It is with a very, very heavy heart that I have to tell the readers of this blog that my dear old Mum died late last night. I know that some of you will have known her very well and others not at all but those that did know her will all remember her as the incredible woman that she was.
To me, she was my Mum and my role model. Our father died when I was just twenty so Mum had an enormous part in making me who I am. A not for my younger readers: you never stop growing up, so you should never stop listening to your parents because the day will come as it has for me today that you can’t. I remember railing at Mum when she was dishing out some bon mots, “When are you going to stop giving me advice, I am 21!”. My uncle, who lived with his mother for most of his adult life and was in the room at the time, whispered in my ear, “And I’m 66.” It was only quite recently that it dawned on me what an infkuence she was when I realised I had followed in her professional footsteps having, like her, worked as a teacher and in educational publishing. I am not yet a published author, as she was, but you never know.
Mum, was “Mum” to be me, Mary and Toby, she was “Pipsie” to her seven grandchildren, “Mrs B” to so many who were close to and fond of her but couldn’t quite dare to call her “Faith” and of course, she was “Faith”.
Mum was a very big person – not in height (I inherited my lankiness from her) but in generosity, charisma and the size of her heart. She looked after all of her family very much but also an enormous group of people. Otto and I were talking about her and we decided she had had a proper life.
This proper life was certainly an eventful life. She got married at 34, which was quite late for someone of her generation, and she packed in her time as a single woman. She wanted to travel in her very early twenties and saw a job ad for an au pair. She had always wanted to visit Latin America so she applied and got the job. She looked up Nigeria in the Atlas she realised that it wasn’t Nicaragua – obviously Geography was less important than Home Economics at the kind of all-girls school she attended in the 1940s. But not to worry, off to Africa she went. Africa became an important part of her life. She ended up being the Lady-in-Waiting to the wife of the last Governor of Nigeria and was present at the ceremony of independence. I was always slightly squirmed when she would come across a black person, like recently an Amazon delivery man, and ask them “And where are you from?”, I always feared they’d answer “Birmingham”. But she made a load of random friendships, including the Amazon guy, when these people turned out to be Yoruban Nigerian and she’d tell them stories of having been a great pal of the Chief of the Yorubas.
Mum had a story for any occasion, they often had an underlying moral to them that if you knew them well enough, you knew where they were going. One of these was another one from her African experience. The mother of the family she worked for contracted polio and didn’t get medical care as quickly as she might have done and her health suffered as a consequence. So if a kid was ill, Mum would tell this story as a dire warning of what might befall them if they didn’t get checked up swiftly. She once tried to get us to get a cough that Otto had checked as potential whooping cough – this was just when AJ was at her illest, so whooping cough wasn’t really what we needed to be worrying about at the time.
When she got back from Africa, she worked for Pitmans, the publishing company. I think she started as a secretary, she was certainly proud of her Pitman’s shorthand, but she worked her way up to quite a senior position and then started writing the books herself. Mum was an early feminist and very proud of the fact that at one stage she earned more than her three brothers combined. She was very involved in a revolutionary alphabet, ITA, that was designed to eliminate the vagaries of the English spelling system and allow children to learn to read more quickly. Like so many radical educational ideas it proved controversial and didn’t really take off but Mum wrote a lot of her books using this alphabet.
This is around the time that she met my Dad. She liked to joke that theirs was an “arranged marriage” – two mutual friends introduced them because they thought they would be good for each other. Mum always said that had she met Dad ten or fifteen years earlier she probably wouldn’t have looked twice at him. He was an intellectual, lefty, Scot who worked for the Civil Service civil when she had been dating the landed gentry and Tory MPs. On one of their first dates when she was thinking that he was a bit stodgy and dull and he was telling her rather boring story about how the St Johns, Cambridge, classics scholar had to write a Greek sonnet for some aristocrat. “Oh, really,” she asked politely, feigning interest, “and did you know the St Johns, Cambridge, classics scholar?”.
“I was the St Johns, Cambridge, classics scholar,” he replied. She was impressed. As she was by then a little bit older and had been through a bit more, she began to appreciate over the four years of their “whirlwind courtship”, as she liked to call it, that this quiet, brainy man, so unlike her (many!!) previous boyfriends was the one for her. Theirs was a truly loving marriage, Dad was the calm centre to her storm, as she rushed madly around, doing a hundred things at once. I can never remember seeing them argue. They took us all off to Brussels for eight years, when Dad worked for the EEC, the precursor to the EU. I won’t rant, but Mum was devastated on the morning of the Referendum as she saw what really had been a dream of European co-operation, something that had meant so much to my father, crumble.
They stayed in Brussels for longer than they had planned but the suburban life of the diplomatic housewife was never really for Mum and so we moved back to our home, the higgledy piggledy farmhouse they had bought and renovated but only lived in for four years or so before they had to rent it out. This is Spring Grove Farm, the house in the main picture of this post, with Mum’s beloved snowdrops doing their thing in this photo I took earlier today. Because this is where we live now, in one of Mum’s barns – we are not just losing a mother, we are losing the best neighbour you could ever wish for – one you could not just ask for a cup of sugar but a whole case of wine if you were going to have some people round. And she also kept us well supplied in horses.
You can’t really talk about Mum without talking about horses. Fo is going to write some stuff about Mum and her horse addiction in the appropriate spaces – Pony Club newsletters and so on. Mum did do some very cool horse-related things such as playing international Polo for Nigeria against Ghana. But for Mum the horse thing went a bit further – she somehow saw that hanging around with horses was a great trascendental experience that brought people of all walks of life together.
I have just spoken to Toni, a single mum who Mum took under her wings when she came across her little boy riding a scruffy pony. Mum got out of her car and asked him, “Can you run?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Can you swim?”
“Can you shoot?”
“errr, no I can’t shoot.”
“Well you need to learn. You need to do the Tetrathlon (running, riding, shooting, swimming). Get your mum to call me.”
Michael went back to Toni, his mum and told her “Some posh lady told me she is going to teach me to shoot. This is her phone number, you’ve got to give her a ring.” Toni thought this was a little odd but called the number. Mum told her that Michael had to join the Pony Club. Toni tried to explain that she lived on a council estate and didn’t know anyone in the Pony Club and didn’t think it was really for them. Mum, not for the last time, gave Toni a stern talking to, “Nonsense girl, Pony Club is for everyone.” Toni and Michael have been very close to Mum ever since. He is a big, gruff, thirty something now and like so many people, I imagine, he cried and cried when he heard she had gone.
There’s a whole swathe of Michaels – people Mum became a mentor to. After Dad died and we all flew the coop, Mum took on a role of caring for anyone who came into her orbit. All my mates love her dearly. Whenever friends of mine came to stay and even though I wanted them to hang out with me, they’d all go and spend some time catching up with Mum and she felt completely cool about inviting herself to stay with Amber and Rob in Wales or Tom and Sophie in Brighton.
She also became the Whaddon Chase Pony Club Tetrathlon coach. To the uninitiated, this might not sound like much but for the kids she trained, it was life-changing experience and they are all devoted to her. She has been on countless hen nights of people fifty years younger than her, got invited to all their weddings and had a very special group of them come to visit her just a few weeks ago when word got out that Mrs B really wasn’t well. She is going to leave a massive gap in so many lives – I have already had a load of messages that break my heart, like Victoria saying: I don’t think any of our lives are long enough for her to have been able to tell all the incredible stories she had .. I could never of got bored and never heard the same story more than once.. she was the most knowledgeable funny woman I have ever known my only regret is that she is not here anymore to tell me more stories…
But as well as being this bulwark in the lives of such a wide and varied cast of characters – I did like the fact that just before I spoke to Toni this evening, I had been speaking to the Countess of Mexborough – Mum’s cousin who was also devastated by the loss of her lifelong buddy (and I still have to call Boris Johnson’s parents!!) – Mum was above all a massive family person.
Mary and Toby will have stories to tell of Mum as a parent, her generosity, love… and advice, lots and lots of advice… I have some great memories of Mum as a mother. She used to come out to Spain, when I was living there and we would go off on jaunts together, sharing a room in Parador Hotels, in places of historical interest, getting pissed on the local tipple and having a riot. But it was when my family was in crisis, as it has often been, that Mum’s true qualities came to the fore. When Fo was very unwell, after Otto was born, and not really able to look after him, Mum came to stay, slept in his room, changed him and gave him his bottle during the night. She made sure that Fo spent as much time with him as possible to make sure that they bonded when that might not have been the case with the puerperal psychosis Fo was suffering from. It worked, Fo and Otto have the most incredible relationship but it also meant that Mum and Otto had a beautiful connection. He will miss her sorely.
And again when AJ was in hospital for months on end for chemo treatment, Mum, by then into her eighties, would come and relieve us, sleeping on the bench by the side of AJ’s bed. Of course, by this time we were living next door to her so our lives became so entwined. I’d sometimes grumble about this but it has been truly magical to have Pipsie across the way and my kids growing up where I grew up. She has been such a healthy influence in our children’s lives – she was Otto’s greatest advocate and stood up for him whenever we were telling him off. He is determined to say some words at her funeral and wants to bake some memorial flapjacks from the recipe she taught him. Everyone loves Ava-Jane but Pipsie REALLY loved Ava-Jane, they could spend hours together putting a baby (doll) to bed and cuddling the baby and putting the baby back to bed again.
Mum liked to have good holidays and she took us all off for one last blast in Sri Lanka at Christmas 2016. She’d noticed that when her friends died, all their family from far and wide would get together for a Memorial Service and she thought that this was a bit rubbish as the person in question was not actually there to appreciate this gathering of the clans in their honour. She thought she’d cheat death a little by preempting this Memorial Service and get us all together while she was still alive. So Toby, Laura, Josh, Zac, Molly from Australia, Luke, Fo, Otto, Ava-Jane, Mary, Matt, Guin, Nora, and of course, Mum from the UK, rendezvoused on a tropical island to spend some quality family time together and it was great. We even managed to do it again this Christmas for Zac and the newest member of the family, Kimmy’s engagement party. I can’t think of anything better than that, just a couple of months before she passed away, Mum was able to spend some time with all of her children and grandchildren
So cheers to you my Mum, farewell, I will miss you so very much and so will so many people – we’re worried that the church and the village hall won’t be big enough to fit everyone in. You were the tops and the greatest respect I can pay you is that I married a girl just like you and I love her for it and she loves you too – you had such a special relationship. But there is just one small point of criticism that I would like to raise at this stage in proceedings: We have to tidy your fucking house!!!!