#MeToo

In my twenties, I was employed in a number of global enterprises. In this particular company, I was a Secretary/PA for one of the senior executives in the UK.  Looking for more challenge in my working life, I was keen to develop my career within the company. It was a good place for that. If you performed your current responsibilities well, canvassed for support and advocacy, sought advice from seniors and then followed it, demonstrated enthusiasm and commitment, then doors to new opportunity would open.

So it was that I came to be moving on from my secretarial position, to take up a role as a sales trainee. My boss, for whom I’d worked for two years, was – he said – reluctant to lose me, but he was supportive of my career ambitions.  Worth saying, he’d been an excellent boss and I’d very much enjoyed working for/with him.

He wanted – he said – to thank me for my services. Would I like to come out for dinner? I said yes, not because I desired to have dinner with him, but because it would have been rude to decline. I was his direct report, and we’d enjoyed a good working relationship for two years. He had never been even the slightest bit inappropriate with me. I was, the very next day, to leave his office and join a sales department whose manager reported to a manager who reported to him. I had no inkling that this dinner invitation was anything other than the professional thank you that he said it was.

He had meetings in London on the day in question and had asked me to book him into his preferred hotel. He said he hoped I wouldn’t mind coming into London and suggested we would eat at the hotel restaurant. You may look askance at my naivety – but I promise you, I did not suspect a thing.

He met me at the hotel and we went to eat; the meal was enjoyable and the conversation convivial. Until, that is, he suggested that we continue the evening up in his room. I thought at first I’d misheard him. I think I may have ignored his suggestion, so he had another go round. Surely – he said – I understood why I’d been invited into London, to his hotel. Didn’t I realise? I was about to cease being his direct report and – he said – this meant he was now free to behave differently towards me. With my move away from his office, my place in the order of things had – he said – changed.  Apparently, that meant I was fair game.

He delivered his little speech with his usual gentle charm, but there was an edge to it, something I’d never seen before. It was abundantly clear to me that he wasn’t joking, or teasing. He was deadly serious. I was totally blind-sided.

Falteringly, as I remember, but very politely, I told him I did not want to go to his room. I didn’t know what to think, but I genuinely feared what my rejection of his invitation might do both in that moment, and to my nascent career prospects. Was I sure, he asked. Yes, I was absolutely certain. I suggested it was time I went home.

It was all very surreal. He wasn’t angry, upset or even embarrassed.  He pretty much turned back into ‘good boss’ again, almost as if it hadn’t happened. It seemed he was not in the least bit bothered. It was as if I was just one of many he might proposition in the same way – a sleazy numbers game.  His attitude seemed to be, some you win, and some you lose. That really made me think.

Rather than let me go home by underground, he came outside with me to see me safely into a black cab. I stood away from him, but as the taxi drew up, he pressed cash conspicuously into my hand to pay for it. He may just have been being thoughtful, but I remember thinking, the taxi driver probably thinks I’m a prostitute now. I was shaking with, I don’t know what… anger, shame? Whatever else, an acute sense of betrayal – betrayal of a professional relationship I had valued and trusted.   Damn it, I’d been to his home, I’d met his wife.

I was so upset that the taxi driver asked me if I was alright as we drove away.  He was very kind, but I couldn’t explain what had happened. I was close to tears. I felt so stupid. In that moment, my boss had undermined the sense of achievement I’d felt at gaining the career progression I’d so badly wanted. He’d made me doubt that I had got this on my own merit. He’d made me wonder if he’d nudged it along for reasons that had nothing at all to do with my professional capabilities or potential.  And he made me dread the possibility of similar situations arising in the future, at company sales and training events for example.

And then… because his sleazy proposition had seemed such a run-of-the-mill thing to him, I began to doubt my interpretation of what had happened; I actually began to think I might have imagined it, or read too much into something that was… nothing. So I carefully approached one or two of my female sales colleagues to see if anyone else recognised the position he’d put me in, or had experienced anything similar with this man. What I learned shocked me all over again. It seemed he was a prolific offender. Not only that, but these professional ladies all assumed I’d known all along and, by implication, tacitly turned a blind-eye to his behaviour. After all, I’d been booking his hotel rooms for long enough, hadn’t I? I don’t know whether I was more embarrassed by my naivety, or by the realisation that these colleagues of mine had all assumed I was ‘in’ on his behaviour.

My career didn’t suffer as a result of my rejection of this man’s advances, and the situation didn’t arise again. On the contrary, it seemed to me that his some you win, some you lose attitude served to make this a totally insignificant event to him. I avoided him where possible but I barely saw him thereafter anyway, so far ‘up the tree’ was he from me. I don’t know either which of my female colleagues ever felt the pressure to comply with similar invitations.

There’s a lot being said in the context of the whole Harvey Weinstein business about women speaking up, or not. It’s easy to be a judge of this in hindsight. It’s not so easy though, when the object of any allegation holds a position of seniority, power or influence. It seems to me that women with far greater assertiveness and confidence than I possessed at the time, had chosen to stay silent. One simply didn’t make a thing of that sort of situation. Who was I to stand out, and where could it go, except somewhere damaging? I can make no apology for my twenty-something reticence – I never even contemplated making any kind of official complaint. With a great deal more mileage on the life-clock, I like to think I’d respond differently today. But who really knows, until it happens?

Advertisements

Is this a Metaphor?

So… it’s a lovely, warm autumn afternoon, and I thought I’d go out for a little stroll, just to get some air. I’d seen workmen in my local park recently, and it looked like they were laying a path.  ‘Yippee!’ I thought. They laid a path half way around the park a couple of years ago, which I’ve been enjoying several times a week. I have a nice circuit, half way round inside the park perimeter, and the other half out in the street. Now I’d be able to walk all the way around inside the park, and I wouldn’t need to go on the streets at all.  Three or four circuits would make a great little walk, and so close to home.

So I set off, in a more cheerful mood than is apparent from this picture…

The path looked interesting… promising, wouldn’t you agree?

It wound steadily downwards, following the shrubbery at the edge of the park.  Previously this area was boggy and sludgy – good for dog-walkers with wellies but not for me in my trendy, porous Skechers.

The path, I was already thinking, was an excellent addition to an already very pleasing local amenity.

Further along there are fifty yards of blackberry bushes.  I wondered if there would be anything left on them, musing that I should have brought along a tub or a bowl.  Foraged food…. nice.

But then…

Ah…

It’s back to the roadway then.

My 3 R’s of Ragdale 2017: Rest, Recuperate and Reflect

My first solo trip to Ragdale Hall, a place I enjoyed for years with my mother, was a bittersweet experience.

Every year since 2010, my mother and I have taken a 4-day spa break at the wonderful Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa, tucked away in the Leicestershire countryside. I blogged about my 2016 visit here.

When my mother fell ill in February 2017, our April trip to Ragdale had been in the diary for several months. I rang to cancel, promising myself that I would return in due course, even though it was clear by then that we had made our last visit.

The months that followed were intense and exhausting. For several weeks I spent hours almost every day at her bedside in hospital. Then, when she was considered sufficiently stable to return home, I stayed with her, spending every day and many nights helping to keep her comfortable, and making her feel safe, secure and loved. After she died, a different kind of work began; firstly the organisation of her funeral, the management of her correspondence, and advising friends all over the world; then, and for the last four months, my brother, sister-in-law and I have faced the almost overwhelming task of clearing her house of the stuff of a long and busy life, that of a woman who came from a generation who never threw anything away in case it might come in handy later; that of a woman who wanted to be known, and for whom recording history, activities and accomplishments, and accounting for life and all its significances and insignificances was  paramount.

There were cupboards so tightly packed you could hardly imagine the quantity of things which emerged from them. There was paperwork going back decades; important archive material, the history of a family caught up in every aspect of the Holocaust, requiring careful and responsible handling; a mass of writings – published and unpublished articles, accounts of trips and holidays, study output from numerous courses, personal and emotional, factual and fictional pieces – dating back to the 1970’s, letters dating back to the 1950’s, thousands of photographs, greetings cards and postcards. There were brochures, maps and guide books, cruise, exhibition, festival, event, theatre and concert programmes; all records of a life spent travelling, absorbing history, art, music and culture around the world.  And books, books, books… and more books. And there was more – our battered old toys, shelves of unwanted gifts, oddments and ephemera, souvenir trinkets and costume dolls from far-flung places. And on it went…

From the outset we took the approach that we would minimise what went to landfill, so we’ve been diligent in rehoming, recycling and donating the kinds of things which would otherwise end up in a skip. That has meant a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, calling and emailing, lifting, carrying and hauling about, to say nothing of the hours and hours spent shredding, whilst carefully checking each file to ensure we weren’t inadvertently disposing of anything of significance. It’s not over either. There’s the house to sell, and the auctionable ‘house clearance’ stuff to see to in due course. Oh, and because it’s been summer, we’ve been trying to keep the gardens looking tidy too (nowhere near the way mum used to do, but passable).

So… it’s been a hectic time, respectful and conscientious too. A doing time, rather more than a thinking time.  And I confess, I was beginning to feel that I hadn’t done nearly enough thinking about my mum.

I had the idea that Ragdale Hall might be a good place to make the time and space to do a little thinking, as well as afford me the opportunity to release my weary body from some of the tension that had built up over recent months. So a month ago, I called and made my booking.  I knew exactly what to expect – care, comfort and service, experienced professional therapists, restful lounges and conservatories, yummylicious food, and the combined indulgences of sublime treatments and a multi-zoned spa and pool area. What I didn’t know, and feared just a little, was how it would feel to be there without my mother.

Ragdale had been our break. It was intended as a one-off, and it was an inspired suggestion – my mother’s, I should add – back in 2010 when she was about to turn 75, and I was heading for my 50th birthday. Our activities and interests were generally quite disparate, and it would be hard to envisage a holiday that could meet both her needs and mine.  The idea of a spa break, where we could spend personal time indulging ourselves with therapies, exercise classes, swimming, relaxing and reading, and yet come together for lunch and dinner, evenings and a lovely, companionable walk each day, was just about the perfect solution. And we enjoyed our 4-day break so much that we booked for the following year. And the next, and the next…

The lump rose in my throat as I pulled up outside the main entrance and the porter came out to pick up my luggage and park my car. The warm smile and friendly recognition I received at reception very nearly finished me off. I checked in, filled in my breakfast menu card, slurped my welcome coffee and high-tailed it to my room, to regroup.

Mum and I had stayed in every one of the spa’s small number of single rooms over the years. When I called this time around, none was available, so I booked a double room for single occupancy on the floor above. It was a very different experience, quite a bit more luxurious if I’m honest. I was, I confess, relieved that I wouldn’t be sleeping in a room previously occupied by either of us. Even the décor was different – and very pleasing.

At dinner on my first evening, I began to wonder if I’d made the best decision for myself.  It was very, very hard, sitting across the table from an empty chair. I’d chosen not to join what Ragdale calls its ‘social table’, as I didn’t want to chat with fellow guests. Nevertheless, that empty chair was very… empty.

I don’t know if it was anxiety or what, but I’d developed a tight knot in my stomach on the drive up to Ragdale. The result was a nasty bout of acid reflux across the next couple of nights, something that hasn’t troubled me since I started eating more healthily. I slept fitfully and uncomfortably as my stomach twisted and ached. More than once I wondered if I should call it a day and return home.

But the intense soothment of the Ragdale experience eventually worked its way in.  I swam and steamed myself… I enjoyed what was intended to be a gentle massage, where the therapist, noticing the crunchy tension across my neck and shoulders, offered to apply her skills more vigorously to the task of un-knotting me, to my delight and appreciation. The next day I had a lovely reflexology session with a kind and compassionate therapist, who didn’t mind in the least that I burst into tears as I tried to explain what had brought me to the session. Later, Jon, Ragdale’s exceptional shiatsu therapist was subjected to the same tearfulness, and he too delivered a superbly effective treatment to, apparently, liberate my gallbladder meridian. The expert pressure-point massage and stretching did wonders for my taut, twisty frame. That evening, the restaurant manager, on duty for the first time since I had arrived, recognised me and noticed the absence of my usual companion, which resulted in a gentle conversation as he took my order. I was struck by his kindness and his thoughtful yet unsentimental words. It meant something me that he had noticed my mother’s absence and taken the time to stop and talk in a very hectic service.

The next day, I received an extraordinary deep-tissue massage, and made time for more swimming and steaming. By the end of that day, I was significantly unwound, relaxed both physically and emotionally, and firmly persuaded that in making this visit to Ragdale Hall at this point in time, I had done a very good thing for myself.  I’d also given myself some much-needed time to simply be still and remember my mother.  On my last day, I let more thoughts and tears come, in Ragdale’s dry flotation tank in a semi-darkened room. By then, I was ready to be home again – just as well, as all that remained was an indulgent buffet lunch, before I packed my bag and got on my way.

When it comes to death and bereavement, it’s easy to be busy – because there’s so much to do. It’s easy to fill the hours and days with must-do’s, dutiful activities and responsibilities. It’s all too easy to let them clutter the space where silence and stillness has an important healing role to play. By the time I went to Ragdale Hall, my mind and body were clamouring for the silence and stillness and my tears were very close to the surface. Now that I’m home, I feel a calm that wasn’t there before, and I know my mother would have been proud of me, that I took myself away to do this, for both of us.

Ten Values-Based Life Lessons from a Tough Year

This year is turning into a strange one – unexpected, disrupted, traumatic, overwhelmingly sad, but ultimately… reflective. First the discovery of my mother’s advanced brain tumour in February, an intense period of illness, and her death in May. In the midst of caring for her and trying to prepare, emotionally, for the absence of her, a couple of minor medical issues of my own. Since May, the seemingly insurmountable challenge of sorting through my mother’s mountain of paperwork, treasured collections, historically significant archive material, miscellaneous oddities, personal possessions and general stuff-of-life. And another personal issue forcing its way into my head and my life; a piece of my history returning to bite me, painfully, defiling the period of my mother’s passing and my grief, bringing a layer of stress I could have done without.

But I said… reflective. And this is the subject of my post. These are some of the life lessons I’m learning from all of this, in this most unsettling of years.  These are my lessons. I know I’ve used the word ‘you’ right through, but I really mean ‘I’… Oh, and… you… too, if you like.

(1) Resilience

You are as strong as you need to be, and you always have been. You can deal with your stuff, take difficult – and sometimes seemingly impossible – decisions. You can rise to challenges, do more than you think you’re capable of. You can get up and do what needs to be done, even when you think your bones won’t carry you. You can put on a brave face when all you want to do is crumple and weep. You can push through grief, manage stress and bounce back after pain, deceit and rejection. You are… resilient.

(2) Standards

Hold yourself to a higher standard. Whether that’s about establishing better habits, being more selfless, working more diligently, being more honest, having more compassion or empathy, exercising more self-control or developing more self-respect – you have a right to expect big things of yourself. And when you hold yourself to a higher standard, you reap the benefits – in self-awareness and self-esteem.

Conversely, don’t allow yourself to become disappointed or disheartened when others don’t behave, or treat you as you hope they will, or as you would do in their place. Your standards are yours, and theirs are theirs. Only they can manage their behaviours, not you. You have no influence, other than your own good example, and that is easy for those with different standards to overlook. Don’t let lies and mistruths go unchallenged.

(3) Live in the Moment

Live the life you have TODAY. Stop waiting for things to be better when this or that happens, or when you achieve a certain goal, income level, relationship status, weight, or whatever. Burn your favourite candles, use your nicest sheets and your best crockery. Wear your prettiest underwear, your best shoes and your most prized shirts. Don’t save them for a special occasion – today is special. And if you want to ‘dance naked in the rain’, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Just do it.

(4) Integrity

Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Stop dropping hints and feeling let-down when they pass unnoticed. If you want somebody to help you or do something for you, ask them directly. The men in your life especially, will welcome the absence of ambiguity.

Don’t let misunderstandings fester. If you’ve been misunderstood, offer clarity. If you can’t do what someone wants, for whatever reason, tell them. Be a person that others can trust.

(5) Forgiveness

Make peace with your past. This is first about learning to forgive yourself. We all make mistakes, but it doesn’t help to look back with regret. Instead, understand, recognise what happened and what has changed – about you, about others, about circumstances – and let the mistakes go. They are a weight you don’t need to carry.

Forgive others too. They may not seek your forgiveness – they may not even be remorseful for the harm they did you – but their intransigence shouldn’t stop you from letting-go whatever anger and pain you feel. Time is a great healer. But so too is the realisation that you are bigger and stronger, and you have more personal power when you let what others may have done fade into insignificance.  Nobody says it’s easy, but it’s infinitely better for your spirit to look forward, not backward.

(6) Forbearance

Whatever it is, this too will pass. Whether it’s work or family pressures, relationship challenges, grief, sadness, regret, memories coming back to haunt; whether it’s financial challenges, personal problems or health issues. We all have stuff sometimes, which we simply need to bear with calmness and restraint. These are loads that we carry for a while, until their time passes, or until we are ready or able to deal with them or set them aside. There is peace in exercising patience and cultivating inner strength.

(7) Positivity and Mindfulness

Be mindful. Notice what there is in every moment of life. Celebrate the dawn, a rain shower, a field of sunflowers, a canal-side walk, the sight of a bee collecting pollen, the taste of a good cup of coffee, the loving support of a friend or relative. Whatever is going on in life, there is beauty and positivity in it somewhere – and you don’t have to look too far to see it.

Appreciate your world and the beautiful people within it. Focus your attention on what you have, not on what you lack. Wherever you are in life, whatever the state of your finances, social life or domestic situation, there will always be things beyond your reach. You could be a multi-millionaire, in your dream home with your ideal partner, and still be chasing after something you don’t have. Ambition, plans and goals are fine, but don’t let your sights become so firmly fixated on some perceived deficit, or some distant future gain, that you forget to appreciate your now.

(8) Organisation

Overwhelm comes from disorganisation. When life gets chaotic, it’s easy to spend more time worrying about how busy you are than actually accomplishing the things you need to do. This is where practical planning comes in, along with task prioritisation and letting go of what you know in your heart you will never get around to.  It means handling each piece of paper only once – doing rather than shuffling the paperwork and the tasks.  It means focusing not on all the things you haven’t yet done, but each day acknowledging the things you’ve accomplished. Appreciate the progress you’ve made. That way lies a calmer spirit, the best preparation for tomorrow.

(9) Be You

Whoever you are today, wherever you are, whatever you want in life, whatever your personal priorities and preferences, you are fine, just as you are. You don’t need to pursue things you don’t really want, just because people like you expect you to be pursuing them. That means it’s okay not to want a career trajectory any more. Yes, it’s ok not to be ambitious. It’s okay to go for softer goals too, or no goals at all. It’s okay to be on your own if that’s how you like it. It’s okay to wear whatever you want to wear; it’s okay to shun social media or not drink alcohol; it’s okay to walk rather than run; it’s okay to cry, or not cry. It’s okay to break whatever rules you’ve made for yourself, whenever you damn well like. Whoever or whatever you think people expect you to be, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you be you. Those who care about you will love you for it.

(10) And lastly… Follow your Dream

If not now, then when? If you want to change your life, change it. Do you want to travel the world, live in another country, or become a writer? Do you want to work for yourself, become fluent in another language, play a musical instrument, foster a child, learn to draw? Do you have a ‘bucket list’? Whale watching… a parachute jump… see China’s ice sculptures… the Northern Lights…? Don’t wait. You don’t know the length of your days – they may be shorter, or longer, than you imagine. However it turns out, don’t have regrets about what you didn’t do.

Some things are simpler than others to begin. A writer writes. An artist paints. If you want to be a writer, write something. If you want to be an artist, get out your paints.

What Goes Around…

There are some moments in life when the impact of karma feels particularly strong. For me, for reasons I must keep private, this is one such moment. I’m not a proponent of, nor an expert on karma from any philosophical or religious angle, I’m simply reflecting on the notion that thoughts, motives and actions in life – both good and bad, positive and negative – all have consequences.

Here, for the particular benefit of the very few people in my life who will understand the place from whence this post comes, a few words quoted directly from a couple of respected sources on the subject of karma (because they can explain it better than I); and (with a spoiler alert to anyone who does not know the story and has never read the book), a plot summary of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’, which may make little sense to you, but is connected.  Thank you, lovely readers, for indulging me today.

Wikipedia

The theory of karma as causality holds that (1) executed actions of an individual affect the individual and the life he or she lives, and (2) the intentions of an individual affect the individual and the life he or she lives. Another causality characteristic, shared by Karmic theories, is that like deeds lead to like effects. Thus good karma produces good effect on the actor, while bad karma produces bad effect. This effect may be material, moral or emotional — that is, one’s karma affects one’s happiness and unhappiness. The effect of karma need not be immediate; the effect of karma can be later in one’s life, or even in future lives.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma

BBC Website

The word karma means ‘action’, and this indicates something important about the concept of karma: it is determined by our own actions, in particular by the motives behind intentional actions. Skilful actions that lead to good karmic outcomes are based upon motives of generosity; compassion, kindness and sympathy, and clear mindfulness or wisdom. The opposite motives of greed, aversion (hatred) and delusion, when acted upon, lead to bad karmic results. Karma is not an external force, not a system of punishment or reward dealt out by a god. The concept is more accurately understood as a natural law similar to gravity.

In Buddhist teaching there is the concept of karmic ‘conditioning’, which is a process by which a person’s nature is shaped by their moral actions. Every action we take moulds our characters for the future. Both positive and negative traits can become magnified over time as we fall into habits. All of these cause us to acquire karma.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/beliefs/karma.shtml

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

In Oscar Wilde’s celebrated novel, Dorian Gray, a handsome narcissist, has a portrait of himself painted whilst he is a young man – it is widely admired. But his is a hedonistic and amoral life, filled with moral duplicity and self-indulgence. Dorian Gray engages in ever more compulsive and dishonest behaviours, a process which takes him on a downward spiral from which he cannot escape. At first he believes he notices small changes happening to his face in the portrait; it appears to be becoming subtly less open and attractive, although he cannot be sure. All the while, he himself remains inexplicably handsome and youthful. As time goes by however, and he cannot escape from his own moral degradation, the changes in the picture are so obvious that they become a constant rebuke to him. He hides the picture from the world as his private guilty secret. By the time of his death, the picture depicts the grotesque portrait of his warped soul.

In the spirit of positive karma, join me today in celebrating the life-enhancing qualities of compassion, empathy, friendship, kindness and generosity of spirit.

Review: “Singled Out” by Julie Lawford

I met Christoph again this year at the Bloggers Bash. He’s just published this lovely review of Singled Out, which I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing. I know it’s blowing my own trumpet, but I could use a bit of cheering up at the moment and a positive review is just the ticket. I’ve even forgiven him for getting my name wrong 🙂 [By the way… I corrected it!]

writerchristophfischer

I’ve had the pleasure to meet Julie at last year’s Bloggers Bash and seeing her again this year reminded me that I still had her book on my kindle. This weekend’s sunshine provided me at last with an opportunity to indulge in this very accomplished novel.
What I’m talking about is a very well-written thriller set during a holiday trip to Turkey, catering to single holiday makers. You might immediately assume that this is chick lit territory, but that would do the character depth and writing style grave injustice. While certainly appealing to female audiences this novel doesn’t limit itself to pure light-hearted romantic interests but visits darker sides of the dating game and crime.
Using alternate narrative strands and voices we get insight into the characters, but we’re shown enough to be drawn deep into these characters.
Things are not as they seem and while you have an incling…

View original post 320 more words

Irene Lawford – My Mother, my Inspiration

Yes, it happened. My mother died earlier this month following a short but intense period of illness.  In late February a series of minor falls had resulted in a trip to A&E and a scan, which revealed a large and rapidly growing brain tumour.  Called a glioblastoma multiforme, this is a Grade IV malignant tumour. No treatment plan was offered, as it was deemed inappropriate for a woman in her 80’s, and in any case, the tumour was too far advanced and in too inaccessible a part of her brain. She was given steroids to bring down the swelling which had brought about the falls, and once she had temporarily recovered some of the lost capacity that had given rise to those early falls, and had a little speech and mobility therapy, she was sent home. To die.

We, my brother and I, knew this from that first day in A&E. But my mother chose not to acknowledge the fact, though we are assured she understood it. She deftly side-stepped words like growth, tumour, malignant and cancer. She didn’t ask us to Google glioblastoma. When told there was to be no surgery, she pronounced herself relieved that she didn’t have to worry about that any more. When introduced to palliative services, she would begin her sentences with ‘when I’m up-and-about again’. Her approach throughout the whole period of rapid decline was extraordinarily stoical and positive in a way that made us wonder more than once whether she truly understood her predicament. Her strategy, to continue as normal, calling her reduced mobility and changed circumstances ‘the next phase of my life’, showed a resolve and strength that amazed us. Though when you read about her life, you may see the roots from which sprung that courage and determination.

Tumours of this kind grow faster the more advanced in age the patient is. Nobody would tell my brother and I ‘how long’. But we got the picture when the hospital consultant made an outpatient appointment to see my mother, at her request.  We couldn’t understand why a hospital consultant would agree to see an untreatable, incurable former patient in an outpatient clinic. Though when we realised the appointment was for July, we understood. And we got our ‘how long’.

In actual fact, things moved rather faster. A month in hospital, and a month at home, was all she got.

As I process the feelings of shock and loss, I may write more. But for now, I wonder if you will gain inspiration, as I do, from my mother’s life. She was a wonderful and unique woman, though occasionally light on some of the qualities one traditionally associates with motherhood. But when you understand her life, you may understand why, and the energies that drove her, as I do. She determined to overcome a traumatic and lonely childhood and carve her own path in life; she strove to make her mark and ultimately, to ensure her German Jewish family’s contribution and heritage was revived and restored; she was a person who saw what she wanted, and pursued it, relentlessly, but always charmingly. She was engaged, sociable, connected around the world; an intellectual, a music-lover, a writer; a giver of talks, a traveller and a student of whatever sparked her interest.  She loved her family and her children and grandchildren, and she had a real zest for life. Right up until a month before her illness made itself known, she was travelling, learning, and meeting new people.

My wonderful, amazing mother. I give you my thoughts on a truly inspirational woman, one who knew no boundaries.

Irene Lawford was born in 1935 in Leipzig, Germany to Max and  Marie-Luise Hinrichsen.

Her father (my grandfather), was from a large family, there were seven brothers and sisters in all. The family was prominent in Leipzig society, being the owners of a music publishing business, C.F. Peters.  The young composer, Edvard Grieg, published by Peters Edition to this day, was a family friend and a frequent guest at the imposing building at Talstrasse 10, which housed both the offices of the business, and the family apartments. As well as being a successful music publisher, Henri Hinrichsen, (my great-grandfather) was also a philanthropist, whose projects included funding the purchase of the collection which became the heart of Leipzig’s Music Instrument Museum and becoming a founding benefactor of the Henriette-Goldschmidt Schule, a college for the further education of women.

But the union of a Catholic mother and Jewish father in the disturbing pre-Holocaust era made my mother a ‘mischling’ in Nazi eyes – that’s like saying ‘half-breed’ today. In 1937, at just two years of age, along with her parents, she emigrated to England to avoid the worsening Nazi persecution. Most of her family believed that ‘things couldn’t get worse’, and chose to remain in Germany, trusting that some kind of sanity would prevail. In all, 17 members of her family, including her grandfather and grandmother, would subsequently perish in Nazi concentration camps, or as a result of restrictions placed on Jews by the Nazis.

Max and Marie-Luise’s foresight led to them leaving Germany with the means to establish a life elsewhere. They set up home in Hampstead – though during the war years they were forced to move frequently, being ‘enemy aliens’ and ‘bloody foreigners’. My mother attended several boarding schools, where she would have to learn quickly how to settle in unfamiliar places, connect with strangers, and make friends.

She spent the largest period of her education at St Christopher’s School, Letchworth, a forward-thinking establishment which even today boasts that ‘We treat young people as individuals, encouraging them to develop into capable, imaginative, responsible people with a zest for life’. At the time the school was vegetarian, something which underpinned her enthusiasm for healthy eating. I well remember being dragged along to health food restaurant, Cranks, when on trips into London in the 60’s, long before clean eating was fashionable. By her own account, my mother enjoyed St Christopher’s School.

My grandparents’ marriage was unsettled to say the least, and the life of a music publisher’s wife proved too unexciting for the impulsive and bohemian Marie-Luise. She met a Hungarian pianist and when my mother was just 14, made the inexplicable (to me) decision to leave her husband and daughter, to live with her new love in Hungary, behind what was to become known as the Iron Curtain. My mother was to see her own mother only once more, before she died when Irene was just 22, committing suicide when it became impossible to access the drugs she needed to treat her advancing multiple sclerosis. One can only imagine the impact maternal desertion must have had on a 14-year-old girl already parcelled off to boarding schools, let alone the suicide that followed – but equally to conclude that her stoicism, impenetrable defences, inner strength and self-reliance may well have had its roots in this period.

Her Auntie Lotte, also escaped from Nazi persecution, settled in the lovely town of Church Stretton, in Shropshire, and it was here that my mother spent her school holidays. She always retained an immense affection for her aunt, for the closest she came to ‘normal’ family life as a child, and for the beautiful Shropshire countryside.  As a family, we returned often to the area, staying with Auntie Lotte and walking the Long Mynd and Carding Mill Valley.

In the intervening years, her father Max had established his music publishing business in London, originally as Hinrichsen Edition, and now Peters Edition. On leaving school, my mother was apprenticed – sent around Europe staying in different cities for a few weeks at a time, with other music publishing houses, to learn the trade. She describes being unsettled by the thought that her father, just six or seven years after the war had ended, thought fit to dispatch her back to Germany, alone. Whatever else, this time reinforced her sense of self-reliance and allowed her to hone her communication and rapport-building skills, as she sought to settle into life in different places and different countries every few weeks or months. When she returned to London, hopeful of a key role in the business, she took up the simple clerical job offered by her father in the office of Peters Edition.

Disillusioned by the mundane nature of her work responsibilities, she set about building a social life for herself in London, and it was here she met the man who was to become her husband and my father, Derek Lawford. They married in 1956. My mother would maintain that it had always seemed to disappoint her father that his daughter preferred to marry and create a family of her own, over pursuit of a career in music publishing. In fact, Max’s second marriage would lead to this opportunity being withheld indefinitely, and a distance engineered between them that would have lasting consequences for her.

With two young children, the family spent several years living in Sittingbourne, Kent, before returning to North West London, where my father established a successful business. But my mother was never destined to be just a housewife – throughout her life she always pursued a vast array of hobbies and interests:

  • Evening classes in languages, art/history, pottery and other creative skills, and carpentry (the garden shed/workshop with its workbench, heavy-duty tools and stacks of miscellaneous woods and veneers was always her domain)
  • Courses at the City Lit (City Literary Institute)
  • Over six years, she worked dilligently for, and achieved, a BA degree through the Open University
  • She drew up her own family tree with pen and paper, long before these could be done on-line – her interest in family history would be an enduring theme of her life
  • She was a passionate collector and, having inherited her father’s love of music stamps, set about amassing a comprehensive collection, from which she would regularly exhibit. She has also at times collected, amongst other things, antique visiting card cases, musical postcards, art nouveau prints and dolls in national dress from all over the world
  • She learned languages – speaking German fluently, but also French, Spanish, Italian and even a little Russian
  • She was a passionate correspondent, always writing to and receiving letters from people all over the world – all this in the days before email and social media
  • Latterly, she enjoyed many activities with the U3A, though for years she pronounced herself not old enough yet to join them. Once persuaded, she immediately felt at home in this network of active, intellectually engaged friends and acquaintances. She very much enjoyed giving talks on music history, and leading a German Conversation group which met at her house on alternate Tuesdays.

Back in the late 1960’s, her interest in stamps spawned an even greater passion – the Philatelic Music Circle. Along with a friend, she founded this organisation dedicated to the interests of people who collected stamps around the theme of music. Fuelled by their enthusiasm, ‘The PMC’ became the largest thematic stamp club in the world, with its quarterly magazine (edited by her) and annual convention. It remained active for upward of 30 years, with my mother at the helm.

She had always been a confident traveller and her PMC connections gave her a wonderful excuse to visit other countries, knowing there were people everywhere with whom she could connect. Her love of travel would underpin her later years and she toured places as far afield as Peru, China and Russia, as well as the USA and Canada, the Caribbean and just about every country in Europe.

My father died in 1988 after a long illness, through which my mother had nursed him at home. At around that time then, her life was undergoing dramatic change.  Also undergoing dramatic change was the landscape of Europe, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War and the separation of East/West. My mother was to use this opportunity to make her first ever visit to the city of her birth, Leipzig, which had up until then, as part of what was East Germany, been behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.  And it was here that she discovered what would become her mission for the next 25 years of her life.

She found a city that had largely lost a sense of its Jewish cultural heritage, with what knowledge there was, buried, quite literally, in basements.  She realised her own grandfather’s family, his achievements both commercial and philanthropic, had been erased from history during the Nazi era, and not in any meaningful way rediscovered throughout the Cold War years. She found a depleted Leipzig C.F. Peters office unsure of its heritage.  She set about reviving the history, re-establishing the heritage and ensuring that her grandfather, Henri Hinrichsen, and his family, received due recognition for their contribution to Leipzig society.

My mother visited Leipzig several times a year thereafter, researching, canvassing for support, assisting anyone and everyone who showed an interest in reviving the city’s Jewish cultural heritage. At the Music Instrument Museum, she discovered the plaque naming a room in the museum after her grandfather, in a basement – it was soon to be reinstated. She spearheaded the setting up of a memorial stone to the family in the Südfriedhof cemetery – and many, many more notable achievements. And on every visit, she would give interviews to whoever requested, and talks to the students at the Henriette-Goldschmidt Schule, on the history of their city and the Holocaust, as it impacted the Hinrichsen family.

As a result of her visits to Leipzig and her growing involvement with her family heritage, she began researching and subsequently wrote two books; the first a detailed history of C.F. Peters over 200 years, and the second, tracing her Jewish heritage back a full 500 years, an account of the family’s migration from Spain and Portugal in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, through Germany and onward across the world.

 

She was a keen speaker, giving her talks to whoever would invite her – Jewish societies, clubs, music societies including the Grieg Society, the U3A and more – on her books and their topics, and on many aspects of music appreciation and music history. Writing, recording history accurately, documenting and educating remained her collective mission right to the end of her life.

My mother always enjoyed travelling. She had a passion for new places and experiences. Her trips always involved expanding her mind; exploring history, architecture, art or music, learning Pilates, cookery, yoga, writing, and more and her year would always be one filled to the brim with adventures, education and experiences.

Apparently undaunted by the trauma of cancer, when it impacted, she began planning her autobiography and set about instructing my brother and I on the changes she wanted to make to her garden, ideas she had for home reorganisation, redecoration and future travel plans.

She celebrated her 82nd birthday in early April and was thrilled that we had managed to organise a small party for her in secret. Though bed-bound by then, she enjoyed the sociable afternoon chatting with her guests. We were blessed with a beautiful day, sunny and warm, and her new downstairs bedroom overlooked the garden, where guests could come and go from her bedside. After they left, she pronounced it her ‘best birthday ever’.

My independent, strong, kind, generous mother, passionate about music and her heritage, and with a deep enduring love for her family, died peacefully, just three weeks later.

Note: Anyone interested in my mother’s books can find them via Amazon here. If you have a passion for classical music or an interest in Jewish or European history, I commend them to you.