The Memory of All That


Alice was the last book that I discussed with my mum, Gladys Joan Bell, ten or eleven days ago when I visited her in the nursing home. She recalled how she used to call in after school for tea at her friend Betty’s and they’d sit at the kitchen table and start acting out the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, which they knew by heart; 

‘No room! No room!’
‘There’s plenty of room!’

Eighty years later that was as far as she could remember, so she asked me to look out her copy of Alice and bring it in to read to her. I’ve got her copy here on my desk, a 1954 first edition of the version illustrated by Mervyn Peake, but I regret that I didn’t get around to reading to her on my last couple of visits and sadly mum died a week ago today on the Tuesday morning, 10 February, (of ‘OLD AGE’ as Doctor Singh recorded it) slipping away peacefully, to use the cliche, but in this case it was true.

I’m of the generation who like to put the blame for their shortcomings onto their parents, as I guess most generations do, but you can see from my mum’s college project Oakleaves (above), which she compiled in the Spring of 1937, that she does have a lot to answer for; she’s the one who gave me my love of drawing, books and theatrical spectacle, not to mention a romantic view of history.

Don’t Fence Me In!

Gladys Joan Bell, c. 1946


When she was in hospital in October, recovering from a broken hip and broken shoulder, my mum remembered cycling in the Peak District with my dad singing Don’t Fence Me In. But we’re going for These Foolish Things, one of the songs that she used to play on the piano, as her farewell at the funeral. That’s what I remember her playing but for lyrics I prefer the Gershwin song;

‘The memory of all that,
You can’t take that away from me.’

In hospital, rehab and in the nursing home mum had many set backs but somehow kept pulling through. A week after her death, I’m missing her already. For instance, I’d always tell her about historical bits and pieces that I’d come across, like the medieval carved head at Blacker Hall Farm cafe that reminded me of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, which I wrote about the other day.

oakleaves title

Oakleaves is a good example of how my mum undervalued her talents. It was her student project, at Ripon Teacher Training College, to design a pageant for the Coronation of George VI in the spring of 1937. As a child, I was fascinated by the beautifully produced, hand-lettered booklet of blank verse and costume designs that she’d put together.

Ten or twelve years ago Barbara and I had popped up to my mum’s for a Sunday morning coffee and I opened the kitchen swing bin to drop something in it and saw  Oakleaves, ripped out of its loose leaf binding, lying on top of the discarded lettuce and tea leaves.

‘Why’s this in here?!’ I asked.

‘Oh, I thought nobody will be interested in that, so I threw it out.’

‘Well, I’m interested in it!’ I protested as I fished it out. With some difficulty (and a basic knowledge of history) I repaginated it and kept it in my family history drawer.

Last year I decided to go to the trouble of scanning the whole thing and I revamped it into Blurb hardback format and presented her with a copy on her 96th birthday. Even then, she hesitated to show it to her old teaching friend, Olive, thinking that might be a bit bigheaded.

I’m so glad that I went to all that trouble because, this year, on the day that would have been her 97th birthday, we will be attending her funeral.


As a little memorial to my mum, I’ve now made the book is available from Blurb. They’re individually printed and I decided I wanted to try it in hardback with a dust jacket, so it’s rather expensive to produce, even for such a slim volume, but after the original’s near miss with the swing bin, I thought that only the best would do;

Oakleaves at Blurb. It should work out at £20 but Blurb seems to prefer to show the price in dollars or Euros, which makes it a little over thirty dollars.

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  1. I’m very sorry to read of your loss, you ‘painted’ a lovely picture of her with your posts.

    1. Thank you Sheryl,glad mum made a favourable impression in my posts, despite my occasional grumbles about having to take her off to appointments when I would really have liked to have been out drawing. But I did dozens of sketches on our weekly visits to Charlotte’s ice cream parlour and elsewhere, so I really don’t regret the down time from my regular work. I’m so glad that I made the time now.

    1. Thank you Zoe. I’m reading Alice again. I thought that I knew the book well but the opening chapters seem oddly disorientating.

  2. I am sorry for your loss. Your mother sounds like a fascinating and creative person. These are nice drawings, great memories to have. I’m glad you had her for so many years.

    1. Thank you Julana, I’m going to try and gather together her sketchbooks or paintings (that she didn’t throw in the kitchen bin!)

    1. Thank you Brenda, I did consider doing a balanced warts and all pen portrait of her but she deserves better than me carping – although I get that from her too! I always took it as a good sign when she had the energy to complain in hospital or in the home. Once when I said to her ‘It’s a shame you’re not just a bit better and you could go down and sit in that lovely lounge.’ she said ‘But it’s full of old people sleeping in chairs!’ Love the feistiness of that comment!

  3. Sorry for your loss, Richard. My mum was about the same age. Feisty generation who came through some very difficult times. Before she died, I edited my mother’s memoirs and published as a book and then after it sold out completely, republished it as an ebook -Gaslight on the Cobbles. I am sure that you will be proud to publish your mother’s work and will receive joy and comfort in so doing.

    1. Congratulations on saving those stories Peter.
      Yesterday Barbara came across a book of dialect poems that my mum wrote and illustrated. The drawings were so similar to mine that she at first glance she wondered if I’d done them. I’m sure that we’re not going to find any diaries or letters that might form the basis of memoirs so it will be a case of piecing together a biographical sketch from the annotated photo album she compiled and the stories that she told us. As a start on that I’m going to put together a short account of her taking a party of evacuees away at the start of the war for a primary school that has links with the nursing home my mum was in.

  4. Sorry to hear about your mom. She was very talented and passed along a lot of wonderful traits to you. I find myself trying to put together things for my children to find when I’m gone. Just some “wise” thoughts, sketchbooks, etc. It’s good to see that these things might be of interest, as they are to you! 🙂

    1. Thank you Lisa. The latest thing that’s turned up is a letter my mum wrote in 2000, recounting her experiences taking evacuees to safety in the countryside in 1939. She’d written it to a teaching friend from that time. The friend’s daughter brought a copy of it to the funeral. Such a coincidence because mum’s work with the evacuees was the last thing that I talked to her about, scribbling notes as she reminisced. It’s great to have a coherent and chatty version of the story.

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