Michael Augustine Arnold-Gilliat
30th April 1935 – 16th June 2016
Michael Arnold-Gilliat, variously known as Mike AG, MAG, the Dowager Chairman or just plain Gilliat, passed away peacefully on 16th June in Charing Cross Hospital, London, after a short struggle with pneumonia. He was 81. On hearing of his death, Lawrence McVeigh, one of his contemporaries remarked that ‘it would take a little time to get used to not having Mike there’. It will indeed; Mike AG was part of the very fabric of Cygnet RC, a quintessential administrator who always had his ‘ear to the ground’ and one who never missed an opportunity to network.
Born in Kennington, south London on 30th April 1935, Mike was a child of the Blitz. Bombed out of Kennington in 1941, the family moved to Bournemouth, where Mike secured an education at St Peter’s School before passing the Civil Service entrance exam in June 1953. No sooner had he joined the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) than he was whisked off to the RAF to do National Service. Not an obvious candidate for airborne duties, Mike was dispatched to Signals on and around Salisbury Plain where it was felt that he could do relatively little harm.
Returning to MAFF in 1955, Mike was initially assigned to the Legal Department where he made the acquaintance of John Bull, a coach at Cygnet who introduced him to the club in 1958. Little did the rowing world know what it was letting itself in for. Over the ensuing half century or so, the name MAG would become synonymous with civil service rowing in all its administrative guises on the Tideway.
Mike enjoyed his rowing, but he was not a natural oarsman and never won his Novices or Maidens as they were known in his day. Maidens were hotly contested in the early 1960s and Mike often recounted events like Evesham where thirty or more entries were not unusual. Still, he could always console himself with the social side of rowing and in 1972 he and a number of other Cygnets featured in a priceless advert for Double Diamond Bitter under the slogan ‘I’m only here for the beer’. This billboard still enjoys pride of place in RG Benrath, Dusseldorf, an inter-club link first established by Mike together with Gordon Burden and Lawrence Mc Veigh in 1965 and one that remains very much alive to this day.
Rowing boats were one thing, but the labyrinthine committee structure of civil service rowing was quite another and Mike revelled in it, swiftly making his mark on the Cygnet committee. Having filled virtually every committee post in the 1960s, Mike would subsequently serve six years (1970-73 and 1980-81) as club captain and 18 years as club chairman. Civil service rowing thrived under MAG’s first stint as captain and he was immensely proud to put his name to the entry form for Cygnet’s first ever entry (under its own name) at Henley Royal Regatta in 1972 and again in 1973. Later, in 1980, he would rally to the cause again, stepping in as captain when the club was at a very low ebb.
Never one to take a back seat, when not commanding the higher echelons of Cygnet RC, Mike took up the reins first as boathouse secretary and subsequently as boathouse chairman, while also becoming involved in the broader Civil Service Sports Council, where he served on the Management Committee and as London Region Secretary. Mike became a vice president of Cygnet in 1978, while his services to civil service rowing and the CSSC were formally recognized in 1982 when he was awarded the Civil Service Merit Award for services to sport and recreation.
Back on the Tideway, Mike became a qualified umpire and officiated at many local regattas and heads in the 1970-80s, as well as becoming entrenched in the organisation of Hammersmith Amateur Regatta (as Treasurer) and the Head of the River Fours (as committee member and Entries Secretary). Mike could be a very canny operator and was instrumental in securing long-term sponsorship from Fullers Brewery for both these events. Nearer to home, he transformed the Cygnet 300 club into a 600 club, greatly aiding the club boat buying programme, which would subsequently see not one, but two boats named Mike Arnold-Gilliat.
MAG’s enduring commitment to the wider world of rowing was recognized in 2002 when he received a British Olympic Association Award, by which time memories of the grass-roots revolt Mike and his Division 18 colleagues had led against perceived ARA misrule in 1976 had presumably been forgotten. However, arguably, the honour Mike coveted most was his election to Leander Club as a ‘full pink’ in 1998, a rare achievement for somebody who had never won his novices, yet one whose rowing CV ranked with the best of them in so many other respects.
No obituary of Mike AG could omit mention of 14 Vernon Road in Sheen, his home for almost fifty years. Countless Cygnet members came to regard Vernon Road as tantamount to a second home and, in a good many cases, a first home, as an army of club members became paying tenants at one time or another. Indeed, the early 1970s found the whole of the captaincy residing at Vernon Road and an invitation to a drink or dinner was a little like an audience at the White House.
No deserving body, often ‘under the influence’, was ever turned away from Gilliat Towers: the back bedroom was always on hand for the ‘tired and emotional’; while kitchen cupboards full of canned food and drink from the local cash-and–carry mitigated the risks of starvation or dehydration. Conversely, inmates were expected to ‘muck in’: Norman Cowling, one of the 1970s alumni, recalls ‘Mike’s next door neighbour was highly amused to see that the tenants were expected to paint the house’.
But perhaps the institution that personified MAG best was the ‘Gilligram’ – hand-typed or written reminders penned by Mike, first as captain and later as boathouse and club chairman, these appeared with unerring regularity in the club letter rack, the forerunner of e-mails as we know them today. Often, these missives would be a summons to the White Hart or the Hare and Hounds to discuss the issues of the day. All the big decisions were thrashed out in one or other of these public houses, infused by the Aaaaabl – the absolute b***dy last – as Mike liked to refer to the last pint(s) of the day.
After an extensive career in MAFF, Mike’s administrative skills were unleashed for one last time on the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (an outpost of MAFF). Not one to hog the spotlight, he was nonetheless proud that under his stewardship Kew Gardens won an award for some of the cleanest toilets in the land! The trail of destruction wrought by the Great Storm of 1987 presented an altogether different challenge. Sometime later, ananonymous benefactor presented the club with its handsome gavel, made from a Kew Turkey Oak which had fallen victim to the storm!
Following early retirement at 55, Mike became a fully paid-up member of the Golden Oldies, which met at the boathouse every Tuesday and Thursday under the tutelage of John Bull. Mike also took up globe-trotting, ably abetted by his travelling companion Andy Rawkins, visiting virtually every continent on the planet. Ever the socialite, many an unsuspecting co-traveller would return home only to find themselves on Mike’s electronic rolodex for ever more. Less well known were his annual pilgrimages to Hosanna House, Lourdes as a hands-on helper: religious faith was always very important to Mike.
Mike never tired of telling his GP that ‘he was easily led astray’ and, in truth, we were all complicit in his antics which were legendary, particularly at locations like the Flower Pot and Henley Royal Regatta. Gracious to a fault, Mike always dismissed these as apocryphal. Yet he remained an administrator to the last, helpfully penning notes for his own obituary. At Cygnet we are fond of proclaiming the demise of club grandees as the ‘end of an era’; with the death of Mike Arnold-Gilliat, that epithet is amply justified, Gilligrams and all. He will be greatly missed by his multitude of friends and family.
24th June 2016
Mike's Funeral will take place on Wednesday 13th July 2016 at 12.30pm
St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church, Mortlake, 61 N. Worple Way, London SW14 8PR.
After the service the family and close friends will accompany Michael to the Crematorium.
By Michael's request a small floral tribute will be provided.
“Reach the Unreached” was founded by Brother Lionel, a teacher at Michael’s old school, and helps poor village people in India. If you wish please make a donation, please send a cheque made payable to “Reach the Unreached”, c/o Holmes & Daughters, 461 Upper Richmond Road West, East Sheen, London SW14 7PU.
The wake will be in the River Room at the Bulls Head in Barnes.
Please feel free to share your memories of Mike by using the comments box below.
Author: Neil Pickford