Tom Threlfall (1934-2016)
Tom used to say “If you have nothing to do don’t do it here”. Anon (I think)
We can probably excuse ourselves the short period of time spent reflecting on what Tom meant to us, but let’s all make sure we do something to make up for it once we have left.
Action and achievement was certainly Tom’s forte. So there is plenty of material to draw on to illustrate what kind of person he was. But writing was probably the principal theme that he maintained throughout his life. Although he might be considered a man of few words, there seems to be a consensus that those words he did commit either orally or on a scrap of bumph were well considered, witty, erudite and concise, something that is generally lacking in this day and age with multiple media outlets for any manner of impulsive twaddle. His interests in recent technological developments was lacking enthusiasm, barely getting beyond the typewriter, his commitment to the technology of his time was total, he embraced it whole heartedly and it defined him and his achievements completely.
Born in the 30s, he embraced with enthusiasm, determination and drive all that was to define the early part of the 20th century post-victorian technical age, as he set out and make his mark at very much the pointy end of air, sea and land. It is with great relief that neither of my sisters was called Mercedes, as the symbology of the auto-maker’s trident logo must have been very tempting, as he established himself as very much a leader in air land and sea, although they lacked a fourth arrow for lawnmowers, which wasn’t his most glittering achievement, having rolled one down the garden.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or plagiarism by another name, is something Tom had views about. The simplest solution presented to me for something to say was to imitate the words addressed to Tom’s father about 40 years ago. Simply replacing references to hunting and fishing with flying and motorsport, similar in principle, but quite different in application. He was one of three sons, who eloped with the mistress that was modern technology, eschewing the more traditional country pursuits that were on offer.
His commitment to technology was first evident in the lengths he went to avoid playing cricket at Winchester College, he joined the RAF CCF College Cadet Force and regularly biked 20 miles each way to Thruxton Airfield where he managed to gain his wings a year before leaving school. This theme continued into National Service with the RAF through to 1955 when he really left home and arrived at Caius College Cambridge for his engineering studies.
At Cambridge his interest in land based activities started. As secretary of the Cambridge University Automobile Club his powers of persuasion resulted in some record breaking, culminating in an astonishing 4 day, uninterrupted 97mph average, 10,000 mile journey round Montlhery. This contrasts nicely with taking a bunch of mates in the back of a VW split screen camper on the Lands End MCC trial, Tom was forever looking for a challenge and a master at finding a novel approach. This ingenuity was a trademark feature that popped up on every new adventure.
Post uni Tom set up a garage with his brother to run Lotus’ and some Formula 2 cars whilst holding down a day job as a civil engineer, with this level of industry he was always going to be interesting company.
A major turning point in the early 60’s was marked by his brother Chris’ fatal motor racing accident, soon after which with characteristic determination and having promised his mother to quit “professional” motorsport he turned back to the RAF and took up power boat racing and his writing continued with more log books and articles for motorboat and yachting. The competitive determination and ingenuity was still there culminating in Cowes/Torquay Offshore Powerboat race where careful study of the various prizes on offer lead him to walk away with the most prize money without actually winning outright. It was also more than the RAF was paying him in a year, time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted, Rommel, although I suspect he was plagiarising Monty.
Commitments were getting tricky at this stage, something had to give, building Lotus elites in a shed behind the officers’ mess in the evening, racing power boats at weekends and flying during the day. Big serious V-force bombers like Victors and Valiants armed with nuclear warheads. Towards the end of one mission a coded radio message was received to release the payload on Minsk. Fortunately his deliberate nature led him to verify the instruction; it turned out the transmission operator was using yesterdays’ codes, the real message was ‘to return to base for tea’. So if this wasn’t enough to keep a young Tom busy, he met Di and found in her his soul mate, best friend and all round superstar to keep each other company until the end, good choice. That in itself was a quick, decisive and focused project; meeting, engaging and marring within 9 months, well before Clare was born.
Tom’s family had started, first Di, then Vicky (the dog) followed in quick succession by a 4½ litre Bentley and then the first of 3 children. The Bentley served as the cornerstone of an otherwise busy collection of cars, touring it as far as South Africa and stabling it with items as brilliant as a Ford Mexico, which I had the pleasure of navigating for him once on an all-night rally. The absurdity of Tom in Tattersall shirt, V-neck and tie, strapped into the bucket seats of Dagenham’s finest Essex boy’s dream in bright orange with “Old Forger” stencilled in gold down the side, makes for a fine image. Finally it was my turn to drive, home from Lands End, teenager with no sleep, not a great idea, Tom by now was fast asleep, ½ hour in I nodded off, car drifted and bumped up the curb with quite a jolt, certainly enough to get my adrenaline going. I glanced over at Dad who casually opened one eye and sleepily advised: That should keep you awake for the next 10 minutes. It did; he then drove us safely home.
All the while the habit of his RAF logbooks made sure most trips and events were accompanied by an article and usually some superbly composed black and white photos, all developed in the downstairs loo which doubled up as a dark room, the lights will be on today if you need to use it later. During this period Tom really hit his stride. Exploring a wide range of car types without prejudice, getting the most out of them, then sharing his experiences. Helping organise and run the clubs, contributing and editing their publications on occasion (even a founding member of one club: BORLZ (British Overseas Racing Lads from Zanzibar). The amateur sportsman in him really flourished with well received articles on a broad range of automotive subjects; informative, enlightening, inspiring, entertaining, witty and erudite but above all well informed and honest. All adjectives offered by his readers.
On a more personal note, family life for Tom is something none of here would want to understand; losing his second brother within 10 years of the first is too gruelling to contemplate and having to adjust to that would have taken tremendous levels of resolve and determination. To misquote Oscar Wide: To lose one brother may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. However as a father himself he was faultlessly generous and scrupulously fair and his ability to simply do is something all who knew him have derived inspiration from.
“I shall not die of a cold. I shall die of having lived.”
Tom lived, and he lived unapologetically and with style. So let us go and get on with living and doing while we still can.
Hilaire Belloc was a popular author with Tom, so we shall conclude with Hildebrand, who was frightened by a Passing Motor, and was brought to Reason.
A keen photographer, Tom had provided many of the photographs for Austin Whitaker’s 1985 “Compton & Shawford” booklet. Postcards made from Tom’s photos were sold in the Post Office that used to be opposite the Bridge Hotel.
Tom took on the role of Tree Warden for the Parish Council in September 1995. He was elected to the Parish Council in 1996, and served as a councillor for 12 years. He took on responsibility for the parish footpaths, and enjoyed wielding his chainsaw to keep them clear.
For the Parish Hall Centenary celebrations over Christmas/New Year 1996/7, Tom documented the Shawford Serendipity Trail, which he described as “A beginner’s guide through a historical treasure-hunt in Compton and Shawford”.
As I am not 100% sure that Hilaire Belloc’s work is out of copyright, we have not have not reproduced the story of Hildebrand here. If you’re interested, you may find the text online on other sites (for example, Project Gutenberg).