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In memory of Sir Frank Williams 1942 – 2021

It was Parents Day at Malvern College. It was a Sunday morning sometime in the early Eighties. The parents had met their sons’ teachers and had now repaired back to the boys’ Houses for a reviving glass of sherry before whisking them away (most of them, anyway) for Sunday lunch at a suitable local hostelry. In this particular sitting room, in this particular House, an impossibly glamorous mother held centre-stage. Attractive women know they draw spellbound glances but affect not to notice. I had met Lady Sarah Curzon earlier, for I was tutor to her son, and I have to say she certainly dazzled. At her side was the famous racing car owner, Frank Williams, who was perfectly able-bodied at this time. The terrible accident, which left him wheelchair-bound, was not to occur until two or three years later.

Lady Sarah had been married to the racing driver, Piers Courage – Jason Courage, their son, was the boy I mentioned earlier – but was now married to the well-known zoo and casino owner, John Aspinall. Her story was a tragic one. Piers, the eldest son of the Courage brewing dynasty, raced for Frank Williams. He was a good-looking young man, talented, fearless, confident and hugely popular, with the Formula 1 world at his feet. In the Dutch Grand Prix in 1970, his car’s front suspension broke when it hit a bump on the track, causing the car to rise up a grassy embankment, somersault and burst into flames. Courage was killed instantly.

Frank Williams, who had become something of a godfather to his young protégé, was distraught at the tragedy, as it was his car Courage was driving and a design fault had contributed to the accident. There and then, he vowed to take the greatest possible care of Courage’s two sons, Amos and Jason, hence his presence at Jason’s Parents Day. In 1986, Williams himself was involved in a terrible car accident which rendered him tetraplegic but that did not prevent him from pursuing his career as a family-based owner and team principal of Williams Formula 1. Nor did it lessen his keen interest in the two Courage boys.

You would have thought by now that cruel fate would have eased up on the Courage family but no…there was more to come. As Macbeth said:

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies

But in battalions.”

Now a young man, Jason Courage, when riding his motorbike along the Kings Road in London, was hit head-on by a car, suffering catastrophic injuries, which left him wheelchair-bound too. Jason, it should be said, was the innocent party in the accident. His father, his ‘godfather’ and now he, had all been the victims of dreadful car crashes.

I have recently caught up again with Jason. He invites me along to the Oval Test match each summer. At Malvern, I never had him down as a sportsman – at least not with any sport involving a ball – but since his accident, he has broadened his interests and takes every advantage he can of concessions for the disabled at a wide variety of matches, events and concerts. He is incredibly fit, considering his paralysis, astonishingly self-reliant and utterly lacking in self-pity. “And do you know who are the most helpful whenever I am in any difficulty?” he shot at me once, apropos of nothing in particular, “The Muslims! It must be something to do with their religion and their family values.” So, there you are, all you bigots out there, he seemed to be saying, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

The news of Frank Williams’s death the other day served as a reminder – if any were needed – that life and health are fragile and a gilded existence is no barrier against personal tragedy. As usual, Shakespeare put it better than most:

“We are such stuff

That dreams are made on and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.” (The Tempest)

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