Tuesday, February 3, 2009


On Sunday, I was in a church for the first time since last July when we buried my godmother, Kate Mortimer. It was a joyous occasion, the christening of my youngest niece, also a Kate. But I'd forgotten that during the course of a service, during the formal prayers, the custom is to remember our dead, which became a rather emotional process. Then today, I heard that Kate's memorial service has been organised and one of those waves of missing her washed over me but I thought rather than being miserable, I'd call up some of my favourite Kate memories, for she was, as other of her friends have noted, a truly life-enhancing spirit.

My very first meeting with Kate was when I was five, in Washington. My father had come across her in the World Bank, and was very taken with her - smart, snappy, very English, and a bridge-player. I think she came over for lunch one weekend, and she talked to me, which was quite unusual for most of my parents' friends, all in their twenties and thirties, deep into career mode. I must have made her laugh, and I seem to remember that there were other weekend lunches at various places like Nathan's and Clydes, great burger joints where they played Creedence Clearwater, where she would always find a bit of time to chat to me.

When my parents split, my mother moved out first to Kate's flat, just round the corner from one of my favourite Washington places, Dumbarton Oaks. It had a great playground, and she had a cat (Barnaby, rather wary of a somewhat bewildered seven year old), and a copy of the Lord of the Rings about which she was very enthusiastic. I started and I did get to the end of Fellowship before we moved on. Quite soon after that, I was sent off to school in the UK while my parents tried to sort out their divorce, and Kate too left the World Bank to join the Cabinet Office. She lived in a fantastic flat in Warwick Avenue - yes, the place that Duffy sings about. She was my guardian while my mother organised herself to move back to the UK, so she drove me down to school and came to spring me for days out in Brighton and half-terms. She had a beat up Mini, fawn, with red seats, and I was taken for half-terms to friends and family. I remember on one occasion, we went to her then boyfriend's parents' house somewhere in the North, and I was allowed to watch Dr Who which involved big robot things trashing London while John Pertwee tried to sort things out. I did hide behind the sofa and Kate had to coax me out to go to bed. She read to me, in her crisp, no nonsense way, probably something Rosemary Sutcliff.

Then there was Burford, where her family had a millhouse, and later, Penrith, where her parents retired to an Old Rectory. Her mother was as wonderful as Kate, very matter of fact, shaped rather like Mrs Tiggy Winkle, warm, with a delighted chuckle when someone got a tricky crossword clue or helped with the washing up. They shared a great love of good walks, lively books, ideas, and an unostentatious robust Anglican faith. When I decided I wanted to be christened, I asked Kate to be my godmother and she was very supportive, although I'm not sure my motives were of the purest. I was ten, and tired of my rather freaky foreign names, so getting baptised provided me the opportunity to have a good solid English name - but Kate never quite got the hang of it, and used one of my freaky foreign names when I worked with her in my very first proper job after leaving university, which has become the name that I am known by all and sundry.

Kate was an exemplary godmother - she gave great presents, super treats, and a little later, houseroom. My mother and I moved into the house she bought in Hammersmith with her first husband (that boyfriend whose parents we'd visited), and so began my ten most settled years. Although I was at boarding school, Ravenscourt Park was my home. We lived on the top two floors, Kate and John in the basement and main floor. The house was the scene of wonderful parties, small and intimate, rather bigger and louder but all full of laughter, good conversation and Kate's wide and eclectic bunch of friends. My mother and I were not the only people to whom Kate offered shelter - there was Fred, who wrote jokes and Ernie who was researching a biography of Ken Tynan, there were always friends dropping in from the US or Europe, people with sharp minds who challenged me and pushed me, made me question and rethink my solipsistic teenage positions. And we played games, hung out reading papers, went for walks, fed each other's cats, borrowed coats. Kate had a wonderful snickering laugh and a great appreciation for the sillier side of life. She loved Brando and James Dean and the Rolling Stones. I remember wading through the record collection, making mix tapes and reading series of books from her and John's library - The Saint books, James Bond, Bulldog Drummond. She was always reading something, often thrillers and mysteries, but we shared the ability to hoover up books and it gave me great pleasure later to introduce her to books, just as she had shared her favourite reads with me.

One of the best of times was the arrival of Andrew, her son, who was a gorgeous pudgster of a baby, mad about Skeletor and He-Man. I felt really honoured when Kate asked me to be one of his godmothers, so there we were back at St Mary's church on Paddington Green. Kate chose one of the best hymns, Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning, and there was a party afterwards - another one.

Soon afterwards, Kate brought an old friend from the World Bank round. He was gentle and quite quiet, but with a definite twinkle in his eye. Bob had a daughter, Anne, and four grown-up sons from previous marriages. Anne was only a couple of years older than Andrew, and the pair of them had some battles royal, jockeying for position in their extended family. Bob bought a barn down in Devon, tucked in a little valley near Okehampton, and quite soon, Kate sold up in London and moved down to Devon full time. Together, they converted the old barn into a glorious living area, and the house was always warm and full of family and friends, wonderful meals, the scent of Bob's bread, the squeaks and giggles and wails of children, including my own. There were long walks on Dartmoor, pub lunches and again, wonderful parties celebrating Bob's 70th and her 60th, the sorrow of losing her beloved sheepdog Tommy and the pleasure of raising Sunny, her next dog, trips to the beach - one of my recent memories is of Kate taking great pleasure in her new Saab with GPS, which took us the most circuitous route to the north Devon coast via farm tracks and flocks of geese. But perhaps I'll miss most of all, her wonderful directness which could sometimes slip into the most colossal tactlessness, causing offence and hilarity in equal measure.

How lucky I have been - I lived with Kate, worked with her, benefited enormously from the way she shared her great gifts for friendship, dedicated slog and sheer fun. And now, it's time, in honour of Kate, to learn and live by her example, giving the warmth of friendship, putting in the hours at work, and relishing the possibilities for laughter and simple pleasure in the warmth of the sun and the brush of the wind, the sun glinting on the waves.


gleecady said...

Oh, what a lovely remembrance. How I wish I could have known her -- I'd like to think I'd have found her wonderful. /g

David said...

A truly beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing.