Kathleen (Kath / Kate / Katie)
Lilian Waddell / Coupland
(15 Jun 1916 – 23 May 2008)
I've been engaged in a long-running internal debate about whether to omit this profile altogether, but, if including it, just how much to say, and whether that should be nil nisi bonum, as Brutus recommended, or whether the more difficult sides of her character should be allowed to emerge. How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child, as King Lear remarked, but she took such gratitude as hers by right and over a period of many decades exploited it almost beyond all endurance. If there is a state of existence approximating to Heaven, and if one were to make the cut, I'm not at all sure that I could cope with a further infinity of time in similar circumstances.
But on the whole I incline to the belief that dead is dead, and that further developments will eventuate only after the end of time, in the twinkling of an eye as St Paul expressed it, and we shall all be changed – with the distinct possibility of a new production, with an almost entirely new cast and new script, so such embarrassing entrapments would in all probability not arise!
Just two episodes, mere vignettes really, survive from her childhood, the oft-told second one being that her brother George (two years her senior) took aim at her with their father's service revolver (unwisely left loaded) and pulled the trigger. Fortunately he missed completely and the bullet buried itself into the wall behind. But George was probably demonstrating in a six-year-old sort of way that it was time to end the exasperating dispute they'd evidently been having.
Grandpa Blunt was so horrified by this near-tragedy that he took the revolver to the bridge at Windsor and threw it into the Thames.
The first episode occurred some two years earlier when she was about 2½, but she recounted it during the last 12 months or so before she died. Her father, Ernest (subsequently to become Grandpa Blunt) had been a trooper (cavalryman) in either Palestine or Mesopotamia, busy skewering the Ottoman opposition with his lance or shooting them with the revolver mentioned above. And now the war was over and he'd just returned home. His wife Laura had prepared a celebratory meal in honour of the stocky, deeply suntanned hero, possibly still in uniform, and was lavishing her full attention upon him ...
"But I'd been used to being her favourite," Katie said, "and I didn't know who he was, or why all the fuss was being made about him, so I slid off my chair and under the table and I stayed there refusing to come out until the meal was over."
And this reaction was of course a symbolic prototype of so many subsequent situations in her life. She was supremely self-centred – though egoistic rather than egotistical – regarding everyone else's purpose in life as subservient to her own, and from that single premise all her many misfortunes followed. "Mihi bono?" were her watchwords. But that's just the way some people are – it all depends on how tactfully they channel their egos.
Charles the First, believing in the divine right of monarchs, himself in particular, tried to run everything his own way, but it all ended badly for him. Hitler's singleness of purpose likewise led him to disaster – indeed, on one occasion, a much younger member of the family, on being bossed around, retorted "Just because you have a moustache doesn't mean you can behave like Hitler!" but fortunately she saw the funny side of his remark, and it passed off peacefully.
Letters from Weybridge
A wise and kindly letter from Hannah Waddell, William's mother, welcoming Katie as her future daughter-in-law. Instantly recognisable, her handwriting was elegant but unfussy, with flowing curves but short sharp downstrokes.
And a typically brisk matter-of-fact effort from Robert Waddell, with sharp jagged angles, and impatient phraseology. He'd been about to identify the boom as his adversary, and the downstroke of the "b" can be seen, before realising that she might well not know what that was, changing it to "sail" at the last moment.
Letters from Pinner
In just a very few short years Grandma was to become prey to the confusion and loss of focus that characterises the condition formerly called Senile (or Pre-Senile) Dementia but now known universally as Alzheimer's [disease], the onset of which was so eloquently and indeed movingly acknowledged by Ronald Reagan in 1994. But there was no sign of that in the lovely letter she wrote Katie just days after I arrived:
Matrons ruled the nursing roost in those days, and visiting was obviously closely controlled – but the suggestion that Wardlaw (William) would be soon be unable to visit is a sign that he was needed back at the armaments factory as the war was still very much in progress.
The letter from Grandpa is pretty obviously in connection with my upcoming christening, or baptism as the purists prefer to say, and that neither Grandma nor he could be present at the ceremony, on account of her illness.
Though Grandma did specify the month, she fudged the day (13 or 15?) and omitted the year – after all, everybody knew that, didn't they? Grandpa, with his experience of the Army and the world of commerce, spelled out the day, the month and year. This is such a help if the letter survives into the far future and provides valuable documentary evidence and cross-reference.
Without being too invidious, let alone politically incorrect, I'd risk a cautious generalisation that women rarely date their personal letters in full, and men do more often than not. How about you, Gentle Reader?
The final letter, postwar, is from Marjorie, Katie's sister, who was by then evidently married to Eric Cornes. They were sharing Brookhurst with Grandpa and Grandma, who had a suite of rooms upstairs.
So there we have it – my reputation for sweetness, affection, vulnerability and good behaviour obviously indicated that I was in touch with my feminine side, but all that was to change drastically over the years to come, just ask my wife.
And the telling phrase "Of course your letter to M[ummy] & D[addy] has been mislaid" strongly suggests that Grandma's growing mental confusion was now openly acknowledged. Grandpa and she were scheduled to pay Katie a visit, and it looks like I'd be going with them.
But what was this holiday that Katie was having? The penny drops at last. It's Feb 1949, I've just become 4 years old and Katie was (or would soon be) in hospital, or nursing home, about to give birth to Simon.
Incidentally, Bell was the gardener. The daily woman did also have a name, but I always called her Who, interpreting the rhetorical question "Who's coming today?" as pure statement of fact!
Comings and Goings
In The Singular Speculation of the House-Agent, chapter 4 of G K Chesterton's almost forgotten literary oddity The Club of Queer Trades, the narrator remarks that to find a middle-aged man who has left the Army at the primitive rank of lieutenant is unusual and not necessarily encouraging.
And the same indeed applies to those below the rank of Major who have acquired their rank through wartime conscription rather than as professional soldiers. Step forward the shade of Captain Cuthbert Peter Court, cited as co-respondent in the divorce proceedings brought against Katie in 1957/58.
On 13 Aug 1938 he boarded ss Mulbera, of the British India Steam Navigation Co, bound from London to Calcutta. Aged just 21, he gave his profession as Engineer, and his home address as The Chalet, High View, Pinner. A little more than a mile from Paines Lane, Pinner. Lombard Street to a China Orange that he and Katie were already in the same social circle.
During the Second World War, in which he served as a lieutenant in 2/17 Dogra Regiment, Indian Army, he was listed as a POW of the Japanese, at Tekong Island, Singapore and Chosen, Korea.
On 14 Apr 1947, he arrived in Liverpool from Bombay on ss Georgic, of Cunard White Star Ltd, giving his profession as Planter (whether of tea or rubber), his status as Married, and his intent to reside in England permanently. And by this time he'd presumably acquired the rank of Captain.
On 1 Jan 1952 he boarded a Pan American aeroplane from New York to Caracas, and the beginning of some new career. I assume he'd taken the usual steamship from England to New York. There was no sign of his wife, however.
On 26 Aug 1957 he arrived in Southampton from New York on Cunard RMS Queen Mary as Cecil Court for a 6 week business visit, giving his profession as Company Director, married, with dual Anglo-Venezuelan citizenship.
On 24 Oct 1957 he returned from Southampton to New York on Cunard RMS Queen Mary as plain Peter Court, with the profession of Engineer, married.
Shortly before he left for Venezuela in late December 1951, Peter Court had paid a short visit to my parents at our house in Stalybridge. I remember clearly that the Christmas decorations were still very much in evidence, and I can still see him, dark-haired and sturdily built, lit by the glow of the drawing room fire, leaning forward to present me with a transparent flexible 12" plastic ruler, which I treasured for years afterwards. Children register that kind of largesse! And I can also remember conversation to the effect that he was leaving England for a new career in South somewhere, Africa or America.
Why should he have made such a visit? Because of course (I now realise) he and Katie were well acquainted from way back in pre-war days, and had kept in touch. It subsequently transpired that they continued to do so, though clandestinely.
Fast-forwarding to the mid-decade, my parents had moved to a very plush apartment in the heart of Knightsbridge, fifty yards from Harrods (these days more like a middle-eastern suq, but at that time very exclusive). My father had received a very substantial inheritance from a reclusive Aunt in Hampstead, and our standard of living had rocketed wildly, if only briefly. As his sister, my Aunt Jane, once acidly remarked, money ran through his hands like water. He proceeded to spend like a drunken sailor on shore-leave, though to be fair he also used some of his new-found affluence to finance a radical new high-technology business venture.
Which was part of the problem. Throughout both her marriages, Katie decried expenditure ('extravagance') on the one hand and frugality ('meanness') on the other, depending entirely on how they affected her personally.
One of William's weaknesses was nightclubs. For somebody of his generation, they represented the summum bonum of fun and frivolity, and of course reckless expense. Quite coincidentally (though how do we know who throws the dice) the occupants of another apartment at the same address were the Martinez family, Señor Martinez being a senior official at the Venezuelan Embassy, where every night was Party Night, and continued into the small hours at any number of convenient West-End night-clubs. William confessed years later that this was what ultimately broke his bank.
And, unsurprisingly, Peter Court was very much persona grata at the Embassy, being a prosperous British businessman based in Caracas. And whether or not Katie had been aware of his imminent business visit to London, it was at the Embassy where her marriage fell apart. Admittedly it had been pretty tense and quarrelsome even before we all moved south from Stalybridge, but without the low lighting, smoochy dancing and non-stop cocktails it might possibly have held together and weathered the squalls.
Aged just twelve, and not even partially acquainted with the facts of life, I became aware of the chemistry between them one evening when Peter visited the apartment one evening when William was out, and after casting aside the News of the World remarked about a juicy rape he'd just been reading about, at which he and Katie chuckled conspiratorially.
I might remark at this point that Isabel, the Martinez' daughter, of about my own age, was a very predatory young miss, and constantly tried to corner me in her parents' bedroom. Perhaps innocent enough at that age, but over a lifetime it's become inescapably true that the determined female of the species is far more rapacious than the male, whether that male is already married or not.
William himself was not unaware of the rapidly developing situation, and engaged a private detective to follow Katie's hithers and thithers, and to take discreet photographs of whom she met and where she met them. Just like a News of the World journalist, really, all very sleazy and furtive (the gumshoe, I mean). And then, at the end of Peter Court's six-week business trip, and return to Caracas, William took all the evidence to Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Runne (or similar) and sued for divorce, citing Court as co-respondent.
One fateful evening during the autumn of 1957 my parents were dressed-up for some formal occasion (at the Venezuelan Embassy, quite possibly), and just as they were leaving the flat Katie turned and asked, "Do I smell of garlic?", to which William gallantly (and probably with perfect correctness) replied that no, not at all, she certainly didn't. And on that bathetic note out they went.
At some point next morning, he pottered through to the rather large kitchen in which everyday meals were eaten, but she did not appear. Nor did she later during the day, and in fact she clearly hadn't returned with him. Long experience had conditioned me to accept any anomalous domestic situation without question, and so I said nothing. This situation continued for (I clearly remember) three weeks.
But at last, one evening, just before bedtime, I went back into the kitchen where he was still sitting, and tentatively enquired where she was. With a dramatic sigh, he pushed his glasses upwards over his brow and said, "Well, it's a long story". This signalled that something painful was in the air, so I immediately said, "Well I'm not really in the mood for long stories", to which he at once replied that neither was he.
This delicate state of elaborate unconcern continued for another week or three, and he then quite suddenly announced that Katie would be having lunch with us (Simon was away at boarding school) the following Sunday and to be sure to look clean and tidy. I'm not sure quite how or whence the courses materialised, but the glacial atmosphere will be familiar to all who have been through this sort of thing. Katie had in fact brought along a newly-rediscovered friend, Joan Baker, a strikingly handsome and very kindly divorcée who bravely burbled on through the gloomy silence, and who was to become a familiar figure in Katie's life over the decades that followed.
This rather perfunctory attempt at normality, or even reconciliation, was repeated once or twice and then petered out, Throughout this entire period, the artificial nonchalance was maintained between all concerned (rather like a congregation of cats that refuse to meet one another's glance), without any outbreak of evident emotion or attempt at verbalisation. Quite extraordinary to look back on, almost sixty years later, but this was after all Britain and those were the rigidly inhibited nineteen fifties.
Simon's return home for Christmas was negotiated on the basis that "Mummy's decided to live somewhere else for a while", but in retrospect it was probably in late February that, as I was waiting in the sitting room for William to take me off to Parents' Evening at school that he decided to confront the situation via the ritual enquiry "I suppose you might have noticed that Mummy and I Haven't Been Very Happy Recently ...?". Well, I'd Not Been Noticing for about five years, but made polite protestations of complete surprise. I actually burst into tears, which was quite out of character, and he ended up by taking me to the Cartoon Cinema at Victoria Station – though ironically I'd rather have gone to Parent's Evening!
In fact, the divorce was provisionally granted (Decree Nisi) on 28 Feb 1958 (which explains the chronology of this story so far) and then finalised (Decree Absolute) three months later on 29 May 1958.
But where had Katie been all this while? She'd taken a rather poky bed-sitter in Beaufort Gardens, just round the corner from Basil Street, but whether that had been planned in advance is hard to guess. It's possible that Peter Court himself had been at the embassy do, as he had been resident in Caracas for a number of years and become persona grata at national functions generally, and so perhaps she had gone off with him that fateful night and moved to Beaufort Gardens IDC. Some time later she moved to larger lodgings in the next street along, Beauchamp Place. And then, shortly afterwards, she relocated to Caracas, but that's another story.
You might well asked what justification I could possibly have for making public my poor mother's stoop to folly? Indeed, I told no-one at school (for divorce was such a taboo word both personally and publicly that I couldn't possibly bring myself to say it anyway). Simon and I never mentioned the situation to one another, whether at the time or ever after. So why put it into the public arena at this late stage? In due course, indeed, much more will emerge.
It's not for sympathy, or even a catharsis – but simply an illustration of family dynamics in that emotionally illiterate era. And internalising these events caused both Simon and myself to become almost pathologically reserved, both in the expression of feeling and (I suspect) in the very capacity for emotion itself; it took a long long time for either of us to loosen up. These days of course, the popular pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme of emotional incontinence both in private and in public!
There is another benefit, for me anyway. Wordsworth apparently said that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity (and I'm not remotely qualified to contest that). Many of my own recollections, on the other hand, have for a very long time been concealed behind a grey fog of repressed emotion connected with painful events – but the act of teasing forth tiny fragments and then reconstructing a more complete memory by assembling them, is deeply satisfying – rather like solving a jigsaw or a cryptic crossword. And that's one of the rewards of a project such as this website.
In early 1958, shortly after I turned thirteen, Katie remarked to me, in an elaborately casual way, that she was thinking of taking a holiday, and that she thought South America would be a rather interesting and economical place to go – indeed, she'd heard that Venezuela was particularly good value for money. Furthermore, 'Auntie Joan' (Joan Baker) was apparently keen to accompany her on this journey of a lifetime.
Walls have ears, of course, and over the past few months I'd heard William and his great friend and worldly-wise confidante Daphne Kendall discussing the seamy underside of what had transpired with Peter Court, and so I wasn't at all surprised at Katie's sudden yearning for strange shores, indigo skies and the rich aroma of Havana cigars.
In the event, she set off in about March and returned in late October, so was away for about eight months, and would have been away for far longer had things worked out as she had confidently expected. I have only two fixes for dates and places – one a letter I wrote to her dated Jun/Jul 1959 and the other a passenger manifest for the arrival of herself and Joan, from Puerto Limón, Costa Rica to New Orleans, USA in a German cargo vessel MV Marburg on 11 Oct 1959, on their way home to England.
Unfortunately, this otherwise excellent map doesn't show Puerto Limón explicitly, but it's almost half-way up the Eastern (Caribbean) coast of Costa Rica.
My own theory is, partly, that she had planned the trip to be a surprise for Peter Court, and so had to travel economically as a paying passenger on a cargo boat rather than asking him to defray the cost of airline tickets. And full marks to her and Joan's spirit of adventure.
The other part of the theory is that MV Marburg's regular itinerary was from Hamburg to the Caribbean, stopping-off at Caracas (an economic power-house in those heady days) and Puerto Limón (to pick up a consignment of bananas – this wouldn't surprise any O.Henry enthusiasts), and then heading to New Orleans (the biggest US port on the Gulf of Mexico), and finally out into the Atlantic to join the Gulf Stream back to Europe.
And what Katie and Joan might not have appreciated in advance was that the peak of the North Atlantic hurricane season is from mid-August to late October. And MV Marburg headed out on the return journey just in time to catch Hurricane Judith, which didn't dissipate for ten days (21 Oct 1959). Even Katie admitted that she'd been scared rigid.
What was far worse, in the long run, was that the trip to Caracas had been in vain. The incorrigible Captain Court had either been reconciled with his long-suffering wife or had taken another floozie to his bosom, but one way or another Katie was off his menu. She had made good use of her six-month visa, and enjoyed the buzz, but arrived back in venomous mood, locked and loaded.
As you will recollect, this phrase originates from King Lear: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"
A balanced account of Katie's effect on those around her, subsequent to the divorce, will be a long and tortuous quest and there's no particular reason why you should want to engage upon it, unless you are one of the ever-diminishing number of people who knew her or of her exploitative and ultimately corrosive effect upon them. But in some respects, she was more sinned against rather than sinning.
On the other hand, those that she saw as having sinned against her (principally William and Peter Court himself) got off scot free, while those she sinned against (principally my brother and myself, and our respective families) endured a lifetime of intrusive manipulation and vindictive opprobrium: vicarious revenge for resentments she had accumulated for what she saw as unjust impoverishment resulting from her first divorce, the ongoing humiliation she had felt about my father being awarded custody of my brother and myself – a highly unusual judicial decision in those days – and her abandonment by Peter Court.
Plus a corrosive hatred she maintained in later years for the second husband, Geoffrey Coupland, that she had briefly acquired in the meantime. He was the kindest of men, and his inexcusable misdemeanour was to have helped his own first wife who had fallen on hard times.
None of us are perfect, and I appreciate that my own children came to regard me as a Murdstone (with resentment of my major shortcomings, tinged perhaps with reluctant acknowledgement of my minor virtues), as my own father had regarded his father...
I did perhaps view my father in a similar light originally, but as the years and decades passed – and even more as I wrote his profile – I came to understand and appreciate what had made him tick. For all his faults, he was a kindly and generous person, who acted for what he thought was best even though his judgement was often flawed.
Katie did have many virtues, but they were spasmodic, and dwindled as she got older – perhaps that's true of all of us. But I could shed no tears at her death, at the advanced age of 92, and felt only an overwhelming sense of liberation. Which is an awful thing to have to say.
However, over a period of precisely 50 years from her first divorce until her death in 2008 she had cast a shadow over those who were undeniably her nearest but apparently far from being her dearest. And the worst of it was that she had cast herself as a tragic victim of conspiracy and so one trembled at the thought of pricking this bubble of self-delusion (in her later years, she identified with Diana Princess of Wales as a "wronged woman", too uneducated to be fully aware of the nature of the contract into which she had entered).
She complained constantly about everything and everyone – if she complained about somebody to you, you could be very sure that she complained about you to them. And she developed a hair-trigger response to anything remotely critical she thought you were about to say – as a result of which I responded with a stammer which lasted on and off for years afterwards.
She sometimes overdid things – after first convincing Aunt Frances (Waddell) that my brother Simon and I were in dire need of the capital tied-up in a small family trust, of which Frances was the principal Trustee, she then convinced Simon and myself that the money was rightfully hers, and we dutifully complied. But she then complained to Frances that I was utterly neglectful of her (Katie), and Frances responded with an excoriating missive to me. My wife mildly pointed out the realities of what had happened to the trust money, for example, and Frances cut Katie dead ever after.
Katie also developed a system akin to the French Resistance during the Second World War – her friends or acquaintances were segregated into separate cells (or boxes, as a close neighbour expressed it), each cell being entirely unaware of the others, minimising the chance of any betrayal of her complaints or confidences. There were a good many mutual surprises on the day of her funeral.
In the words of Oscar Wilde, which resonated with me (as the executor of her mangled Will) even beyond her death,
"The worst form of tyranny the world has ever known ... the tyranny of the weak over the strong. It is the only tyranny that lasts."
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Anglo-Irish playwright, author. Lord Illingworth, in A Woman of No Importance, Act 3.
This tyranny is not just a form of words – it's a very real effect extending over every aspect of human relationships.
- Why do we put money into a sturdy-looking beggar's polystyrene cup?
- Why do we reluctantly sign a purchase form brandished at us by an obviously desperate and importunate salesman?
- Why do we make sympathetic noises to a woman who has already totally messed-up two marriages and still yearns for another (preferably to a millionaire) to solve all her problems?
For many of us it goes back to the story of the Good Samaritan, possibly the most powerful of all the New Testament parables, and its modern-day analogue slogan WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?).
Is it better to produce the money up front, or stump the required sympathy, which immediately lets us off the moral hook, or would it be better to stand back and force the self-styled victim(s) to confront their demons and get a grip?
A major factor in her endless brooding over her own perceived misfortunes was that she had nothing to keep her busy, or mentally occupied. She didn't do any voluntary work, she didn't belong to any local societies or churches, and she had no interest in current affairs. In the years before her first marriage, and again for a while after her second marriage ended, she had been a very efficient secretary and PA, with outstanding short-hand and typing skills, and in her later years could have been invaluable in the back-office of a charity shop such as Oxfam, for example.
And she read very little if at all, though she had an excellent vocabulary and grammatical nous. In the years that she shared a house in Oxford with Audrey Good, she became pretty adept at crosswords (she'd always excelled at Cross Words, of course!) but it had to be a shared enterprise, as in the Belbin jargon she was certainly not a Completer Finisher. But that mindset also meant that unfinished tasks accumulated around the house, adding to her despondency. And many quite straightforward tasks were not even confronted, as she had a well-developed tactic of 'acquired helplessness' in the face of routine problems which most widows or divorcees of my acquaintance would make short work of. My Aunt Jane, a spinster who emigrated to Canada in mid-life, categorised things as Skirt Work or Boy Jobs, though was equally capable in either category. But Katie's restrictive upbringing meant that A Man was the essential prerequisite for the majority of tasks, and lengthy lists of Things To Do were invariably presented to visiting family members of the XY type.
I think it was Mark Twain who remarked that most people are about as happy as they've made up their minds to be, and it's such a pity that for the final 50 years of her life Katie didn't decide to be a good deal happier.
On the whole, Katie was very loyal to her friends, and woe betide an incautious offspring who inadvertently made some remark or enquiry about one or other of them that could be misinterpreted in any way. Once, for example, I asked what had been the subject of Audrey Good's dissertation, to which Katie retorted that Audrey hadn't needed to do one. Oh, I said, of course, she was at Oxford,1, 2 you can get an MA there for £25 (or whatever).
I liked and admired Audrey very much, and the original question had been genuine, and the follow-up entirely matter-of-fact, but Katie was enraged and hardly spoke to me for the rest of the visit. Little boys shouldn't ask questions.
She had other life-long friends, but the following four were preeminent. One never ever got to hear how or where the friendships had begun, but I got the impression that Joanna and Clare had been involved in the Alan Good organisation. My father occasionally dropped lurid hints about wartime weekend orgies at Glympton Park, possibly out of pique that maybe he hadn't been invited.