Roger Giles - 1941-2020

Sat, 05/30/2020 - 17:55
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Born on 7 April 1941 in Devizes, Wiltshire, teenage Roger attended Lackham Agricultural College and also took an avid interest in trad jazz and skiffle, playing whenever possible in both his own band and as a fill-in. He worked as stockman, shepherd and farmhand in Shropshire with Fred Jordan, who became his mentor and lifelong friend, and who often sang in the local pubs. In 2002, his health failing, Fred bequeathed Roger his old work boots – inspiring Colum Sands’ tribute, Fred Jordan’s Boots. 

A chance encounter with champion New Zealand shearer Godfrey Bowen inspired Roger to emigrate, sailing to Wellington in 1965 and following the lucrative seasonal shearing work around the country. However, New Zealand’s music scene in the age of six o’clock closing was a disappointment to Roger, who had left behind his beloved trad jazz bands (especially the Temperance Seven) and a bustling pub nightlife.  With little to lose, he began attending a local folk club and learned, to his bemusement, that the choruses he had heard Fred Jordan and others sing in Shropshire were regarded by the young folk revivalists as a legitimate and respected music form.

By the 70s Roger was permanently settled in Devonport, a village-like suburb on Auckland’s north shore, and enjoyed taking regular strolls up Mt Victoria, falling easily into his farmhand habits of weeding, trimming, mending and tidying as he went. When a new folk club venue was needed, Roger approached Devonport’s mayor, who granted them the use of a defunct 19th century command post near the summit of the mountain. Repaired, refitted and scrubbed clean, now known simply as The Bunker, it has since hosted countless international musicians and is still home to the Devonport Folk Club today.

Now with its own premises, the club went from strength to strength. Roger had a way of salvaging things from his daily walks, and these discarded ornaments, bottles, photos, books and instruments would often end up on the walls and shelves of The Bunker, giving it an old-English-pub ambience.  A club record library was started, and Mummers plays – based on ones he’d seen in England - were enacted each year with an enormous Christmas Feast.  A born host, Roger soon became a favourite compère, his warm, welcoming nature putting nervous performers at ease, and irreverent introductions and quick wit setting an informal tone for the evening.

Summoned home to his ailing father, Roger spent the late 70s back in Devizes, once again surviving on occasional farm work. Having become thoroughly aquainted with the UK folk world from afar, he keenly attended as many local clubs and festivals as possible, getting to know many of its luminaries including John Kirkpatrick, Peggy Seeger, Peta Webb, as well as catching up with his old mate Fred.

Back in New Zealand he was elected President of the Devonport Folk Club and then the Auckland Folk Festival, and over the years Roger ushered generations of local performers across its stages. He also hosted many overseas guests - Vin Garbutt, Dave Swarbrick, Les Barker, Jez Lowe, Andy Irvine and Waterson/Carthy family - in his home.  Concerts at The Bunker would typically be followed by invitations to Roger’s Devonport cottage. A few snacks on the table, a bottle of whisky, and stories of old farming times or past acquaintances, often illustrated by an LP or photos – or even a pair of hobnail boots.  No matter how long the stories or how many the whiskys, 5am would see him up with the dog and off round Mt Victoria for an hour before work.  

Roger retired as festival president in 2015 but continued to attend concerts and club nights at The Bunker until the end of his life.  He is survived by his two children, and partner Hilary.

Kerrin Worsfold & Tony Ricketts