Alan Leather obituary

Other lives: Activist for international causes who roused trade union members across the globe

My sister and I would always brace ourselves when my father, Alan Leather, stood up to make a speech, be it at Christmas lunch or at a party. Even though it went on (and on), we would be roaring with laughter or moved to tears by the end. There wasn’t anyone he couldn’t engage with or inspire.

Alan, who has died aged 77, spent a lifetime rousing trade union members across the globe, including in apartheid South Africa and post-Soviet eastern Europe, as deputy general secretary of the global trade union federation Public Services International (PSI). He moved to France with his family in 1987 when he was offered the PSI role and, despite never managing to learn French fluently, his big smile, charisma, charm and humour saw him through. A talented communicator, he had the rare knack of being able to choose just the right words so that everyone could understand him, be they native English speakers or not.

Before joining PSI he had mobilised aid for refugees in the 1971 war between Pakistan and India, where he lived for four years and worked for Oxfam. On returning to Britain he joined Returned Volunteer Action, where he met his soulmate and future wife, Sue Bullock, who also worked in the international labour movement, mainly as a writer and editor for the United Nations and the International Labour Organization. Together they were brilliant hosts with a fondness for champagne, and by the end of the evening Dad was usually playing the spoons.

Born in Harrow, Middlesex, to Elsie (nee Strugnell) and William Leather, who both worked for Kodak, Alan left Headstone Lane secondary modern school in Harrow shortly after his 15th birthday and began a six-year apprenticeship as a compositor at Odhams Press in Covent Garden, London. Later he would often reminisce about being thrown into this world of grown-up men – a tough, eye-opening experience that helped form his strong character. From Odhams he went to Zambia with Voluntary Service Overseas in 1963 and, on returning to Britain, became a teacher at St Martin’s School of Art in London. He then started working for Oxfam, first in Britain and then in India, where he was based from 1967 to 1971.

In retirement in France, Alan was a volunteer with the UK-based charity Action Village India, served as co-president of the International Baby Food Action Network, and also helped out at the NGO Forum for Health, a consortium of health organisations. He was involved in amateur dramatics, grew vegetables in his garden, and flew to Britain to sing in folk clubs. Sports mad, he played tennis well into his 70s and his television was usually tuned in to cricket, rugby or football. He loved waistcoats, Nehru jackets and red shoes.

Sue died in 2015. He is survived by his children, Amy and me, three granddaughters, Cecilia, Miriam and Tess, and his sister Margaret.

Jack Leather

The GuardianTramp

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