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!
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.
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.