My mother, Stella Sampson, was buried on the 22nd January in a small rural graveyard redolent of Thomas Hardy. I was given a five-minute slot during the service to tell the congregation about her life, her talents and her worries. This is the address I gave:
It's difficult to know where to start when it comes to my mother. I'm tempted to quote the famous words of one of my great heroes, Martin Luther King. Free at last! - because mother was always beset by demons and death brings an end to a lifetime's agitations.
Mother saw danger everywhere. I remember her ringing me up when I was a young man in Brighton to warn me of the lethal properties of kidney beans. I remember, too, the surprise I felt when I went back with my wife to Northern Ireland, where mother was probably at her happiest, to discover that it didn't take half a day to drive from Belfast to Newcastle, County Down. As kids during the 60s, we would pile into our father's car for a day out, prepared for an epic trip to the seaside punctuated by cries of B, don't go so fast! should the speedometer edge over 30 miles per hour.
Not too many years ago, I drove our mother to see my father in hospital in his VW Golf. Belting up promptly, she then took from her home-made shoulder bag a pair of wrap-around shades that looked like the property of Sly & The Family Stone. I looked at her aghast. Darling, I have to wear these to protect my eyes from shattering glass. As a driver, it didn't inspire you with confidence, but she was certainly prepared for any eventuality. There was also a hammer in the pocket of both doors, presumably to smash her way to freedom if my father or I rolled the car on a dangerous bend.
Poor mother. Such creative worrying must have worn her out. But then it came with the territory of an artistic temperament. The soundtrack for our childhood in Belfast would be underscored by the tap-tap-tap-PING! of her portable Olivetti typewriter as she hammered out some new carbon-copied manuscript behind the closed door of the parental bedroom. We knew only too well that you did not disturb the artist at work.
A very talented artist. Poet, novelist, memoirist and above all painter. It was like living in an art gallery, what with our mother's oil paintings and our paternal grandmother's watercolours. Strangely, they both went to Hornsey School of Art. The pity of it was that mother was born only a few short years after women were given the vote in this country. She was conditioned by a prevalent culture which didn't approve of fine art as a suitable career for a young middle-class lady. Had she been born more bohemian, she might have swapped the attempted role of Housewife Superstar for that of the artist in her garret.
I remember when a portrait of her gaunt long-haired eldest son was selected by the Royal Ulster Academy for its annual show. The exhibition was just across the road from the main gates of my school. So friends and acquaintances would wander in for a look and sometimes report back with a snigger. Far from embarrassed, I actually felt rather proud, because I never doubted the pedigree of her paintings. I thank her for giving me my love of art.
Literature, too. Her literary output was prodigious. Somehow she managed to bring up four children and produce full-length novels as well as the countless paintings. 'You children will be the death of me,' she used to tell us. I honestly don't think that it was our fault, but I'm quite sure that trying to answer the call of the artist while struggling to keep her deadly kids clean with the sole aid of her trusty spin-dryer and to feed us without any discernible culinary aptitude probably did contribute to the madness that would one day carry her off. 'Do you want your mother to end up in Purdysburn?' was another prophetic catchprhrase. Purdysburn being the name of the local psychiatric hospital.
In the latter part of her life, she gave up first the brush and then the typewriter to concentrate on her garden. Even then, the artist at work managed to create something small but perfectly formed. But her increasing obsession with war films suggested that she was never able to banish the trauma of the bombing raid on Exeter. Some form of dementia must have marked her card from an early age. Ultimately she found a form of comfort and happiness at the Laurel Bank nursing home, where the staff looked after her every need with such affection. My father would go up every day to sit with her and my sisters would be in frequent attendance. Finally, she was the centre of attention and when on good form she would reward visitors with some of the funniest monologues outside a music hall.
My witty brother pointed out a delicious irony that would I'm sure appeal to our mother's often mischievous sense of humour. We were discussing how our mother would have approved of the arrangements for her funeral. This lovely little church, the open field where she will be laid to rest, the biodegradable coffin to house her body. How appropriate, Miles suggested, that someone known to us affectionately as a basket case should be buried in a willow coffin.
Mother dear, those of us who by some miracle have survived the untold dangers of this world salute you. You left us so many memories and an incredible legacy of artistic work. I for one look forward to the challenge of editing your output and maybe finding you a publisher. And it would be lovely to think that the next time we all gather together to celebrate your life will be at a private view of a major retrospective of your paintings. We could call it: Stella Sampson, A Life in Art.
I concluded by reading her poem, 'John Clare', as a particularly fine example of an undiscovered talent. John Clare was a romantic poet of the 19th century. Troubled by mental problems throughout his life, he found it difficult to adapt to modern life, which (as he saw it) threatened to transform his beloved countryside. This poem was actually published by the South East Arts magazine, but true to form, my mum probably didn't see it as confirmation of her skills.
Where, oh where
Is poor John Clare now?
Does reminiscence and despair still live
Beneath his brow?
Or, in some kinder place,
Care cast like clout,
Does he enjoy that holy state of grace
We hear so much about?
Here all remains the same:
The melancholy landscape that you knew
Needs nothing more from you,
It bears your name.
Oh, heartened now and then
By racing cloud or bending wheat,
Thrush and sweet curlew's call;
But sad withall.
They are still here for you
To look upon.
The ones who will not speak of
Broken heart, but smile instead;
And take each gallant day
To lonely bed.
This same long, chilling winter
That you knew –
And John, John,
I am as mad as you.