MY MOTHER – ‘GRANNY’ – a slightly abridged version of this appeared in the Mail on Sunday on 23rd April 2006
“Tomorrow, for the entertainment of viewers of ITV’s ‘This Morning’, I take up residence on a small balcony at the London Television Centre, clad merely in dressing gown and slippers, with only a laptop for company. I then have to survive for a week obtaining everything I need via the internet. As my mother often said, ‘Carry on with your extraordinary behaviour!’
It is in honour of my extraordinary mother, who died on Good Friday, two weeks before her 92nd birthday, that I am going ahead with this madcap idea. Frankly, I would much rather stay at home but that’s not the spirit which won the War. And it was certainly not her spirit – which has inspired and sustained me throughout my life since I arrived, according to her, as ‘a poor little scrap’, underweight with spindly legs and a jaundiced skin.
Universally known in later years as ‘Granny’, my mother was born in April 1914 into a non-conformist Lancashire household, the daughter of an active suffragette. Her name, Megan, reflected her father’s Welsh roots. At Manchester University she read Honours General Science in physics, chemistry and maths, became President of the Women’s Union, a platform for her considerable administrative, oratorical and leadership skills and met my father, Ted Holman, who was studying to be a doctor.
They were married in November 1938 under the looming threat of a war in Europe with unforeseeable consequences, especially for young people. Their brief honeymoon – one night at the Long Mynd Hotel in Shropshire – presaged my own non-existent honeymoon 45 years later when we married in Cornwall during the 1983 general election campaign, snatching one night at the Exeter Crest Motorlodge Hotel on our way back to Neil’s Cheshire constituency. It will be no surprise that neither I nor my mother promised to ‘obey.’ We had no intention of doing any such thing, besides, as we all know, a husband’s place is in the wrong! My mother told the Minister, ‘just cut it out’. Her father would have approved. He strongly supported women’s rights and brought up his four daughters to question everything and speak their mind. ‘If you’ve got anything to say, say it loud and clear and let it be heard.’
Like her mother before her, Granny was highly intelligent, a clear thinker and a motivational force. Even at the very end she knew her own mind and, thankfully, spoke it with great force, never fearing to express her opinion. All who knew her loved her outspokenness.
As soon as War was declared, my father volunteered for the Navy and Granny became Outports Welfare Officer for the Admiralty in the beautiful city of Bath where it had been evacuated from London. By a quirk of fate, she died in Bath in the same hospital where, as she proudly informed her Consultant, she had had tonsils removed 66 years earlier. Responsible for civilian welfare at bases all over the country, believe you me, her arrival put the fear of God into the poor Admirals -there was hell to pay if anything was wrong when she came to inspect!
After the War my father resumed his civilian medical career and they settled in the market town of Ringwood in Hampshire, nestling on the edge of the new Forest. Had my mother stayed in the Civil Service there is no doubt she would have risen to the very top. But, like so many women of her generation, she gave up her career and became not only a full-time wife and mother but also unpaid secretary and receptionist for my father, working long hours for the fledgling NHS. Daddy was on duty 24 hours a day – there were no partners or deputising services to take the strain. Together, they provided a 365 days’ service, paying a locum during precious holidays.
Despite running the practice and two small children, my mother plunged energetically into community work. In particular, the Ringwood Carnival which became an increasingly ambitious annual extravaganza, raising money to build a swimming pool for the town and, eventually, to buy a beautiful Georgian house,Greyfriars, still the thriving local Community Centre half a century later. Decades later, in their 80s, living in retirement in Cornwall, my parents (Daddy by then disabled and in great pain from a failed hip operation) were still throwing themselves into social work, delivering meals on wheels to people often much younger and fitter than themselves. They were always ‘doers’ who enjoyed helping others even if it was a challenge. Granny liked nothing better than to ‘get involved’ and ‘make a contribution’.
Flicking through the Greyfriars quarterly magazine a few years ago, one entry caught my eye. A local WI reported great success in weaving baskets from re-cycled materials. With a mental vision of middle-aged ladies with perms, old bottle tops and used newspapers, I started to giggle. ‘Stop it child!’ said Granny, ‘That is the warp and weft of life – you are just the froth.’
Please do not get a false impression of Granny as a bossy boots. She could certainly be forceful, serious-minded and direct but she also had a great sense of fun and packed huge love and energy into giving us an active childhood full of sunshine and laughter. Family sailing holidays must have tested her endurance. Our early boats had no standing head room for adults but, bent double for a fortnight, she coped brilliantly. Meals would appear from a tiny one-ring primus stove, Smash and fried Spam being firm favourites. I shall be inspired by her culinary achievements as I struggle to feed myself on whatever camping equipment I manage to secure for my balcony next week.
The bond between mother and daughter is especially strong and we were exceptionally close, always speaking on the telephone, sometimes several times every day. Mothers are always suspicious of boyfriends and mine were no exception. Needless to say when, as a young teenager, I had moved on to someone else, the last one was suddenly transformed into ‘such a nice boy’. Brought up as a Guardian-reading Liberal she was doubly suspicious when Neil appeared on the scene. 20 years later Louis Theroux asked her on camera what she thought of Neil when I first brought him home. Her response, after a brief pause was ‘Not much’. Later, to Esther Rantzen, she said, ‘Not quite what we had in mind’. She has come round since then, recognising his qualities and always rejoiced in the close and happy relationship we share. He must have grown on her because both her reading-material and voting habits later moved sharply to the Right! But, true to herself, she never sought to disguise her initial reservations.
Granny was a prominent member of the community locally but nothing could have prepared her for the glare of the national spotlight which would ultimately shine upon Neil and me both in politics and show-business. She rejoiced in the ‘ups’ and suffered with us in the ‘downs’ of our roller-coaster life. Many forgot that behind the people in the headlines are family and friends who also have to cope with the agony of untrue and unfair allegations and rumour. At the height of one of our storms, totally besieged by the press physically and telephonically, I called them at home in Cornwall to check they were OK. ‘All right? Darling, of course we’re all right. We’ve been through the War – This is nothing!’ It was her way of telling me to concentrate on getting myself through the crisis and not waste energy worrying about them. She would cope.
Not only did my parents (and Neil’s too) have to cope with the publicity but also our equally changeable financial fortunes. In ten years we went from Parliamentary security and Ministerial office, through bankruptcy to a successful and varied career on stage and screen. They also had to adjust to our new lives. Suddenly, having been DINKYs (Double Income No Kids) we were NINKYs (No Income No Kids). Granny, ever-resourceful, pointed out, ‘Well darling. It’s better than being a NISKY.’ (No Income Six Kids). It must have been difficult at times and I know she agonised over the terrible stress and strain I had to endure. But, despite never ceasing to worry about me to her last days, she managed to take in her stride our changing problems and life style. ‘Just don’t answer the wretched thing’ was her stock response to the endless calls which came through at times of difficulty. Neil and I have always tried to accommodate the legitimate needs of the press, in particular photographers who are only doing their job and not driving the story. But Granny could never understand the need for ‘today’s’ photograph – ‘They’ve got thousands, just tell them to shove off.’
When Neil and I were arrested by the Metropolitan Police, falsely accused of rape (our accuser was subsequently sent to prison for 3 years for perverting the course of justice) I had to call Granny, not privately but standing at a wall-mounted telephone, surrounded by police. The moment was not without humour. I was poised to speak to her, idly playing with the dado rail, when suddenly the alarms started ringing loudly all round the station. Now what! It transpired I had touched an electronic strip running at waist height round the entire building, in and out of every room! ‘Hello Granny, it’s me.’ ‘Good. Are you on the way home yet – the cottage pie is waiting?’ ‘ I’m afraid we won’t be coming home this evening….. ..’ had to tell my mother we were under arrest on suspicion of rape. Neil was currently being interviewed, I was next and, by the way, would she pop round to our house and let the police in within the hour otherwise they would break the door down. Then, please, give them free rein to rummage and pillage wherever they liked. Oh yes, and they would be taking away our computers and anything else they fancied. It was beyond my wildest nightmare.
Granny, of course, rose magnificently to the occasion and, at the age of 87, jumped into her car and drove to our then house in Cheshire to lie in wait for the police. hey arrived in a hired minibus with a broken exhaust which made it unfit for road use and probably illegal. Cheshire police, headed by an Inspector, had been drafted in to keep journalists at bay and the search took three and a half hours. My mother was phlegmatic. She had, after all, seen off Hitler and felt she could take half a dozen coppers in her stride. She was very angry about the grotesque allegations and the police’s invasion of our privacy so, armed with a stiff whisky or two, she determined not to let any of them out of sight at any stage!
The police were very thorough. They opened every drawer, cupboard, filing cabinet, fridge, oven, microwave, deep freeze. They moved every cushion, looked under every mattress, and in our bedroom they opened my chest of drawers. On seeing all my knickers and bras displayed, Granny, ever practical, thought, ‘Good girl, it’s tidy! She did eventually feel the strain, retreated from the fray and went to sit in the drawing-room nursing her whisky. A WPC was instantly on her tail. ‘You’re following me aren’t you?’ She wagged her finger. The policewoman admitted she had to keep an eye on her, so she did not hide anything. My mother snorted, ‘Don’t be so ridiculous. I was here for an hour before you arrived. If I was going to hide anything I would have done it by now! And in a place where you wouldn’t find it!’ Her guard looked embarrassed. It was obvious from her demeanour she was just obeying orders.
Granny had been waiting in Cheshire that Friday evening with the cottage pie, expecting just Neil and me. Instead, she had had to endure a police search, two days of waiting until Monday and then got Louis Theroux as well! We had been filming ‘When Louis Met the Hamiltons’ when we were arrested and Louis didn’t want to leave the story so leapt into the car with us up to Cheshire. By the time we finally arrived, Granny was seriously fed up with the delay and, in particular, with all the journalists who had been parked on the lawn for hours. She all but hauled us into the house. Finally, having said our piece yet again for the cameras, we put up the shutters, drew the curtains and sat down to supper – four day old cottage pie! Granny, of course, had had the odd nip of whisky and was in full flight about the dreadful journalists; why did we spend so much time talking to them? Turning to me she exploded, ‘Now you’ve got here, at last, what’s hedoing here?’
I reminded her about Louis and the programme. She looked extremely doubtful about the wisdom of the whole thing, so I told her Louis was an award-winning journalist. Granny had some carrot on her fork, midway to her mouth. Stabbing the fork, carrots and all, in his direction, ‘Award-winning! Him? I don’t believe it.’ It was a magic moment! Later, when Louis was trying to sweet talk her, she rounded on him majestically, ‘I don’t believe a word you say.’ Louis reminded me only two days ago, she was the most sensible person in the documentary.
Granny was similarly dubious about my role in ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!’ She was not at all happy about the prospect of losing me for 3 weeks and snorted when told that I, along with all participants, would have to see a shrink. ‘Granny, don’t worry, they’re not trying to kill us off. We’re just making a game show!’ She was not convinced. As we jetted off to the tropical rainforest of Northern Queensland, her words were ringing in my ears, ‘You’ve got yourself into the hands of a bunch of sadists!’ Every evening she gathered round the television with a group of close friends and, during one of Neil’s daily calls to check she was OK, she informed him, ‘Oh yes, we’re enjoying it hugely – and our knowledge of the English language has broadened considerably in recent days!’
She was a wonderful mother to me for 56 years and I am distraught at losing her. It’s no easier to bear when you get older. The dynamics of life are fundamentally and irreversibly changed when the generation above disappears. Fortunately I do not have to rely entirely on memory as I have tapes of many TV programmes where she was her inimitable self and I know they will be a source of great comfort and amusement in years to come. I would give anything to be able to talk to her again or see her once more in the flesh. Several times in the last week I have started to reach for the phone, ‘I must tell Granny’ only to realise those happy days have passed. When the tears come, and the awful emptiness overwhelms me, I know she is gently telling me, wherever she is now, to pull myself together and remember the countless good times with gladness and gratitude. Of course, she is right. As always. Grief is the price we all pay for love and it is worth it. Tears flow from sadness but also from joy. We will always look back but must go forward. In this spirit, I chose this passage by Joyce Grenfell for my father’s funeral five years ago and we will read it again for the celebration of Granny’s life in a few weeks time.
“If I should go before the rest of you, break not a flower nor inscribe a stone,
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice, but be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must, parting is hell, but life goes on, so sing as well.”