A tribute to our mother, Helen, by Imogen
Helen’s life-long family nickname was ‘Squib’ (an old-fashioned term for a firework). The name stuck because Helen never lost that excitable, quicksilver quality that her elders rather hoped she’d grow out of.
She was born into a clergy family in South Africa, the youngest of five children. They lived in a succession of rectories, vicarages and a deanery before leaving for England in 1927 and settling in Portsmouth, where her father was involved in the building of the new Cathedral. Helen recalled that they had a governess whose name was Lettice (they wondered about her name)….Lettice found keeping order a bit difficult…
Portsmouth was of course a big naval base, the harbour full of ships. Helen recalled how, “The hammering of metal and the hooting, and sailors’ voices, made it an exciting place for us, when allowed to venture there. Otherwise the city life was a disappointment after the space and sun in South Africa; and no running about barefoot.”
But later her father took over a rural parish… “We went to live in glorious Hampshire countryside and a garden that seemed to grow everything, as well as an immensely kind old gardener. There was a great wild place we called The Wilderness and it was bliss for all of us − so were the vast beech woods, and the freedom. None of us ever forgot it…”
The family returned to South Africa in the mid-1930s, where her carefree childhood ended with her mother’s death when Helen was 14, and that of her father a few years later. Then came the war and, with it, the deaths of her brother and close friends who’d joined up. Helen rarely mentioned her wartime losses – but she developed a life-long abhorrence of war. Just last week I found some letters which she had kept from two soldiers, written in the early 1940s, only a short time before both were killed.
She herself trained as a radar operator in Cape Town. It was there, in 1941, that she met our father, Monty, when he came ashore from his troop ship en route to North Africa. Helen described how she and some friends jumped into a car, drove down to the docks and….well, picked up some good-looking soldiers and… gave them a good time…a few drinks, some dancing, a game of tennis, that kind of thing. She assured me that the father of one of the girls, regarding entertaining the troops as a gal’s wartime duty, had driven them to the docks himself.
Well, happily for us, Helen picked up Monty, and a few years later he came in handy when she was desperate to get to England, where the real war was being fought. She wrote to Monty and persuaded him to tell his commanding officer that she was his fiancée, so that he would authorise her passage. She sailed for England, arriving in Liverpool early in 1945, shocked by the ravages of war she had only read about, the hardships she’d been protected from. She was embarrassed by her well turned-out clothes in the era of ‘make-do and mend’ but soon learned to eke out her rations like everyone else. Needing work, she spotted a wonderful antiquarian bookshop in Marylebone High Street and talked herself into a job there. Later that year she and Monty married. Monty’s post-war work (in oil exploration) entailed a married life of travel and improvised living in far away places. Conditions in the Southern Iranian oilfields in the late 1940’s were inhospitable even for those accustomed to austerity back home. We lived in an isolated old house perched on a rocky escarpment high above the town of Masjid-i-Sulaiman. Helen had only me (a very young child) and Mahmoud and his family for company much of the time. (Yes, these were colonial times and Mahmoud was our servant). But she could find interest in any surroundings. She set about learning Farsi, studying Persian history, archaeology, artistic and craft traditions. Fascinated by other cultures, she felt we had much to learn from them. And being a natural history buff, she collected specimens amongst the plants and wildlife of what appeared to be barren desert hills.
In 1951, Mossadeq expelled the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company - and Helen and I joined other wives and children being flown out at short notice. But ten years later we returned to Iran, a country Helen had grown to love. In between, she and Monty had taken us to strange new lives in Sicily, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and South Africa.
Our nomadic life made ordinary schooling impossible, so Helen became my only teacher for several years – Maths, French, Latin, Science, mythology, ancient civilisations, and much more – an intimidating syllabus to a normal person….but to Helen it was just another adventure. She was a wonderful teacher, because she herself had an insatiable love of learning – and she communicated her enthusiasm.
On Mafia island, off Tanganyika, in the mid-50’s we lived in a ramshackle bungalow in a jungle clearing, with a tin roof, no electricity, several species of marauding ants and some very large spiders. Helen was unperturbed, a sense of humour and adventure matching any discomfort or isolation.
A couple of years later, Monty was posted to New York and we were suddenly thrust from the third world into the brash commercialism of 1950’s America – and the novelty of TV, supermarkets and drip-dry shirts. Helen adapted well, but not before falling prey to the charms of the door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman ...who managed to sell her not only the multi-volume Americana, but sets of children’s and science encyclopaedias besides…. plus a large bookcase for storing them all. Monty needed a stiff drink when he got home that night.
Returning to England in the late 1960’s, Helen and Monty took great pleasure in life at Rushden’s Farm in Berkshire. Helen planted an orchard, created a wonderful garden with wilderness areas, kept bees and became interested in sustainable farming and the environment. As a friend wrote to us this week, “Helen was green before any of us”.
For the last 40 years, Helen lived mainly in London - the urbane Helen that many of you knew best. Life took new turns – she seized the opportunity of studying for an Open University Humanities degree, excited by ideas, writing essays, discussing with tutors, and relishing the summer schools. She was ever a fan of the OU, an insomniac avidly watching their TV programmes into the small hours.
After Monty’s death in 1981, Helen adapted her life in typically resourceful ways. For many years she was a volunteer for the Samaritans – undergoing an exacting training for a tough job that many of us might shy away from.
She also became involved in the ferment of activities surrounding St James’s Church, Piccadilly, during the 1980’s and 90’s, when Donald Reeves was rector there and infused the place with an exciting sense of openness and practical involvement, hosting all manner of theological and political debates and celebrating the arts. Helen was inspired by this creative spirit and formed lasting friendships at St James’s. Yet she never was a traditional church-goer…too much of a free spirit, exploring different philosophical ideas; always more interested in the journey than the destination.
But Helen’s most absorbing experiences came from art classes at Morley College, where, encouraged by inspiring teachers, she discovered a remarkable talent for painting. She brought tremendous energy and boldness to her art - constantly developing, and experimenting with subject matter, form and colour. Sharing her enthusiasm with other artists brought new friendships and great times together. Over the years there were many painting holidays at home and abroad. We, her family, shared the pleasure she derived from her art, and we’re so lucky that she’s left such a tangible legacy by which to remember her.
Despite having her share of sadness and loss – in youth, in wartime, and a child lost in infancy - Helen knew that she had lived a fortunate life. But she seized every opportunity and made something of it. She took nothing and no one for granted. For 40 years she lived opposite a vast horse-chestnut tree, yet could still marvel at it, as if seeing it for the first time.
10th January 2008