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The deaths of my mother and aunt

Tom Winnifrith
Wednesday 22 October 2014

The nature of my mother’s death has been raised by certain “admirers” of mine on Bulletin Boards, the circumstances of my Aunt’s death I have mentioned en passant here before. There are no secrets in the era of the interweb. Both deaths were mentioned in an article by their brother, my Uncle Chris (Booker) in the Daily Mail last week. Slowly I read it early on Saturday morning as it brought a number of thoughts to the surface. Matters not suppressed just forgotten or not reflected upon for a long while.  My mother killed herself. My aunt was murdered. There you have it. A shocking couple of sentences.

My mother died when I was eight and my sisters seven and five. She had become terribly depressed in that amazing sun drenched year of 1976 and – as I discovered only later – first tried to end her life at the height of summer while the rest of us were out walking. My father found her, revived her but thereafter she was confined to various hospitals in Northamptonshire, Banbury and finally in Oxford, the City where she had studied, met my father and where I was born. I saw her once that autumn at the Trout at Godstow and she seemed happy. She clearly was not and within weeks she had hanged herself. I remember being taken out of class by a lovely teacher who was almost in tears as she told me that my mother was dead. I cannot remember how I felt or what happened next. I did not find out how she died until I was fourteen.

Not having a mother was a little unusual in those days before divorce became part of life – everyone else at school lived with two parents. Ahead of mother’s day we always had to make cards at school. In a sort of embarrassed way the teacher would say to me “make one for your grandmother”.  But I was fortunate in that my father was and is a wonderful father – a man who taught me all I need to know about not shaving properly, living with only three socks using them in rotation and about speaking one’s mind. And there were strong maternal influences from my father’s sister Lucy who with her fantastic husband Richard were always far too kind. But also from my mother’s younger sister Cly and from my mother’s mother – “grey granny”.

I suspect many folk contemplate suicide at times. It will not surprise you that three years ago as my personal and professional life collapsed the thought crossed my mind. But it is a selfish act, though an understandable one. I have talked to my uncle Chris about my mother’s death quite a bit in recent years, for my father it is just too painful to discuss. I am not sure I can ever fully understand why my mother acted as she did. She was an amazing woman in many ways but her act still causes daily pain for Chris and my father, if less so for myself and my sisters. Contrary to the assertions of my “admirers” it is not evidence that I have picked up a “mad gene.” As it happens my father’s aunt and cousin as well as at least one Cochrane further back in Ireland took their own lives.

I am not sure of the reasons why each of those folks acted as they did although I think the in-breeding in Donegal meant that this particular Cochrane was “not quite all there”. Suicide and depression had a stigma years ago and so my father believed until this year that his Aunt killed herself as the second war approached terrified of what might happen. As I researched his family tree I pointed out the year of her death – 1933. There were other reasons why she took her own life but back in the 1930s respectable people just did not discuss such issues. Nor, I suspect, did we do so in the 1970s as there was still a real stigma associated not only with suicide but with depression as well. I hope that we live in more caring and open times.

My grandparents were devastated by the death of my mother. But six years later their miseries were compounded by the murder of Cly in Thailand. The circumstances Chris describes in his article and there is little point in repeating them here.

My father was away at the time and my sisters and I were being looked after by one of his students. Suddenly poor Uncle Chris appeared and naturally we were delighted to see him. I blurted out some rubbish about a school achievement and he just said “I have some rather bad news to tell you.” He told us that Cly had been murdered but there were no details. I cannot remember anything more about that day other than wishing that I had not just let him speak.

My Uncle may have had an interesting youth and was – and is – the worst timekeeper on this planet, unable to arrive on time for anything at all.  Bookers only ever arrive on time for one thing, their own funerals. But he was the rock his parents needed after my mother died. For at that point Cly was just 21 and was enjoying being young. She was just 27 when she was killed. After Cly died my grandparents were understandably all over the place. To be predeceased by one child is awful but two must be almost unbearable. What a terrible drive Christopher must have suffered up from Dorset to Harbury in Warwickshire wondering how to break the news. Then back to Dorset to console his parents. I would not wish such a journey or a day upon anyone.

I have a black and white picture of my mother and a colour photo of Cly which sit in our living room in front of rows of books, many of which belonged to Cly and some of which (the MacMillan biographies) she worked on.  The two photos have always travelled with me. But weeks or months can go by without me thinking of the two sisters. Is that shameful?

I have not thought about Cly for an awfully long time but after my mother died, her little sister was amazing. I am sure she would rather have been pursuing her career, traveling around Eastern Europe or just enjoying life. But she always made time for myself and my sisters.

I remember going up to London with my sisters to see “My Fair Lady” at the Adelphi with her and then back to her rather bohemian and delightfully untidy flat.  I remember a long walk through the fields around Harbury discussing why they were shaped as they were – she was a historian and made history come alive. It is in good part down to her, and to Uncle Richard, that history was my great love at school and remains an abiding passion.

I remember going to Stourhead with my grandparents, Chris and my sisters to watch an evening show of Gilbert & Sullivan performed in costume on the lake by a group from London with my aunt at its centre, as hundreds of folks picnicked in those amazing Capability Brown gardens where Wiltshire meets Dorset meets Somerset. Organising such a spectacle was typical of Cly – she had boundless, if not always entirely focussed, energy. I smile as I remember her driving her battered Renault far too fast from Durweston to Shillingstone with myself and my sisters on-board and making it fly in a totally irresponsible manner, off a large bump in the road much to everyone’s delight. It was not an accident we used to look forward to it every time.

And I remember a supper at Shillingstone with Cly angrily defending Robert Mugabe after the Lancaster House settlement as both her parents, Chris and my father united in suggesting that the loathsome man would soon show his colours as a vile despotic, kleptocrat. Cly had actually worked at Conservative Central office for a short period in the late 1970s enjoying the buzz of new ideas and fresh thinking that came with Thatcher. But on Mugabe…she was not the only one to get that one wrong. Passionately, she wanted to believe in a world that could be better.

Prompted by last week’s article by Uncle Chris with its photos of an attractive and adventurous young woman who I guess I did not really know, there are other memories that keep popping up. But the awful truth is that I have not really thought about Cly for a long time.

I was not at my mother’s funeral – my sisters and I were swimming in Marjorie Portman’s pool five hundred yards away from Durweston church blissfully unaware of what was going on. I cannot remember anything about Cly’s memorial service.  At the funeral of their mother I was inconsolable. I was meant to read a poem. I was in floods of tears for my grandmother had become a very strong maternal figure for me. Maybe that was one funeral for all three.

Both grandparents are buried with my mother in Durweston in Dorset. My grandmother arranged for the sculptor Donald Potter – my godmother’s husband who lived in the next door village of Bryanston - to create some wonderful gravestones for her and her husband and these stand looking down on two circular stones created by Donald for my mother and Cly. It seemed like a good idea at the time but these days we now know no-one in Durweston and the grass covers up the stones on the ground. About once a year either I or Chris pops in to say hello to our family, scratch away at the moss and grass and then the two of us talk about how we need to clean and raise the stones. And we never quite get around to it. We need to talk again Chris.

As a postscript, I mentioned above that in the 1970s suicide still had a real stigma. My family lived in Durweston for decades and were at the heart of the village. There were two quite stunning stained glass windows created by Laurence Whistler in memory of my mother and Cly. The nature of my mother’s death meant that Durweston Church refused to accept those windows.  They are therefore in Salisbury Cathedral which took a more enlightened view. It is very much Durweston’s loss.



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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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