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|The Guise History|
Yvonne Marie Guise was born an astonishing 96 years ago, in 1919, at the end of the First World War, just before the signing of the Treaty Of Versailles, which contained within it, as we now know, the seeds of the Second World War. So she grew up and came to womanhood in those terrible times which saw the Great Crash and the rise of the European dictators. She and her older brother Tony and her younger sister Marie, who all might have expected a decent education, were each of them at work by the age of 16, Marie at 15. Their father Jules, who was Danish, an engineer and an inventor, never worked at all during the 1930’s, at the end of which, at the age of 42, he suddenly died. Their mother, Vera, who was of German stock, had been a singer – she sang at the Royal Albert Hall at the official celebrations for the end of World War I – was, till they went to work, the family’s only breadwinner – genteelly brought up, she cooked and scrubbed in underground kitchens, she sold watches across the country, she had a disastrous go at running a bed and breakfast establishment.
The girls, my mother and my aunt, became typists, working in a secretarial agency in Victoria, where they were brusquely addressed by their surnames and worked long and arduous hours. Both of them were clever young women – they attended the London Oratory Grammar School, which I went to 30 years later – but neither had the education they longed for. They dreamed of other lives – my mother wanted to be a journalist – but economic reality kept them down. And then, when my mother was twenty, the Second World war broke out and that defined their lives not only for the next six years, but for ever more. Technically, they were Danish, like their father, though neither spoke the language, and their passports were stamped Alien; for a while they were limited in what they could do, though both eventually became fire-fighters during the Blitz; their brother Tony was called up and died in the last days of hostilities. But the war with its constant threat of instant death was a time to seize life with both hands, and Yvonne plunged into the hectic round of parties and pleasure that her mother laid on for the boys on leave. Yvonne was attractive and witty, but very much, even at that young age, her own woman; she kept the boys at arm’s length, mercilessly mocking and teasing them.
Then, in 1944, rather against her better judgement, she married her brother’s best friend, my father, Neil Callow, a lively, sensuous, gregarious man, who was posted to Africa for the North Africa landings. While there, he fell in love with Africa, and at the end of the war she joined him there, in Freetown in Sierra Leone, and they led the unimaginably exotic lives of colonial expats – a life of comfort, of servants, of free-flowing booze and plentiful food – until Yvonne became pregnant for the first time and returned to Austerity Britain, severely rationed and devastated by 6 gruelling years of war. Neil joined her for the birth of their daughter, Gabrielle, who was turned out to have a rare blood disease which led to her early death at 18 months old, a tragedy they overcame by having a second child as soon as possible, which was me. She was 30. Again, Neil returned to England for the birth, but the lure of Africa and the possibility of earning good money there was too strong for him to resist and he went back. That was the end of her marriage, though she didn’t know it till he failed to return at end of his 18 months’ tour.
Her life and in some ways her personality changed as a result of that shocking rupture and the loss of a man she had come to love. Her Catholicism, always strong, became ever more deeply entrenched; she refused to entertain the idea of divorce and resigned herself to being single till the day either he or she died. Always pleasantly rounded, she now went on a severe diet which she then maintained for the rest of her life, and single-mindedly addressed the question of bringing up her child. First of all, she had to try to make ends meet. She was only fitfully supported by my father, but she successfully pursued a career as a secretary, making sure that I was fed and clothed and properly educated: she had very clear ideas about how to do things, guided by the egregious Dr Benjamin Spock and his theories of child-raising: I was not to be indulged in any way, but was to be offered constant mental stimulation – we went on a ceaseless round of visits to museums, galleries, events – she took me down to Chartwell to catch a glimpse of the ancient Churchill, she arranged trips to National Trust properties. If we saw a film, it an improving one, like Walt Disney’s The Vanishing Prairie. I was not an easy child to handle – emotional, exhibitionistic, uncontrollably energetic – but she stuck to her programme for me. Discipline was fierce – she was not above using a much-feared hairbrush for severe spankings – but there were visits to the cinema and very occasionally to the theatre by way of compensation. Above all she instilled in me the idea of achievement: no day should pass without something to show for it – something learned, something made, something mastered.
She took a job as a school secretary in a wildly eccentric private school in Berkshire largely because my education would be thrown in as part payment for her services. For me it was a life-changing two years of country-living and for her an introduction to Spanish culture (the headmaster was a passionate Hispanophile, having fought in the Spanish Civil War – on the side of the Fascists) and it led her to teach herself Spanish, toiling night after night over her Assimil textbooks and the accompanying gramophone records. When I was seven, she took herself off to Madrid to become governess to a Spanish family; I stayed, very happily, with my rather indulgent grandmothers, for the few months she was away. When she came back, earlier than expected, we moved back to South London; she found a job working at the Nigerian embassy where she was the London secretary of Chief Anthony Enahoro; this meant that I was kitted out with a variety of African robes and embroidered caps and the bedsit in Streatham was draped with exotic blankets and ivory carvings.
And then, when I was 9, and she was 39, astonishingly, my father got in touch to suggest that he and Yvonne should resume their married life – she and I should join him in Central Africa where he now lived. As a devout Catholic, believing that he was still her husband, though they had not seen each other for 5 years, she complied and we took the three-day flight to Kenya, where he picked us up and drove us all the way down to the tiny town of Fort Jameson in what was then Northern Rhodesia.
It was a disaster from the beginning. My father clearly had no intention of resuming his marriage: he was trying to get her to desert him, which eventually she did. With astonishing strength of mind and and resourcefulness, she overcame the anxiety of being effectively stranded in the middle of that huge continent, and moved us to the capital, Lusaka, where she worked as a high-flying government secretary. And still she was determined that I should be mentally and imaginatively stimulated. We went off on Safari; we took trips to nearby beauty spots; she arranged for me to go up in a bi-plane with a colleague of hers, terrifying but tremendous. She bought a car and learned to drive. Or rather, she passed her driving test, having broken down in tears when she was failed, and so began a reign of terror for local drivers, as she drive into ditches and knocked down fences. I meanwhile was packed off to school in South Africa; my father’s alimony was always intermittent and she soon had to withdraw me, as I had been withdrawn from various schools over the years; but eventually, triumphantly, she engineered our return to England in 1962, three years after we had left it.
Back to South London we went. She secured a place for me at the London Oratory Grammar School, by dint of constant pleading, and did everything she could to focus my mind on the studies which would lead to my getting a place at university, her single goal for me. She carried on with her secretarial career: when she worked for a shirt company, I learned the pleasures of hand-made shirts; and when she went to work for Freemans mail order, all sorts of other bonuses came my way. But these were very difficult years for us: a constant struggle with her trying to assert her authority and me become more and more wilful, less and less prepared to accept the limitations she tried to place on me.
She was very much one her own. She had cool feelings towards her family, and was not a woman who made friends. She would go on adventurous trips with the Church, but she kept herself to herself; as long as my father was alive, she never had a relationship with another man, and by the time he died, in 1971, it was too late. Nor would she have wanted it: her independence was the thing she prized above all else. She took herself off to concerts, to galleries, to exhibitions; she avidly watched the television – documentaries only. She had no time for fiction of any kind, which she regarded as a species of lying. She particularly had no time for Shakespeare, whose popularity she regarded as a conspiracy by an intellectual mafia of actors and directors and producers. Poetry in general, she said, was the longest way of saying the least.
She was not best pleased, to put it mildly, when I decided to leave university to become an actor, but she said, typically, that though she would never give me a penny in support, and though she was certain I had no talent whatever, nonetheless she thought I should do it because if I didn’t I would regret it for the rest of my life.
She knew what it was to regret.
She took only limited pleasure in my success as an actor, cheering up a bit when I started writing books and directing, both of which she regarded as proper, grown-up jobs.
She gave up working as a secretary at the first possible moment, when she was 60, and withdrew to the countryside. This proved too isolated for her, so I got her a flat in Croydon, sufficiently rural and within easy striking distance of London, where three or four times a week she would go, either to the latest exhibition at the Royal Academy or to Westminster Cathedral for mass or benediction: her mother’s brother-in-law John Francis Bentley was the architect of the cathedral, though that sort of thing – family connections – never impressed her. She went to church to further her very intense and very personal relationship with her god, in whom she believed with a simple and literal faith. God the father, that is: I don’t know that she had much feeling for Jesus or Mary or the Holy Ghost. No, it was the Old Testament God, severe and all-knowing, whom she adored, daily awaiting, as she often told me, the day when she would die, go to heaven, and sit on his knee while he explained to her all the aspects of his creation that baffled her – why her 18-month old daughter had been snatched from her, why she had married the wrong man, why she had had to toil so unceasingly – why there was suffering, why there was injustice.
It was ten years ago that her mind collapsed, suddenly, overnight, after a long period of paranoia and fear for her life. Overnight, she lost her identity – her past disappeared like the hard disk of a broken computer. Then all the fixed points of her universe – God, the Church, me – lost all reality for her. And yet, though she increasingly lost the power of speech and the ability to function, there was a force of personality there, which impressed everyone who came across her – a huge inner force – and though she sat for hours in silence between meals, she always seemed to be thinking, trying to resolve some huge problem, it seemed to me. I sometimes thought that when she solved the problem, she would allow herself to die. She hung on and on, thinking furiously. And then in April this year, she let go. I like to think – I can only hope – that she’d finally solved the problem.
Some years ago, when she still had the power of speech, though she was not often able to make sense, she was vouchsafed one of those rare moments of lucidity that sometimes comes to those afflicted with this terrible condition. I came into the day room in her residential care home, and found her sleeping. I woke her up, and she suddenly smiled, a warm and happy smile, glad to see me. “How are you?” she asked, which was a rare question since she had disappeared into her own world. “Well,” I said, “busy – busy as you always were, working hard, as you always did.” I tried as I had so often done to bring her back to who she had been, what she’d done. “You worked so hard, you were a wonderful secretary, oh yes, I have all the glowing testimonials your bosses gave you whenever you left a job.” She smiled again, another radiant smile. “Really?” she said. “You mean I was of some worth?” “Oh, yes, I said, great worth, you did wonderfully well.” “I’ve often wondered,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t know who I was. I’m so glad.” And then I lost her again. But that moment, that knowledge of who she was – of what she’d done - of how she’d toiled against so many obstacles – of what an honourable, determined life she’d lived – I hope that was with her when she died. She was dealt a lousy hand of cards by life, in many ways. But she played them to the utmost of her abilities, and she deserves our honour and respect. And love.
Yvonne's Funeral Oration