I’d known already that Joan was a local girl, because she’d told me that. She was the daughter of a farmer, born in a village called Thwaite, five miles from here. Thwaite is pronounced Twait, locally – there are other villages with the same name but not necessarily the same pronunciation. Similarly, another local village, Alburgh, is Aah-bruh, not as it’s spelt or pronounced in other similarly-named places about Norfolk and Suffolk.
What I hadn’t known was that, though her parents weren’t poor – she went to a fee-paying local school, later – their living conditions were fairly primitive, even by the standards of the time. Joan and my mother were born in the same year, 1923, but my mother’s house had running water, at least. According to Joan’s sister Mary, who’s 90, they didn’t even have a well. Their water was drawn from a pond. I can hardly imagine that, in living memory.
Less surprisingly, they used oil lamps and candles for lighting, though for much longer than was the case with my mother. She remembered when electricity was put on in her grandparents’ house, which she left when she was 7, so it was in the late 1920s. She remembers the excitement of turning a switch for a light, but also how cold the house was without the oil lamps. My sister-in-law June also remembered electricity being installed in this house, which must have been in the mid-30s. She was born in 1932 and Russell in 1936, but he had no memory of the oil lamps, and he would have if he’d known them beyond babyhood, he remembered everything.
Joan was an ambitious woman and had an illustrious career in politics. She was awarded the CBE before she retired. Talking to people after her funeral, a number of them mentioned how formidable she could be. I suppose she was, but I was used to strong women and it seemed normal to me. I respected and liked her a great deal and we were good friends. Now I think about it, which I hadn’t before, I realise that I earned her respect too, which I’m taking as quite a compliment.