I was recently asked to write a piece about women who have inspired me over the years. I thought long and hard about it. Some stand-out familiar names sprang to mind: Katherine Grainger, the greatest living British oarswoman; Angela Merkel; Meryl Streep and so on.
However, I came to the conclusion that it is ordinary women who are the most inspirational to me: those who work hard, sometimes against the odds, and succeed quietly. One of my greatest inspirations has been my mother-in-law, Vera Steele. She read medicine at Glasgow University immediately after the Second World War, living in digs in a city still reeling from bombing raids and wartimes losses. She recalled recently cycling around the back streets of the city with a fellow doctor, heading into rough areas to visit women who had either just had or were about to have a baby. She talked about it in such a matter-of-fact manner but it seems to me to have been a courageous thing to have done, at a time when women doctors were not as numerous as they are today and Glasgow was a dangerous place in many ways. She married a GP in 1952 and was obliged to give up working. There was no such thing as maternity leave in those days. She made the decision, she told me years later, that there was not room in a marriage for two careers and a family. After her three children were born she went back to work part-time in a Psychiatric department. She succeeded in combining all aspects of her life and to do so apparently effortlessly. When I met her in 1980 she was the same age as I am now, 54, and she had a calm about her which I have always found admirable. She mustered her unruly brood with affectionate firmness, she cooked for as many as turned up to her table and was well-loved and respected by her colleagues at work. Now, aged nearly 90, she is frail but her mind is sharp and she is interested in everything her family is up to. A thoroughly inspirational woman.
Another woman I have looked up to all my life is a German friend called Atti. She was 52 when I first went to live in Munich in 1978. She took me under her wing and helped me to learn everything I could about her wonderful country. ‘Until you understand our culture – our music, literature and art – you will never truly be able to speak good German,’ she said to me. I took that to heart and over the two years I lived there I absorbed as much of German culture as I possibly could. She was always generous with her time and took me to exhibitions, on sight-seeing tours, to concerts and even, on one memorable occasion, to Oberammergau to see the Passion Play. This is put on every decade and tells the story of Christ’s passion. It was a truly memorable occasion. That alone is not enough, however. What Atti brought to all these moments was her zest for life, her absolute passion for everything she did and saw. She made me look, see, listen, in a way that no one had ever done before and I know that she helped to shape the person I am today. She had grown up in Berlin under the Third Reich. Her brothers both fought on the Eastern Front, her older brother being a prisoner of the Russians until 1949, and she was unafraid to talk about the war and the impact it had on their lives. That was something new. The war was still close in people’s minds to be a difficult subject but the description of her experiences had a deep impact on me. It is something I would like to write about in the future. When we last mooted it UK publishers were still too squeamish to accept the good German story but that was 10 years ago so perhaps things are changing.
The third woman who I would say was an inspiration is a woman I never met. Her name was Edith Jones and she was the tenant farmer’s wife in Shropshire whose diaries form the golden thread through Jambusters. Edith recorded life at Red House Farm on the Long Mynd in brief but delightful detail. I learned, over the course of the years 1932-1947, that she had an outside ‘double-seater’ privy, that she washed her clothes in ‘sweet’ water, gathered in rain butts and that she was passionate about her chickens and her vegetable garden. She experimented with haybox cookery in 1938, cooking ham, beetroot and stews with considerable success and was very proud of her Victoria sponge cakes which regularly won prizes at WI competitions (she became a member in 1931). I read about her matter-of-fact acceptance, tinged with sadness, when a sickly calf she had looked after day and night for several days did not survive. ‘It was buried by the men’, she wrote, adding ‘poor little thing’. Edith’s everyday life was hard. The Long Mynd was remote in the 1930s. Although only 11 miles or so from Shrewsbury, she was unable to leave the village except with her husband Jack, until one fine day when a bus service started and once a week she would hop on the bus and go into the town to market or the cinema. Yet this woman, who worked long hours all year round, harvesting, bottling, pickling, helping out on the farm and turning her expert hand to mending clothes, prams and anything else that might be broken, still found time to read. To her, education was something so precious that it could not be squandered. She told her great-niece when she was in her 80s in hospital that she was shocked the other patients were not improving their minds by reading books or playing scrabble. Edith Jones, like Vera and Atti, lived her life to the full. She did not win a medal for bravery or receive an honour for service to the community, but she made a difference to the lives of those around her and her tireless energy inspired other younger people to take life by the horns and make of it what they could.