Opening the Door

It’s been a while since I blogged here and returning feels like opening the door into a room that was once familiar. There’s a layer of dust to sweep away but it’s good to be back even if the view from the window looks a bit different. We’ve lived through an extraordinary time and this week on the first anniversary of lockdown in the UK I’ve heard a lot about how the experience has changed people. Much has centred around the theme of appreciating small things. One woman interviewed on the radio, said that she would “Never again take it for granted when she meets friends for coffee.” Another said that she would now “Be happy with a picnic on the beach.” It’s good to hear all this positivity and that people have learned to be satisfied with less, but let’s see how that goes once we’re all free to start rushing around again.

There will be lasting changes though, and I look forward to seeing what remains from amongst the new interests and routines that people have adopted and adapted to this year. Probably the best thing for me has been having more time to think and write and I’ve enjoyed working on a couple of projects. One grew out of a conversation I had several years ago with my friend Mandy when she asked if I could collect her mum’s memories and edit them into a book for the family. Pat was well into her nineties at that stage but somehow we never quite found the right time to do it—mostly because she was so busy. Then lockdown came along and provided the perfect opportunity. Pat was ninety-nine by then and during times when she would normally be out at her tap dancing or Pilates classes, or doing volunteer visiting in the community, we scheduled Zoom calls. She was always there promptly; perfectly presented with earrings and a necklace, lots of memories and a huge smile.

Each time we focused a different stage of her life like school days or the war, or a different topic such as theatre, sailing, travels or grandchildren. Mandy chatted with her beforehand to help her get her memories in order, and said that it was really enjoyable and enlightening to share this time with her Mum. And I had a surprise when Pat mentioned during our first session, that she was in a tsunami when she was eight. I was still getting into the swing of things at that stage, and thought I’d misheard. But it turned out that she was on Brighton Beach with her aunt in July 1929 when it was hit by the only significant tsunami to affect Britain in living memory. “The sky turned black, then violet and the sea went right back then formed an enormous wave about ten feet high that rushed up the beach,” she said. Her quick-witted aunt who would have had no idea what was happening, told her to run to the promenade. When she got there she watched—“Not in the least bit disturbed by it, just totally amazed. It was like the sea did a great big hiccup.” She was lucky to escape as the tsunami affected a big stretch of the South Coast and several people drowned. 

Another story that surprised me, was that when she was about eight her mother would tell her to take her four-year-old brother up onto the Sussex Downs for the day. “Don’t talk to strangers,” she would say as she sent them off with a packed lunch. They’d walk up an enormous hill and rush around collecting flowers and playing for hours before returning home to their devoted and responsible mother. As Pat said, “Can you imagine people allowing that now?”

From the age of thirteen she boarded at a convent in Brighton where she learned to speak French and appreciate algebra. She loved school and shortly after she joined, they got a new Reverend Mother who rather surprisingly had been in the Paris Opera, and brought in all kinds of new ideas about educating girls in the arts. Pat attributes this to the beginning of her interest in theatre. She went on to become a teacher and theatre director, working in Brighton and later in Bristol. After she moved to Bath she ran the university’s extra-curricular drama and arts programme for students for many years whilst also travelling round the country as a professional advisor to amateur theatre groups. She worked with a group in Swindon for forty-four years and until Covid struck she was still directing one-act plays for her local group in Poole. Not many people can say they’ve been active in the same field for over eighty years.

Pat was happily married to Alec for forty-eight years and they had three children. She is also a grandmother and during lockdown she became a great-grandmother. Her Catholic faith has always been important to her and Mandy says that as a child, she never knew who would be at the dinner table as her parents welcomed in all sorts of people. 

Pat and Alec’s marriage in 1956

A few years after Alec died in 2004, Pat went on a round-the-world trip at the age of eighty-eight with her granddaughter, Harriet. They took advantage of the cheaper flights and so they often had to get up in the middle of the night. On her ninety-fifth birthday she celebrated by going skydiving in Nepal. Her verdict—“I was strapped to an instructor and we went down the side of the mountain. It was so smooth, a wonderful feeling—there was nothing at all to worry about. When the instructor asked if I wanted to go higher, I said, Yes please! and then he told me to look down and there was all my family circling beneath us.”

Today is a good day to air those dusty rooms in my blog as it’s Pat’s hundredth birthday so I’d like to wish her a very happy day. And she is celebrating in typically energetic style. During Lent she has been out come rain or shine, walking five hundred steps a day to raise money for clean water projects in Ethiopia. When I last looked at her JustGiving page she’d raised nearly £7,000 with 260 people making donations and leaving encouraging messages. At a time when there are so many worthy causes competing for everyone’s attention, it’s a measure of the number of lives she has touched. And she seems to have the right recipe as multiple studies report that apart from a lot of luck, physical activity and social contact are the most important ingredients in longevity. In fact some studies suggest that social isolation increases mortality as much as other risk factors like smoking. The sooner we can all get back to some socialising, the better. 

Spending time talking to Pat and editing her memories has been one of the good things about lockdown. Another has been completing the Chain Interview Project. Some of you may remember that I started this here on the blog with the aim of gathering inspiring and interesting stories. I firmly believe that everyone has something interesting to say if you take the time to listen and the model was that each interviewee would pass me on to someone that they admire. The chain started from a casual conversation on a boat on the Thames and travelled for over 23,000 miles alighting on three continents. The interviewees have included a rabbi, a philanthropist, a sculptor, a New York Mayoral candidate, a pioneering documentary maker, and a man who rescues giant trees. Some have worked in challenging places—Kabul in the time of the Taliban, a Romanian orphanage, immigration detention centres, remote Indian villages—while others have found themselves caught up in extraordinary situations such as the Rwandan genocide, the Ferguson uprising, and the UN Climate Change Negotiations. I’m thrilled to say that the resulting book—The Interview Chain—will be published by Holland House Books on 30th June. Here’s a preview of the cover.