The John Griff Column: A light has gone out

The news last week of the passing of the county’s previous Lord Lieutenant, David Laing CBE, might not have made high profile headline news (and neither, perhaps, should it have) - but whether you knew who he was or not, Northamptonshire has just lost not only a tremendously loyal servant, but a loyal friend too.
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A member of the Laing building dynasty, David turned his artistic talents towards civil engineering and construction by training and qualifying as an architect rather than a builder. He did well in business but never lost sight of the wider community, supporting it quietly where he could. He was a patron of the arts, supporting music, dance and much more - and pretty much without telling a soul.

I first met David when I became a Trustee of the Northamptonshire Community Foundation over a decade ago. The Foundation provides funding for a myriad of community groups which in turn deliver remarkable things through remarkable volunteers, turning relatively modest amounts of money into hugely positive and impactful activity across the wider community. It is, vital work. At the time, David was the Foundation’s Chair. Then, I knew very little of this quietly spoken, white haired man - but I soon recognised his motivation and enthusiasm for people, and for doing good. On one occasion at the Foundation’s annual awards (in the Royal Theatre I think), David was due to close the ceremony with a kind of rallying cry for volunteering in general and a plea for its wider support. Demonstrating an awareness of performance, David had brought a bottle of champagne with him to toast the award winners. I’m not so sure he realised how much he had moved the bottle around in the preceding couple of hours of the ceremony though. Rallying cry delivered, he prepared his toast. But as he tugged at the cork, it exploded out of the bottle, headed for the 15th row of seats and followed by a foaming jet of liquid propellant, much to the initial amazement and extended amusement of the entire theatre, including those who had been in the path of the fizz as it erupted out and all over them. I think David spent most of the rest of the night apologising and offering to pay dry cleaning bills - but he did it with charm, panache and a mischievous grin on his face. People loved him for it.

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Lord Lieutenants represent the monarch of the day in their respective counties. Their history goes back centuries and has a slightly militaristic origin, hence the term. David represented The Queen and accompanied her and other members of the Royal Family on a number of royal visits. Charming to a fault, he could - and did - speak to anyone and everyone as though they were the sole focus of his attention and that it was ‘their’ occasion. Some years ago, he represented Her Majesty in the presentation of scrolls to a number of the county’s Cadet Force officers at Delapre Abbey. It was a historic moment for all concerned - the last time had been more than three centuries previously. David addressed everyone, but even as the most senior individual present, managed to turn the spotlight on the recipients without taking any of it for himself. Whether in full ‘Number 1’ uniform as a Lord Lieutenant or a pair of corduroys and a sweater, he treated everyone with the same warmth and friendliness - it got results too. In a quiet way I think he also managed to demystify the concept of what a Lord Lieutenant is and does - no small task.

Former Lord Lieutenant David Laing representing Her Majesty The Queen at Delapre AbbeyFormer Lord Lieutenant David Laing representing Her Majesty The Queen at Delapre Abbey
Former Lord Lieutenant David Laing representing Her Majesty The Queen at Delapre Abbey

You couldn’t fail to like David - nothing phased him. To mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, there was a commemorative concert at Royal and Derngate. Starting it, a party of local VIPs and civic dignitaries - led by David - was due to process onto the stage, honouring the standards of the county’s military. It was high profile stuff but somehow the cue to begin got misconstrued. To the horror of the show’s director, David appeared, marching gravely onto the stage and bringing the rest of the procession with him - ahead of schedule and without anyone else being ready, including the crew. Sensing that something might have gone awry but styling it out, David continued, taking the procession to the front of the stage. Bowing to the audience and the standards with great dignity, he then marched everybody offstage again - in complete silence. Moments later the concert proper got started and was a complete success.

Away from extensive duties, David was a devoted husband, father, and hugely indulgent grandfather. He also took great interest in things going on around him, never losing sight of the wider community. An accomplished driver of historic racing cars, he survived a horrific crash which had threatened a premature end - but recovered to reconsider his hobby, accompanied by his wonderful wife Mary’s gentle admonishments that he might like to stick around to watch his family grow older with him.

I was deeply honoured to become one of David’s last commissioned Deputies – truly a ‘D.L.’ DL. Retiring and handing over the reins of the Lieutenancy to the excellent James Saunders-Watson, David stepped into retirement but supported James as he got up to speed - rapidly - with the role. David also continued to support the arts and, through his own network, the wider community. Right up to his passing, he worked to get things done. Already a published poet, I am aware of a number of books of his words still to come and have no doubt that in the years which follow, there will be a significant David Laing legacy, however much we are made aware of it.

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I managed to say my own goodbye to David over tea and sandwiches a few weeks ago. Tired, he was nevertheless the same genial, warm, caring man who loved a smile and a joke - it is the way I shall remember him. Rightly granted a CBE in the new year honours I was delighted for the family that he lived long enough to receive it from HRH The Princess Royal on what was undoubtedly ‘his’ - and ‘their’ day.

I, and a great many others will miss him, greatly.

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