Moving farewell for an old trooper

OLD CHUMS: Terry Manners, right, with Dan MacDonald at a Daily Express reunion in the old Fleet Street building in 2008. Bob Haylett is in the background. BELOW: Dan and Terry in the old Express newsroom in Fleet Street in the late 1970s. Rory Clements, now an eminent novelist, can been seen in the background on the Backbench


TERRY MANNERS reports from the funeral of old Daily Express colleague Dan MacDonald who died in January 2015 at the age of 88

DRIVING through the countryside at the foot of the Surrey Hills and seeing the wildflower meadows and wetlands, I realised that this was a perfect setting for the funeral and burial of Dan … who once had a log cabin built for his family in the forests of the Scottish Highlands because of his love of nature.

As I passed through the gates of Clandon Wood Natural Burial Cemetery set in 31 acres of wild grass and woodland between the villages of East and West Clandon, near Guildford, Dan’s family and friends were already arriving.

They were gathering at the simple glass pavilion where his wicker coffin adorned with yellow, white and green flowers was surrounded by little wooden chairs for those who wanted to say goodbye.

About 70 people had come for this simple, friendly and spiritual service led by Canon Robert Titley, who, with Dan’s family and friends, welcomed David Eliades and myself as if we had known them all our lives. Sadly, I didn’t know that Dan’s wife had died 14 years earlier.

On a table nearby was a wonderful array of Dan memorabilia … a beautiful photo album of his life in pictures … from his young days with his first dog Risk that he never forgot, to his service with the Royal Scots Regiment and the Highland Light Infantry during the Second World War and on to his marriage, children and grandchildren. His army caps and other momentos lay alongside.

The atmosphere was calm, unhurried, relaxed and informal … just as the publicity for this special place, which was voted Cemetery of the Year and Best Natural Burial Ground in the UK in 2014, promised in the brochure.

As we gradually made our way to our chairs we all fell silent as the most moving music was played over the sound system … the Flower of Scotland and Gabriel’s Oboe. At this moment both David and I and everyone in the room reflected on their lives with Dan, family man, honourable friend of many, a loyal and loved Express News Sub and former Editor of the Burma Star.

We sat reading the well-produced ‘order of service’ pamphlet and learned that Dan left Glasgow High School in 1941 at 16 and got a job as a trainee journalist on the Daily Record - because he knew he was going to be called up and needed a job to come back to after the war.

In his last memories, dictated to his stepdaughter Joan, he said: “My duties mainly consisted of getting tea and biscuits and going out hunting for cigarettes for the staff because they were in short supply.

“But at this time I also became a Lance Corporal in the Home Guard and was put in charge of a rocket battery just outside the city after it was blitzed. Our job was to be ready for the next attack and we would be firing 112 rockets hopefully in the direction of the enemy aircraft. For a lad of 16 this was a big responsibility … and I was ready to tackle the Nazis.”

When Dan was called up he went before the War Office Selection Board for training as an officer and passed, finding himself in India. The story continued and we discovered that Dan emerged as a 2nd Lieutenant with the Royal Scots, later joining the Highland Light Infantry in Athens.

It was there that he met a friend working on the Army newspaper the Union Jack who suggested that he should work there too because as a former tea boy on the Daily Record, he might as well be a journalist on the troops’ own publication. Dan liked the idea.

In his memoir, he says: “After a long hot summer on the Union Jack, the War Office sent a memo saying that they needed someone to become editor of an army newspaper in Rangoon called the Burma Star. I told them that I would like to do that and they said: ‘OK, it’s yours!”

So off Dan went.

Our thoughts on Dan went back to the service as the music stopped and we were warmly welcomed by Canon Titley. Then we all read aloud Psalm 139 … “Oh Lord, you have searched me out and known me …”

As the bright winter sunshine shone through the glass walls around us there were eulogies from Dan’s family … a scripture reading, poems and an address by Canon Titley before we all sat in silent prayer.

Time then for more thoughts as the congregation sat listening to the Jim Reeves song I Won’t Forget You, one of Dan’s favourites. There was hardly a dry eye in God’s sunlit house.

Finally Dan’s coffin was carried out of the pavilion by members of his family and friends and we all followed to the sounds of Eva Cassidy singing Fields of Gold.

His last journey was on a horse and cart that took him to his waterside grave in the woodland where we all stood listening to the final prayers and a blessing. Then David and I joined Dan’s family and friends to drop yellow flower petals around him and say farewell.

An hour later we crowded into the Onslow Arms in the village, (a hostelry Dan would have been at home in standing at the bar with his Bells whisky and lager … take in PA!), and enjoyed a never-ending wave of wine and food, good company and more memories of the man who had been our colleague for so long.

His daughter Eileen, fondly remembered as an Express reporter all those years ago, warmly welcomed us all, as did his family and staff from the journalists’ care home in Dorking, Surrey, where he spent the last few years of his life.

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre