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The International Writers Magazine: In Memory of a Mother

The International Writers Magazine: In Memory of a Mother


In Memory of Joanna North:

My mother Joanna passed away last week aged 95 after a pretty horrid, but thankfully short illness. Born in Ishapore, India in 1920, her father a Colonel in the Indian Army – her mother, seven sisters and one brother were shipped to the UK in time for war to break out and never quite got over the shock of living in cold England or the Blitz.

Jo had a long and varied life as an actress, a nurse during the war, a mother of three, collecting two husbands and finally Grandmother and Great-Grandmother, as well returning to acting from time to time. * I must also add she was great at telling fortunes and pretty damn good with the cards. We all relied on her for our ‘futures’. Photo of Joanna © Bob North 1946

She was kind and spiritual – but shy off-stage. Tragically she lost her second husband (my Pa Bob) to a heart attack when he was just 44 and never remarried despite many offers. She lived in Cape Town for many years, Vancouver briefly, a few years in Hampshire and in between Lincolnshire, liking the Cape best I think. (Her last words were about the lemon tree in the Claremont garden).

A favourite memory for me is as a child sitting on the kitchen Aga (the only warm room in the house) listening to her saying her lines and quickly prompting her if she mis-remembered. I didn’t know it then but I was learning my craft as a writer from her and all about timing. Whether Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde, I loved listening to the words, even if most of the meaning went right over my head. She loved performing. and being someone else. Her last show was as the Captain’s wife, Parthy, in Showboat, even though she was terrified of singing in public. I remember how scared she was of having to faint on stage and be caught by this skinny actor who was equally deathly afraid of being squashed. (It was alright on the night).

My sister Jane writes: ‘I am grateful to Mummy who taught me the love of ‘colour and beauty’. This gift gave me confidence, as was her insistence that food should be interesting and easy on the eye. Home should be dressed to be welcoming and for the roms to flow. When it came to clothes ‘be comfortable and chose outfits that please yourself rather than others’. She taught by example. She told me that the word ‘if’ was the saddest word. Once you have decided on an action go for it, as long as you do your best it will turn out well for all concerned. She was there for me after my divorce and taught me that family is a bond that cannot break.’

When Sam Hawksmoor was writing ‘The Repercussions of Tomas D’ set during the Blitz, we were eating lunch with Jo in the garden in Petersfield when a Lancaster Bomber flew over low, on its way to an airshow. She went ashen as she was suddenly back in Brentwood during the war pushing the pram with Jane in it when a German bomber loosed its bombs on the houses there. One fell on the house next door to her as Jo flung herself over the pram to protect baby Jane from debris. Two children flew over the house from the next door garden and landed totally intact beside her but their innards blasted. She hadn’t noticed that she was bleeding herself until someone saw her and screamed. The war and it’s terrible effect were always well hidden but still intensely vivid to her. She was invaluable when writing that book.

Jo was always encouraging of others and if a little disappointed my sister Sara didn’t go on stage, despite showing immense talent, but supportive for her next adventures, if a little sad that Sara chose to travel so far away to Canada. Jo was enthusiastic about me becoming a writer, even if I clearly had little means of supporting myself if it didn’t work out. My Ma wasn’t always very practical and trusted to fate quite a bit – but in the end was proved right as it all did turn out ok. No vast riches, but that old adage about getting a skill you can fall back on was the best advice she gave me (teaching) and I guess true for any parent concerned about their kid falling between the cracks.

When I was a kid we lived in Lincolnshire and she was an avid science-fiction reader – favouring all those yellow jacket books from Gollancz. Even if I didn’t understand everything she encouraged me to read them from quite an early age and so I was addicted to quite a bleak view of the future courtesy of Phillip K Dick, all thanks to Jo. It was she who dragged us to Africa when my father died and we all fell under its spell. She blossomed there as never before and made some good friends who were generous and very entertaining. The Cape had a profound affect on us all and for Jo it was liberating. She went everywhere with Kandy, her Border Collie and was heart broken when she died.

Although shy she had quite a strong personality and you can see versions of her in the Sam Hawksmoor ‘Repossession Trilogy’ and more importantly in my own book Mean Tide where she is the matriach spiritualist living in Greenwhich. She influenced many people in their career choices or even marriage choices. She was always there to give solid advice.

When older she used to run a little writing group in Louth, but I know she always regreted leaving Cape Town and her little cottage there. I can’t remember why she left now, but whatever regrets she had she always looked on the bright side and made the best of it. I recall that any girlfriends I brought along she’d immediately ply them with home-made pies and cakes – she took great pride in her cooking. Karine in Martinique still misses those cakes!

The end years were pretty hard, being bed bound, but at 95 she woudn’t miss an episode of Big-Bang or NCIS and don’t get me started on Pointless. Her brain was sharp right up to the last three days and there is nothing more cruel to see someone suffer a minor stroke that robs them of the ability to see clearly or articulate their needs adequately. It was very affecting to see how much she hated leaving this life.

Jo is survived by daughters Jane, Sara, myself, grandchildren Tabytha, Tyler and Tasha, Dominic, Emma and Casper and the great grand-children. All will miss her. © Sam North Feb 19th 2015

And here is Joanna in her own words back in 2001 on A Golden Age More life moments


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