainly of Leonard Cohen’s dreadfully depressing dirges and Joe Cocker’s tuneless shouting. But not so for Phil. He found Dean Martin. His favourite song was “Little Old Wine Drinker Me”.
In the interests of actually finishing this eulogy I shall restrict this colourful phase of Phil’s life to just two stories. Each is quintessentially Phil. Each demonstrates that even before he hit 20, the unique elements of his personality which we all so loved in this man were already present .
The first was his obsession with Napoleon Bonaparte. I am uncertain how it all started, but Phil began to grow his side-boards and a smudge of wispy whiskers above his top lip. His hair (much to his alarm) was already starting to recede. He did, indeed, share more than just a passing resemblance to the great Emperor. To this ensemble, as his meagre student allowance permitted, he secured a white waistcoat, tight white pants and a blue jacket. He then added a colourful sash and an impressive broach made from milk bottle tops. There is a wonderful photo of Phil in the College magazine of that year, in classic Napoleonic pose with his right hand inside his waistcoat. He even has a glass of brandy in the other hand. This phase only ended when Phil was denied entry to the college ball on the grounds that he did not meet the dress code. He was last heard berating the bouncers for their cultural insensitivity in not recognising the formal attire of a highly ranked Frenchman.
The other occurred at the end of the academic year. In fact it was the final of the physics exam. Like most of us doing Med Intermediate, Phil found physics incomprehensible. The physics final was the last exam before we broke up for summer. We were all crammed into a hall with the usual cast of elderly ex-teacher types who are annually dragged out to make sure we didn’t cheat. Phil was seated towards the front. At 9.30 the bell rang to start the exam. Like a well drilled orchestra, the sound of pages turning filled the room as we scanned the exam paper to see how many of the questions were capable of an answer. Phil was the first to protest publicly. Shaking his head, he slowly stood up and began to make his way to the exit. He had not got far before the chief supervisor barked out that no one was permitted to leave the exam room before one hour. Phil slowly and clearly reluctantly made his way back to his seat.
The last question was the only one Phil felt he could make a decent stab at. It read,
“Imagine you have a younger brother aged 11. Explain, using appropriate analogies, how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity works”
Phil settled himself down and began to write.
“Well Bob (Bob is the name of my 11 year old brother), the theory of relativity is very complicated. It took many millions of years
of human evolution to produce a man brainy enough to work it out. His name was Einstein. He had a big white bushy moustache
and hairy eyebrows. I know that some people say that the theory has something to do with trains passing in a railway station.
I don’t understand it and if I don’t I can’t see how you will”.
Composing this answer occupied no more than 10 minutes and Phil still had at least 40 minutes to kill before he could escape. And because he was due to head home to Auckland the next day he decided that the most productive course would be to compile his shopping list on the paper the university had so generously supplied in the form of his exam book. This took him to 10.35. Shopping list complete, Phil got up from his seat for the second time that morning. He handed over his exam book and left.
A few minutes later we were all startled by a noisy ruckus at the door. It involved a heated exchange between Phil and the chief supervisor which went something like this;
“You cannot have it back. You surrendered your exam book when you left the room. I don’t care that you have left your shopping
list in it. You cannot have it back. Now please leave before I call the Proctor”.
Not unsurprisingly, Phil’s academic results were not quite enough to get him into Med School. But, as with everywhere he has gone in life, he made wonderful friends that year. A number are with us today. Thank you for coming.
It was time for a change. So Phil headed for the Kingdom of Tonga. He took up a teaching position at St Andrews School. His letters and tape recordings from that time are wonderfully descriptive and terribly funny. As he had done elsewhere, he again created around himself a cadre of close friends; fellow teachers and AFS workers from around the world. He loved Tonga. He revelled in the absurdity and contradictions of so much of what he saw particularly the antics of the Royal family in the midst of such poverty. Phil detested unfairness and pomposity. But he recognised the futility of trying to confront these things head on, so he played with them. He made quiet fun of the silliness of it all. We had wonderful descriptions of the monocled Crown Prince squeezed into his London Taxi or the vastness of the King lost in the back of his even vaster Mercedes stretch limo.
Tonga influenced Phil in at least three ways.
First, he gained his second nickname. He became known as “Lampshade Phil”.
Secondly, and almost certainly connected to the first, he was elected to the Presidency of the Royal Nuku’alofa Martini Club. Martinis became Phil’s signature cocktail and were the catalyst for some outrageously wild parties in Tonga and later back here. The mix was proscriptive. There could be no variation from the obligatory 9 gin to 1 Vermouth. It was mind numbing stuff.
Thirdly, Phil’s musical tastes matured from Dean Martin. He fell in love with the discordant tones of the Fiji Police Brass Band. He bought up every recording he could get his hands on and no Martini party was complete without several tapes of the band being played. It was excruciatingly funny as the band mutilated its way through various brass tunes; some recognisable; most not.
On his return to New Zealand, and no doubt under pressure from Russell and Mary to get a qualification, Phil enrolled in the AIT’s journalism course. Initially I don’t think he was awfully keen on the idea. But in hindsight it was an inspired step because journalism indulged so many of Phil’s core qualities. He was an excellent writer; articulate, concise and always with an eye out for the absurd. He understood the central importance of the fourth estate’s role as social commentator and public scrutiniser. And he lived true to that code to the day he retired.
His first job was as the Coromandel correspondent at the Thames Star. It was there that he won the New Zealand Community Newspaper Young Reporter of the Year. It was 1977. Flushed with that success he joined the Waikato Times where he was based in Te Aroha.
Then, in 1979 he headed to the UK. He lived in Winchester where he worked as a reporter for the Hampshire Chronicle. In Winchester the Martini parties flourished. More life long friendships were forged. Phil established the International Martini Club and was promptly elected its President for Life. He did nearly three years with the Hampshire Chronicle before returning to New Zealand to be a groomsman at our wedding. When our first child was born there was never any question as to who would be his Godfather.
But we were not alone in that choice. Phil was Godfather to many others because his wide and eclectic range of friends saw in him a rare and golden sincerity. What he may have lacked in religious and moral instruction he more than made up with his deep reserves of human generosity and kindness. He was deeply loved by all the kids who revelled in his eccentricity. His presents at birthdays and at Christmas were always wonderfully innovative and always the best. He must have spent hours perfecting his choices.
With the exception of the last three years, when his health prevented him, Phil has been a part of every family summer holiday since Jane and I got married. His succession of cocktails was outstanding and his exotic entrees brilliant so long as there was not too great a lag between drinks and dinner. The contents of the boot of his beloved 1967 Wolseley 6/110 were always the same. There he kept his tent, groundsheet, lamp, transistor radio, inflatable mattress and his cast iron camp oven. Every summer he would drive down to the lake, unpack the boot and set up his camp. At the end of the holiday he would pack it all up again. It would stay in the boot for the next 11 months until liberated the following summer.
He was a fine journalist. In fact he was a good deal better than that. He was bitterly disappointed when he was taken off the environmental portfolio and put onto the local body run. But his journalist instincts never slackened and in this very important role he was deadly. At Phil’s farewell “roast” from the Herald in 2005, it was Mike Lee, the then Chairman of the ARC, who said about Phil;
“Philip English was feared and at times perhaps loathed by some ARC members who objected to public scrutiny. After he was transferred to court reporting duties it turned out to be a huge setback for the Regional Council and the public as the restraining influence of Phil’s watchful presence, his
close knowledge of the ARC and his fearless reporting of
events was never adequately filled again by a single journalist.”
Long time friend and professional collegue, Michele Hewitson, put it perfectly when she described Phil as “…a very, very good journalist and any politician fooled by his Rumpole of the Bailey shuffle was a fool.
It is heartening to see friends from his days at the Herald here.
Phil’s uncanny knack of detecting and reporting on the ridiculous probably contributed to his being moved to court reporting. It had certainly made him unpopular in some quarters including the then Mayor, Colin Kay. On one occasion, after a particularly important speech, the Mayor’s gravitas was seriously eroded after Phil reported that throughout the address the Mayor’s right trouser leg was hitched above his ankle by a forgotten bicycle clip.
On another occasion, Phil reported the Mayor repeatedly referring to a prominent council member as “Mr Hewi Toheroa”.
As a court reporter, Phil was just as adept. He quickly gained the respect and trust of the High Court bench. He and I spent many happy hours together in court. It was a privilege and wonderful fun to work with him professionally.
One highlight was when he covered the trial of two Kings Old Boys. It was a distinguished cast of actors. The judge, both prosecutors and the reporter were part of this impromptu school reunion. Only the defence counsel, Peter Williams QC , was on the outer.
I must also make mention of Phil’s many years of contribution as a Council member of the Deafness Research Foundation. He was an invaluable conduit for getting media coverage of significant research developments and lead the work on a number of public relations initiatives for the Foundation. It is gratifying to see so many from the DRF here.
Phil was never one to be hurried. He moved through life at his own pace. He was never flustered. Everything he did, he did with impressive deliberation. It was a quality which influenced every aspect of his life. He was also a man of habit and every Friday night he would walk up to the local Indian takeaway, Bombay Junction, owned and run by the colourful and cheerful Prince. According to Prince, Phil would stand at the counter pensively scratching his chin peering up at the menu board. He would mutter and mumble as he wrestled with the bewildering array of mouth-watering options which confronted him. The decision making could take up to ten minutes. Finally Phil would make his decision. This was Prince’s cue to disappear out to the back of the shop and return with a freshly cooked Lamb Tika. Phil would look puzzled. “That was fast. How did you do that?” he once asked. “Easy” said Prince. “You always order Lamb Tika”.
Three years ago Phil was diagnosed with a progressive neurological condition with an unpronounceable name. His life was turned upside down. He had to move from his Parnell flat. He had to sell his beloved Wolseley. And patiently, without ever a word of complaint, a hint at self-pity or the slightest fuss, he simply wore out. It was excruciating to witness. The brunt of this horror was born by David and Caroline and I cannot record more strenuously our collective indebtedness to you both for all you did to look after Phil in his final years, particularly the last few months. 2011 has been a hell of a year for you. Only three months ago you, Robert and Phil lost your father Russell. Now its Phil.
You, together with Lucy and Sarah, were terribly important to Phil throughout his life. He adored you all. Robert, I also acknowledge your support and love as Phil’s Sydney-based brother.
So now it is our time to bid our farewell to this extraordinary man; a man who touched so many lives in so many positive ways.
A man who was utterly non-judgemental, whose warmth and generosity of spirit should be an inspiration to us all.
Through his efforts he leaves the world a much richer place than it was 57 years ago when he joined it.
In every sense he was the kindest and funniest of men.
Friday 15 July 2011