Paul Woddis (1940-2019)


Oxford but which date and why, not exactly sure! Possbly Prelims…

(this obit was written for Paul’s school and college newsletters)

PAUL WODDIS who has died at the age of 78, attended Uppingham from 1955-58 and was a member of The Hall. He made many friends there including one who was to prove his staunchest life-long friend, Robin Grove-White.

Following Uppingham and after a short sabbatical in Brussels, he gained an Exhibition to Oxford (Brasenose, 1959-63) where he read Modern Languages and gained a 2nd class degree (although he always felt he would have gained a First had his viva been on his beloved Proust rather than Balzac of whom he was less enamoured!).

It was at Oxford where he met his beautiful wife, Helena Wills. They married in May 1963 and later that year, Paul joined one of Britain’s leading multi-nationals, Reckitt & Colman, as a graduate trainee.

Wedding day, Paul and Helena, Oxford, May 2nd, 1963.

Wedding day, Paul and Helena, Oxford, May 2nd, 1963.

He spent 18 years with the company, all overseas, first as Marketing Director in Venezuela (Valencia and Caracas), then Argentina (Buenos Aires) during the period of unrest under the Military Junta.

In December 1976, he returned to Europe as CEO in France.

Eventually leaving Reckitt & Colman in 1981, he joined Cussons UK as Managing Director in their Cheshire offices. Later he performed the same duties for Sanofi Winthrop and retired as the outgoing Chairman when they became Elf Sanofi.

Paul and Helena settled in Weybridge, Surrey before finally moving to Suffolk in 2011 where he died in February this year (2019) at The Orwell Care Home in Ipswich.

Paul was born in Nottingham, the eldest child of psychiatrist Keith (Gideon Mordecai) Woddis and Dorice, nee Burgess. Justin, their eldest son was born at the end of 1963, Hugo in 1965 and Katharine, their daughter in 1972.

Paul, Iguazu Falls, Arg

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

To anyone who knew Paul during the early years, he cut an extraordinarily handsome and charismatic figure. A passionate and life long enthusiast of classical music, his knowledge was deep and as detailed as was his love of languages, especially French and Spanish. He also spoke Italian and German.

Always an internationalist, he read widely with poetry becoming a major love, Philip Larkin and Cavafy being two of his favourites.

Working abroad offered rich experiences. He was especially devoted to France and in Argentina became an enthusiastic tango dancer!

Rugby and horse racing were also abiding interests, the latter since schooldays when he began to study stock and breeding in which he became an expert.

He was also a great connoisseur of all things gastronomic, including French food markets as well as its fine wines and liqueurs. His own culinary specialities included a mean mayonnaise and superb soufflés.

Most of all, he will be missed by his many friends who knew and loved him for his largesse, his energy, wit, international and intellectual breadth and generosity of spirit.

He is survived by his wife, Helena, his children Justin, Hugo and Katharine; his grand-children, Rollo and Tabitha Woddis, Swan and Willow Schofield, Charlotte Woddis and by his sister, Carole.

PAUL WODDIS, born Nov 28, 1940, died Feb 15, 2019.

Eulogy by Robin Grove White:

I’m so grateful to Helena, Carole, Katharine, Justin and Hugo for inviting me to say a few words about Paul.

Just the other day, I read that Gertrude Stein once said there are two kinds of people – those with identities, which is most people, and those who are entities, a rarer breed.

Thinking back to when I first met him – more than sixty years ago now, at school at Uppingham in the mid-1950s – there was never any doubt which one of these Paul was.

At fifteen, he was already a master of up-to-date horse-racing form – and well-known for weeping at classical music, copiously and embarrassingly.

Already he was voraciously cultured and opinionated, with political views proclaimed with a kind of Disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells indignation.

Anyway, by fifteen he was the real deal – an entity indeed.

Though he & I were pretty different, we shared a bolshie streak, and became bosom pals almost at once, together with Mike Senior, another lifelong Uppingham friend, And the laughs always flowed freely.

In due course Oxford followed. Three years later, I was his best man when he and Helena married. And later still, he was my best man for my wedding to Helen.

So how to recapture him?

  • Thirty years ago, when I and my family lived near Lancaster, he and Helena would suddenly appear, to sweep us all out to lunch – Paul in his pomp, in command of a sleek, swanky Jaguar, pleased as punch, glowing behind the wheel like Mr Toad. What would ensue was a flurry of noisy embraces, cigarettes, large dopy dogs, teasing, giggling, bombastic argument, and always, exuberant generosity. And how my children always loved him, for his silliness and fun and warmth. And then, it was back into the Toadmobile and – Poop-poop – off in a cloud of dust…
  • Or I can picture him much further back, in early 60s Oxford, in his rooms in the front quad of Brasenose – Mozart and sunlight, friends flowing through (a number of them here today). Those rooms seemed to be a rehearsal for a life of intense cultural talk, comfort and hospitality – a then-slim and handsome Paul presiding as master of ceremonies, sporting the ludicrous bow-ties he was favoured at the time…
  • Or jump forward to the high-summers of the 1990s at Heatherfield, in leafy Walton on Thames, and his & Helena’s annual garden parties, under the benign gaze of Solomon, the mighty cedar tree. Those parties were the essence of them both – expressions of Paul’s magnetic warmth and love of connection, with Helena, composed and beautiful, quietly and wittily masterminding things. Together they created and sustained a true circle. The presence of all of us today is testament to what that meant, in our different ways.

Of course, he became an accomplished international businessman. But in truth he was also a poet, an adventurer, and a teller of stories. He mythologised his friends, weaving each one of us into his own story.

He had a ravenous curiosity about the depths and personal complexities of those who mattered to him. It wasn’t hard to acquiesce in this. The sheer quality and warmth of his attention to those he loved, or wanted to love, was rare and special.

Sometimes, of course, it could be too much, and people would recoil, finding the probing intrusive. But then, he was always pushing through conventional boundaries. It was just the way he was.

Eventually, the drink got to him of course. And, let’s face it, he allowed it to. He became more and more cavalier at the edges – revelling in his own outrageousness as he grew older. Perhaps his strength of character became less of an asset at that point…

But to me, even in the bad times, there was a grandeur to him – a splendour, even in his gradual decline. There was something Viking about those later years. As if the fates were after him – and there he stood – incorrigible, and defiant. He came to seem more and more extraordinary – like one of those outsize bohemian intellectuals crashing around in the American novels of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth – like Sabbath or Humboldt.

It can’t have been easy to live with, for those dearest to him. But he was blessed with an incredibly strong and courageous life-partner in Helena, independent-minded children of great character, and an always loving sister in Carole. And he knew it.

I picture him embedded in his evening armchair at Heatherfield, cigarettes and whisky close to hand, Brahms or Bach perhaps in the background – though seldom Beethoven, and never Wagner (a story for another time, that one), conversing with marvellous fluency and insight about Latin American politics, or the literary architecture of Marcel Proust’s great novel, or the endless complexities of love and friendship. Continental in his range and sensibilities. Worldly and dark in his realism. And sometimes of course, completely absurd in his opinions.

He always insisted he wasn’t religious. And when he and I talked of such things, he’d mock my own fumbling Christianity – ‘Robin’s ineffables’ he’d jeer, and then giggle. Instead, he identified, tearfully again, with the bleak atheism of Philip Larkin’s great poem Aubade.

Yet in truth, at root he was committed to the absolute reality of Beauty, Truth and Goodness (Plato’s transcendentals) – whether in the observance or the breach.

So for me – and for many of you, I know – he was a great-hearted, life-enriching entity – original and brilliant in his distinctive way. An unresolved, richly human tangle of talents, passions and contradictions.

The final four years in the Orwell care home were a remarkable coda. Bedridden and diminished he may have been. But he continued as humanly busy as ever. Like others here, I used to visit him. And it turned out he’d created a new circle – this one consisting of assorted carers and other staff members in the Orwell home itself. They in their turn shared with him the intimacies and travails of their lives, drawn by his understanding and his attention – like so many of us.

And now he’s gone.

I join with the family in sharing their great loss, which is also our own. He was a most wonderful lifelong friend.

rgw   20.3.19