Thursday, 18 April 2013

A Wedding, Two Funerals And A Box Of Brite-Lites

Yesterday morning I awoke in the best way: slowly from a deep reverie, mist dispersed in the mild air wafting in through the window…and then a niggling feeling overtook me: something important had been overlooked.  Of course, the loft needed clearing quickly in readiness for the laying of insulation (my timing’s atrocious, I know).

I stacked up the half dozen or so boxes on my son’s bed, and with the men due any time, I couldn’t resist a quick peek inside. The first thing I pulled out was a sheaf of newspapers from January 1965 reporting Winston Churchill’s death and detailing plans for his funeral. The synchronicity delighted me, but the thought of getting through the day till the children’s bedtime when I could enjoy my box of delights was a torment…

Meanwhile, there was the funeral of another former prime minister to attend. Some of the event’s absurd details stuck in my mind as much as the pomp and ceremony: Samantha Cameron’s distracting pussybow, the endless background chatter, Prince Phillip…and still wallowing in my own loss, I felt a pang of resentment that my own mother hadn’t been accorded full military honours, a troop of jet black horses, the closure of roads and commentary by David Dimbleby.

The children slept in the afternoon, prolonging the day by another hour or so and increasing my impatience, but finally the house fell quiet and I dug further into the dusty boxes so hastily retrieved that morning. The Evening News and Star from 26 January 1965 described the rehearsal for Churchill’s funeral:

A bass drum shrouded in black sounded through empty London streets to-day as soldiers, sailors and airmen prepared for the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.

‘Step by step the drum beat out the pace of the 140-strong Royal Navy crew and the escort of Guardsmen and RAF men as they moved out of Parliament Square up to Whitehall, through Trafalgar Square to the Strand, and on to St. Paul’s in a practice procession.

‘With the gun team was the black gun carriage—last used for the State funeral of Queen Mary—which will bear the body of Sir Winston on Saturday.

‘Streets were closed and police diverted traffic.

‘The only witnesses were cleaners in offices along the route and handfuls of early morning workers.

‘Officers with stop watches timed each movement’.

The next day’s Evening Standard reported that four thousand people an hour were filing past Churchill’s coffin in Westminster Hall, and at one time the queue was more than a mile long.

A number of women and a few men wiped away a tear as they gazed upon the coffin, illuminated by arc lights. One policeman standing on duty held a small spray of flowers behind his back. It had been left there by a passing mourner.

‘Mr. Arthur Jones, a carpet maker, travelled overnight from his home in Southport. He was a gunner in the Eighth Army and remembers Sir Winston visiting the troops in the Western Desert. “I wanted to pay my last respects to the old warrior,” he said.’

Not everyone was in mourning. The Evening Standard reported that the parish council of Selston in Nottinghamshire had decided not to pay tribute to the late leader:

Mr. D. Flynn suggested there should be a tribute, Mr. J. T. Simons replied: “I considered him public enemy No. 1 to the miners. He was the deadliest enemy the miners ever had.” Commented Mr. R. Timms: “Not just of miners, but all working people in the country.”’

Anne Scargill, former wife of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, commented on Margaret Thatcher’s death: ‘She called us the enemy within. There were only one enemy within, and that was her’. Plus ça change

Newspapers and magazines with reports of other events my mother considered important were uncovered – most of the royal weddings from the latter half of the twentieth century and the mission to the moon in July 1969:

The spacecraft had touched down on the moon at exactly 9.18 last night. Armstrong called the earth: “The Eagle has landed”. First reports to Mission Control in Houston said it was a perfect landing.

‘Armstrong, the mission commander, said:
“We are in a crater the size of a football pitch. It looks beautiful from here…the Sea of Tranquility base”.

Then Aldrin came through with a report of what they saw on the moon as they looked from the spacecraft’s windows: “It looks like a collection of every variety of shape, angularity, granularity…a collection of just about every kind of rock.

Armstrong said he could see a hill about a mile ahead…“and literally thousands of little craters”.

A large cardboard box, carefully stencilled with my grandparents’ former address in New Eltham, South London, was to be opened next. It was stuffed full of Christmas decorations dating at least from the 194os and beyond that I remember from my childhood (the decorations already vintage then!)— crêpe paper streamers, Chinese lanterns, fraying tinsel, a box of Brite-Lite fairy lights…but it was the combined smell of ageing paper and plastic that really took me back to Christmasses spent at my grandparents’ house in Kent.
Then the multiple copies of The Times and The Daily Telegraph from 3 December 1968. These proved a mystery at first. Which world event had made my mother pack so many copies away so carefully? The first few pages reported Banks attack squeeze on private loans, Half-crowns phase-out next year, a fugitive gang spotted on Watford High Street in a gold-coloured Ford Zodiac. Of course, the announcements pages solved the mystery:

‘Forthcoming Marriages
‘Major R. A. Oram and Miss P. S. M. Roberts
‘The engagement is announced between Ronald Ashwood Oram , of Farnborough, Kent, elder son of  Mrs. A. G. Oram and the late Alfred G. Oram of Edgbaston, Birmingham, and Patricia, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W. Roberts of Foots Cray, Kent’
My parents were married 23 days later, the horsedrawn carriage trotting along the frost-covered lane, I imagine, and hope, bringing a sense of optimism and joy to my half-brothers and sister who had lost their own mother a few years previously.

‘The power of trivia is not to be dismissed,’ remarked a friend on hearing of my finds. As thrilled as I was to happen upon the Churchill reports on the day of the Thatcher funeral, it’s the personal mementoes that anyone would cherish most. And it’s true, they are powerful and life-affirming, buffering the vacuum of grief and re-colouring memories. They were held in loved-ones’ hands, thus their energy must be passed on; they symbolise life, hope and laughter and everything in-between.


  1. I remember both Churchill's funeral and the moon landing! At boarding school, we were allowed to watch the funeral barge on the Thames, with the cranes being dipped along the way... and in my first year of teaching, we watched hazy looking spacemen leaping across the lunar landscape. All in black and white! Perhaps it's only later you come to realise these are historical landmarks. Personal events are better remembered.

  2. Wonderful, Penny...thanks for sharing your memories! Yes, personal events stick in the mind more...and are just as significant as the world-changing ones.