Monday, June 04, 2012

Bruce Emmerson 1929 - 2012


This blog over recent years has become primarily a Christmas blog, reflecting back on the last 12 months and offering insight into what might lie ahead. It occurs to me that 2011 is missing so at some point I need to put up the few words I wrote for friends and family.

Today though I am breaking with tradition and putting a blog up dedicated to my Dad who died recently. To most who stumble across this blog, you will never have met him, but for the few who have, I hope that your memories are similar to those of myself and my family, of a man whose constant giving to others never ceased to his dying days.

I plan to offer no words of my own here. Instead I am simply re-printing extracts from the Celebration service that was held to remember him. It was a service primarily led by myself, my brother and my sister. My father was Australian and very proud of his heritage. So it was fitting that there was a strong Australian theme. The poem (which I read) I am re-printing here is probably Australia's most famous. Many of the flowers were imported from Australia, and at the reception afterwards there was no shortage of Australian memorabilia, with boomerangs, kangeroos and koala bears in abundance. As we celebrated my Dad's life in the UK, similar celebrations were taking place in Australia, and to mark his contribution within the United Nations, prayers were said at their Headquarters in New York.

The tribute was written by my brother, with contributions from the rest of the family. I've tried over recent weeks to sum up who/what was my Dad. My conclusion has been that he was just one of those unsung heroes who a few were lucky enough to have met. In his work he was the leading expert on radiation safety in the world, and in his home life, he was someone who clearly found it difficult to say no to helping.

So this is my Dad.

My Country – Dorothy Mackellar
The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me!

A stark white ring-barked forest
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon.
Green tangle of the brushes,
Where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops
And ferns the warm dark soil.

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us,
We see the cattle die -
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold -
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land -
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand -
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.


As I’m sure you will all appreciate, standing up here to give a few personal reflections about my father is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. This, however, is mainly due to the fact that I’m very aware that many of you would like to be reaching home this evening … sometime before midnight …. hhmmmm…..

In January, 1929, a new addition to the Emmerson family was born in Melbourne, Australia, and a young boy, now remembered with much love by those who grew up with him, began his remarkable life.

Looking at some photographs of Daddy, taken when he was a young boy, I was very struck by how the hobbies and values he took on board during his formative years remained with him throughout his life. Pushing an oversized wheelbarrow in one photo was obviously a forerunner to his enjoyment as a member of the Kington horticultural society; the sheer look of concentration on his young face as he played cricket in another photo, this desire to win always continued, as my uncle will testify, when he played tennis against him in the 60s and the 70s.

And one photograph, in particular, stands out – with my father in his garden, still a young boy, pointing with a rather large stick to an easel, on which he had drawn in chalk a picture of the ocean, with an impressive looking fish in the foreground. Daddy’s love of art and painting began at an early age, as did his mission to explore the globe. Also, from this early age, he had a desire to impart information to others … and for all of us who have only known him from his twenties onwards … he had a remarkable amount of hair!

Daddy was always proud of his Australian heritage, and today in Melbourne, members of our family are also celebrating my father’s life and remembering their time with him as they grew up in the Australian 30s and 40s.

However, all that was to change …. on a boat called the Strathmore. Amongst the passenger list was a young Australian radio technician, with a sense of wonderlust, setting off to visit the UK, and a young English teacher, returning to London. Apparently, the air conditioning in the cabins broke down and passengers took to sleeping on the deck. Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, under a balmy but starry night, their pillows collided …. and I could say that the rest is history.

Their fondness for travel never wavered. Margaret remembers that as a young girl, she used to play with the other girls and their dolls. But Margaret’s dolls were different though – they were all from foreign countries, dressed in national costumes and far more exotic.

Many years later, to celebrate their retirement, my parents boarded a rather larger liner to retrace their steps back to Australia….. although by now the air conditioning had been fixed.

Margaret, David and I all have our own very special memories of Daddy, but all of our memories very much draw the three of us to the same conclusion – that nothing was too much trouble for him to help, guide and protect us, both during our childhood years and subsequently through our adult lives.

Daddy was very much a hands-on father, who took great pleasure in applying his craft to a surprisingly wide variety of forms:

The art of cookery – especially omelets and barbeques – reached new heights when my father doned his apron. Bread making and marmalade, in his later years, also proved to be unknown talents ….. and then … there were the cakes…

The chocolate fort, the basket of flowers, the Hansel and Gretel Smartie house …. The train …. The rocket …. When Daddy had a piping bag filled with icing in his hand, the sky … literally … was the limit for our birthday cakes.

Daddy excelled in using his hands to create our presents whilst we were growing up …. Margaret’s first proper bike – lovingly put together and painted a burgundy red …. David’s scalelectic, with all the individual cars and pieces of track stored in a hand-built wooden chest …. Whilst I received one Christmas, not just a train set, but an entire model railway layout … painted a fetching colour of green as I recall.

Daddy was a doer – and he had a unique gift of involvement, which touched the lives of countless numbers of people around the world.

In my childhood I joined the Life Boys – the junior section of the Boys Brigade, based at our church. Unfortunately, there was no senior section, but this proved to be no problem for Daddy – he first of all started a senior section at the church and then subsequently became an officer in the Boys Brigade in Chelmsford – a dozen miles away – in order that I, and some young lads from a nearby housing estate, could fulfill our ambitions. Daddy taught us marching and drill, navigational skills – and his classes for the proficiency badge in nuclear physics were particularly popular!

A further example of Daddy’s wish to help those who didn’t have the same start in life which my parents provided for Margaret, David and myself, occurred whilst living in Liverpool. He spent countless weekends on hiking and camping expeditions leading a group of girls in care to achieve their Duke of Edinburgh awards – for many of them, this was the first time in their lives that they were doing something which had a real purpose.

My father spent his working life in the nuclear industry … and although ambitious, he never let his work interfere with the love of his home life and family. Daddy had to learn at an early age how to take on the responsibility of being the man of the family, because his own father died when he was only twelve.

He never really told my mother exactly what he did in the nuclear industry (or how to programme the video recorder in later years for that matter). It came as rather a shock, when a national paper asked my mother for an interview on what is was like to be the wife of the youngest nuclear health physicist in the country.

When only 32, Daddy was sent to Thailand in order to commission the first nuclear reactor in that country. This was followed by the commissioning of the reactors at Bradwell Nuclear Power Station, where our young family spent many happy years, living in Maldon.

Daddy’s work in the nuclear industry – particularly during his time at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, provided guidance and help during world-wide nuclear emergencies – nowhere was his work more critical than throughout the period of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Thousands of people who will perhaps never personally know my father owe their safety to his leadership.

Ten years after the Chernobyl accident, Daddy and I had reason to reflect on the event once again. My job as a foreign news producer led me to be assigned to visit Chernobyl to mark the anniversary. Daddy always took great interest in any foreign location I visited, but never more so than this particular project – unfortunately his lack of fluency in the Russian language or knowledge of cheap Russian vodkas meant that he couldn’t pass himself off as our interpreter for the trip.

Years later though, he still provided help and expertise during the Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Not only did my father act as a consultant to the BBC High Risk Team, but at a more personal level, he wrote to a friend of mine in Japan who had requested his help. Helen sent me the following message last week:

I am very grateful for your father’s letter about radiation problems. It gave me peace of mind, information I could depend on & a sense of balance. His letter was forwarded to lots of worried people here. Many of whom wrote back to say thank you & that they'd forwarded it on further. His advice reached hundreds of people within Japan!

Daddy had a way with words – he could put peoples minds at rest. However, when it came to Halloween, he could scare the living daylights out of Margaret, David and myself with his ghost stories. I (allegedly) always took comfort in hiding in a particular spot behind the settee. David also remembers a Sunday school talk, with Daddy illustrating a particular point (I’m not exactly sure what!) by using a geiga counter and several pieces of radioactive material, which he just happened to have lying around our garage at home.

My parents moved a couple of times after they returned from Vienna – to Penarth and finally to Evenjobb.

I must admit that I was a little worried when they moved to Evenjobb – as they seemed to be moving to the middle of nowhere. How wrong could I have been. They had actually moved to the middle of an extraordinary community of friends and neighbours.

In both Penarth and Evenjobb, my father continued to play a very active role – in the church, with the horticultural society …. And in particular, with the Kington Art Society …. and was always there to help in any way he could – my father, the doer.

However, I will always remember one evening phone call I made to my parents … whilst they were living in Penarth. My father answered the phone – and in a voice, which could barely suppress his admiration and pride he said: “would you like to speak to Counsellor Emmerson”. My mother had just been elected to the Vale of Glamorgan Council and Daddy was the proudest man in all Penarth.

Whilst still in Vienna, our family grew, to include Chris – and my father, remarkably quickly, acquired an expert knowledge of fine wines and breeds of dogs. Two subsequent happy family occasions …welcomed Helen and Kyoko to the Emmerson family and to them all, Daddy became much more than just a father in law.

There are so many, many memories each of us here today have of my father. But even now, I’m sure Daddy is still the doer, still being hands-on. We often hear talk of a choir of angels. I’m certain that not only has Daddy joined the choir, but he has already taken up the post of treasurer.

It is this spirit of adventure, of wanting to do everything he could for his family and friends, that will always bring a broad smile to anyone’s face when the words Bruce Emmerson are spoken.

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