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My Mother / Kathy's Youth


My mother was beautiful, passionate, loving and fierce. She was slim, brave and energetic, with elegant long legs and piercing blue eyes. She often dressed in the most squalid, animal-distressed clothes that she could find, habitually wore her hair in a ponytail and had a generous tolerance for squalor, but could brush-up magnificently when the situation demanded it of her. Hats never worked on her, as my father once said, much to her merriment, “they make you look like a rat coming out of a drainpipe”.

But her greatest attribute was an extraordinary gift for living in the moment. She was always the last to go to bed, the first on the dance floor and always ready for one more whisky. The downside was that she was also habitually – if not determinedly – late throughout her life. She always preferred an amusing disaster to any well-executed plan. On her way out to a naval posting in America she smuggled her canary on board in her hand-luggage, and two years later, on the way back, talked herself on board the plane with 26 pieces of accompanied luggage. When they left Gibraltar, my parents took passage in a merchant ship, which allowed them to accompany their dogs home. And as a young, pregnant wife she didn’t accept her lot and stay at home, but shadowed the arrival of the Far East fleet by setting herself up in two tiny bed-sit flats in Hong Kong and Singapore. Advanced planning was not to be tolerated as it took the fun and the battle out of life. But this anarchy was tempered by iron-clad financial caution. Her own money was completely ring-fenced from my father, who was never once allowed to look at her jealously guarded portfolio of stocks and shares.

But for all her vivacity, fun and animation, this completely disappeared the moment you asked her to act, sing or perform – for which she had absolutely no talent whatever. Similarly, she could not mask her feelings – either to charm, or to camouflage her interest once it had been wakened. For her children, she was a dangerous presence in restaurants or indeed any public place, for her blue eyes could lock onto a stranger’s face and subject it to an embarrassingly bold witch-like stare. It also happened with animals, and once, at the Wickham Fair, a clan of local gypsies commanded her: “Mother turn away!” lest she cast the evil eye on their horses that day. In Virginia, I remember a friendly American boy enthusiastically pointing out a real, live Red Indian to me: infact my own mother, sucking on a thin cigar, seemingly lost to the world but actually engaged in a deep, long-distance stare. On the rare occasions that she visited us at school, she wore a long black cloak, dark glasses, spoke to no-one and smoked her familiar cigars. Despite making real financial sacrifices to send us off to boarding school, or perhaps because of it, she paid no attention to the reports, but scanned the bills eagerly for extras, which were not encouraged.

Mother's children and grandchildren
My mother's children and grandchildren

My mother loved animals, the land, her husband and her own father with a complete passion. She was a very good tennis player, and the friendships forged on the court provided her with most of her closest circle, which in later life was topped up by those she met round the bridge table. She loved talk, which she supported with an addiction to coffee and an excellent memory for what she had been told, but despite an enthusiastic interest in other people’s lives she was never a gossip. In her mind everybody owned their own story, which it was up to them to tell, embellish, elaborate or keep silent about.

She could and did keep many a secret, even to the grave, but she was not always so successful in controlling her temper. As children we watched the saucepans fly through the air (especially at Christmas) or found her with her backside buried deep in a hedgerow in the dusk, and on one memorable occasion arrived home to find her racing around the garden in her car, apparently trying to run down my father. He, for his part, managed to keep a confidently loving smile on his face through these storms, and particularly delighted in telling the story about the flying suits. One night in Gibraltar, very much the worse for wear after drinking rum in the different workshops on the naval base, he slipped into the spare bedroom to take his shoes off but passed-out there. At 3 in the morning he found himself covered in a pile of suits and shirts, being pelted with shoes. At first he thought it was a nightmare, but then found that his wife, furious at being spurned even for one night, was running up and down the stairs throwing all his clothes and shoes at him. On another occasion I remember a rather chilling conversation over the supper table as a child. Dad had confessed to us (I think whilst he was working for department X at Dryad) that if there was a nuclear alert, he would be moved with the rest of the naval staff into an underground nuclear shelter. You wouldn’t, my mother declared, for if you deserted this family I would shoot you in the stomach at the door.

Mother was inherently clannish. She was the one person who could be relied upon to know the faces of the past and the present extent of the cousinage, and she knew all the most interesting adventures and crimes of her Scottish and Irish families: Harvie, Stubbs, Maxwell and Maclaren.

She was the vital centre of our family life without actually being much of a homemaker, let alone a housewife. Meals were late, if not actually forgotten and burnt. She had no particular decorative taste, and so her furniture was either inherited or lent to her by concerned neighbours. These object then became invested with the spirit of the giver and could not be parted with at any price. So the instruction “It’s with Aunt Eve” or “Look in Aunt Alida”, meant that it was in the wardrobe or in a desk and not that our small cottage was packed with dead relations. But to an extent this was also true. Mother had an uncanny relationship with the spirit world, and once summoned my father’s spirit back from the dead in her grief, but as it materialized before her, she at once realized that this was dangerous and wrong. She believed that we would all be reincarnated as animals, birds, dogs or horses, before continuing further on our journey. Like her mother before her, she had an uncanny ability to swoop down upon a patch of turf and come up bearing a four-leaf clover. She kept a supply of these, pressed between the pages of an ancient and unread family Bible, ready to be sent out to help whichever of us was currently afflicted by exams. The power of prayer was dismissed with a snort, and she remembered with affection her father’s decision to go off riding together on a Sunday morning rather than to go to Church after her mother had been buried. If you ever managed to get her inside a church she looked like a trapped animal – but by God she believed in doing her bit for the living. She was an excellent physiotherapist, an inspired nurse, an enthusiastic amateur doctor, volunteered for years to help in riding for the disabled and until quite recently drove the elderly (often a decade or two younger than herself) in a bus to the supermarket in Fareham. She was a friend you could totally rely on, most especially if you were in need. She was also a passionate witness, always interested, always alert to what was being said and not said.

She looked after my father so beautifully and lovingly in the last year of his life that I told her that I would do my best for her, when her time came. It is one of the few promises that I have kept, and so was able to witness how she remained honest, brave, fearless, amused and loving right to the very last. Just before she died she whispered something, which I couldn’t quite hear, so I lent closer, to hear her say “Kiss me”. I think she had muddled me up with my father. Over the previous months she had asked him frequently to come back and help her on the next journey. He had been a brilliant navigator in the Navy and his skills were being called for once more.

I, my brothers and my sister are now the guardians of her story. As children we were always fascinated in the period before she became our mother, which small history I will now tell.

Kathy’s Youth Kathy was born on 4th February 1927, the third child of John Keith Harvie and Mary Bushby Stubbs. Her elder sister Jackie was given a black terrier puppy called Jock, and her brother Donald a white Sealyham called Sunny Bunch to make up for the inconvenience of the new baby soaking up their mother’s attention. Kathy grew up in a household where everyone had their own dog and their own horse. As a child she remembers her father riding out on Major Kirby Moreside, a huge solid Bay, her brother on Night Light and her sister on Katie, while she learnt to ride on Little Fats, a near feral Welsh pony, followed over the years by Betsy, Folly, Patsy and Lord.

Kathy grew up in Much Hadham, a pretty village outside Bishops Stortford in Hertfordshire strung along a village green. Their house was called Malting Lane and had a verandah at the back, which looked over a large garden, some box stables and fields cascading down the hill behind them. The household was run by Enid the housekeeper, with Molly the Irish cook in charge of the kitchen, Ernie Maddams ruling the garden with a part-time butler also making an appearance – an ex-con much loved by her father for his caustic wit and inside knowledge of the world. There were also a succession of German maids from Jewish families, who were offered jobs to help them with the paperwork of escaping from Nazi persecution. Her father, John Harvie, was affectionately known as “leaner”. He took the train into the City everyday, where he worked as a stockbroker. He loved his job and made it sound fun to his little daughter, by explaining that it was his job to jump and down in the air to catch the share certificates as they floated down from the ceiling. But as a very young child she also witnessed the deeper passions at play in this world. In particular a terrifying scene never left her imagination – her red-haired Scottish grandfather, a millionaire stockbroker from Liverpool, waving his cut-throat razor blade in the air as he simultaneously shaved and argued with his eldest son about their financial position in the markets. Mother was just old enough to witness the Harvie family in its Edwardian prime, and twice a year they visited this grandfather in his large Victorian house outside Liverpool, Kingsmead, where life was dominated by the stables – filled with race-horses, hunters, and her grandfather’s passion, his coach and four. In the summer this household decamped to Duncapel, their beach cottage on the shore at Treaggur Bay in Anglesey, filled with a cascade of cousins, aunts and uncles, walking the hills, picnicking in the dunes, fishing, shrimping and sailing ‘grandfather’s yacht’. Even at this age Kathy turned her back on acting and refused to join in the games of charades organized by her domineering grandfather who she continued to dislike, much preferring the company of her grandmother, Edith Maclaren, who painted Highland lanscapes in oils. A few years later this grandfather ended his life on his own terms, with a shotgun in his office. This was something of a habit with the all or nothing Harvies, for it seems likely that his own younger brother and one of his sons also took their own lives.

Fortunately for Kathy her father had a crackling, dry sense of humour and no suicidal tendencies. He was an excellent horseman and had rowed for his college at Cambridge, was passionate about golf and fishing and could play a useful game of cricket and tennis. He had served in the trenches throughout the First World War in the Third King’s Own Hussars, had been wounded twice, lost three brothers in the fighting and umpteen friends but never ever spoke about his experiences. My mother told just one story from this war: the time when a sympathetic doctor refused to operate on a bullet that was lodged dangerously near his heart, and told the young officer to take a fortnight’s holiday, before facing this dangerous operation. Rather than rest up at home, he spent his leave hunting in Ireland, where he managed to successfully jog the bullet out of danger. His wife was the sister of one of his best friends, a brother officer in the Hussars, Jim Stubbs. Uncle Jim was my mother’s other role model of a man. Brought up amongst the freedoms of Africa, he was sent back to boarding school in Britain, and became a self-deprecating sporting hero at both school and university, then a cavalry officer turned fighter pilot in the First World War, after which he served as a District Commissioner amongst the Nuer and Dinka of the Sudan for twenty years before retiring to create his own farm in South Africa, Long Island.

Kathy was nicknamed Bertie by her mother (just as her sister was “Axie” and her brother “Dood”) and they all knew their mother as Miam. Mary Stubbs was a beautiful Anglo-Irish war-heroine, who had been decorated by both the French and the British for her bravery as a volunteer ambulance driver in the First World War. She was a free spirit, brought up in the physical freedoms of South Africa where she was partly educated by a companion-governess before being “finished” with two years climbing the Alps and playing tennis on the French and Italian Riviera. Her photograph albums reveal a family circle refreshingly free from prejudice, mixing with Italians, Serbians and handsome characters labelled Ali and Hasan. The Stubbs family were well-travelled. Her father had been at Harrow and trained as a mining engineer in Colorado before heading out to South Africa where he ended up running the Robinson gold mines in Johannesburg. His own father (Colonel James William Stubbs) had served in India all his life, but had been born into an Anglo-Irish clan of vicars and landlords. But by the time Kathy knew her, her mother’s indomitable strength was already fast fading. Aged but seven, Kathy remembered seeing her mother’s surgical scars, from a burst appendix followed by cancer. She clearly remembered her mother’s voice, reading to her everyday after lunch in the garden. What sort of stories I asked eagerly. “Oh, it was mostly Anglo-Saxon history”. She also had a good reputation with tramps and travelers, for giving them the time of the day, a cup of tea and handing over her husband’s suits. But all the real mothering was done by Purse, Mother’s resident nanny – who she loved all her life with an absolute passion. Indeed she often reflected on the fact that she was actually sadder when Purse left them than when her mother died.

In the spring of 1937 her mother endured another huge operation after which Kathy remembers a disastrous attempt to cheer her up. She cut a bunch of flowers from the hedgerow and brought then to her mother’s beside. To her horror she watched her mother stagger out of bed and throw the flowers out of the window, for they were May – the flowers of death. On the 4th August her mother died. Kathy was just ten. The next day not a single bloom could be found in the garden, for her father had gathered them all to surround his wife’s coffin with flowers. Seeing his youngest daughter’s distress that night he moved her bed into his bedroom, so that they could be sad together.

Otherwise, it was a household with an astonishing lack of parental control. Kathy, her elder sister Jackie and her elder brother Dood were left to grow up ‘free range’ and became the wild children of their neighborhood. As the youngest sister, and ever keen to be included in their games, Mum often found herself acting out the Pale-face role against the two heroic Red Indian elder siblings. She was dead proud of these battle scars and never sneaked to her father when he returned in the evening – even when she was slung across a pony’s back, all tied up like a proper Red Indian captive, and nearly drowned when the pony rolled in the river. On another occasion she had an arrow shot into her head when it was her turn to take the role of moving target. This wound could not be so easily camouflaged, and that evening the bow and arrows were burnt. Her father taught her to ride himself, by the cavalry rule book, so young Kathy was put through her paces like a young trooper

and step-by-step earned her stirrups, her saddle and her jodhpurs with each advance in her skills. What seems to have been forgotten was any actual schooling for Kathy – until this was pointed out by her maternal aunt, Florence Rowan-Thompson. So it was at the age of ten that Kathy started walking to the local Dame School, run by the redoubtable Miss Cookson. Then aged 80, she had taught generations of local families such as the Boddingtons, St Aubyns, Normans and Cunicliffes who were Kathy’s friends in the school room, at pony club and on the hunting field. Kathy remembered Miss Cookson with the greatest affection, for she was the one who taught her the names of the wild flowers and the birds in the hedgerows.

A year later, in 1938, her father was called up and sent to Catterick to be trained in tanks. In order to keep his wild children occupied he sent messages that they were to train their ponies to the plough and plant potatoes in one of the paddocks. When war was declared next year, Kathy’s elder sister dropped out of her course at the Slade Art School to join up, whilst her brother Dood (John Donald Harvie) went into the RAF. His mother had wanted him to join the Navy, so he had been packed off to a naval boarding school where he learned to be a first-class boxer, but his heart went out of the project after his mother’s death. That autumn Kathy helped gather in the harvest alongside other children and soldiers who were billeted in tents around Much Hadham. She fondly remembered the men of the Seaforth Highlanders chatting to her over mugs of tea, for they also missed their families. With her father away at war, Kathy was sent to stay with neighbours. She was, in her own words, “rather a wild, rejected, lonely child just then”, but the Boddington boys rose magnificently to the challenge and put her to work in the nets, teaching her to bowl at them. She remembered them all her life with huge affection. Her other memories of 1940 are dominated by planes overhead – be they German bombers flying to hit London in raid after raid, or dog-fights, one of which ended with a German plane breaking off to shoot-up what he must have thought was the enemy. In fact it was a birthday picnic in a meadow. Kathy vividly remembered the excitement of diving into the hedgerow and then thinking better of it and leaping into the river as bullets ripped up the ground all around her. Later that year, aged 13¾, Kathy was sent to Horne’s boarding school in Hays Park, Bedfordshire. It had been selected by her father because it was “miles from any target and surrounded by such dense woodland that if we lose the war the Germans will never find you”. The flip side of this isolation was that they had to bicycle at least 12 miles to find any school to play against in lacrosse or hockey (both of which Mum excelled at) but they were very successfully bribed with an egg for tea if they won. Such was their hunger in those rationed war years that they never lost a match. Off the playing field Kathy was a constant rebel – climbing over rooftops, escaping at night from her dormitory to ride the local plough-horse – but there was never any point in expelling her. Where could she have been sent? She always remained vague about what happened during holidays in the war. “I was packed about a bit – sent all over the place.” When asked if she could ever remember a happy Christmas, she said “No” very quickly and decisively before adding that there had in fact been one good one – when they played indoor rugby with the leather poofs. Key figures of support for her during these lonely teenage years, from 13 to 17, was Aunt Woo (Florence Rowan-Thompson) who lived in a haunted priory in the west country, and a more distant cousin, a hunchback spinster, called Edith Marindon, “she looked small and quite creepy to begin with and lived all alone in Hallcombe House with lots of servants. Never had children, slightly startled by the whole thing – but she rose to the challenge, indeed left money in her will to some of the evacuated children she had looked after”. It was in this house that Kathy first opposed her beloved father who wanted to send her to the safety of Canada. “I absolutely refused, for I was desperately proud of them all. Dood flying in Beauforts looking for the Bismark as an observer-navigator, Jackie then a D.R, a naval dispatch rider based in Greenock delivering final handwritten orders on her motorbike to the submarines just before they left the docks. It felt like desertion, leaving England – so I refused.“

She left school at 17 on VE day. Her headmistress knew that Kathy, with her wild handwriting and erratic spelling, would never find work in an office, but she would not let her leave school until she had settled on a career, lest she drift into keeping house for her widowed father. Once she had settled on physiotherapy she was told “to write to all the hospitals this afternoon and accept the first offer.” Which is how Mum exchanged the privileged world of a girls’ boarding school for working as a trainee nurse in the East End of London. She spent three years at the Whitechapel Hospital followed by a post-graduate position at the Hammersmith Orthopaedic department. She was justly proud of these years, which coincided with the creation of the National Health system. She never forgot the mile-long queues as the working class flocked to visit surgeries that had hitherto been beyond their financial reach.

This was the end of her childhood, but also its highlight, for she once again shared a house with her father at 7, Craven Hill, Lancaster Gate near Paddington Station, which functioned as a hospitable way-station for all her boozy, boisterous Harvie uncles and tribe of cousins. Her father was the eldest of fourteen and delighted in running an open house. Formal entertaining always took place in the Cavalry Club, and for the first time she accompanied her father on weekends, visiting his many friends all over the country, as well as staying in fishing hotels, and going on hunting holidays to Ireland or the Outer Hebrides. Indeed she appears to have named her third child after a romantic encounter on the Isle of Colonsay – “the first time I was treated as a woman, not a girl” is how she put it, by the charming, feckless second son of Lord Strathcona. Her father was clearly delighted to make up for the lost years of her childhood during the war. One year, he took her to all the political hustings so she could choose for herself how to cast her first vote.

A number of men began to actively court her, including a childhood friend from Hertfordshire, who she had won a sack race with aged seven and had always found entertaining. Her 21st birthday party began with drinks in the Cavalry Club, then dinner with this man at the Dorchester and on to Quaglino’s night-club, where she found herself dancing on the table top. She sensed that her companion was about to propose and thought it better to distract him, “for I knew that a man like your father would only ever ask once… Gosh we had fun though, it was in his Motor Torpedo Boat days.” It also helped that it was illegal, for trainee nurses were kept to strict hours, and mum had many a satisfying adventure climbing walls to sneak back undetected into her dormitory.

Then disaster struck. Or rather a plump, bustlingly active woman met her father during a train journey in Devon. He had never been short of girlfriends, but Alida Britain (who had risen to the rank of Major in the war) was looking to get married. She enjoyed advanced planning and regular hours, did not care for animals, hunting or farming, but was rich and politically active. As far as Kathy was concerned she was the antithesis of proper life, and it always baffled her what her father could have possibly seen in her. Her new stepmother had drifted dangerously close to British fascism before the war, to the extent of founding the youth-section of the Anglo-German Friendship League in 1936 and with her mother had attended numerous rallies as the guest of Hitler. Her father, Sir Harry Britain, had not been so foolish, but was in all other ways a genuinely appalling man. The spoiled heir to a Sheffield steel fortune, he had become a Conservative MP and went on to be a name-dropping, womanizing, self-promoting publicist.

Kathy asked her father if it might be easier if she went abroad for a bit while he settled into his new life with Alida in their house in Hampstead. He agreed it was probably vital. So at 22, Kathy took a boat to New York, and worked for 18 months in Saskatoon, Canada before taking the SS Oranjee from Vancouver to New Zealand, via Hawaii and Fiji. On board, she saw off some card-sharks working the boat then settled down to work in Auckland for six months, then explored the two islands before catching a small boat across to Sydney. The next year she worked her way across Australia, taking a series of casual jobs, working on sheep stations, vineyards and on an apricot farm as well as learning to sew up bags of barley and wheat. She got 6d a bag. The secrets of these years, the many proposals of love and marriage that came her way on these roads, and the identity of the “Scotsman” are kept by her near impenetrable handwriting, which spirals across three diaries. For decades these diaries were locked away with rare volumes of Aeschylus and Euripides in the library of Professor Alph Conacher who had married her travelling companion, fellow physio and lifelong friend, Emm, back on the first Canadian leg of her travels.

But my father had been patiently waiting, and as one of his friends in the Navy was my mother’s first cousin, he had kept vaguely abreast of her travels. Within a week of her return this cupid, Lt-Cdr Grahame Rowan-Thompson of the Fleet Air Arm, arranged a drinks party and three months later my mother and father were engaged. The Roman Catholic priest in charge of her conversion gave up the struggle, having never met a proper pagan before, but had the good grace to allow them to be married at St James’s Spanish Place. Mother arrived at the church fantastically late, for her father’s old army driver had felt so honoured by the occasion that he got himself legless in a pub. The reception was at the Cavalry Club, where her godfather, Lord Srathcona, had so much pleasure teasing her father in his speech that he forget to give the toast. But these disasters only added to my mother’s enjoyment of the day. The first night however, was not a success. As my mother rather graphically told me, “I rather feared I had married a dud”, but the fault lay with one her uncles, who had made my father promise not to touch his bride on the first night. In the morning, after breakfast was over, all was well. Taking the upper hand, my father had cannily chosen to spend their honeymoon doing the one sport that he knew my mother was not yet better than him at, which was skiing. This also took place in the Austrian Alps – and my father spoke German. On their return, the Admiralty decided to send him to sea in the Far East fleet for two years. My mother, meanwhile, had a tearful interview with her family doctor. “What’s wrong with me? We have been married for almost two months now, I am about to lose my husband for two years, we have been doing it three times a day. What more can I do?” “Nothing my dear,” he replied after he examined her. “You are pregnant.”

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