My Mum, Laura Kemp, died yesterday. She was 90 and had been in reasonable health for 89.5 of those years but went downhill fairly rapidly after breaking a wrist last November. Before my sister, Ann, left the hospital the staff said how good a patient she had been. Never moaning, asking appropriately for help, thanking them for what they had done for her, and always interested in them as people and being concerned not to tire them or wear them out. That is so typical of my Mum’s generation – the last generation where the entire country went to war.
Tragedy came early in her life when her fiancé, Bill Moorcroft who was a pilot in Bomber Command was shot down over France. 10 years ago the Liverpool Echo had an article about Bill. The grave of Bill and his two colleagues was having to be moved and the French mayor wanted to know if there were any relatives still about, particularly his fiancée who might like to attend the re-interment. The town to this day commemorates the day those boys were shot down defending their freedom. Mum didn’t tell the Echo but she privately went out there. Four years ago when her sister died we walked over to the Lych-gate in Maghull Parish Church where his name is recorded with all the other WWII heroes.
That impelled her into the Women’s Royal Air Force where she met my father Jack. She was one of those young girls who worked on the ‘plot’ the big tables we have all seen in the films recording 30 “incoming Gerries from the North West at 20,000 feet”. Dad took part in D’ Day. A few years ago Mum gave me the letter that had written over 5/6 days as he prepared for and went out to take part in that fight. It was peculiar for a 58 year old reading the work of a 25 year. Reading about a young man’s emotions as he saw the planes flying over; the multitude of ships; and his respect for the ‘Hun’. He had a fairly peculiar war record. There weren’t many in the RAF who were torpedoed twice! He spent his time on advance ships dealing with radar as the transmitters and receivers were not very powerful and needed relays.
Like many of the war generation they rarely talked about the war. Never watched war films and didn’t glorify war. They had all their own experiences but too many of their friends, like Bill Moorcroft, never came home.
Then after the war there was ‘Austerity Britain’. My Dad worked for the railways so we lived in London until I was 11. Being born in 1953 I missed the rationing and the worst of the make do and mend. But I well remember our flat in London. 3 bedrooms and a living room but no bathroom. We had one tap in the kitchen and the bath came out from under my bed one night a week. Last week I gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on air quality. I reminisced then about the ‘pea soupers’. Smogs so bad that you could not see your own outstretched hand.
Even as she got wealthier as Dad was promoted thrift was always upper most in her mind. You know those little bags with buttons that are attached to many higher priced jumpers and shirts that you and I throw away? She kept them and put them in the button tin. I can remember her darning socks when we were little and would make all her own dresses and those of my sister.
When she made a friend she made a friend for life. Until recently she would pick up the phone and talk to people she had worked with in London 40 years before and in Newcastle 30 years before. Her best friends were ‘Aunty Peg’ who was 14 months older and her baby sister Joy. Losing both of them took a big part out of her life.
I know that this probably sounds like an old fogey reminiscing. Perhaps it is! But my Mum’s behaviour was forged when personal relationships were vital to sustain life and communities. She didn’t have 600 so called friend on Facebook. She had 2 dozen friends who were real friends all her life and stayed with her until she was the last one left with no-one talk to like the winner of some infernal tontine.
She was polite to people because that was how she was brought up and what she believed in. She didn’t grumble because she always thought that people had their own problems and didn’t want to burden them with hers. She was intensely proud of and protective of her family. She told Ann and me the day before she died that she was so proud that all her family had been to see her so much in hospital. She told us exactly what to do with two lockets to be given to her great granddaughters Poppy and Eva.
So as I say goodbye to my Mum I say goodbye to her generation many of whom have already left us. Theirs was a gentler, kinder, more caring Great Britain. How can we take the best of what they did and use it as foundation even now for a gentler, more caring Britain shaped in their memory and their honour?