The incredible life of Barry Thorne
At 85 Barry Thorne is one of the venerable elder statesmen of Maidenhead Rotary Club,
best known to many as our genial weekly quizmaster.
best known to many as our genial weekly quizmaster.
But the adage ‘everyone has a story to tell’ could not be more fitting for a man whose incredible career has spanned soldier, colonial policeman, diplomat and businessman – with stints of journalist, bodyguard, ‘surgeon’ and sports presenter thrown in for good measure.
It’s also a life in Rotary, with Barry’s decades of membership seeing him in far-flung clubs from Cape Town to Addis Ababa and Istanbul – as well, of course, as Maidenhead.
A born-and-bred Maidonian, Barry grew up in Grenfell Road, just opposite where he lives now. Forced to leave school at 15, he had brief forays as a clerk at High Duty Alloys in Slough, a trainee reporter with Reuters in London, and a salesman at Hepworth’s in Maidenhead High Street.
But being raised on tales of the British Raj by his grandparents from their time in India, he longed for a taste of military life overseas. So in 1952 Barry took the Queen’s shilling to join the newly formed Boys Infantry Battalion. And after becoming a ‘regular’ soldier when he turned 18, he joined the Gloucestershire Regiment – the Glosters – with whom he was to serve for almost eight years.
The regiment was part of a ‘fire brigade’ ready to quickly deploy to trouble spots around the globe and Barry was to see service in places as varied as Kenya - at the time of the Mau Mau insurgency - Yemen, Cyprus, Bahrain and Germany. His military career saw him promoted to sergeant with many dramatic episodes, including being seconded to a Kenyan hospital to train as a ‘field-surgeon’ which was cut suddenly short by a dose of bubonic plague.
After being denied the opportunity by his CO to train as a pilot in the Army Air Corps and posted instead to the regimental depot to train recruits, Barry decided it was time to leave the army and seek adventure elsewhere.
After a short spell back in Maidenhead at his father’s building firm he was accepted as an Inspector in the Colonial Police in Nyasaland, now Malawi, which required him to undergo basic constable training with the Metropolitan Police at Hendon.
Barry’s police career saw him serve as a uniformed officer and then in plain clothes as a Detective Inspector in Special Branch during a time of political unrest as the country moved towards independence. Following independence he acted for a short time as a personal bodyguard to new president Dr Hastings Banda before taking charge of training the next generation of the new nation’s police recruits.
Always a keen sportsman, it was while still a serving police officer that Barry also became the football commentator for the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). He went on to present a weekday 15-minute ‘Sports Spotlight’ radio programme and by the end of 1967 was the MBC’s main English language sports presenter and commentator, juggling the role with his police duties.
With the feeling his time as a policeman was drawing to a close, in 1968 Barry began a new career with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) working mainly in commercial roles. Interspersed with periods based in London, his life as a diplomat would see him posted to Dacca in East Pakistan, where he would witness the bloody birth of Bangladesh as a country, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Italy and finally Turkey, where he was Deputy Consul-General.
While filled with colourful adventures, Barry recalls some genuinely frightening incidents during his time as a member of her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service. Among them was the evacuation of his young family from Dacca as the city descended into violence, and an emergency flight home by private jet from Addis Ababa for wife Jacqui to give birth to their daughter Juliet eight weeks early.
Rotary has played a huge part in Barry’s life. A member for 44 years – though not consecutively – the first club he joined was the Rotary Club of Durban in South Africa in 1972 where he held the position of Sergeant-at-Arms, fining members for ‘misdemeanours’. As well as Maidenhead and Durban, he has been a member of Rotary clubs in Addis Ababa, Milan, Columbo and Istanbul.
Barry said: “Rotary has been hugely important to me. During my time overseas in the diplomatic service, as well as all the normal things like fellowship and helping others, Rotary gave me immediate access to a network of the kind of people it was important to meet. It was a marvellous stepping stone from country to country. In my home town club the experience is more one of marvellous and ongoing friendships.”
After retiring from the FCO in 1992, Barry took a ‘shotgun’ approach to entering the private sector, setting up a number of different businesses. He remains Chairman of the most successful, ATTI Consultants, which offers debt recovery, commercial law and due diligence services through law firm associates across the world.
Looking back over his life Barry has no regrets and would not do things any differently. He said: “I had to grow up pretty fast, made my own opportunities and was prepared to put up with some pretty difficult circumstances. ‘One job until I retire’ was never part of my character. I’ve had the privilege of an amazing life that few people have experienced.”
Barry’s fascinating life story is chronicled in his book, A Varied Life, which is packed with colourful and amusing anecdotes. He has also written a novel, Mists of Kirinyaga, and a book of short stories, One Under The Eight.