Move Over Dad

I realise that it is almost Remembrance Day, 11 November, when we commemorate our war dead, but I’d like to remember my sister Kathy on what would have been her 70th birthday, 9 November 2021. Her life was cut short by cancer at the age of 35, so she has now been dead almost as long as she was alive.

Inevitably one remembers the last few years, from the shock of diagnosis, the determined liveliness that followed, before the gradual shedding of her powers that led inexorably towards her parting. She died at home, very early on the morning of 2 January 1987, surrounded by family. She spent much of her illness at home on the farm, running a Christmas tree business and travelling to Hungary with our mother for a last adventure. The house almost became a hotel, with streams of Kathy’s friends visiting her, usually with a challenging range of special dietary requirements that Mum gallantly catered for.

Kathy, centre, with James in front and me behind

We didn’t have an easy relationship. Kathy was feisty and contrary, bright and adventurous and she thought I was the most boring, unimaginative person alive, contentedly plodding along life’s conventional track. It’s true that I had it easy – she was 12 years my senior and shook our parents to the core with her tempestuous and unconventional nature. She blazed a trail that handed me freedoms that she had had to fight for. I was in awe of her and some of her ardent feminism rubbed off on me, along with her outrage at injustice to the vulnerable and dispossessed.

Kathy travelled widely, doing whatever work she could find. She worked in Falkirk as a seed potato inspector and she also lived in Leith for a while in the 1970s. I work at a clinic in Leith – now the swanky port area of Edinburgh but in those days a slum following the decline of its industries (whaling, lead, herring fishing, shipbuilding). Leithers are a proud and independent people, with an international outlook and culture, probably making Kathy feel quite at home. Latterly Kathy lived overseas, in Hong Kong and Egypt, after training as a teacher of English as a foreign language. Egypt and Arabic fascinated her and it was when she was studying Arabic and Islamic Studies at Durham University that she was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer. She completed her degree, gaining a 2.2 in spite of feeling extremely unwell. Her ambition had been to go to Yemen to work with women’s groups there but her illness denied her this opportunity.

Kathy at Giza

She never married or had children and I wonder whether she would have been a perpetual nomad, had she lived. Friends and boyfriends were fiercely loyal to her but she was restless, always had itchy feet. I also wonder if she would have mellowed at all. I sort of hope not – I can picture her campaigning for refugees, or women’s rights, determined to make the world a better place. I’d like to think she’s resting in peace, but that’s not really her style.

Mark Rylance and Me

Sir Mark Rylance, star of stage, screen and TV, had a grandfather who was a PoW in Hong Kong. You may remember that back in the spring I was approached by a TV production company who wanted to know all about the battle of Hong Kong and the PoW experience? Well, the series they were making is soon to air on Channel 4 as “My Grandparents’ War” with 4 shows, each hosted by a celebrity. The episode featuring Sir Mark and Hong Kong will air in December, last of the 4 shows. Sadly, they didn’t fly me to Hong Kong and I didn’t meet Sir Mark (boohoo, I’m a massive fan), but it’ll be great to have the role of Hong Kong in WW2 highlighted. They’ve sold the rights internationally so it will be seen by a large audience, which I am really pleased about. I will update with more details when I know the precise dates and times that the films will be shown.

I had a lovely letter of appreciation from HRH the Princess Royal’s secretary, following my donation to the RDA. I was away when the letter from Buckingham Palace arrived and had to ask Julian to open it for me. Just in case it was about my imminent damehood…

It will soon be Remembrance Day and once again my heart goes out to all those whose loved ones gave their today for our tomorrow. We should all be deeply grateful for the peace that we have enjoyed in Europe these last 75 years. We share so much with our European neighbours and I am minded to quote Vera Brittain in the closing pages of “Testament of Youth” when she muses on the role of the survivors after the First World War:

“Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was to refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation. If only, somehow, the nobility which in us had been turned towards destruction could be used in them for creation, if the courage which we had dedicated to war could be employed, by them, on behalf of peace, then the future might indeed see the redemption of man instead of his further descent into chaos.”