The service was intimate and personal and I spoke the text below and my aunt, Marjorie, spoke eloquently and extempore about Joan as a sister.
Women’s lives often seem chaotic and fragmentary, but in fact they are often simply multi-faceted. A kaleidoscope of relationships, responsibilities and roles. In the case of Joan, I can’t rely much upon my early memories because they are so hazy, and the life before that time (and after too) is quite literally a collection of snapshots: the photographs I liberated from the dust museum of material possessions that was Oakapple Road, at the same time Joan herself was liberated to the excellent care of St Clare’s. We will see some of them this afternoon.
Of course, I have some general memories of being raised by her, and of course, I like to think judging by the result (me) she was good at it. She was reliable and efficient, sensitive and responsive. In keeping with many women of her generation, she gave up her career for housewifery. She taught me to type.
There is one photograph of her at work in the typing pool of the Alliance Building Society, in the early 1950s. It’s like one of those film stills of the era in which the glamorous starlet is deliberately surrounded by what would have been called ‘Plain Janes’ in those days to emphasise her good looks. But there is nothing contrived about the photograph.
It was her good looks that kept her at home. My father didn’t want her to return to the male-dominated sexist environment of ‘the office’. She did return to work in the more liberated 1970s, part time, at Vagas, and laid out patterns for Marks and Spencers’ clothes. When I cleared out Oakapple Road, I managed to find a friend who was doing fabric design. Her mini creaked low in the road as she transported a cupboard full of offcuts. Joan was a near hoarder, I think.
In some ways she had the sensibility of a recluse as well, with a natural inclination towards extreme caution. She wouldn’t say ‘Boo’ to a goose. In fact, she was often so timid, that she would be terrified that the goose might say ‘Boo’ to her! The world was full of potential harm. It must have been quite exhausting to navigate it, a poisonous spider free with every bunch of bananas from the greengrocers! On the other hand, she was surprisingly tough, and supportive of me, if I needed help. Or tough on, against, or towards, me (if she thought that necessary).
Yet she had a very silly sense of humour. I remember once we were eating (lots of memories revolve around food, prepared from a 1950s Stork Margarine cook book, which had the status of rabbinical law). We were eating prunes (prunes are a running theme of this memorial) and I ate my first, stone in my spoon, and I asked, ‘What shall I do with the stones?’ She said, ‘Put them where I put mine,’ pointing to the flat rim of her bowl, upon which there were already a number of stones. I obeyed her instruction, deliberately misunderstanding what she meant, and put my unwanted stone in her bowl next to her discarded stones. We laughed. The incident became a running joke, a catch-phrase we would use whenever appropriate: ‘Put them where I put mine.’
Like other memories this doesn’t connect with many others, though perhaps it ties in with Frank Crumit’s silly ‘Prune Song’, which she would sing at times, but it has little detail in it to date it.
I made poetic use of those liberated photographs, in a piece called ‘With’. It’s a collage, appropriate to this fragmented account, and I have remixed it to isolate the sentences about Joan. They come in no particular chronological order, but neither does memory. They relate, better than I can in speech, how those facets of her life fit together – or don’t. Here are some of the sentences:
My mother sits in a large living room with family photographs on the sideboard. My mother dressed as a rag doll with the Christmas tree beside her. My mother with gloves leans, languid, against a frosted sash window. My mother as a toddler advances across the grass, with arms waving, while over the road an awning advertises Antarctic Real Cream Ices. My mother laughing in a sleeveless jumper on the low metal folding-chair, with both her hands resting, claw-like, across her knees, her floral skirt. My mother grips the rail of the ship with me standing long-haired, shirt collar worn over jacket collar, sun-face lapel badge, beside her. My mother’s ferocious gaze, eyebrows stark, with a crowd of ox-eye daisies as chorus. My mother and father and aunt (and me) picnicking with a tablecloth by the roadside, beneath the barbed wire fence. My mother with rows of fuchsia, morning glories, geraniums. My mother and my son grin in the light with a pool of shade leaking from the tree behind. My mother pouring Blue Nun with my son scooping up his dinner. My mother and her sister rest on the bench with the canopy above. My parents’ wedding, 1950, the full contingent packing in, smiling, with Air Ace teeth and Dr Crippen spectacles, handbags and bonnets, double-breasted suits and bouquets. My mother turns towards flamingos with a bag slung across her shoulder. My mother coming out of a caravan with flip-flops and a bath towel. My mother, hair high, frowns, leans out of the dip of the deck chair, with the green budgie in its cage, sharpening its beak on the cuttlefish, echoing everyone’s voices. My mother Hoovers the cat with the Hoover. In the Triumph Herald, my mother pours tea from a thermos with a shopping bag beside her. My mother as a giggling girl, my aunt as a smiling girl, with the tall woman, the toddler on the wooden horse taking my mother’s resistant hand. On Hove Lagoon my father and I look back to my mother on the quay, as he rows us out with ease and care. My grandparents on the picnic chairs, my mother and I slump on the rug with the Tupperware and transistor radio. My mother and aunt sit on a cannon, both laughing with straw hats. My mother smiles in her homemade dress, with dinner yet to be served. My mother and father cut the cake with a clump of hands and knotted ball of fingers. My mother at the church door, smiling full and unabashed, accepts her centrality to the universe with this moment. On her father’s arm, with her wedding veil down, my mother thinks she’s invisible.
People have supposed that Joan didn’t have much of a life in the care home and it’s true, she wasn’t a great joiner-in, and liked that invisibility, but I think her life there was an improvement on her virtual incarceration in Oakapple, kept almost bed-ridden by a hefty chemical cosh. Immediately off the drugs, a fragile but contented person gradually emerged, and she lived happily, according to the routines and rhythms of St Clare’s and its friendly staff. When dementia overtook her, I don’t think she seemed unhappy or confused, just diminished: there was less there each time I visited, the recitation of a narrowing set of themes. Finally just ‘I’m fine!’
But for most of her stay, she was coherent, and talked about the family and news that she received via phone calls, letters, visits and the media. After one such visit, in April 2016, I recorded the subjects of her conversation. You won’t be surprised that this lively, intelligent, far-ranging, engaged, amusing and serious itinerary of people, actions and opinions, also resists consequential ordering. Again, it’s all detail: no generality. She talked with me about:
Frustrated spinsters, the Spanish Inquisition, Mr Thrower and his family, Olive on the phone, Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd, busy Marjorie, Joan getting married (‘I didn’t know anything about the world’, she laughed), Melanie, Jeremy Corbyn’s scruffiness, Chris Whyte (the astronaut from Southwick), the other astronaut from Chichester, on not being able to choose what to wear, her hair wash, the damp towel, the forbidden chocolate slice (‘I’m a chocoholic!’), seagulls, owls, Tommy Cooper (‘a violent alcoholic’), Neanderthal Man, falling over in the night, Hitler’s … (well I can’t say it here, but he only had one of them), on the Moon Landing having been faked in a film studio, The Times, The Daily Mail, the Express, the Shoreham Herald, the celebrations for the Queen’s 90th birthday, the forthcoming celebrations for Mum’s 87th birthday, her strict anti-Royalism, on how Queen Victoria married a German, how Yasmin the Yemani waves to her, the crack in the wall examined by Mr Thrower, the contents of my latest letter to her, on Joyce in her nursing home, the Hippodrome, Frankie Howerd, the Clock Tower in Brighton (‘Is it still there?’) a corned beef sandwich (her favourite), Miss Barnett’s Holy Communion at St Clare’s (she’d taught me at school in the mid 60s), cod and chips, Stephen’s liver, the nurse from Worthing Hospital who visits her, Maureen and Ted, a card from Marjorie, her gallery of photographs, her amazing lack of wrinkles (unlike prunes, which remember, form a running theme of this memorial), her amazing teeth, her no need of reading glasses, my Senior Railcard, my Bus Pass (she laughed uproariously at my photograph), Tommy Cooper, David Cameron’s expenses, Charles and Camilla’s ‘carryings on’, Edward VIII’s Nazism, the weirdness of codeine dreams, Peter and Wendy, Peter and Wendy’s family, Richard’s visit to Colombia, the length and arduousness of his journey (a 9 hour flight), the length and arduousness of my journey from Liverpool, my forthcoming retirement, glasses of Lambrusco, Patricia’s mother’s nursing home, Red Rum, and – wait for it – the present whereabouts of Sergar.
I will miss the intimacy of those insanely free-form conversations as much as the fixed scenes in the photographs and the melting, morphing ones in my memory.
The pre-re-mix of the text is published in Words Out of Time, which is available here. Oddly I'd forgotten there was a rejected passage (the original was too long) - I've just used one or two of its sentences in the final mix - which I posted here. But the piece used on the day was the shortened version, printed above. The full version is here.
My memorial for my father is here
'Standing By', my poem in his memory, is now published with another poem as The Drop. See here.