Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Born in 1911

I attended the funeral of my father's former secretary Gladys Moore in Chichester yesterday. She died a few days short of her 101st birthday. Her extended family (she and her husband Jimmy had no children of their own) had brought Gladys's photograph albums to the wake, which showed holidays in Dorset and days out in Epping Forest; Gladys carefree, young and beautiful, sitting on the grass or riding her bike and exploring Germany in the late 1920's. Despite her obvious academic abilities, and not unusually for the times (my own father left school aged 16), due to family circumstances, Gladys left school aged 14 and went to work as a clerk for a shipping company; she studied commercial languages (French and German) at night school and acquired extraordinary clerical abilities - very fast shorthand and typing. She progressed to the civil service, married and after WWII joined her husband (who had been posted there during the war)in East Africa. In 1950, she joined our family company in Dartford, Kent where she remained a key member of the team for nearly 40 years. Widowed in 1975, she eventually retired and set about for the last quarter century of her long life on a programme of adventurous travel, by coach,train and plane through Europe and aged 90 to India where she rode on the back of a motorbike and on an elephant. My sister was invited to speak at the funeral about her contribution to our lives, and had discovered that at the time of Gladys joining the family firm, in 1950, it was on the point of financial collapse. It was due in no small part to her steady and energetic personality that order and balance were restored, and she remained at Dad's right hand through the years of prosperity to come. My own outstanding memory of Gladys was when she accompanied me aged 12 to spend a week with a French pen friend whose name and address I had found in a bottle washed up on the beach at Poole in Dorset. The girl who was the same as age as myself had sent me a tiny black and white photograph which showed a lithe tanned girl standing with one foot on a low wall at St Juan les Pins. Mrs Moore and I arrived at the Gare du Nord and to Mrs Moore's consternation, the family turned out to be very tanned indeed- they were from the French colony of Guadeloupe. She excused herself and rushed off to a telephone to take further instructions from my father which were 'let the visit go ahead'. I spent a week with Any and her family - her father was a senior executive at International Harvester - at their house at Chalons sur Marne. We visited the WWI battlefields, where I distinguished myself by refusing to go down into the dugouts, shouting to the tour guide 'Monsieur, je suis froide' (I am frigid); we ate horse and made an overnight trip to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower (we slept on the floor of an aunt's - a milliner at Christian Dior's - work room). Thinking about this episode yesterday, I have resolved to see if I can track Any down and find out how she has fared in the long interval since our correspondence petered out.

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