One of the reasons why I have posted nothing recently is that my beloved mother took ill rather suddenly, a month or so ago. She was in Southampton General Hospital for ten days, where her family maintained a vigil around the clock; and then she died. She was cremated in Southampton and a week ago we held a memorial service at the village where she lived in Yorkshire. This is what I said at the service:
When you get old your mind tends to prefer to deal with things that happened long ago, at the expense of the here and now. My mother started this process about a year ago. Last summer her grandson Will was surprised to find himself swapping war stories from the classroom with her. In the autumn she was full of memories of how she met my father. Last month, on our last stay here, she talked a lot about her childhood. And then, having reprocessed everything to her satisfaction, and with huge dignity, she died. And in a way I think that that was fitting.
Because she was a remarkable woman as well as a very nice one, I thought that it would be right to reverse the process and say just a little about her long life.
She was born in the closing days of the First World War, in Milbrook, in Cornwall. Her father was a solicitor’s clerk, studying for his exams in the evening. Her mother was a teacher; she was Cornish, and in the school holidays my mother spent much time with relations further west, in wild Cornwall: particularly Polruan. She developed a life-long fascination with the sea.
Her father qualified as a solicitor and they moved to Plymouth.
My mother went to university: Bedford College, London, one of the places that pioneered higher education for women. When her father came to London on business they would go out together. Once they arrived late for a performance by the Crazy Gang. This was as dangerous then as it is with Dame Edna now. Bud Flanagan (or maybe Monsewer Eddie Gray) broke off in the middle of a sketch. ‘You dirty man,’ he said. ‘She’s young enough to be your daughter.’
It was at the house in Plymouth that she met my father. He was billeted there during the War. The other lodgers were Air Force pilots. My father was in the Royal Army Dental Corps and my grandmother was relieved to have someone with a life expectancy of more than a week or so.
My father was the love of my mother’s life and she was the love of his, and there is nothing more to be said about this.
When she graduated my mother taught history at a girls’ school in Wimbledon. In the 1945 General Election she campaigned for Ernie Bevin. The family was horrified and sent a delegation up to London. ‘You know he’s a socialist,’ they said. ‘Of course I know,’ my mother said. ‘That’s why I’m campaigning for him.’
This turned out to be a passing phase, however.
She and my father married in 1947 and they lived first in Dorking and then in Peaslake, in the Surrey hills, where my mother was to spend more than half her life.
After my brother, my sister and I were born, she returned to teaching. In was in her blood and she continued to learn and to teach long after it ceased to be her day job. Emily, her eldest grandchild, remembers her Granny teaching her to read.
She was an infinitely loving and practical parent. She was also no-nonsense: she knew her own mind even when she was quite wrong. One of her convictions was that it is always possible to have a picnic on Easter Monday, and I remember at least one occasion, with the family sitting forlornly around the picnic basket wearing all the clothes we owned, while the snow fell softly around us.
She never put up with any nonsense from the cold.
My father died in 1972, tragically young. The illness took years. My mother cared for him and ran his dental practice, hiring and firing locums and when he was asleep doing battle in correspondence with the Dental Estimates Board.
Widowed at 53, she volunteered as a probation assistant. She was modest about this, saying that she did it for the petrol money. But I know that she fought indefatigably for the wives of the prisoners on her books to get their rights, ferried them around in her car, gave them all very direct advice, and developed a sometimes astonishing sympathy for wayward behaviour.
As a family we had always had adventurous holidays, driving through pre-motorway and pre-budget-airline Europe. My father would have spent the previous six months, mastering the local language: he had a talent for that. When she got to retirement age my mother took to travelling again: Russia a number of times; round the Mediterranean; small boats off the coast of Turkey; China once. She scorned America though. I’m interested in history, she said, but America has only geography.
She also had her caravan, on the south coast, where she took her grandchildren for memorable stays. She was a vigorous and loving grandmother. She had in a way a more straightforward relationship with her grandchildren than she felt able to, until quite recently, with her children. And until not so long ago she could out-walk any of them.
My mother had a fractious relationship with cars, but she relied on them in Peaslake. When it occurred to her that she would not be able to drive for ever she abandoned the village where she had lived for fifty years, with characteristic lack of sentimentality, and moved here. She had more or less run Peaslake, presiding over the WI and as an interventionist churchwarden, but she said that at nearly 90 she deserved a rest: she would no longer involve herself in local matters. This turned out to be over-optimistic.
Some time after she left Peaslake there was a huge row there, with resignations and an article in the Daily Mail. Someone rang me up. It wouldn’t have happened if Joan were still here, they said. She would have sorted them out.
I have my own private memories, as do all her family and friends, and they are our own business. In time they will be memories to be treasured rather than as now unfillable holes in our lives. But this is the more public side of her remarkable life, and it deserves to be honoured too.