Wednesday 23 September 2020

Remembering Phyllis - by Sue Purkiss

 At the weekend, I heard that an old friend, Phyllis Goddard, had died. She was 97. I first knew Phyllis over twenty years ago, when she and I joined a new book group set up by Harry Mottram. Phyllis was the secretary, and in her quiet way, she was formidably well organised and ran the book group like clockwork. I eventually dropped out, and I think some time after so did she - but she made contact again in 2010 when I set up a writing class in Cheddar. In the first year, she wasn't able to come, because the venue wasn't suitable for someone unsteady on her feet, as she then was - but when we moved in 2011, she joined us, and came along until a few years ago when failing mobility and eyesight meant she was no longer comfortable leaving her bungalow.

This is the only picture I have of Phyllis - she's at the front, looking characteristically jolly. It's from seven years ago.

Phyllis was born in London, south of the river, and she wrote often about her childhood - her home, her family, her first job, trips to the seaside. She would chuckle as she related her stories, and we listened, fascinated. She also wrote - very movingly - about her memories of the war and its aftermath, and about her teaching and her move with her husband to Somerset, I think when they retired.

She was always very supportive of everyone else, and very encouraging. She would often say at the end of a session, with an air of great contentment: 'Well, haven't we had a wonderful time! All those marvellous stories!' We missed her very much when she was no longer able to come, but sometimes we went to her, and she was always welcoming and delighted to see us. She insisted that she was perfectly happy, and very fortunate. She was always busy, knitting little teddy bears for friends and for charity, looking back over over her writings - her son, Martin, had some of her work beautifully printed for her -  seeing her family and friends, enjoying her small, beautifully kept garden from the French windows.

When Martin got in touch to tell me that she had died, he said this, which was lovely

'...(When) in recent weeks, Mum's loss of short-term memory made other conversations difficult, Chris (Phyllis's daughter) hit upon the idea of reading extracts from Mum's 'life story' as memory-jogging starting-points. For the most part they were not directly related to your classes, but you were certainly responsible for encouraging Mum to take up her pen. You might like to know that, towards the end when her sight was poor and COVID restrictions ruled out most other distractions, hearing what she had written was one of the very last things she was able to enjoy.'

And I think that's the message I want to pass on: for Phyllis, writing was something she came to love, an end in itself: a great pleasure, and a way of revisiting a long life, well-lived. She didn't aspire to publication - though I did produce an anthology of the class's writing and some of her stories appeared in that. Here is one of them. I remember when she first read it out. We sat and listened, hushed, as she took us to London in 1940, when a young girl hurried home across a scarlet Thames as London burned in the Blitz...

A Day To Remember 

Sunday the 7th September, 1940. The day had begun well. I was up early in order to catch the coach from Liverpool Street Station to Bedford, and I was really looking forward to meeting up with my soldier fiancé, who was stationed there.

            The day went quickly, and we had to run in order for me to catch the six o’clock coach that would take me back to London.

            Two hours later I was hurrying down into the underground station. As usual, the platforms were crowded with families seeking shelter from the air raids. Wide white lines were painted along the edges of the platforms to indicate where passengers were to walk when bedding was being used. My train came in quickly. I glanced at my watch. In about an hour, I thought, I would be home and it might still be light.

            I was very surprised when at the Bank Station we were all ordered off the train. The reason given was that during air raids, trains do not run under the Thames. I wasn’t particularly worried. I knew London well. There were always buses and trains that went my way. I continued along to the exit with the other passengers.

            But imagine my surprise and horror when, as I left the station, a blast of hot air nearly blew me off my feet.

            I grabbed the arm of the man walking next to me. Folk around were shouting and helping each other to stay on their feet. The man and I clung to each other, finding it hard to breathe with the hot wind blowing in our faces.

            “Are you going across the bridge, too?” he shouted. How glad I was that I could yell back “Yes”, knowing I would have him with me.

            In a few minutes we reached the approach to London Bridge and couldn’t believe our eyes. To the left of us everything appeared to be a seething, heaving mass of red and gold. Flames leapt up and out of wharves and buildings, and the Thames looked like a river of blood. The only sounds to be heard were the loud ‘plops’ as the fronts of buildings fell into the river, sending up sky-high fountains of water, coloured crimson by the reflection from the flames. The heat and wind together were almost unbearable.

            We made it to the other side of the bridge, the man and the eighteen year old girl – clinging to each other for support.

            We hardly spoke. I never asked his name or he mine. We stopped to get our breath back and he asked where I was heading for. He wanted to get to the Elephant and Castle and I, to Stockwell. I still hoped a tram or a bus would come along. We stayed together until the road junction, and said goodbye. He wished me luck, and I walked on alone.

Phyllis Goddard

So long, Phyllis. It was a privilege to know you.


BW said...

What a stunning story. Thanks for posting it. Phyllis sounds wonderful.

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Sue.

Penny Dolan said...

Wonderful post and reminder that the pleasure of writing is in the making as much as in any publication.

Such an intense memory of that time. RIP Phyllis.

Keith Herring said...

Keith Herring

Phyllis was a well-known person in Cheddar. The more of her written work that can be retained the better because she seems to have used her interest and talent throughout her very long life.

Susan Price said...

What a wonderful post, Sue! -- And what an incredible account Phyllis gave. Do her daughter and son know about the Mass Observation Archive? -- It collects first-hand accounts, so they'll be available to historians in the future, and they might well be interested in Phyllis' book.

nikki copleston said...

What a lovely tribute to a marvellous woman, if your description of her is anything to go by! What a privilege for you to have known her.

Joan Haig said...

Beautiful tribute.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone, and thanks for the suggestion about the Mass Observation Archive, Sue - have passed it on.

LuWrites said...

Only just seen this but the most moving post, Sue - so glad you shared. x