Obituary: Did you know colourful former Mid-Suffolk councillor Michael 'Tuffy' Turner?
PUBLISHED: 19:30 18 July 2019 | UPDATED: 08:14 19 July 2019
The life of the true 'Suffolk character' from Battisford has just been celebrated at his funeral - where he wore a fetching pink three-piece suit.
When Tuffy Turner died, aged 79, the family sent his (predominantly-pink) three-piece suit down to the funeral directors so he could be buried in it - just as he would have wanted. It was one of three multi-coloured outfits he owned (along with up to 400 eye-catching ties at one point). Bright and bold, and perfectly apt. For unusual modes of dress were a Tuffy trademark and life with him was never dull.
"He was," says long-time partner Eve with understatement, "a character."
We'd need a book to chronicle the life and times of the former Mid Suffolk councillor. He had a fair number of jobs (from insurance rep to steel erector) and in his mid-30s took himself off to university to gain a law degree. There was also the Met Police, drayman, abattoir worker… (That last one made him a vegetarian.)
Why the nickname Tuffy?
Michael Edward Turner was born on November 4, 1939, at Offton, near Needham Market. ("He always used to say Offton-cum-Little Bricett," says Eve.)
His father was a farm labourer and part-time thatcher. The family moved a little further north, to Battisford, at about the time of Michael's fifth birthday. Britain being at war, he would watch aircraft from nearby RAF Wattisham going out on bombing missions or protecting our skies.
Michael was one of four children, and went to the village school. It was a different world then; he and one of his brothers used to walk down the road to collect water from a pump.
We need to drop the "Michael" and give him the name by which almost everyone came to know him.
As a youngster, he was apparently obsessed by a cartoon dog - quite possibly Tuffy and his Magic Tail, from the comic Playbox. Sister Anne teased him about it. People started calling him Tuffy, and it stuck.
Tuffy gained a scholarship to Stowmarket Grammar School. (Mother Joyce at least once went to the school, said he wasn't challenged by the work, and asked for more homework.)
Later, his father couldn't afford for him to stay on beyond O-levels. Tuffy became a representative for LV Insurance… a position his family thinks soon bored him.
More jobs followed, as he sought to find his niche. They included working on the drays for brewer Greene King and delivering Calor Gas cylinders. Then there was the police.
Tuffy tried to join Suffolk Constabulary in 1958, but didn't meet minimum height requirements. The Metropolitan Police wasn't quite so picky about feet and inches, and he headed to London. It wasn't a long stay, though, as he couldn't deal with the shift work.
Next stop: the construction industry, as a steel erector-cum-sheeter.
Meeting the love of his life
Eve, who grew up in Nottingham but who had lived in many different places, was in Leicestershire. Tuffy, working on buildings in Corby, one day visited a friend in Leicester and while there took a shine to a woman he met. When he returned a week or two later, he encountered the lady's housemate - Eve - and his life was set on another course.
"He was fascinated by this one," says Eve, pointing to her now-adult daughter Nicky, sitting alongside, "because she was an 18-month-old and quite sharp."
Tuffy and Eve became an item - the word soulmates has been mentioned - and he became a beloved father to young Nicky. (Today, she says: "He chose to be my dad. How special is that?")
What did Eve think of Tuffy upon first meeting in 1967? - this man who vowed not to cut his hair and beard until the Vietnam war was halted.
"I opened one eye a little bit wider than the other one. He was interesting. He was obviously intelligent, and always very particular about his personal hygiene."
Tuffy didn't think he could have children, "but I said 'Well, I want another one!' and we succeeded." A bit later.
He wanted his children to grow up in Suffolk and Eve didn't mind moving.
The family move to Ipswich
Tuffy used a small legacy from a grandparent as the deposit on a terraced house in Ipswich - in Emlen Street, near Handford Road. They moved in that same year and were there for five.
Daughters Debbie and Thirza were born before the decade was out. "For five years I could have one in the pram, one on the pram seat, and one 'hold the handle and let go if you dare!'" laughs Eve.
In about 1972, Tuffy's sister Anne - living with their dad at Battisford - wanted to marry and move out. Dad Sam, a non-driver, was in a village and needed company. The family swapped Ipswich for the countryside.
Tuffy was still a steel erector/sheeter, working across the country. He'd come back when he could. Once, he drove down from Liverpool to see his girls, after work was halted out of respect for someone who had died. Then he drove back again, ready for work the next day.
Tuffy goes back to education
In the mid-1970s, Tuffy came home one day. Come September, there won't be any housekeeping for a while, he told Eve. He planned to study for a law degree at the University of Kent in Canterbury. (This at a time when their lives were a bit out of sync.)
Well, Eve replied, I've also got some news. I'm going to teacher training college. Unbeknownst to each other, they had applied for grants from Suffolk County Council - and both had been approved.
Eve went to Keswick Hall, outside Norwich - commuting from Battisford in her three-wheeled Robin Reliant ("a hairdryer on wheels!"). She paid a sixth-former to give the girls tea each day.
Undergraduate Tuffy rented a house in Whitstable. "We'd go down in the school holidays, and go to Herne Bay and go skating, and to the ice-cream parlour," Nicky remembers.
Eve reckons that's when he took an interest in local government. "He saw allotments being ignored. He never turned a spit here, but he would dig an allotment down there to set an example to the locals to use it!"
Graduating in 1978, Tuffy joined Haringey council as a tenancy relations officer. He was there about five years before being vexed by some office politics - promotions or pay rises, perhaps, that he perceived as unjust.
"Dad, with his principles, said 'No, no, no; this is unfair and unacceptable. I'm off', and handed his notice in," says Nicky. "Dad always had clear moral standards and principles. There's no point in having them unless you stand by them."
After three months trying in vain to find work back in Suffolk, Tuffy was contacted by his former employer. It was struggling to fill the vacancy he'd caused. Would he come back?
Nicky laughs about how her dad laid down two conditions: The issues that angered him must be addressed, "and can I keep my leaving present?"
So Tuffy had a second five-year spell at Haringey. It ended when he got a similar job at Ipswich Borough Council. He worked there from 1989 to 2002.
"Caused carnage!" says Nicky. He jolted their well-honed domestic routine. "We were so used to Dad coming back at weekends, and now he's bunging up the bathroom during the week!"
At Ipswich he was a senior tenancy relations officer, specialising in private tenancy law and aiming to ensure landlords and tenants both kept their sides of the bargain.
Tuffy, it seems, had an enviable reputation. Nicky remembers that, when he was at Haringey, he'd go to court with clients and several of the judges would say "Mr Turner, would it be easier if you stepped up and spoke on behalf of your client?", and some solicitors would go green with envy. "But if a judge asks you, nobody is going to argue with you."
He often triumphed. "He absolutely knew his stuff. People from all over the country would ring him to check private tenancy law."
Moving house - with a wheelbarrow
The years had brought domestic changes. A growing household became too much for Tuffy's ageing father, so the family moved to social housing in the village and spent seven years there.
Then, in 1984, they rented an old house close by from a farmer.
Nicky remembers moving, during the Easter holiday. Well, you would. "Dad refused to hire a van. We moved in a wheelbarrow. It took a fortnight."
It coincided with Eve being away on a training course. "I had a big chest freezer in those days, and he had a girl each side, balancing it."
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Tuffy becomes a councillor
Tuffy had three terms as a Mid Suffolk councillor for Ringshall, from 1991 to 2003, after which he opted not to seek re-election. He also served as a parish councillor.
He was mostly a Liberal Democrat. Eve says: "He had always been extreme in his views (left-wing), but because there was no Green representation out here, and it was very blue (Conservative), he went for the yellow!"
She remembers his first triumph. The count was at Great Bricett and they stood in a little church room in the middle of the night, waiting, while at least one, and possibly two, recounts were held.
Tuffy scraped in by less than 20 votes, Eve thinks.
There was a brief time when he became an independent in the '90s, having left the Lib-Dem group in protest at the way two constituents had been treated by the council and relinquishing his chairmanship of the housing committee, but he returned in 1998.
"There are bucketfuls of pictures of Dad over the years in various incongruous outfits," says Nicky.
It's true. He wouldn't wear wacky hues and designs if he was going to be with clients or if he thought it would be disrespectful of the occasion, but, otherwise, he'd aim to add some colour to proceedings.
"He'd always been a bit extrovert in that direction," says Eve. When he needed suits for work, he got them "from his favourite tailor: Sue Ryder!"
Nicky: "He didn't hold with spending money on material things when there was perfectly good stuff that could be re-used."
Tuffy was well known at local charity shops, where he'd buy bright clothes and often have them adapted. Many would save anything they came across in his size that they thought he might like.
Eve's parents lived in Nottingham. During visits, Tuffy would buy fabric (the kind not easily found in Ipswich) from markets in Nottingham and Derbyshire. Back in Suffolk, he'd get seamstresses to make new sets of clothes.
On some formal occasions he might add a dash of individuality by settling for bright red socks and braces, and a "dodgy" tie. "I think at one point Dad had 400 ties. We did whittle them out occasionally," says Nicky.
She recalls one Christmas, when Dad was going to sing in the cathedral. "My sisters and I kidnapped him and took him to Coes, and had him measured for a DJ.
"He'd got to the point where his stomach was getting so large and he'd got these bits of string - like pocketwatch chains - to pull the buttons closer together. 'We're taking you! You cannot go in the cathedral like that.' So we bought one for him."
Speaking of Christmas, Tuffy's white beard made him a perfect stand-in Santa. Eve made him a Father Christmas suit, and schools and playgroups would book him to come to their festive fayres.
Nicky remembers her father sitting at Battisford's Punch Bowl inn one December. A boy of about four, on the way to the loo, noticed Tuffy. His mouth dropped open, as he thought it was Santa himself.
"Dad whispered 'Sssh. I'm having a rest before the big night.' There's a whole generation in Mid Suffolk to whom my dad IS Father Christmas."
A life less ordinary
Despite being brought up in the countryside, Tuffy was a strict vegetarian. He wouldn't wear leather, either.
He'd worked in an abattoir for a short time. Eve: "He saw what it did to the workers there; they were oblivious, and he couldn't cope with that. That's what turned him vegetarian."
Tuffy didn't force his views on the children, though. They went to birthday parties, ate sausages, and wondered why they didn't have them at home. So they did. Good quality meat, mind. There was a proper butcher in the village.
* Tuffy was a good cross-country runner as a young man. In 1961 he helped create Stowmarket Rugby Club, playing alongside his brothers.
* He became a temporary member of acting union Equity during his time in London, so he could appear on stage.
Tuffy appeared with comedy group The Alberts. He was in The Three Musketeers Ride Again in 1969 at Stratford in East London, for instance.
He was also in The Electric Element, which was really funny, says Nicky. "He appeared as the new God in a pair of gold lamé knickers and nothing else."
* He was passionate about jazz and classical music.
* He used to ride an adult tricycle. Latterly, an electric one. Before he got it, he gave one a trial run to make sure it could take him from Battisford to Stowmarket and back on one charge.
* He was very inventive - making things from reused items. Eve shows me a family-size milk bottle carrier he made, complete with cover so blue tits couldn't peck the foils.
* When he settled back in Suffolk, Tuffy joined the International Guild of Knot Tyers. He produced many examples of this craft: plain and (of course) coloured.
There were, for instance, things that looked like a set of 1970s children's Clackers toys. (Or, possibly, parts of a gentleman's anatomy.)
"Most people would have dice hanging from their car mirror. We would have these," says Nicky. If you had a new car, her dad would make a set to match its colour.
* The family often camped in a farmer's field at Eastbridge, near Leiston, for a holiday. When Tuffy decided he didn't much like staying in a tent, he bought a caravan.
He would install himself at Eastbridge for perhaps two or three weeks (within easy reach of The Eel's Foot Inn!) The milkman delivered his newspapers to the farm and family members would come to stay during what became an annual "pilgrimage".
* When he was in London, Tuffy and some pals started a cricket team. Later, for about a decade, players would come to Battisford for a weekend and play the local XI.
Whole families would descend on the village - put up in the house, camping in the garden, playing music and having a grand time.
"As far as I was concerned, it was normal to have a houseful of people, but later you realise other people's childhoods weren't like that," says Nicky.
* Tuffy had researched the environmental impacts of burial and cremation. At the time, he found there wasn't much in it.
Just before the charges for the local graveyard were raised, he told Eve he'd reserved the last two plots… at the old rate. "Before we'd even decided what to do," she says. He was buried there.
* Tuffy was a member of Stowmarket Operatic & Dramatic Society in his younger days. Towards the end of his life, he sang with Stowmarket Chorale.
* Tuffy was a fan of crosswords, and challenged his children to fill them in, too. Nicky remembers him devoting Saturday mornings to crosswords. He used to send in completed grids and often won prizes.
'Just so patient'
Tuffy struggled with rheumatism and arthritis in later life, and had to take quite a lot of painkillers. He was having blood tests because of his condition, and one showed he had the blood cancer myeloma.
In 2015 he had a course of chemotherapy, responded quite well, and had a transfusion afterwards to strengthen his bones and blood. Sadly, tests later showed the cancer was present.
"He said he didn't want any more chemo, and we all had to learn to live with that," says Eve. "It was very difficult. But he didn't complain. He was just so patient."
Tuffy had a bed downstairs at home, and carers came in over about three years. When he became more ill, a place was found at Barking Hall care home - near enough to Battisford for daily visits from relatives.
Tuffy died there. As well as Eve, Nicky, Debbie and Thirza, he leaves brothers David and Stephen, grandchildren Saskia, Miranda, Luke, Joseph and Chloe, and great-grandchildren Alexandra, Jack and Remy.
"Because he was such a character, it doesn't feel yet as if there's much of a gap (left)," says Eve. "I think a couple of years down the line…"