A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Friday, April 30, 2021

In memory of my mum

 A few words about my mum, Nan Akehurst (nee Davies), who passed away suddenly today.


Mum was quite a character. She was fun, caring, thoughtful, arty, creative, wacky, and could be incredibly stubborn, illogical (she said logic came from maths, and she hated maths), and hot-tempered.


She was a baby boomer, whose mum and dad had put off starting a family for five years because they were busy doing their bit in WW2 as a casualty clearing station nurse and a Lance Bombardier in the 11th Survey Regiment. Back in civilian life her dad, George, returned to his teaching career, while her mum, Molly, cared for the family. Baby Nan was born in Northfleet, Kent, in June 1946. She owed her unusual first name to Scottish ancestry on her mum’s side, her maternal grandfather William McKenzie was born in Dumbarton but had travelled to Kent to find work and ended up as the Labour Mayor of Gravesend.


Mum’s childhood was marred by a series of painful operations and long stays in Great Ormond Street hospital for reconstructive surgery because she and her brother were born with a rare genetic anomaly that meant they only had one ear, and this obviously meant in later life her hearing was affected. Tragically her younger brother Billy died in a road accident when he was 11 and mum was 13. She became a rebellious teenager – school reports she kept cannot have been comfortable reading for her parents, nowadays we would say she had PTSD. Her dad’s promotions in his teaching career saw the family move first to Coventry, where my mum liked her short time at the gleaming new Whitley Abbey Comprehensive School, where her dad was a housemaster, and remembered crossing acres of still bombed out streets to get there (this would have been around 1957). Her dad’s promotion to be a secondary head teacher saw the family move back to Kent and settle in Canterbury. Mum didn’t enjoy her new school, Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar, and the loss of her brother a year later clearly had a big effect on her for a long time. She only really opened up to me about how traumatic it was a few years ago.


Mum left the Langton after a rather mixed bag of O Levels and spent a couple of years at Canterbury College of Art. It sounds like incredibly good fun, and she kept in touch for decades afterwards with her favourite teachers, but there were no jobs at the end of it. A highlight was that she designed a tie for Mick Jagger which she says he wore on stage.


After art college there was a brief period living away from home in Kingston-upon-Thames and commuting into a very dull civil service job in a tax office near The Strand.


London life didn’t appeal so mum ended up back in Canterbury and eventually found a role that really suited her as a fashion buyer in the boutique section – the clothes for younger women – at Martin’s, the main women’s wear shop in town. She also worked at Riceman's and Lenleys, department stores that were features of Canterbury shopping. The fashion job was in the late ‘60s.


1960s mum was described by her younger cousins to me today as “cool and groovy”.


By this time my mum had developed a very clear set of ideas about what she liked and what she didn’t like. She liked the Stones and despised the Beatles. She liked to be stylish, and this was achieved whether through careful saving for certain key outfits, or an incredible eye for bargains at sales and jumble sales. She liked music in a minor key and with soul to it – Motown, Ella Fitzgerald, Georgie Fame, blues, heavy Russian classical composers like Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. She liked equally soulful art: Van Gogh (who she identified with because of his missing ear), Hieronymous Bosch (thanks for the nightmares when you showed me his pictures of hell as little kid mum!), Fra Filippo Lippi. This meant on a later trip to Italy when we took her to Florence we got stuck for nearly an hour analysing one picture in the Uffizi. She liked cooking and eating spectacular meals, often waking at the crack of dawn to start preparing them, with a range from traditional roasts to French style sauces and often a choice of several hand made deserts. The Christmas parties she hosted were legendary. The final year of her life seemed to involve a lot of confit de canard. To go with the food, she liked wine – it had to be red, or if white, of a dryness akin to gargling pebbles. No fruit flavours were allowed to get in the way. Gin was also on the list of household essentials. She liked interior decoration, the house seemed to get a makeover several times a decade. She loved to read, particularly historical novels.


She did not like TV (until relatively recently – she didn’t allow one in the house until the late ‘80s), or sport, or technology, pizza, or pasta.


At the start of the 1970s she met my dad, Tony Akehurst, at the Bridge Country Club at a jazz gig, mum was working behind the bar there. They were together for the rest of her life, marrying in 1971. They would have had their 50th wedding anniversary this October. Dad was 8 years older than mum, and a farm boy from Barham in East Kent. I think he was blown away by mum’s sophisticated and fiery persona, and he provided the perfect foil for her – calm, laid back, practical. They made a brilliant team as parents to me (born 1972) and my younger siblings Sam (1974) and Ella (1976) and their loyalty and affection for each other and us has been just incredible.


Financially the 1970s were very tough for mum and dad, with mum at home with three little kids and dad in not very well-paid jobs, particularly after he returned to the family farm. They lived with my grandparents until I was two, and then in a draughty 1919 bungalow built of asbestos near the farm. This was a mile or more to the nearest bus stop, quite a hike with three children, so my mum felt very isolated.


Things looked up in 1979, though money was still short, when they were allocated a housing association house on a new estate in Chartham, a large village just outside Canterbury. Mum was delighted to be somewhere where there were people rather than just fields, and became a fixture of the village community for the rest of her life, later moving to the first and only house they bought, Swanhaven, in the heart of the village.


Mum was the Chartham village columnist for the Kentish Gazette for decades, paid 7p a line to report everything down to who got 3rd place for potatoes at the cottage gardeners’ society exhibition. She played a leading role in the Friends of Chartham Primary School, helping organise a succession of Christmas and summer fetes. She ran summer holiday play sessions for local kids, sometimes in liaison with the librarians from Canterbury children’s library. Whilst not as involved in political life as me or her grandparents, she was a member of the Labour Party from about 1980 onwards, standing once for the parish council (she didn’t enjoy being a candidate) and for many years leafletting the entire village at election times. Her politics were ferociously left-wing – she was burning with anger about her own experience of coping on Family Credit top-ups in the Thatcher years, but also about poverty, injustice and racism wherever she saw it.


Mum’s biggest contribution to village life was to be part of the upbringing not just of her own three children but of two entire generations of Chartham children. This started with helping organise the Chartham Preschool Playgroup, in the days before areas like that had any LEA provided nursery provision. This eventually folded into a proper nursery class at the local primary school, and my mum worked as a classroom assistant from the 1990s until well into her 70s. She was adored by small children and loved working with them. She stayed at the school so long that eventually children she had looked after in the 1990s came back as parents with their own children twenty years later. She spread happiness and love to hundreds of children.


Mum was delighted to become a mother-in-law to my wife Linda and Sam’s wife Catherine. She welcomed them into her family and hosted some of the most glorious, deliciously catered and wine saturated dinners you can imagine. She was even more delighted when over the last 15 years, between her three children a total of five grandsons joined the tribe.


She adored them all and loved spending time with them, and they with her. She particularly played a crucial role in the upbringing of my sister’s son Casper. My sister and her son have been living with my mum and dad as my sister has a number of health problems, and mum has sacrificed more than we will ever know to provide them with care, support and love.


Mum was a loyal friend to dozens of people. She would handwrite letters – definitely not emails, which she refused to engage with – in her extremely distinctive italicised handwriting (a graphologist would have had a field day) to contacts she had kept since school and art college days. Her art college friend Denise, who she adored, would come to stay. Every minutiae of people’s lives in the village and beyond appeared to be a matter of passionate concern. If you were alone, bereaved or having a bad time, there was a place at the dinner table. No matter her own family stresses and tribulations, and there were many, she was always there for other people.


My mum wasn’t a person who found consolation in any faith, but she lived her life by very firm values about serving and caring for others, friendship, selflessness and love.


She hated the idea of getting old, and never conceded an inch to the aging process. In going suddenly, we’ve missed a couple of decades we thought we had left of her excellent company, but she will be forever remembered as about as youthful a 74 year-old as it is possible to be.


Thank you mum for everything you have done for us. We will always be in debt to you for your love, support and care. We love you and miss you already.

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