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John Camp (1944-2016)

Posted: Sun May 07, 2017 11:16 am
by John Saunders
Some very sad news: John Camp died on 17 October 2016, aged 72. He was both a pupil at the school (1954-60) and a master (1967-68), and you can find some biographical information which I have compiled about him in the RGS Masters' list and the School Honours Board list. John, who was a member of this forum, commented on these entries and helped me to improve them a couple of years ago but such short mini-bios couldn't hope to convey the full details of such a varied life. I am grateful to Clifton Hughes for informing me of John's passing and also to the Oxford University Society of Change Ringers, from whose January 2017 issue I have copied the following obituary, splendidly written by Ian Davies.

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Ian Davies, January 2017 wrote:John E Camp, Jesus 1961, died 17th October 2016

John Camp was born in Romford, Essex, on 27 February 1944. His father was half French, and during his childhood John spent much time living with relatives in France and Germany, as a result of which he was fluent in both languages. He was educated at Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, where he won a state scholarship [and a Welsh Foundation Scholarship - JS] to Jesus College, Oxford. He had learnt to ring at Amersham, where his father ran a farm-supplies shop and his mother a local pharmacy. In October 1961 at the age of 17, he joined the Oxford University Society of Change Ringers (OUS) and the Oxford Society, forming many lasting friendships among the members of both. He also joined Collegium Musicum Oxoniense, Oxford’s premier small choir, but singing gradually lost out to ringing.

Before going to university he had rung nine peals. Between October 1961 and May 1964 he rang another 35, including conducting an OUS peal of Diserens’ eight spliced atw. At the time he was the youngest ringer to have achieved this. In total, John rang 85 peals, of which 32 were for the OUS, 32 for the Oxford Diocesan Guild, and nine for the Oxford Society. He rang four peals of minor, six of triples, forty of major, eleven of caters, twelve of royal, four of cinques, and eight of maximus. John rang no peals after 2001 and gradually spent less time ringing, to some extent because he occasionally began to suffer from feelings of anxiety, for example that the floor would collapse while he was ringing. Later he also began to experience this anxiety when climbing staircases to ringing chambers. Despite these problems his interest in ringing and ringers never waned.

At different times John served as OUS Treasurer, Secretary, and, in 1963, Ringing Master. He was responsible for creation of the office of General Secretary, the purpose of which is to maintain contacts between the resident Society and non-resident Life Members, originally to ensure the success of the Society’s Centenary celebrations in 1972. John helped to organise many of these celebrations, including a peal in every tower in Oxford, the Centenary Dinner, and augmentation of the ‘Society’s tower’, St Mary Magdalen, from six to eight. John was General Secretary from 1970 to 1976; after leaving this post he continued to maintain close contacts with the resident society and was always available when help was needed. One job
he regarded as especially important was ensuring the Society’s rules were fit for purpose. This involved substantial re-drafting on at least four occasions. In recognition of his service to the Society he was elected a Vice President, which he occupied from 1971 until 1999 and again from 2009. In the intervening ten years he was the Society’s President. John was Central Council representative for the OUS from 1969 to 1978.

During his time at Oxford he was encouraged by his contemporaries to attend College Youths’ practices; in 1962, while still an undergraduate, he was elected to membership of that Society. His involvement in ASCY ringing while at university peaked during his final year when he accepted an invitation to participate in some ringing at St Paul’s Cathedral. Owing to illness he did not take his finals. A few years later, after working as a porter at Amersham Hospital, where he met Virginia, who was to become his wife, he re-took finals, obtaining degrees in law and in French and German. After qualifying in law, in 1969 he was called to the bar at Inner Temple, as a barrister specialising in copyright and libel, a job which took
him around the world, especially to Hong Kong. Despite this he managed, until his recent illness, to attend all but one OUS dinner and all its annual tours. Later he also sat as a recorder (part-time judge). During this period John became interested in politics. He joined the Conservative party and became Chairman both of his local branch and of the local health authority. Initial ambitions to become an MP were thwarted by his disapproval of some of the policies of the Thatcher government, as a result of which he resigned from the party.

After approximately 13 years in the legal profession, he decided to become a priest, something he had briefly considered while at Oxford. After ordination in 1989, John worked as Chaplain at St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton, for twelve years and was then priest in charge of All Saints Church, Turvey, Bedfordshire, from 2000 to 2002. While there he attended practices and taught some of the villagers to handle a bell. After leaving the clergy, on doubting his faith, John continued to serve as a recorder, dealing with appeals by visitors or refugees seeking asylum in the UK. Later he was a trustee of the charity Northampton Headway, a community-based specialist social and therapeutic centre for people who have sustained traumatic or acquired brain injury.

He had a profound interest in medicine, especially psychotherapy, and in 1998 was awarded a diploma in forensic psychotherapy by UCL. He also had an M Tech in management and administration from Brunel University, and he served on several NHS committees, including Wycombe Health Authority, the Mental Health Act Commission, and Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Trust. He had a huge capacity for work. In addition to the activities described above, in the seventies he was Chairman of the Aylesbury Vale and Wycombe branch of the Campaign for Real Ale and, later, a member of the CAMRA national executive. He used his legal skills to obtain a Sunday Morning extension from 11 am to noon for local CAMRA monthly meetings. He was also extremely knowledgeable about the Cairanne wines of the Southern Rhone. More recently John’s legal and other skills have often been called upon by the editor of The Ringing World—a case in point being an evaluation of the judicial review judgement concerning Worcester Cathedral.

John held extremely strong views: he was both a proselytising vegetarian and an ardent feminist. In his youth he was a member of the MCC, but resigned in protest at their refusal to allow women members. He also tried hard to persuade the ASCY to admit women members and, when unsuccessful, resigned from this society also. When the society eventually changed its rules, John successfully stood for re-election. He was a man of many other talents. Among these was a self-taught understanding of the functioning of personal computers. This was acquired during and after his setting up, in 1997, of the Ringing Chat email list for those chastened for “drifting off-topic” on Change Ringers, an older list set up for discussion of ringing topics (only!) In his own words John set up Ringing Chat as “a forum for the sort of subjects which might be raised in the pub after a practice”. It came to be regarded as a virtual pub with John as Landlord. While maintaining the list he was not averse to criticising its subscribers if their thinking was not straight or their use of English not up to scratch (again in John’s words “A tolerant atmosphere prevails, though there is no bar on the correction of grammar and spelling.”) He also said firmly: “Anything which would not be acceptable in the pub is not acceptable on the list.” Many subscribers acknowledged how much they learnt from him in this relaxed pub atmosphere. He described himself as a compulsive communicator, and this was apparent from his many contributions to the Ringing World. For seven years he summarised contributions to several ringing email lists in his highly entertaining column From the E-Lists; more recently he contributed several articles loosely related to ringing in a fortnightly column Out of the Tower. In 2005 he revised the book Discovering Bells and Bell Ringing, written by his father, also John Camp.

In the last ten years of his life John’s mobility was affected by poor health. Although, with treatment, this improved, in 2014, shortly after attending the National 12-Bell Final in Oxford, he became unwell again. He was diagnosed with liver cancer in the summer of 2016. He announced this on the e-lists and in a candid issue of Out of the Tower, in which he drew the connection between his illness and the life of a “professional middle-class heavy drinker”: “I draw no moral and I weep no crocodile tears (though there have been some real ones).” He died on Monday, 17th October 2016. He is survived by Virginia and their children Christopher and Lizzie.

John was quite a character. Although not a fan of conventional jokes, he had a devastating sense of humour; his incisive assessment of one’s limitations was invariably accurate. To describe his personality, I can do no better than quote some words by Philip Earis, included in a tribute sent to Ringing Chat: “John was a formidable presence: a razor-sharp mind coupled with an inclination and ability to verbally eviscerate the many things he disagreed with, be it people, institutions, sloppy thinking, careless language, pomposity or the absurdities of many traditions. John exuded knowledge, judgement and authority in all he said and wrote. However, there was a disconnect between his on-list persona (thoughtful, calm, polite) and the direct, forceful views he would expound in person when surrounded by those he knew well. Many who only knew or primarily interacted with John by his messages to this list would be profoundly shocked.

To spend time in a pub with John was both a challenging and a hugely enriching experience. He would preside over a generation-spanning audience (bright young things spurred him on), seemingly unchanging as the tally of pints rose steadily through the afternoon and evening. He could be withering about those who couldn’t keep up the pace. He could be ferociously grumpy. He seemed to relish being challenged, primarily as it gave him the opportunity to forcefully counter and then win an argument.

Both touchingly nostalgic and impressively forward-looking, John had a very big impact on the world of ringing. As an engaged member of the College Youths he was never backward about highlighting the shortcomings he saw in people, processes or policies. As a towering figure and President of the OUS he shaped the Society in a way that has had profound consequences for many hundreds of ringers, for other university ringing societies, and for ringing more generally. And as a prime architect and supporter of the e-lists he has left a lasting legacy of communication and friendships. I last saw John at the 12 bell final this summer in Aston, and spent a long time chatting with him there. He has taught me and many others so very much, and moreover shaped the way I think about things. It was a privilege to have known him.”