John Lefley, quiz ace campaigner who always had a question
Lib Dem came so close to winning a place on the council
02 May, 2020 — By Richard Osley
John Lefley on a canal holiday with his daughter Sandra and grandson Alex
ON a sunny day, you would find him outside a coffee shop in Regent’s Park Road, never short of an opinion and putting the world to rights. The New Journal, too, was blessed with the enthusiasm which John Lefley brought to our local politics.
The 81-year-old, who died suddenly earlier this month, was a regular contributor to our letters page – often witty and acerbic, always thoughtful. For the Lib Dems, he was the councillor they never had, campaigning for new pelican crossings and better access to public transport among many issues, but falling just short of winning a seat at the Town Hall.
“He was an agent and a campaigner and he would have made a very good councillor because he was so interested in everything,” said Jill Fraser, the former mayor of Camden. “He had a question at every meeting. It’s just a shame, in these times, that we can’t organise a full celebration of his life.”
She added: “He was a card, a great laugh.”
When the Camden Town with Primrose Hill council ward was split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 2002, Mr Lefley missed out effectively because his surname came, alphabetically, further down the ballot paper than his running mates. Another time, he was a runner-up by 58 votes.
He was born in Norfolk in February 1939 and brought up in Spalding, Lincolnshire, as an only child. His father had suffered from ill-health and died when he was just seven years old. Mr Lefley excelled academically, skipping a year at primary school and then winning a boarding scholarship to Culford School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
He joined the Scottish Liberals at Edinburgh University where he studied history. It was there that he met his wife, Marjorie Scott, a primary school teacher.
They married in September 1963 and had twins, Sandra and Alastair. Mr Lefley spent most of his career in Edinburgh working for the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland. He enjoyed visiting farmers across Scotland, representing their interests in government meetings and attending conferences across Europe.
However, after 15 years it became clear that there were no promotion prospects due to “dead men’s shoes”.
Mr Lefley therefore looked elsewhere and in 1983 took on a role as Director of the Scottish Association of Master Bakers.
He volunteered as a prison visitor for several years in Edinburgh, visiting an inmate who was serving a life sentence for murder and helping in his rehabilitation.
At the end of the decade, however, with no warning, he left Edinburgh, his job and his family life, moving to London.
After a few years he settled in Camden Town, then moved to the Oldfield Estate overlooking Primrose Hill. He was the life and soul of the estate’s quiz team, which took on the Monday brainteasers at the Queen’s pub.
John Lefley with granddaughter Isla
“Years ago, he appeared on Radio 4’s Brain of Britain and just missed out on getting to the semi-finals,” said Sandra Lancaster, his daughter. “And he really loved Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? He constantly applied but never actually got on.”
Although mobility problems had restricted his recent appearances at the pub quiz, Ms Lancaster said her father was still trying to get on the new series of Millionaire this year, when it recently returned to ITV.
Aside from quizzes and politics, Mr Lefley researched and wrote a sweeping historical novel set in the Spanish civil war. He was passionate about railways and waterways, having taken his family on several canal and riverboat holidays across the UK, Holland and France when his children were young.
Ms Lancaster, who lives in Cheshire, repaid the favour by taking him on her family’s own narrowboat breaks in recent years. Mr Lefley was also skilled at playing bridge and after reconciling with Marjorie – they became good friends and never divorced – he would play cards with her on sea and river cruise holidays.
They also delighted in visits together to see Alastair and Sandra, and their four grandchildren. When Marjorie fell ill three years before her death in 2015, Mr Lefley would travel to Scotland to visit her every fortnight.
“They ended up living separate lives in London and Edinburgh. It was unusual, but it worked for them,” said Ms Lancaster.
The other long-term companion in his life was friend Abbie Benn. Two Saturdays ago, Mr Lefley collapsed near his flat in Regent’s Park Road and died shortly afterwards.
“It was a terrible shock and very upsetting, but I think it’s almost better that he went this way, out in the fresh air, rather than being alone in his flat,” said Ms Lancaster.
“He loved the social life at Oldfield but that was restricted because of the virus. I think one of the reasons he went downhill quickly was that he was cooped up in his flat. We last visited for a lovely weekend in February. With our help and a great deal of effort on his part, Dad managed to walk to the top of Primrose Hill and we took in that wonderful view over London.”
Labour councillor Pat Callaghan, the deputy leader of the council, had been at the scene trying to help. She described Mr Lefley as “a true gentleman and a loyal friend”, adding that she saw him as a “true Scot”.
“Like a true Celt, he would go to work even if he was feeling under the weather,” said Cllr Callaghan. “When I cautioned him about this, he would say, ‘oh dear girl, I will be fine’. Unfortunately, last week he wasn’t, but hopefully he is now at peace. John, you were always fine, and this dear girl will miss your banter, and knowledge, and thanks for your friendship.”
He is survived by daughter Sandra and her husband Pete, and their children Isla and Alex, and his son Alastair and his children Sarah and James.
Funeral details to be advised.