On Friday 24 March, we said farewell to my wonderful father, Bob Skinner. Here is the tribute I gave at the lovely funeral service at Penarth Methodist Church, conducted by Rev Catherine Lewis.
This is the day I never thought would arrive. Bob was the great survivor, the last of his generation in our family. His mother Gwen lived to 102. He even once used the word Everlasting in a password!
But Bob slipped the surly bonds of Earth on 21 February, after a life well lived. He had written the last chapter of a thrilling story, and today is a celebration of that remarkable life. I’d like to say a heartfelt thank you for being here, for your kind and comforting messages over the past month – and for your support during Bob’s twilight months. Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi i gyd.
Bob was born in West Ham, London, 96 years ago. He was one of the generation that grew up with parents shellshocked by the trauma of the Great War, yet living under the growing threat of another terrible conflict. Bob has spoken of how the numbness and sorrow after the first world war gradually gave way to a quiet determination to rebuild shattered family lives. His gentle father Frank never spoke about his terrible experience in the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, but that searing memory led him to ban Bob from joining his school’s officer cadet unit on the eve of the second world war.
One of Bob’s greatest regrets in life was that he never really knew his father, who worked long hours as a steam crane driver on a wharf on the Thames in London. One day, Frank’s crane toppled over, trapping him in the cab, scalded by the leaking water and steam. He never recovered, and died just after Bob turned 16. Dad often reflected on the father he had lost – and when I was myself a teenager I feared that family history would repeat itself. To my, and Dad’s, deep joy it never did, and we had many more decades to share together.
Bob’s parents were determined to give their children the best education, and Bob won a scholarship to Emanuel School in Wandsworth, London. When I took him back there almost 20 years ago, I could see his gratitude that he had been given such a wonderful opportunity.
The second world war was a defining chapter in Bob’s life. He became a teenager just after war began, and was serving in the army when it ended. In September 1939, his Welsh mother sent him to stay with his auntie Flo in Cardiff, convinced that the Welsh capital would be a safer place than London. She was wrong: Cardiff was bombed before London. And Flo’s house in Splott was on the doorstep of the city’s docks, a prime target for German bombers. So Bob was summoned back to London – just as Hitler unleashed the Blitz.
In today’s safety-first world, it’s amazing to think that Bob, 13, and sister Dorothy, 16, went on their own through the bombed streets of London for an afternoon at the cinema. Twice they had to take shelter as yet another air raid interrupted the film, only returning home to their worried mother hours later. One night during the Blitz, big brother Bert challenged Bob to stay in their flat and not go down to their cramped bomb shelter in the garden. Bob accepted the challenge, thinking he wasn’t scared by thunderstorms and didn’t think an air raid would be any worse. When the inevitable siren sounded, London was lit up with explosions during the noisiest night’s bombing so far. Bob, shaking with fright, asked Bert to take him down to the shelter. Eighty years later, he recalled feeling ashamed at letting down his big brother.
Bob loved sport, and was a talented cricketer like Bert. For many years they and their brother-in-law George played together in a Cardiff cricket team. Bob treasured a childhood gift from his father: a cricket bat signed by the England and New Zealand cricket teams in 1937. He once used it to score 74 at the old Glamorgan ground at Cardiff Arms Park, but, as Dad admitted, his impatient nature was fatal for an opening batsman: he would try to hit the ball for six and was soon plodding miserably off the field, trusty bat under his arm. We will return to Bob’s endearing and enduring impetuosity later.
Dad also loved football, which may explain why in the glory days of Welsh rugby in the 1970s he would take me to watch Cardiff City rather than watching Wales trouncing England at the Arms Park. (My Latin teacher explained that any Cardiff City supporter would understand the Latin word nihil as nil was the typical Bluebirds score.) Yet we enjoyed some memorable moments, and years later watched a briefly resurgent City winning the FA Cup semi-final in 2008. It was a near echo of the team’s famous success in being the only team from outside England to win the FA Cup when Bob was five months old.
Many of you will remember Bob as a confident speaker. That was an important part of his success as a journalist and in PR, and it all started in his days in the Boys Brigade when he was growing up in London and Cardiff. He was always grateful for those who devoted their lives to helping young people like him. Bob was proud of his family’s Methodist traditions, and today’s service at Trinity reflects that heritage.
Bob’s long and happy life owed much to his place in a loving family. He was very close to Bert and Dorothy, and to his wonderful mother Gwen – Nanny – who was the very centre of our extended clan, cared for devotedly by Dorothy for over fifty years.
Later, he took great pride as grandchildren and great grandchildren arrived. I remember his excitement the day that his first grandchild Siân was born: as soon as I finished school, we headed straight for Wiltshire to see her. He took similar joy as Ria and Ben arrived – and years later was thrilled when Owen, the bonus grandchild, was born when he was 81, making the long drive to see him.
Ria reflects on how lucky she was to have Bob in her life for 40 years. Her first foreign holiday, together with Siân, was with Bob and Rosemary to Majorca just after Ben was born. Siân says they had a running joke – whenever Bob put his sunglasses on the sun would disappear!
Ria also remembers fondly staying with them in Cardiff in the school holidays, staying up late playing pontoon and gambling – with pennies! Bob loved making up stories for his grandchildren and great grandchildren, some of which survive to the day. (I recommend the Braydon mysteries.) Bob took great interest in Owen’s sailing, drama and school achievements, while he was delighted in 2017 to see great grandson Mylo appearing in a tournament at Glamorgan’s ground, echoing his own cricketing exploits. Bob also loved spending time with the youngest members of the family, Rosa and Claudia. He set them treasure hunts and got them making ice cream sundaes.
Bob left school at 16, set on a career in journalism, inspired by his uncle George Dymond. Years later, he recalled with excitement that first job offer. The editor of the Penarth Times told him, “We can offer 15 shillings a week. When can you start, Mr Skinner?” Bob was a natural reporter, and he joked that he was war correspondent, crime reporter, book reviewer, gossip columnist, and sports reporter. All in his first month on the Penarth Times, as the paper’s only reporter.
As a reporter, Bob would have dreaded today. Not because of you, the lovely congregation. But because he thought reporting funerals was the worst job in journalism. Standing wet and windswept at the entrance to church or cemetery, he would struggle to get the names of the mourners. He dreaded publication day, when those he’d not mentioned demanded a special mention the following week. He envied a rival on a bigger Welsh paper, known as Death Davies, whose sole job was funeral reporting, and who no one dared to pass without giving him their name, including the Lord Mayor.
Just two years into his reporting career, Bob was called up by the army when he turned 18, joining the Intelligence Corps. While he was spared the dangers of battle, he suffered a serious knee injury in training that left him with a lifetime disability that ended his sporting days and greatly affected his mobility in later years. I had no idea how debilitating this was for him – when I was a child, he would play football with me, and only now do I realise how much those games must have hurt him.
When Bob was home on leave from the army, he called into the Penarth Times office, and that visit set the course of his life. He was very taken with his successor, a 16 year old Penarth girl called Rosemary Preece. He wrote years later how his pride suffered a blow when the editor, usually slow to give praise, gushed about Miss Preece’s abilities. He added, “And she’s prettier than you, too!” He got his own back – by marrying his rival in 1952.
The newlyweds headed to Ireland for their honeymoon, the destination chosen because they relished the idea of a land with abundant food and drink unlike Wales, where food was still rationed seven years after the war. But Bob and Owy had a shock when they landed in Dublin: there was a bus strike, forcing them to spend a pound on a taxi to Bray rather than a shilling for a bus ticket. I can just imagine the anguish this would have caused Dad: I still shiver at his reaction 50 years ago this month when Mum told him we’d spent 25p on a cake in a London hotel. “Five shillings for a chocolate éclair!” he exclaimed. Happily, the 1952 Dublin bus strike ended quickly, and they travelled everywhere by bus for the rest of their honeymoon.
Bob returned to journalism soon after the war, and revelled in the opportunities that those postwar years offered. He was the South Wales Argus’s reporter for the Rhymney Valley, which then still had 15 collieries. In those early days of television in Wales, he often freelanced as a TV reporter, including one memorable report about the moving mountain of Blaina in 1954. A mountain of coal waste was on the move after heavy rain, and Bob was on the scene to interview a local woman worried about the fate of her home. As the resident explained her fears, Bob sank lower and lower into the black morass, with the woman now towering over him. He was finally hauled to the surface by his cameraman. That incident proved an ominous precursor to the heart breaking tragedy of Aberfan, less than 20 miles away, in 1966.
In 1962, Bob made history. He became the first public relations officer in Welsh local government, at Caerphilly, after an interview with all 27 council members. He passed the medical with flying colours, when the council’s medical officer of health poured two large glasses of whisky, took a sip, and declared ‘That’s your medical over. You’re now a council officer!”
Over the coming decades, Bob proved a pioneer of PR in civic life, and became a passionate advocate for the good that local government can do for the people it serves. After a spell in London, he returned to Wales as head of PR for the city of Cardiff, as the capital was waking from its slumber following the collapse of the coal trade.
He was keen to learn how Cardiff could do a better job communicating with the public, and won a Churchill Fellowship to study local government communications in Japan. He was so impressed with the governor of Tokyo’s ‘meet the people’ tours of the city that he recommended the idea to the leader of Cardiff council, the legendary Jack Brooks, who was not impressed. Brooks responded, “If you think that I’m going to stand in the city centre asking for trouble, you’re mad, and if you suggest it again you’re fired!” But Bob was ahead of his time: today, every MP and Senedd member in the country holds surgeries to listen to constituents and help with their problems. He was delighted when the Senedd and Welsh government were established to give Wales home rule after 600 years.
Bob’s life in local government showed his deep commitment to public service. He always wanted to do the right thing, rather than seek personal profit. That dedication continued into his seventies and eighties as he gave his time to charity. As he once told his old paper the Argus, he could never say no to good causes.
Music was Bob’s great passion, apart from his family, and he played an important, backstage role in Welsh musical life. Like the Reverend Eli Jenkins in Under Milk Wood, he would have praised the lord that Wales was a musical nation. One of his first jobs in local government was to organise the first Caerphilly music festival, and he later served the Cardiff Festival of Music, Cardiff Singer of the World and BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra.
As someone who always looked on the bright side, Bob was the perfect problem solver. But in 1985, he was faced with what looked like an impossible challenge. Cardiff was due to host the world premiere of a work by a leading composer. At the last minute, Bob was told that two Chinese soloists did not have the work permits required to allow them to travel to Wales to perform. Undaunted, he turned to his contacts book, and the two of us headed for London and a meeting in the House of Commons with Cardiff MP and former PM James Callaghan. Sunny Jim had a note couriered to employment minister Alan Clark: “Come on Alan, as a Plymouth man make Drake’s drum beat again – for Cardiff!” The permits were issued within hours – the concert was saved, and proved a triumph.
As I reflect on Bob’s life and personality, I must pay tribute to his greatest quality: treating people equally and with the same respect regardless of who they are or the jobs they hold. Dad met prime ministers, princesses, princes, the future King Charles – and even went down a coal mine with Queen Elizabeth. Yet he had that true Welsh trait of never regarding these people as deserving of greater respect than those who swept the roads or removed the rubbish. That is the greatest lesson he passed on to me and my late sister Beverley.
He was also truly international in outlook. He made lifetime friendships with Werner, Uschi, Helmut and Charles from Germany after visits to Caerphilly’s twin town, Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart. In today’s troubled world, I reflect on how those links between Wales and Germany so soon after the second world war showed a determination for friendship to flourish after the tragedy of war. He and Owy chose my middle name Karl as a mark of their love of Germany and its people, and after Bob’s death I cherished the heartfelt condolence message from Werner, who last visited Bob in 2019. In recent years, he and Werner shared their sorrow at how populist politicians were threatening the reconciliation efforts of the postwar years, with Brexit a particular regret. But Bob remained optimistic that the world would learn again that there was a better way.
That optimism was Bob’s driving force, along with his enthusiasm. He was heartbroken by Beverley’s death in 2017, followed by the great loss of Rosemary 18 months later. Mum relied totally on Bob in her last years because of her fading eyesight, and he looked after her devotedly despite his own infirmity. He refused to be downhearted. He often spoke of how fortunate he had been in life, even in the sad times, and was quick to express his thanks to others. During the pandemic, he recalled a wartime song, Accentuate the Positive. It could have been his theme tune.
Almost 80 years after starting his journalism career, Bob became a citizen reporter as the pandemic began in 2020. As Wales went into lockdown, he started blogging as Bob the Blogger. He loved recording his observations on that extraordinary time, and was quick to praise his wonderful carers at Llys Cyncoed in Cardiff, the care home he had moved to six months earlier. He twice appeared on national TV’s Good Morning Britain to thank the carers, and the programme showed him meeting his first visitors for four months, me and granddaughter Ria. Later, he and I took great pleasure turning his blog into a Kindle book, Pandemic! My Care Home Diary, which is a unique record of a 90-something’s experience during the first pandemic for a century.
I spoke earlier of Bob’s impetuous streak. If Bob wanted to do something, nothing and no one could stop him. And so it proved in 2021 when he decided to leave home: his care home, that is. He found a flat in Penarth, and returned to the seaside town he came to love almost 80 years earlier as a young reporter, and where he lived for over 20 happy years with Rosemary in Windsor Court.
That move wasn’t his last impulsive decision. He was determined to go on holiday, after enjoying many happy cruises with Mum, and booked to sail to Spain and Portugal last June. He sounded so happy when he phoned us to say he was in his cabin as the cruise liner was about to set sail. But within an hour he fell getting out of the ship’s lift, and two days later was taken to a hospital in Vigo, Spain for a hip operation. Sadly, that fall was the beginning of the end, and, as we all know, the story ended in the quiet of a Welsh hospital on 21 February. I’d like to pay tribute to the support of our wonderful family and friends during Bob’s last months, including Brenda and Ivor, and above all the incomparable Karen. We are also grateful to Melissa, whose care made his brief time at Bridgeman Court such a pleasure for Bob, and to all who treated him at Llandough Hospital.
I’ve often asked myself whether we should have discouraged Bob from embarking on his cruise. But that would have been impossible – and wrong. Bob was a force of nature, and his drive and determination were the essence of his character. I am sure that impetuosity helped him live – and flourish – well into his 90s. He roamed free, and none of us ever wanted to limited his horizons.
Bob rarely stood still, except as evening fell. He loved to take a whisky onto the balcony in Windsor Court and listen to music as darkness fell over the distant English coast across the water. On the evening after he died, I took a glass of whisky and toasted the memory of a good man, a good life, and the best father anyone could hope for.
I’ll leave the last word to Bob’s oldest grandchild. Siân says all of us should Be more like Bob.
This is one of three tributes to Bob from his funeral service. Read the others below:
Owen Skinner, Bob’s youngest grandchild
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Super tribute to a very loved and loving father.
You brought him back to life for those few minutes Robert, you and Owen & Mylo. A pleasure to remember our long time friend.
What a beautiful tribute Robert, it is an account of an extraordinary life and a very special man. I will remember the advice .
Rob — hi, Lindsey Hollifield here — I commented some time ago about my stumbling across your blog during Lockdown whilst searching A Kind of Loving, and then seeing your lovely dad and you on Good Morning Britain.
When your obituary to your dad arrived in my inbox, my heart went how hearts do at the news. I’d often thought about your dad, because of your blogs, and especially worried about his experience in the hospital that lost his teeth. Just shortly before your obituary to him arrived, I’d been thinking of him, actually.
I haven’t known what to say, or how to put anything that has come to mind, but this evening I felt I really ought to say something. Because I received word a couple of days ago that the last of my favourite aunts had died. (*All* of my aunts were my favourite; I was lucky in that respect.) She, like your dad, were of the generation that moulded our generation. Our parents, aunts and uncles were of a generation that taught youngsters repect.
Your dad was on Good Morning Britain whilst the world was in turmoil. The cogs of Mainstream Media were whirring, and some of us were frightened. It was certainly a time when Britain and British ex-pats (like meeee.. ) needed a friendly face. *That* is what I’ll remember about your dad.
I’m saddened, and I am so sorry for your loss, my heart hurts. But I wanted you to know how much I appreciated your dad. I only knew him via television or your accounts, but I liked him a lot.
Sleep well, Bob. Sleep well Auntie Liz.
Hi Lindsey – thanks so much for your wonderful, lyrical, moving comment. It meant a great deal to me and the rest of my family. I was thinking of my own aunts and uncles in the weeks after Dad died, and completely understand what your Auntie Liz meant to you. I am so sorry for your loss, but am sure you will treasure the memories of Auntie Liz and the rest of that special generation. We will never forget them.
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