A tribute to the New Forest's Shirley Williams by Mark and Hugh
Shirley Williams who died recently was a girl of the New Forest and one of the strongest, least vain and most honest women that British politics has ever seen.
This week Hugh and Mark appreciate the life of Shirley Williams who died recently.
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At a time when sexism was rampant in British politics, Shirley Williams a wonderfully determined woman fought her way to the top. Not many realise that for a time she was a local girl. Your team of two has never taken the normal reporting route and this article will be no exception. We shall ignore the easily garnered list of positions, awards, dates and all that guff. Instead, we shall try to take you into the mind of one of the strongest, least vain and most honest women that British politics has ever seen. Now read on.
A forest girl who loved a risk or two
The mother of Shirley Williams was Vera Brittain who wrote Testament of Youth. This best seller was a largely autobiographical account of the effect of WW1 on the lives of women and it comments upon the largely unfavourable attitudes towards educated women. She was a feminist and a pacifist and as you will see this rubbed off onto her daughter. In 1939 Vera purchased Allum Green Cottage; German bombers were more interested in the factories and docks of Southampton but, tragically, the war touched Lyndhurst when in 1940 Allum Green House was bombed. Four soldiers were killed and fourteen injured; former colleagues erected a memorial bench on the spot in 1980.
A love of the New Forest and of nature
Shirley was fortunate in having a nature loving mother. As they walked around their beloved forest Vera would tell her daughter of different birds from their song. She could identify the different butterflies, (remember them?); plants were also a great favourite and the young Shirley was constantly flooded with questions and information. In the early morning, deer would graze outside their cottage and the sense of tranquility was such that Shirley felt that the place became a refuge for both her and her mother. It’s amazing what this Forest of ours can do for us. After reading of her mother’s exhaustive knowledge, I felt a little ashamed of myself and suddenly felt the urge to buy a pocket book of plants. Would you know your sorrel from your spurge?
Go on, I dare you
The young Shirley appeared to be addicted to danger. In her autobiography she wrote that she had an instinctive desire to conquer her fears and that when the thought of something frightened her, she pursued it. One of her favourite pastimes was getting lost in the forest, I’m sure many of us are the same. When in London as a child she climbed over the edge of a temporary Bailey Bridge in order to descend the scaffolding at the side where there was nothing between her and the Thames far below. She was daring alright. But then politics needs daring. The topic is so divisive that many pubs have a sign behind the bar saying No Politics, No Religion. Shirley fervently believed in getting out and talking to people. This, at a time in Britain when chauvinist pigs believed that a woman’s place was in the home. Not for our Shirley it wasn’t, she bravely met the electorate and on the doorsteps of England she debated her cause.
Nature or nurture
Shirley was, as many of us are, a product of her parents and not just biologically. Her father gave her the gift of self-confidence; this was a man who couldn’t see any difference between what could be achieved by a man or a woman. The young Shirley was influenced by a father who was a hundred years ahead of his time. He allowed her to climb library shelves (the title of her autobiography), all the way to the top. These adventures remained a secret between the two. The mother could only see failure and broken bones, the father could only see success and increased confidence. As for her mother Vera, she educated the fifteen-year-old Shirley in a very open way telling her that some people were heterosexual and some homosexual. In fact, in order to illustrate the fact that her (rather famous) mother was heterosexual yet attractive to members of the same sex she made a point of taking Shirley to see women who were besotted with her.
It is clear that these parents had a profound effect on the young girl and that because of their influence, she was never going to be ordinary.
It takes bravery to change things
When Shirley was at Somerville College, Oxford she was friends with Val Mitchison, daughter of the Scottish writer and broadcaster Naomi Mitchison. One day they were called into the office of the President of the Junior Common Room and asked not to make a show of what was presumed to be a lesbian relationship. These two were made of sterner stuff and for the next few days this brave and heterosexual couple made a point of holding hands wherever possible. It was two fingers to the male dominated establishment.
Shirley commented that it would be another generation before it became normal for women to have female friends. For men to have men friends was of course perfectly acceptable but not women. Look how far we have come in terms of equality. Try for a moment to consider the courage and conviction needed to challenge these archaic social mores.
A proper politician
The electorate generally gets what it deserves. If it is silly enough to vote Tory for a frog that has been painted blue or Labour for a toad that has been painted red then they are stupid. Parties will abuse this misguided loyalty in order to gift a seat in parliament to those who are both favoured and pliant. Hugh and I were talking about a local politician, Robert Key, who walked into a pub and warmly greeted a local by name. That’s a proper representative of the people. In essence this was Shirley, she loved discussion and would actively engage in the electorate. If she had a flaw it was that she would use common sense and manners. These days our glorious leaders voice only the polar opposite view to that of the other party. Debates today are combative, not constructive. Shirley was a glorious speaker in that she saw both sides of the argument.
Mind your toes
Incredibly it was once considered acceptable to pinch a woman on the bottom. When she was a waitress Shirley and her colleagues devised a simple yet effective strategy to deal with persistent offenders. They perfected the art of the not entirely accidental splash of hot soup directly ‘on target’. ‘Sorry Sir, how clumsy of me’ they would exclaim as the luckless pervert hopped about in agony. Even more incredibly this behaviour continued to be a problem when she entered parliament. Her response was to wear stiletto heels with which she would impale the foot of the culprit. These days there would be a report, an enquiry, many column inches in the press and, ultimately, a whitewash. Shirley took a more direct course of action. I can just imagine the bedroom conversation that evening. ‘Darling, what on earth has happened to your foot? It’s black and blue!’ ‘Um, must have stumbled I suppose’.
Never lie to a woman, she will smell your fear.
A loss to the country
We generally don’t seem to get many decent politicians. So many crave the seductive glint of the television camera lens. As they grin like chimpanzees at a tea party these vain people tell us what we want to hear and then invariably do something completely different. Shirley, brave as ever, was more for knocking on doors and telling the truth. People such as her are the decent and honest foundations of our democracy. She will be missed and women everywhere ought to be grateful for the changes she has doubtless helped to engender.
The final word
A colleague of Shirley’s once told a story about her. They were on a train and the inspector came by, Shirley couldn’t find her ticket and was becoming flustered.
“Don’t worry Shirley, I’m sure you have it somewhere,” said the inspector.
“No, I really need it, you see I need to know where I’m going!”.
More tales and cartoons for Lymington and the New Forest from Mark and Hugh
If you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons, just click here!