Remembering Harold Murray Knight

Portrait of Sir Harold Knight by Bill Leak (1990), RBA collection

Portrait of Sir Harold Knight KBE DSC by Bill Leak (1990). From the RBA collection. Source: RBA site.

A remembrance shared at his memorial service – Friday 26 June 2015 at St Andrew’s Cathedral.

A Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire enters an official state function after a Knight of the Garter, but before a Knight Bachelor. He may attend special services in the order’s official chapel, St Paul’s Cathedral, and display a red circlet saying “For God And The Empire” around his coat of arms.

Bill Gates, Placido Domingo, Rudy Giuliani, Sultan Abdullah bin Khallifa of Zanzibar, Bono and Billy Graham are all KBEs, and so was the late Sir Harold Murray Knight.

But I am here today to talk not of KBEs, DSCs, or even the RBA. I am here to remember a man who proudly bore a different title – Grandpa. I somehow can’t call him anything else even at the age of 38.

I suspect that Grandpa’s favourite imperial order was the Quarter Pounder with Cheese – about as far away as you can get from a fancy dinner with those other Knight Commanders. Some of Jasper and my fondest memories are of trips down to Gordon McDonald’s to collect “carry out”, as he called it, and then meandering back to Springdale Rd in one of their two white sedans, inevitably accompanied by a song of his own devising, ‘Up The Hill To Grandma’s House.’

It was a routine we performed many a time, often after a dip in the pool that was our favourite holiday haunt, no doubt followed by a sneaky late-night raid to that cupboard that contained every Arnott biscuit on the market, each in their own jar.

The next morning, we would arrive for our breakfast of Honey Smacks or Crunchy Nut Cornflakes – it wasn’t a health food retreat – to find them completing both crosswords simultaneously on clipboards with special erasable biros, having photocopied it on the machine that was the pride of grandpa’s meticulously-maintained study, while drinking tea into which they would dunk their gingernut biscuits.

How I loved that study, with its fax constantly bursting to life with important transmissions, the special fountain pen set with which to write the little notes that were his trademark, and that green leather box featuring labelled slots for every stationery item; plus my favourite – the glass cabinet full of treasures from around the world, with everything in its right place.

It always was with Grandpa, who had a navy man’s gift for order in all things, calm and organised, never rushed, even in his conversation which proceeded at well below the rate at which I’m speaking now. I read somewhere once that his slow rate of speech and fondness for complex extended metaphors was a key component in his business success, because people calmed down while they were trying to work out what he meant.

They’d take us on excursions to a museum, shopping in Chatswood or to a Lego display at Grace Brothers in the city. They rarely missed a school play or concert, and on weekends, for many years, we would meet at Greenwood Plaza food court for Saturday lunch with whoever was around from the extended family – the perfect way to keep up with a man who adored both his offspring and routine.

He taught me to drive, as he taught my father and mother and so many of us, and I still remember the helpful diagram he drew so I’d understand the operation of the clutch. I was the worst student he had, failing four times or something, but his patience seemed limitless. It almost always did.

One of the few exceptions I can recall was when he visited us while we were living in Cold War England in the mid-eighties. The Chernobyl nuclear accident had recently happened, and left me terrified. A family trip to the Lakes District took us close to the Sellafield reprocessing plant, and I went on and on about radiation until Grandpa, who was on the board of Western Mining, tartly observed that uranium mining had just paid for my lunch. That shut me up in record time.

But my overwhelming memories are of enormous warmth. Of the broad smile as he greeted us, the firm manly clapping on the back, or the phone calls that began with something like “Waverton base here”, or “Ahh, is that my eldest grandson?”

He often told me that the most important thing in life was to make a contribution, no matter what your field – just make a contribution to society. A fine, selfless principle – although I fear satirical comedy may have proven an exception to this rule – but he was just so fiercely proud of all his children and grandchildren. A typical conversation with him involved an extensive list of every uncle, aunt and cousin’s latest triumphs, and in recent years as his memory abandoned him, all he wanted to know was the same information about the family’s doings.

I brought my partner Divya to visit him for the first time earlier this year, and after warmly welcoming her to the family, he asked us whether anybody in the family needed any encouragement from him. He had already given us all so much of it, and yet even at 95 years of age, he hoped to give more.

 

In recent years, Grandpa would conclude our visits to Elizabeth Lodge with the words pax vobiscum – peace be with you. Now this much decorated, yet humble, man, this warrior, who in peacetime garlanded himself with love, who was a global figure, and yet derived so much joy from the blissful ordinariness of his home life, is at peace himself. And Grandpa, what a contribution.

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