We had a complicated relationship but she was also a unique and fascinating character.
The mourners gathered to the sound of gunshots, a local hunt blasting birds out of the sky. It seemed both apt and not apt – you could never tell with such a colourful, contradictory character as my mother, Ann Cochrane. On the one hand this was the ways of the countryside, perfectly trolling the gathered appalled urbanites, on the other hand senseless slaughter was not her thing and she banned her children from playing with toy guns.
What could be agreed on was that it was a calm bright day, with horses grazing peacefully in a nearby field. The ancient church is beautifully situated at the foot of Tatterstone Clee Hill, deep in south Shropshire countryside and folklore. Both my parents have got themselves buried in forgotten churches that are listed as endangered, on the margins of a religion in decline. Naturally, it’s our family way.
My mother led an unusual and interesting life but the funeral service determined the first thing to say. The officiating minister warned me my mother had insisted on a funeral based on the Book of Common Prayer. The language can be severe, he said with a hint of dismay and admiration. He hadn’t conducted such a funeral for over forty years. I wasn’t sure whether he was looking forward to it or dreading it.
I was not surprised. This was a woman given to frequent declarations on the decline of etiquette such as modern women not knowing know how to wear hats. When her granddaughters marvelled at the skills of snowboarding she airily dismissed it as an “excuse for badly-behaved youths”. Naturally she was on the side of the skiers.
Once, when my brother had the idiocy to say he had been horse-riding last weekend he was greeted with a soul-chilling glare. “It’s riding James, the horse is presumed”. Of course it is in her fast disappearing world; that world when more was allowed than you would think so long as it was discreet and didn’t frighten the horses.
She was a woman with a love of travel and adventure. She grew up in rural Dorset but left for London at a young age to become a nurse. Aged twenty, she left London and drove with her boyfriend to Hong Kong. This would have been an extraordinary adventure travelling through countries like Turkey, Pakistan, India and Nepal in the early 1960s.
When they were travelling through the Turkish desert, my mother was shot by an Arab brigand on a horse. As she ducked, the bullet grazed her wrist and nearly hit her head. The thought on my mother’s mind was not please don’t let me die, but how impressive the Arab looked, dramatically swathed in a keffiyeh and riding a beautiful white horse. Incidentally, if you’re ever being shot at by someone on horseback the trick they used was to drive straight at the horse, causing it to rear and throw off the rider.
In Hong Kong my mother did some modelling and enjoyed the Hong Kong party scene. At one point she hung out with Peter O’Toole and ended up being an extra in the film, Lord Jim.
Then there was the time she travelled to Poland many times during the communist era. At one point, the Polish secret services became suspicious of her activities. When she was next sailing to Poland, a regime agent drugged her and planted some Solidarity movement papers in her cabin. Luckily, her Polish friends knew what was happening and whisked the incriminating papers away before the ship docked in Poland.
It was quite exasperating that I could return from distant lands and her stories would inevitably outshine mine.
She was an incredibly resourceful woman, with many skills in cooking, patchwork, upholstery and organising events. She could persuade her way into anything. Security zones were no barrier – she could bamboozle her way past some poor young junior policeman who didn’t stand a chance. But it wasn’t just the low-ranked officers. There was a senior superintendent who used to make his daily patrols on a horse that was naturally befriended by my mother. It got to the point when the horse refused to move until the nice lady from No. 22 gave him his treat. The superintendent may have had important duties to carry out, but when my mother found his patrol took him past one of her friend’s houses, he found himself delivering messages on her behalf. I sometimes wonder whether my brother joined the police to atone for the suffering caused by my mother.
We used to live just round the corner from the Royal Mews where the Queen keeps her horses and carriages. My mother charmed all the staff until we could wander in and out at will. My side of the family never had money but my mother did have ideas and nerve. One year, slightly riled by having to attend one too many children birthday parties thrown with big budgets, my mother hatched an audacious plan for my birthday party. She somehow borrowed one of the Queen’s coaches, a couple of horses and a groom, took them to Hyde Park and gave all the children rides.
Perhaps her greatest triumph was when my family travelled through Chile when I was six months old. My father announced to my mother that their travels preparations must include approaching Chile from the south in the footsteps of Admiral Thomas Cochrane. (My father always insisted on setting out for his travels by walking to Victoria Station while his luggage was delivered via taxi. No-one has any idea why.) It ought to have been impossible but she managed it. The family legend states that a Chilean naval frigate was somehow pressganged into picking us, sailing round Cape Horn and depositing us in Chile in a manner that suited, and no doubt pleased, my father.
Her nerve and organising skills extended to charitable work such as raising money selling red poppies for the Royal British Legion. She earned her spurs fundraising in areas of old Soho that few other fundraisers ventured: strip clubs, sex shops and seedy bars. Her attitude was that sex workers would be just as happy to donate as anyone else. She was right.
She was a great host and always loved a social occasion, whether it was visiting the Cockney families she nursed at Barts, or helping to organise glittering social events. When I was a teenager, growing up in central London, she was always hospitable to my friends, plying them with food, drink and a bed. Sometimes there were rows of people sleeping on the sitting room floor.
In the early 90s she moved to the hills and south Shropshire with her second husband. For this doyenne of London socialising, it was a return to her rural roots, to an other-worldly atmospheric England, like her a little adrift and bemused by the modern world.
My mother was a wind-up merchant, although she could leave you spluttering and floundering if her sense of humour disappeared. Family political discussions could often stray into fractious waters. I was consistently liberal while my mother could channel Jeremy Corbyn and Enoch Powell within one sentence, half the time it seemed to wind us up.
Once, she announced that we were going out for dinner with the neighbours. Marvellous, I said, happy as always to socialise. What she didn’t tell me was that it was a fundraising event for the local Conservative Party. Furthermore, she waltzed in leaving me to pay my entrance fee so she effectively tricked me into giving money to the Tories. I must have been promised as a special exotic guest because I was handed a drink and promptly surrounded by friendly, courteous men in red trousers interrogating me about the Scottish Question.
In later years my mother’s horizons shrunk as her health began to fail. She lost touch with many of her old friends, perhaps pride kept them away. She didn’t want them to see her in decline. The doctors frequently announced she only had a short time to live. Every time she won the battle with death and the doctors, she ordered her milliner to make a new hat for her collection. Inevitably she lost her final battle, as we all must do.
It’s interesting to think about how our parents shape us – both good and bad, and what they give us. If I was to list those good things it would be appreciating good food from around the world, socialising, a love of cricket, a style of travel, trying things out, manners and etiquette, culture, history and reading.
The lives of both my parents wildly oscillated between disaster and triumph – a drunken lurch between palace and dosshouse. The stories crowd and jostle, clamouring to be told, maybe one day they will all have their moment, when their emotional resonance has less punch.
She drove us mad. We had our up and downs. It was a complicated relationship. She could be exasperating, imperious, generous, funny, clever, knowledgeable, prickly. But she was a unique and fascinating character. She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a friend.
May she rest in peace, in the presence of horses.
A republican son, a royalist mother and a royal wedding – “Gold, Alex, pissingly funny Gold!!!” says James (who might be related.)
This article is based on my eulogy at my mother’s funeral in mid-January, 2020.