Obituary Major Erik White Leask

[The following eulogy was given by Erik's son David at the funeral. You can also see Erik's career profile, further down.]

Thank you all for being here today to farewell Erik.

As you may know this service is being live-streamed (which would bemuse Erik) primarily so that my sisters Jenny, in Italy, and Lou, in Scotland, can be in virtual attendance and I also extend greetings to all who are watching the live-stream.

It’s my privilege to say a few words about Erik on behalf of Jenny, Lou, and myself, which is a role that I’m not sure that I’m best placed to perform not least because close proximity sometimes obscures rather than reveals, but Erik would of course say that he was a simple man about whom there was no mystery.

And I think he’d be right, up to a point.

Ultimately his was a fortunate life but Erik’s early years were not easy.

He lost his mother when he was only 5 years old, saw little of his father, who was a naval officer, and went to boarding school at the age of seven.

The second world war broke out on the day after Erik’s eleventh birthday, and he spent the war years either at boarding school or with his rather grim and elderly relatives in Scotland.

He occasionally had his elder brother Ronald and cousin Reay for company but being the youngest and, not being physically robust, he was usually on the receiving end of their pranks, and this, together with life at boarding school, and absent parents, may have helped him develop his tough outer shell of quiet resilience.

Although his school years were undoubtedly hard, they were interspersed with periods of great satisfaction and fulfilment, such as those he spent working on a farm in Devon, halcyon days on which he looked back as having been immensely enjoyable and formative.

This is how Erik recently described his younger self:
I was a quiet soul, preferring to keep myself to myself.
I did not exhibit any particular gifts or skills either intellectually or practically and did not have any special hobbies.
I was shamefully idle at school, something I have regretted all my life. I was perfectly able to produce good work but required a thoroughly good kicking to do so.
Did I miss my parents? Not that I recall, probably because, having seen so little of them in my childhood, they had become remote, not only geographically but also in terms of our relationship.

…looking back, being on my own led me to develop a sense of stoicism which, by and large, has served me well since I have never experienced any feelings of insecurity.”

His relative frailty as child, which had given rise to his family nickname of ‘Pooch’, was transformed into a dynamic athleticism following surgery for tuberculosis, and he became a fine rugby player, captaining his school and later playing as a prop forward at a high level with the Irish club Lansdowne, and for the British Army, and when a knee injury ended his playing career his understanding of the dark arts of the rugby scrum helped him to become a very astute referee.

His application of those arts as a player was sometimes wayward, such as the occasion when under a pile of bodies he aimed a punch at an opposing player which missed its target but landed flush on the jaw of a team-mate, knocking him out cold.

I don’t know what effect that blow had on the outcome of the match but thankfully Erik and his unfortunate victim always remained good friends thereafter.

Having left school Erik had spent some time in Singapore, where his father was head of the Pilot service and when he wasn’t enjoying life as a young and carefree expat his plans to qualify as a vet received a practical grounding when he worked as the assistant to the honorary vet to the Singapore Turf Club.

Erik returned to Europe and started reading veterinary medicine at Trinity College Dublin but he quickly came to the view that, as a result of his shameful idleness of his schooldays, the academic demands of the course would be beyond him, and with little apparent regret he instead pursued a career as an army officer, having enjoyed his National Service, a decision which he never regretted.

Erik often remarked how fortunate he was to have served as an army officer during the end-of-empire era when there were still postings to be had in interesting and exotic locations without being exposed to armed combat (in spite of which he received a medal for bravery) or the stifling and morale-draining effect of the bureaucracy which he felt came to characterise the British Army as he approached retirement.

In the late 1960’s Mary and Erik returned to England from a posting in Malaysia and bought the disused school in a village just east of Salisbury, which over many years and under the guidance of Erik’s architect brother Ronald, they transformed into a very comfortable home.

The school’s asphalt playground was ripped up and replaced with a beautiful and very productive garden which became Erik’s twenty-five year labour of love.

Those School House years were a period of immense happiness for Erik and Mary – they were able to indulge their creative instincts in designing and executing the conversion of the former school into a family home of great character, with Erik stewarding the vegetable garden through the changing seasons.

They were enthusiastic hosts and loved having friends and relatives to stay, and the School House became a regular port of call for many Australian visitors.

Those years were also a time of great spiritual fulfilment for Mary and Erik.

They had for many years been keen choral singers, and became mainstays of the parish choir and fully immersed themselves in the musical life of Salisbury Cathedral where, incidentally, Erik was remembered in prayers yesterday – thank you Jane!

Due to his fastidiousness, efficiency, attention to detail, and easy-going nature Erik was a very effective administrator and he was appointed the treasurer of the Southern Cathedrals’ Festival, which allowed him to also become involved in the communities of Winchester and Chichester Cathedrals.

As his retirement approached it became apparent to Mary and Erik that they’d reluctantly have to leave the School House, as the large garden had become something of a burden to Erik and the house itself was far too big for them.

The decision as to where they would relocate was made a little easier by Jenny, Lou and I all moving overseas at roughly the same time – Jenny to Italy, Lou to Senegal, and myself to Perth.

Mary and Erik had always enjoyed their trips to Australia, and to Perth in particular, where Mary’s cousin Nan, of whom they were and remained enormously fond, lived.

So they very quickly decided that Perth was the place to be and arrived here in 1993 for what would be a very enjoyable, busy, and sociable retirement in which Mosman Park Golf Club and the many dear friends that they made there, a fair number of whom are here today, formed an central element.

In his final years Erik took the inevitable insults of age in his stride with occasional protestation but little complaint, always showing patience, tolerance, and gratitude towards those who cared for him. He retained his dry and self-deprecating sense of humour to the end.

This superficial resume suggests the progression of an outwardly fortunate life, and I’d like to briefly reflect on the fundamental elements of Erik’s character which shaped his life experience.

He was someone who recognised and was entirely at ease with his limitations, setting his ambitions at levels which were achievable and not resenting those who were able to fly higher than he could.

Erik had little interest in material possessions other than those that were functionally useful or attracted his artisan’s appreciation of that which was finely made.

This was something that he had in common with his brother Ronald who was himself a highly skilled, imaginative, and versatile craftsman whose many and diverse talents possibly overshadowed but certainly inspired Erik.

Erik relished physical work, particularly when allied to a skill – for example he derived tremendous satisfaction from the bite and whisper of a well sharpened scythe rhythmically swinging through a swathe of long grass.

He was something of a technophobe and seemed almost incapable of understanding and operating electronic devices, but he was capable of surprising himself as shown by his late (and frequently baffled) adoption of the computer as the tool which he used to compose vignettes on aspects of his earlier life, the writing of which gave him great pleasure, and for keeping in touch with family and friends overseas.

However he much preferred pen and paper for his written communications, which were always carefully composed and written in his distinctively elegant hand, using ink from a bottle in a fountain pen.

Also like his brother, although in a relatively understated way, Erik was a spiritual man, that being a core element of his personality which gave added meaning and purpose his life as a chorister.

He drew immense enjoyment, comfort, satisfaction, and inspiration in equal measure from the music, language, rituals, community, and physical fabric of the church, and he and Mary considered themselves blessed to have been introduced to this church, and Father Peter, by Nan.

Consistent with his outward appearance of square-jawed fortitude Erik had a self-contained resilience, no doubt stemming from the circumstances of his early years, and when it came to matters of the spirit he seemed to be a private, somewhat enigmatic, man who was usually reluctant to articulate the deeper feelings that he obviously had.

One could though gain an understanding of the spiritual element of Erik’s life through the music and literature that meant so much to him, and his instinctive understanding of the interrelationships and rhythms of the natural world, and, with the increasing contentment that his later years brought Erik, like the fine wine that he always enjoyed, mellowed, softened, and opened up a little.

He was a man of apparent contradictions: being someone who derived great comfort from his prejudices (usually received and adopted without question from the London Daily Telegraph) but was always prepared to listen to an opposing view and being tolerant of difference; he was an essentially private man who was a genial and generous host; he was a man of the establishment but his character had a strong element of nonconformism; although a military man through and through he was an essentially gentle soul who shunned confrontation; but he’d say those apparent contradictions simply proved what a well-balanced person he was! He was a man of understated elegance, urbane, resolute, dependable, loyal, and immensely patient and forgiving.

He found his external life balance in his relationship with Mary, their shared interests, particularly in music, horses, and in later years golf, together with their complementary differences, making each the ideal partner for the other.

He had at his core an implacable calmness – not in the sense of a tranquillity or serenity but an inner strength and this strength and his equable nature provided the hearth in which the fire of Mary’s many and varied interests could burn brightly.

He delighted in being a grandfather and more recently a great-grandfather, following with fascination and affection the varied lives and changing fortunes of his grand-children, his only regret being that he was able to see so little of them.

So, farewell Erik, much loved and missed by all, may we give thanks for having had a part to play in your life.

In the words of his friend John Rutter, to you the deep peace of the running wave, the quiet earth, and the gentle night.

It was a good life, and that’s as it should be, for he was a good man.

Career Profile

Born - 2 Sep 1928 - Crayford, Kent
Educated Blundell's & Trinity College, Dublin
Regular Commission -11 Mar 1951

Record of Service and Activities:
Joined Royal Horse Guards as NS Trooper Nov 1946. Commissioned 1947 and posted to
RHG in BAOR 1947.
Completed NS 1948 and went to Trinity College Dublin.
Joined Oxf & Bucks Lt Inf after taking RCB 1952, and posted to Egypt as 2/Lt.
Served with Oxf Bucks in BAOR 1953-1956 as Lt and Capt.
Posted to Cyprus with Oxf Bucks in Jun 1956 and served as GSO 3 on Chief of Staff's HQ, Nicosia for 4 months.
Seconded to Royal Malay Regiment Jun 1957-Jun 1960 as Adjt, IO and Coy Comd (MID).
Posted to 1 Green Jackets whilst serving as Demonstration Battalion, Warminster,
1960-Apr 1962.
Posted to Oxf & Bucks Lt Inf (TA) Oxford, as Adjt/Trg Major 1962-Apr 1964.
Posted to HQ Cyprus District as GSO 3(SD) May 1964-Feb 1966.
Feb 1966 posted to 1 Royal Green Jackets as Rifle Coy Comd.
1 Feb 1969-Feb 1971 D.A.A.G Brit High Commission, Kuala Lumpar, Malaya.
13 Feb 1971-Apr 1973 Rifle Depot R.I.O.
Apr 1973-Aug 1978 SOII Sch of Inf, Support Weapons Wing.
Retired from Regular Army 3 Sep 1978.
Sep 1978 - RHQ Winchester Vice Major H.P. Patterson
2-Sep 1993 - Retirement

7 Mar 1953 - Married - Mary Barham Shaw
Jennifer, 5 Nov 1953
David Charles, 21 Jan 1955
Caroline Anne, 30 Nov 1959

Special Interests - Schools, Travel, Sports etc:
Captain Blundell's 1st XV 1944-45, Lansdowne RFG (Dublin) 1st XV 1949-1951,
Rhine Army 1953, 1954, 1955.
Registered Rugby Referee Oxfordshire and Army Referees Society.
Keen horseman (foxhunting and schooling) and Pony Club organiser (Committee Member Diaklia Pony Club, Cyprus). Attended 6 week riding course with Berlin Mounted Police 1966. Sailing, Rough shooting, Classical music and choral work.
Emigrated to Autralia 11 March 1993 (Perth)