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Goodbye to the Buchans

In 1957, Isabel Allam, widow of Jack Allam, writes to the Tweedsmuirs to thank them for their kind letter of condolence. "I know you will miss him very much like I do", she says. "We had a very happy life together, but I am glad he is at rest as he had suffered long enough". She goes on to add, "You all speak so highly of Jack, which is a great comfort, and Mr Alastair put such a nice piece in the Oxford Mail about Jack". She ends "With many thanks for all your kindness", and that seems to have been how Elsfield people viewed the Tweedsmuirs.

The obituary written by Alastair Buchan is indeed a moving tribute to a man who played such an important part in his young life. It was included by Helena Deneke as an addendum to her account of Elsfield village life during the Second World War.

Jack Allam's Obituary by Alastair Buchan

Last week, one of Oxfordshire’s great countrymen died and was laid to rest in the churchyard at Elsfield where he had spent most of his life.

Jack Allam was keeper to my father and brother during the twenty-five years that my family lived in Elsfield. He was born in the mid-seventies (1870s) in a house on the road between Stanton St John and Islip that had once been an inn and a haunt of highwaymen, close by the tree where Haynes, the boldest of their number, was hanged.

His whole life was spent within the compass of a few miles, though he once went to London on foot in the early part of the century, and once again to see my brother get married and tasted salmon mayonnaise with the deepest disapproval.

The word gamekeeper suggests trim woodlands and battues of pheasants, but Jack’s real duties were less to keep an eye on our few and well-poached spinneys as on the country rearing of a hatch of small Buchans.

It was he who taught us how to flush out an owl from a nest in a hollow tree not by beating but by rubbing a stick along the bark, how to destroy elusive jays and magpies by luring them into shotgun range by imitating the scream of a rabbit in the grip of a weasel, which aroused their predatory inquisitiveness; how to wait motionless for mallard on Otmoor and above all how to look for birds’ nests.

It was he who discovered a jackdaw’s nest lined with scraps of the original manuscript of my father’s History of the Great War which he had imprudently discarded the previous autumn and the daw had prudently salvaged.

Though his theory of shooting – a foot and a half in front of a pigeon, three feet in front of a mallard- was directly contradictory to that taught by the experts, he very rarely lifted the antique hammer gun which he carried in preference to any other except to bring down his quarry.

Jack had no children of his own, and the loss of a beloved stepson lost in the war was the greatest sorrow of his life, but he was endlessly kind to them. He tended the savage and ungrateful goshawks and peregrines with which my eldest brother’s passion for falconry filled the outbuildings at Elsfield.

When I formed a ‘pack’ of beagles consisting of two Christ Church puppies at walk (unbeknownst, fortunately, to the Master, Charles Clarke Brown, of Kingston Blount) a spaniel, Jack’s own rangy nondescript, he enthusiastically whipped in, knowing more about the habits of our local hares than any professional huntsman. His kindly gnarled face was a beacon to at least three generations of children.

The real Oxfordshire accent - a burry lilt with an ‘ah’ at the beginning of each phrase - fortunately shows no signs of retreating before BBC English, and in Jack Allam’s bass voice it was so thick sometimes that it was hard to understand.

He used words that went straight back across the centuries; the Saxon word ‘ger’ for carrion crow, ‘puggling’ for poking a squirrel’s nest or down a rabbit hole.

Though he barely had the benefit of Foster’s Education Act (of 1870) he maintained that he ‘could read reading but couldn’t read writing’ meaning the printed word but not handwriting. He stoutly maintained he could write but avoided putting it to the test. Having a memory unblurred by too much printed information, he could tell us the exact course of a famous run by the South Oxfordshires (the hunt) in the nineties, just why some long forgotten Victorian squire was sold up for debt, and stories of highwaymen, gipsies and rick-burnings that were part of an inherited race memory stretching back to the eighteenth century and further.

Though he lived well into the era of the Cold War, he was unshakeable in his inherited belief that if any danger threatened England, the French were at the bottom of it. On embarcation leave for Normandy in 1944, his parting shot to me was to ‘have a go at they Frenchies’.

A relic of an older, much poorer Oxfordshire countryside was his partiality for strange dishes, red squirrel, or hedgehog baked in clay, eels and pike. He was an ardent fisherman extracting large chub on summer mornings with a live bumble bee expertly dapped along the surface of the Cherwell on a long pole.

My father drew on Jack Allam’s character and experience in the only children’s book he wrote, The Magic Walking Stick, and it is pleasant to think that two such close friends now lie beside each other in that quiet place.

Alastair Buchan, 13th April, 1957.

The Buchans were not the only children in the village who benefitted from Jack Allam’s involvement. Arthur Phipps, now in his eighties, still treasures the catapult made for him by Jack when he was a small boy.

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