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Department of Geography

 

Richard Chorley

Richard Chorley

The following address was given by Professor Haggett (University of Bristol) at Dick Chorley's funeral on Tuesday 21st May, 2002.


It is a great privilege to be asked by Dick's family to speak at this service. My first task must be to convey to Rosemary, to Richard, to Eleanor, and their families, the love and support that his friends here (and from right around the world) would wish to send them.


We gather in this chapel today to give thanks for the life of Richard John Chorley, fellow of this college for forty years and for some years its Vice-Master. He loved this chapel and the college - "the pretty little one, up from the Dorothy and just across from Halford's bike shop" - as he once wrote when inviting me to dinner. It was here in 1965 that some of us here today were gathered in joy to witness his marriage to Rosemary. It was here that one of their children was christened and their daughter was married. It was here - and at St Botolphs - that he worshipped. And it is right that it in this chapel that we gather today.

An obituaries editor for a national newspaper rang me last week to ask me to write about Richard: "Just tell readers why he was important and what sort of a man he was" said the voice. The first part is easy. A great analytical geomorphologist who revolutionized landform study ? Unambiguously, yes, perhaps history will judge him the greatest of his generation. Author of a shelf full of massive scholarly volumes and many hundreds of scientific papers ? The record is clear. Founder of scholarly journals ? They go from strength to strength. Iconoclast who shook at the very pillars of his discipline ? For sure. Teacher whose students vividly recall his lectures and whose graduate students people the world's universities ? Just look around you.

And yet none of the above explain why so many around the world today will share in such a keen sense of loss and why they have gathered from all quarters of this kingdom and have crossed the Atlantic to be here today. For that we have to turn to the second part of the editor's question: "What sort of a man was he ?"

Only Dick's immediate family will know the true and very private Richard. But for those of us who were privileged to have his friendship and who worked alongside him as colleagues and collaborators in a more public arena, several things stand out. I select three; other colleagues might have chosen others.

First his bubbling and infectious good humour. He had what the poet John Betjeman called "the bonus of laughter"; faced with the choice between life being seen as tragic or comic, plumped unerringly for the latter. There is no one with whom I have laughed more over the decades and I suspect that was true of so many of us. I won't spoil any of his hundreds of good stories (St Peter is in for a treat), but simply recall one incident when he was teaching.

First-year students in Downing Place were finding a key topological concept difficult to grasp. After a couple of tries at the blackboard, he illustrated it by slowly removing his waist-coat - without taking off his jacket; the waist-coat eventually emerging from his left sleeve, to thunderous applause. He was an inspirational teacher who needed few notes but would sometimes take in a thick sheaf of blank pages to the lecture theatre, "to give them more confidence" as he put it.

A second strand was Dick's steadfast loyalty and sense of duty. Whether it was visiting week after week and year after year an old friend with terminal illness, regularly attending dull but necessary committee, or writing yet another reference for an old student finding it hard to get started, he was utterly loyal and dependable. As Somerset men we both shared a life-long support for its bizarre and perennially unsuccessful county cricket team. One rival recently pointed out that the team had failed to win the County Championship in 110 years of trying: "Any Tom or Harry can support a winning team" explained Dick "its supporting the no hopers that needs the real concentration".

His loyalty to all things around his native Exmoor - from apple orchard customs to his beloved West Somerset Railway - was legendary and he never forgot his family roots nor lost a gentle West Country burr. He looked back on his schooling there with affection. At Minehead Grammar School he had once had to write out lines for misspelling the second word as "Grammer". In the many Who' Who type reference books in which his biography was later recorded he would always try to slip this missspelling past the unsuspecting copy editor. He always chuckled when occasionally it slipped into some pompous tome. He would have been born on the third day, of the ninth month, and of the 27th year in the century (a happy numerical progression) but for the exigencies of British Summer Time. Typically, he compensated for the error by celebrating two birthdays on successive days.

Yet a third strand was his diffidence and self-effacement. He was a man totally without conceit or artifice or spin. To get him to accept an honour of any kind was, as I know to my cost, very hard work indeed. He was of course honoured by institutions on both sides of the Atlantic but the list of distinguished professorships, fellowships, and awards that he gently but firmly turned aside was a still greater one. We had just started to work together this year on another paper for an IGU meeting and I know we would have eventually agreed on everything except the order of our names on the cover sheet. Regardless of how signal or overwhelming his contribution had been, he would always strive to be the last name on the author's list.

Of course he had his weaknesses. Like his Columbia colleague, Mark Melton, he had a singular taste in musical instruments. His early love for the euphonium [Chris Board thinks it was a Souzaphone] was a particular trial to his friends. He once asked me to collect a battered instrument from his mother (who still then lived in Somerset). Strapped to the roofrack of our little Morris Minor it moaned on the long cross-country journey up to Cambridge on the rare occasions we exceeded forty-five miles an hour. He was later to use two ancient tape recorders to record himself on the first tape and then accompany himself on the second tape so as to build up - stage by stage - a unique euphonium quartet. When it failed to top the Causewayside charts he took it philosophically: "Perhaps, I'm ahead of my time" he mused.

He couldn't resist playing tricks on his solemn colleagues. In the early 1960s a misprint on one of his conference papers meant he was recorded as R.J.Chorlev. He subsequently received a letter from a Bulgarian professor addressed "Academician R.J.Chorlev, Sidney Sussex College, ..." saying he had enjoyed the paper but found it difficult to follow because of the poor translation into English from "Chorlev's original Russian". Dick not only wrote solemnly to thank him, to explain the point at issue, but went to a translation agency - just over in Green Street - to have his letter translated and typed in flawless Russian.

His Christian belief in an afterlife was sure and certain, if at times a little unconventional for those schooled in the more mirthless Karl Barth doctrines. Rosemary records how one morning, he stared gloomily at the frugal low-calorie breakfast his medical advisers prescribed. "When I get to heaven" he said "the first thing I shall do is to have a slap-up fried breakfast with all the trimmings." I suspect he would then settle down with dear Robert Beckinsale to start the fifth of their great volumes. And then check out with Conan Doyle whether Sherlock Holmes was indeed an undergraduate at Sidney Sussex.

His theological views were closely intertwined with his scientific views. Despite the theory and the mathematics he found "the landscape in its glory" (as John Keble put it") deeply moving. One limpidly-clear day in autumn of 1962 we were travelling with one of his old students from Clare College down the Owens Valley in California when the view suddenly opened up. For mile after mile after mile the eastern, faulted face of the Sierra Nevada rolled away in its majesty, 9000 feet above the valley floor. We climbed up through the sage brush and tumbleweed on a small hill to get a still better view and then left Dick alone - moved to the verge of tears - by his contemplation of God's handiwork. It was a handiwork (Bunyan's "Shooe in the Earth") that Dick was to spend his whole life studying - and illuminating for us.


We thank Rosemary and her family for allowing us to share in this, their service. We share with them in their sadness, in their thankfulness, and in their pride. For Dick's was a fine life, finely lived, and richly fulfilled, and we thank God for it.

P.H.
May 22, 2002