John Boys MW
Became an MW 1965, IMW Chairman 1978, died 2011
Wine, Women and Song – and Cricket!
I think the first time I met MISTER. Boys was 37 years ago in 1974 when he interviewed me for a job at Walter S. Siegel Ltd, and then we went to lunch at L’Ecu de France in Jermyn Street! Well it might have been my first day at work but those were the days when we worked hard in the morning and played hard from lunch time onwards!
John was born in 1919 and educated at Eton at the same time as Humphrey Lyttleton, although, he told me, jazz wasn’t exactly his thing. Dreadful noise!
His mother was half Austrian, so John spoke fluent German and as a very young man he was sent to Vienna to visit his relatives. It was just before the outbreak of War and on his return to England he was given a letter to deliver to the Foreign Office which he hid in the sole of his shoe. He recalls it was a pretty nerve racking journey as the Gestapo were on the same train!
During the war he was in the British Army and helped push the Germans back across the Rhine. Perhaps this was his first introduction to his beloved Rieslings!
Members of the Harvey mafia will know more about his early career. He supplied Naval ships from Harveys’ Portsmouth office and Mr Pickwick can fill us in about his time at Deinhards. Whilst there, in 1965 he became a Master of Wine and joined Siegels in l970 where the great Ian Peebles, who played cricket for England, was Hans Siegel’s co-director.
John had great tact and diplomacy and travelled to Japan for the company at least once a year where we traded in bulk whisky. But of course he had this great knowledge and love of German wines, a subject fast going out of fashion. But, with the success we had with Brown Brothers Australian wines, we decided to risk getting back into German wines in a much bigger way. We had recently got the Dr Loosen agency, or at least the young Erni Loosen had found us. He had hitched a lift to London and from his Earls Court B&B phoned all the wine merchants in Yellow Pages. “No, sorry, not interested” they all said until he got to Siegel. John answered the phone and, switching to fluent German, said “I know your name – come and see us”.
In 1984, when the then owner of Siegel wanted to retire, John encouraged me to take over the company and it was only because of his fantastic support that I felt confident enough to do so. By now he was 64. Not content with just one German agency, John and I decided to try and find a rising star in each of the main wine regions there. So John, Erni Loosen and Stuart Pigott (the well-known German wine critic, then living in Bernkastel) helped to find these wonderful growers:
Gunderloch in Rheinhessen, Donnhoff in the Nahe, Leitz in the Rheingau and Furst in Franconia. And later Erni Loosen’s 2nd estate, JL Wolf in the Pfalz. They have all become stars and are now known as “The Masters of Riesling”.
John eventually retired in 1992 when he was 73 but continued to be invited out to Germany to judge for the esteemed Feinschmacker wine magazine. All the Germans loved him and respected his huge knowledge of their wines.
That was wine. Then there was Women and Song: Well there were dozens of women, or so it seemed. Most of them were invited to concerts at the Festival Hall or John Smith Square, with dinner afterwards, often at my Greek Cypriot Restaurant, Jasons. So I can vouch for the fact that they were all very attractive, but somehow John never got round to marriage.
His other great love was cricket. Apparently once, when rain stopped play and John Arlott or somebody was describing the seagulls enjoying the puddles, the TV cameras swung round and there was a solitary John Boys standing in the Pavilion looking forlornly out across the deserted pitch.
Soon after his 90th birthday, at a splendid lunch at the Hurlingham Club that everyone here will remember, John spoke most eloquently and amusingly about his years in the wine trade, with many anecdotes. And that was probably the last that many of us saw of him.
He died last October aged nearly 92, at home in Aldeburgh. There was a wonderful send off in the Aldeburgh Church where he regularly read the lesson, always insisting on the King James version of the bible. Several members of the trade were present, including Charlie Burt, Robin Don, Christopher Berry Green, Francis Pearson (who will soon speak to us) and Stuart Pigott who had come over specially from Berlin where he now lives.
In his address, the vicar told us that when John was found in his chair at home, having peacefully passed away, there was a half finished bottle of wine on the mantelpiece, a Pinot Noir, a German Pinot Noir from the Pfalz. That can only have been Erni Loosen’s Spatburgunder from his Pfalz estate, J L Wolf.
Two weeks later Stuart Piggott, who found a sample of the same wine in a store in Berlin, made it his Wine of the Week in memory of his long-time friend John Boys. Villa Wolf Pinot Noir.
I have had many emails from wine producers in Germany, France and Australia and from friends in the Trade, all of whom remember him fondly. Here is just one of them from Peter Cobb of Cockburn/Martinez who said: “John was invariably to be found sitting in the back row, two in from the left hand entrance, on the first floor balcony of the Lords Pavilion during test matches. There was always a noggin or three in his flat at St. John’s Wood after play for fellow cricket nuts like me. He will be sadly missed.”
Lastly, John’s beautiful use of the English language will be remembered by many. Of me, when sharing a good bottle of wine, he declared, “Nigel has the most wonderful powers of suction!”. So, with that in mind, please stand and drink to the memory of John Harvey Boys – cheers!
– address by Nigel Blundell to the 60 or so wine trade members of the Mr Pickwick Club on Monday 9 January
John Boys worked for Harveys in Kiddeminster until 1959 when he was moved to run their Portsmouth branch selling mainly to the Royal Navy, and I succeeded him in the Midlands. He provided my wife and I with a number of good contacts in Worcestershire during and after the handover.
– tribute by Pat Lloyd MW
Richard Neill begins: May I begin by thanking all John’s friends here in Aldeburgh for the love and kindness shown and given to him during these last weeks as John faced ‘the dying of the light’? In particular I thank Joanna Robinson, John Giles and Aidan Higgs for all they did at the end of John’s life. Thanks are also due to the Vicar, Nigel Hartley for allowing John’s wishes for this service to be carried out to the letter.
Dylan Thomas’s words remind us of the indignities of old age and how death must be resisted. Contrarily I believe my cousin John felt the time had come to ‘go gentle into that good night’ and that he accepted the end of his life with equanimity and inevitability and died, as he would have wanted, with his dignity intact. It is true he was alone but the John I knew would not have wanted it any other way.
The last time I saw John was on Sunday 2nd October. We had a chat about his Will and his financial affairs and then lunched at the golf club. In the month that has elapsed since I had last seen him it was clear that John had declined: he had less energy and found everything about living much more difficult. Nevertheless, there on his side-board was a bottle of wine and I am reliably informed a glass of red wine was the last thing he consumed! Fittingly, bearing in mind John’s specialisation, it was Pinot Noir from Pfalz in Germany.
John died in his own home – on his own terms if you like. He dreaded having to go into care and have, as he said, ‘lots of women fussing about’! As we said good-bye on that hot Sunday evening he pressed a box containing six bottles of wine into my hands. Now, and this is typical, he added ‘I would enjoy those three now and wait a little while before touching the others’. So he said farewell to me in his own way and that, as you will see, completed an elegant circle which he had unconsciously created.
In explaining this I think I should tell you why it is my sister and I who are giving this tribute today – trespassing on the intimate world of Aldeburgh and John’s many friends here. We are from the Boys side of his family – not from his mother’s – the Lukes, and most importantly, John asked me to read a tribute today. We knew John all our lives and we both loved him very much. Indeed, ever since we can remember, John has been part of our lives and, even as a small boy I remember how his face would light up when my sister came into the room. As a male sibling you can imagine how odd I found this!
John was particularly fond of our mother, his first cousin; this fondness perhaps growing when he was employed by Harveys of Bristol after the war. Our father was a doctor in Bath, so our house was a convenient resting place for a young wine-salesman gaining his feet. John stayed so often that I am sure we felt he was part of the family. We would lie in bed at night hearing that rich voice and laugh drifting up the stairs as he shared some of his wares with our parents after he had come up stairs and listened to our bed-time stories.
John never formally signed the visitors book but, instead left his mark like a mediaeval craftsman. A wine bottle!
Alison continues: One of the greatest challenges that my mother set herself during our childhood was the task of finding the right wife for John. She was not alone in this self-appointed task, I know! The poor man would announce his arrival in Bath and a dinner party would be organised immediately and a number of young-ish girls were invited. I am sure she felt she had succeeded in her self-appointed task when John invited one particularly attractive girl out to dinner on his own. Indeed this happened more than once! But, as we all know, John was and remained the eternal bachelor. He loved the company of women, his many girlfriends, as he always called them, but it seems he really was not the marrying kind and had a life-long determination to remain single.
Whilst John was born in the home of his paternal grand-parents in St Albans he grew up in Lincolnshire in Woodhall Spa where his father had a medical practice. It was at his prep-school, encouraged by his father, that John discovered a life-long passion for cricket which he developed successfully whilst at Eton.
Over the years, many have commented on John’s Englishness. It is, perhaps, surprising to realise that his mother was born Lily Lukács (of Austro-Hungarian lineage) and this connection enabled John to become fluent in German as he stayed with his cousins in Austria before the war.
Lily Lukács’s father, a former officer in the Imperial Army, left Austria and established himself in the United States, eventually joining the Westinghouse Company. Some time later, he was sent back to Europe on behalf of the company. Lily Boys, whom I am sure many of you here will remember, recalled staying with relatives in Vienna as a little girl. Running down stairs in the Imperial Hotel she confronted a large tummy hidden behind a waist-coat. ‘Sorry Sir King!’ she shouted as she ran around Edward VII and continued on her chosen course.
This connection with Austria stood John in good stead and was at the root of him becoming an expert on German wines. It found him in Vienna, staying with his maternal grand-mother during the Anschluss, watching Nazi troops being welcomed by the Viennese. Because of John’s German skills he became an Intelligence Officer in the Lincolnshire regiment as it fought its way across France, Belgium and Holland in 1944 and 1945. The death of the Brigade Intelligence Officer meant he became the latter’s replacement. Inevitably he met some unsavoury, unrepentant Nazis in his work and it seems he was offered the MBE at the end of the war for months of unstinting, distinguished service. John’s friend, John Whately-Smith only discovered this fact recently and both of us would love to know why he turned the award down. Mr Whately-Smith also recalled how John and he arrested a Luftwaffe pilot who had parachuted behind British lines and how John somehow ended up acquiring the unfortunate pilot’s wrist-watch.
Captain Boys left the army and found his metier, that for which he became widely known and respected and to which he became a significant servant. Among the organisations in wine for which he worked were the aforementioned Harvey’s of Bristol, the German wine importers Deinhard and latterly Walter Siegel where he built on the relationships he had established in Germany. He became one of the earliest Masters of Wine, and I believe he was the oldest and longest serving Master when he died. John’s enjoyment of wine never dimmed and he loved its adjuncts, sherry and port. His guests never left under-fed and certainly never short of ‘the grape’. John had, too, a seemingly inexhaustible ability to enjoy his passion – he never (for him) exceeded what propriety required!
As John’s executor, my brother has been going through his papers in his home. Every time he opened a new cupboard it seems another box of wine was stored there. Few people were better equipped to survive a siege from the point of view of liquid supplies! But he shared it, and loved doing so. Among his papers we found the following quote which might have been written with John in mind: ‘The drinking of wine seems to have a moral edge over many pleasures and hobbies in that it promotes love of one’s neighbour. As a general thing it is not a lone occupation. A bottle of wine begs to be shared. I have never met a miserly wine lover.
Andrew continues: ‘When I retire’, John said, ‘I will sell my flat in St John’s Wood and buy a bungalow in Aldeburgh’. Well that is exactly what he did and he soon became part of the warp and weft of the community. John’s parents moved here after his father retired in the 1950’s. Leonard Boys had fallen in love with Aldeburgh when he first played golf here, aged eleven years old in 1891. With Lily, Dr Boys lived out their lives down the hill in Deben House. There was a Britten (the composer) connection too. Another of John’s first cousins, Harry Boys, was the dedicatee of Britten’s violin concerto and remained a close friend of the composer until Britten died in 1976. However, John’s musical tastes were perhaps best described as Germanic and conservative. In case this gives a wrong impression I should add that John always listened to music with the enthusiasm he brought to most occupations and some of this enthusiasm wore off on me. Often, after a day at Lord’s, he would take me back to his London flat for a drink or two – or three or even four and we would end the evening listening to Schubert or Schuman lieder.
He became a playing member of the MCC and attended every Lord’s Test Match between 1947 and 2010. He was also very proud of his new tie, with the Roman 60 beneath the letters MCC. Although, partly thanks to John, I became a member a few years ago, I know I will never achieve this distinction. In John’s honour, I am wearing this tie today for the first and certainly the only time.
Locally he played cricket for Aldeburgh, turning out in his Eton Ramblers cap as he opened the batting against Brandisdon. On one occasion he was hit on the chest four times in the opening over but, Boycott like, he remained glued to the crease. He was well into his sixties before retiring from this exposed role.
John loved skiing, entertaining and parties. Once, when skiing at St Anton with John Whately-Smith, the two Johns had a bet with each other as to which would first dance with one of the Dutch princesses who were holidaying there with their mother Queen Juliana. They both lost!
John loved, too, the rituals of and participation in clubs like the Beefsteak in London and the annual Omar Khayám Society Dinner and was proud to be one of the longest serving members of the In and Out club. Latterly he was investigating his family history in greater detail which included Captain Boys, a gallant Napoleonic sailor who escaped as a prisoner of the French and the Reverend Richard Boys who was chaplain on St Helena when Napoleon was imprisoned there. Then there was John Bois one of the translators of the King James Bible about whom we heard on Sunday evening. Another ancestor, Colonel Sir John Boys, successfully defended Donnington Castle for the King in 1644 but was forced to surrender two years later to parliamentary forces. I might add that it is difficult to imagine anyone with the name John Boys being a puritan!
Two things became clear as I ploughed through John’s paper-work. First, he seems never to have thrown anything away and secondly how beloved he was by all those he touched. He was one of those people who asked little but gave greatly as a friend, a Master of Wine and sportsman: for years he gave generously of his knowledge and played cricket for the staff of Hordle House School on the Isle of Wight. Above all, his friends, here, around Britain, in Germany and more widely spread around the globe, attest to his generosity. Many also remember, with admiration, John’s stoicism as he dealt with the sudden loss of his brother, Tony, in 2004.
Proficiscere anima Christiana de hoc mundo. Those Latin words of committal are all very well, but the last thing John would have wanted was too much solemnity. Among the newspaper cuttings I found in his desk was this letter to The Times. Clearly, it brought a smile to John’s face and I hope it does for you as we say farewell and thank him for a life well-lived and enjoyed. The letter was written by a church organist who played at the funeral of a Scot. He found some music: variations on a Scottish theme which he played as a voluntary. After the service, another Scot thanked him for playing something from north of the border but did he, the organist, appreciate that the theme was ‘will ye no come back again’?
Thank you, dear John for your life and for touching the hearts of so many; may you rest in peace.
– address given by Alison Ward and Richard Neill, his first cousins once removed, at John’s Memorial service at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Aldeburgh on 25 October 2011