Keith Blair: 1942-2016 (1962, Modern & Medieval Languages)
Keith Blair was a truly remarkable man. Not only was he tall (6' 6"), slim and bearded, he also spoke English, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese fluently, and was extremely well read and well informed. In fact, Keith's wide knowledge about almost everything made him very difficult to argue with. It was usually easier to agree.
Although Keith was born in Brighton his family moved to the Wirral when he was very young. His love of learning was nurtured at an exceptional primary school. As a result, he won a scholarship to Birkenhead School. I was always amazed by how much he remembered from his school teachers.
I first met Keith in September 1962 when I arrived at our rooms on the first floor of F-staircase. He uncoiled himself from one of the armchairs to announce that he was Keith Blair. We got on famously from the start and shared rooms for all three years at the Hall ending up at the top of P-staircase in third year.
As a student of modern languages Keith had relatively few lectures per week; allowing him plenty of time to read all the required arcane works in a variety of languages. He was a very disciplined student.
During the big freeze of the notorious winter of 1962/3, when the Cam froze over for weeks, and we could walk across the river rather than climbing in after midnight, Keith's preferred footwear was sandals and sea-boot stockings. As the temperature rarely rose above freezing his stockings didn't get wet. He was always a lateral thinker.
When the river started to flow again we decided to buy a punt and both became proficient exponents of the art of punting. Even when living in lodgings in second year we were still expected to eat in hall five nights a week. We obtained a tandem bicycle to make this journey. Imagine if you will two undergraduates, late for dinner, riding furiously with gowns billowing.
On rare occasions in third year, when Keith was "in his cups" late at night he would climb out of our kitchen window onto the roof and play his cavalry trumpet to proclaim that all was well with the world.
Keith was an accomplished oarsman who rowed in the college first VIII with considerable success. Happily, in those days oarsmen did not have to be built like weight-lifters. Keith was always slim and was proud that he could still fit into the dinner suit that was made for him in Cambridge in 1962.
After leaving Cambridge Keith went to Brazil and other South American countries to work for the Catholic Relief Service and to practise his Portuguese and Spanish. He was always interested in motorbikes, and things mechanical in general, despite having no formal engineering training. On his return from South America in 1968 Keith secured a graduate apprenticeship with the ailing BSA motorcycle company.
In 1969 Keith met Judy and they married eleven months later. They have two daughters, Ruth and Catherine, who are definitely not "vertically challenged". In 1970 Keith heard that Norton were looking for somebody with French and other languages to develop their European market. He jumped at the chance and soon moved to Paris where Ruth was born in 1974. They returned to Winchester and in 1975 Catherine was born.
Because of the forced merger of BSA, Triumph and Norton-Villiers into Norton-Villiers-Triumph in 1973, Keith could see the writing on the wall for the British motorcycle industry. Nevertheless he continued to work for the company while establishing numerous industry contacts. Eventually in the early 1980s he decided to set himself up as a Manufacturers Agent. Essentially this meant using his consummate foreign language and negotiating skills and his mechanical knowledge to find a manufacturer (usually Italian) to make the exotic products requested by his customers. If you wanted a set of pistons for your ancient Perkins diesel Keith was your man.
Keith's office is immediately above his garage in a lovely part of rural Staffordshire, where the family has lived and kept chickens, ducks, bees and sheep since 1977. Keith loved his animals and they certainly lived a good life. He had only to walk 20 paces to get to work. From his office he had a commanding view of the garden and a wood belonging to the Duchy of Lancaster. Often deer would graze just outside his office window. His typical business attire was shorts and sandals and he could visit the chickens between phone calls.
As another friend of Keith's wrote from Canada: “When good men die, they leave more than mere memories. They live on in their families, their friends, and their business contacts. Keith was a very good man and inspired a lot of us to be a bit better than we otherwise would have been. The world is a better place for Keith having lived in it.”
And as Judy said: “Keith packed more into every day than most people manage in a week and he enriched the lives of so many, just by being himself”.
Sadly, Keith died in a motorcycle crash on the A82 beside Loch Ness, doing what he loved. Appropriately at his funeral the "Entrance Music" was commentary highlights of the Isle of Man TT including motorcycle sound effects, and his sandals had pride of place on his coffin.
Keith will be sorely missed by hundreds if not thousands of people; and especially by Judy, Ruth and Catherine, their respective partners, Jim and Shaun, his three grandsons, Adam, Alex and Sam, and his siblings Jane, Alan and Ann.
Our friendship never waned. Keith, we will miss your irreverent, mischievous sense of humour, your crooked smile, your drive and joie de vivre, hilarious times together; indeed, we will simply miss you.
Written by John de Figueiredo (1962, Mechanical Sciences/Chemical Engineering)