Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Lily Topping (1920 - 2013)

One of the saddest aspects of writing my From The North blog over the past few years has been the increasing number of occasions where this blogger has found it necessary to pen an obituary for someone whose work he has really admired because they have succumbed to cancer: Nicholas Courtney, Lis Sladen, Mary Tamm, Philip Madoc, Victor Spinetti, Geoffrey Hughes, Michael Gough, Sid Waddell, Angharad Rees, Dennis Hopper, Edward Woodward, Andy Williams, Huwie Lloyd-Langton and Nicol Williamson are just a handful of those whom yer actual Keith Telly Topping has had the unwelcome task of reporting on their passing whilst, simultaneously, trying to celebrate their lives and works. It's sometimes been a tough balancing act and one which, today, I am going to find even harder than usual. The latest addition to the list is not someone about whom anyone is ever likely to make a film or write a biography (albeit somebody probably should). Lily Topping died late on the evening of Saturday 27 April 2013 at the age of ninety two from complications arising from cancer of the stomach. If you're wondering why anyone should be particularly bothered (beyond the, obvious, human decency angle) concerning the death of a Newcastle pensioner and housewife then, I suppose you'd have a point in the great scheme of things. Except that Lily was this blogger's mother and I simply can't let this opportunity go by without attempting to do for her what I tired to do for all those others whom I merely admired from afar. (Humour features strongly in my mother's story so, if you'll excuse a little bit of it here; if she had lasted another two hours should would have left us on the twenty second anniversary of my late father's death in 1991. Rather typical of my mother, that - always that little bit early for everything in case she upset anyone!)

Hers was long life, and one, I'd say, broadly jolly well-lived. It wasn't always an easy life. She was born into relative poverty and never - until her last few years - had as comfortable a lifestyle as others perhaps more fortunate in our society. But, she had a long and very happy marriage to my father (forty nine years from 1942 until his death) and was responsible for bringing three sons into the world, all of whom loved her very much indeed. My mother was born on 25 June 1920 at 1569 Walker Road, the third of four children (and the only daughter) of Andrew Lamb and Elizabeth Elliott Lamb. Had my grandfather's vainglorious highfalutin plans of emigrating shortly after he returned from fighting in Russia with the British Expeditionary Forces in 1920 come to fruition then Lily could have been born in Canada, and would in all likelihood never have met my father and I would not have been born. So, it's probably just as well that particular scheme fell through (although my grandfather did spend most of the first three years of my mother's life earning a living in Nova Scotia as a lumberjack). She would outlive all three of her brothers - George, John and Alan - although the latter by only four months, my uncle dying just after Christmas last year. Lily attended Middle Street secondary school (the same school to which this blogger would go to over forty years later). She was, by all accounts, a rather sporty girl - very good at swimming, an activity she continued to enjoy right up to the last years of her life - and academically decent enough to pass her Eleven Plus. She left school at the age of fifteen and worked, firstly as a shop girl in Pumphreys Coffee Shop in the Cloth Market and then, for several years, in the mirror polishing department at CA Parsons and Co, producers of turbo-generators. She met my father, Tommy, in 1939 and - after he had been otherwise occupied at Dunkirk - they were married at Walker Parish Church in June 1942 and spent their early married life in Middlesbrough where my father was deployed as a riveter. Lily worked there as a bus conductress and, later, back in Newcastle post-war, as a school cleaner. My brothers Terry and Colin were born in 1944 and 1948 respectively. Due to an inner-ear problem - probably cause by his wartime duties as a bombardier or by childhood measles (sources vary) - my father was unable to go back to his trained occupation after the war and thus, spent most of the next decade working as a labourer or a carpenter before he found regular employment in the silica making industry as a furnaceman.  Lily was, along with her mother, a regular attender of Newcastle United matches in the mid-1950s when they were one of the top teams in the land. (They were Leazes Enders but, she assured me many years later, never the causers of any trouble.) She had a particular favourite in the goalkeeper, Jackie Fairbrother who once presented her with a first prize (a small silver-plated tray) for winning a whist drive. 'A true gentleman,' she told me. 'Not like these players today!' We didn't have many records in our house when I was growing up but she was fond of the South Pacific soundtrack LP and a few singles by Ronnie Carroll (particularly 'Roses Are Red, My Love') and Michael Holliday. Being from a pre-war generation, she found my own musical tastes rather baffling but did, at least, feign a bit of interest as I'd natter away about the socio-political genius of Joe Strummer and Paul Weller. She was a huge fan of mystery novels - particularly Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers - and of crosswords puzzles (although she did have a dreadful habit of looking at the answers if she got stumped). She was, due to religious convictions, politically neutral and never voted in her life although she did have something of a soft spot for the Newcastle East Labour MP of the 1920s Martin Connolly who had once sorted out some problem her family had with regard to rehousing. That was, again, typical of my mother - she never forgot a kindness.

In 1963, I was born ('a walking accident' as my mother would, occasionally, remind me - always in the nicest possible way) and Lily - forty three at the time - quit her job as a cleaner to become a mother again for the third time. She was, quite simply, a remarkable woman; active in her church, well-read, a keen solver of puzzles, an avid TV watcher and someone who seemed to spend the majority of her life trying to help other people. It was something of a running family joke that my mother appeared to collect waifs and strays (sometimes, though not always, of the animal variety) as she went through life. She was a thoughtful, funny and caring person who seldom had a bad word to say about anyone and who always tried her hardest to see the best in people, even if that wasn't always easy. After my father's death in 1991, she kept herself active with a close circle of friends from her church and had a regular love of eating out (usually on Fridays), either with my Uncle Alan and his friend, Lilas, or with myself at two favourite Chinese Restaurants (The Shangri-La and, later, The Dragon House) where they always made a bit of a fuss over her. She was the fittest, most active Octogenarian and then Nonagenarian one can possibly imagine. She was a loving grandmother to Graeme and Alyson - doing the babysitting chores when they were younger with aplomb - including one occasion when she fell down the stairs and, as she lay somewhat dazed at the bottom heard Aly, then about five, say 'Grandma, you do look funny!' In 2004 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer which was, initially, said to be inoperable. But, after a course of chemotherapy and a hysterectomy (which she sailed through to the amazement of women a third of her age who were getting the same operation), she went into full remission, and then enjoyed a seven or eight year period where she travelled widely and lived life to the full. Thanks, in no small part, to a series of benefits and pension credits to which she had probably been entitled for some years previously but had never even thought about claiming for until one of her health workers told her that she might as well claim, and have, the money or someone else, probably far less deserving, would get it instead. As late as the summer of 2011, at the age of ninety one, she travelled - on her own - to stay with friends in Northern Spain. Sadly, early in 2012 a series of stomach pains began to affect her quality of life and, in July, they were diagnosed as another cancer, this one very definitely inoperable. Her last months, although relatively comfortable and mostly spent at home, surrounded by her family, were marked by an upsettingly rapid and intense mental decline, in part a reaction to the vast array of medication she was taking as much as to her age or the disease itself. There were many good days though there were some distressingly bad ones in her final months. I'll always be grateful for a particular period, of around ten days or so at, and immediately after, New Year 2013, when, for a while at least - and for possibly the last time - she seemed very much like her old self; bright, lucid, funny and at ease with herself and the world. She was philosophical about her condition and, even on days where she struggled to cope with the horrors of a failing memory, general confusion, tiredness and occasionally intense pain, she could still make an entire room laugh with a stray pithy comment. Those medical and care staff with whom she came into contact never ceased to be amazed by her strength of character and will power. (The initial diagnosis had suggested she'd do well to make Christmas 2012; the fact that she survived four months longer than that is, surely, testament to her fighting qualities. As she often said 'I'll go in God's time, not mine.' She did not go gentle into that good night.) From her, I inherited a lifelong love of Doctor Who, a humane outlook for those unable to look after themselves and a spectacular intolerance for bigotry in all its forms. She was gracious to a fault, generous of spirit and wholly without agenda in any circumstance. Hers was a God who did not command his followers to bomb abortion clinics or persecute gay people but, rather, had more of a New Testament outlook which said judge not, lest ye be judge and love thy neighbour as thyself. She leaves behind three sons, two daughters-in-law, two grandchildren, a great granddaughter and two step-great granddaughters, a large extended family and a huge number of friends whose lives she touched, all of whom will miss her clarity, her wiseness, her kindness, her occasional sheer daftness and her sense of humour greatly. The world, today, seems a fractionally colder and less welcoming place without her.




1 comment:

  1. Keith,

    This is one of the most touching tributes I have ever read. We never met your mother, but I sincerely wish we had. In all the years we have known you and all the things you have ever said about her, we knew that she must have been a wonderful lady, now we know for sure. I could never have written anything as touching or heartfelt as this if I tried. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with losing my mother a 3 years ago, I still miss her dearly, things have not been the same without her and I hope things are better for you and your family.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

    All the best and take care.
    Tony and Jane.