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Camden New Journal - By PETER JAY
Published: 31 January 2008

The full text of Peter Jay's eulogy at Hampstead Parish Church.

MY text is taken from chapter 3 of the book of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, the fourth verse, which Claudia has already read to us: “a time to mourn, and a time to dance”
This, I want to tell you this afternoon, is truly, not a time to mourn, but a time to dance, a time to dance with joy and in triumph - joy and triumph on her 95th birthday for Peggy’s life, the life in which she so fearlessly and ferociously fought the good fight, which we have made today’s theme on the front of the service sheet, but also joy at the triumph of her death. If ever we could ask “death where is thy sting ?”, we can ask it now, because Peggy did in a very deep sense triumph over death.

Thomas Hardy in the reading we heard tells us of
The eternal thing in man,
That heeds no call to die.
But Peggy did in a way heed that call. She thought much about death in recent years, not fearfully or wanting to dodge it, but with all that extraordinary emotional intelligence that informed so much of her life.
She died where she wanted, when she wanted, with those she wanted, how she wanted, with serenity and without pain, having had the final conversations she wanted to have, having resolved in her mind the remaining issues of her life, still in the fullest possession of her formidable wits, in her final days dissecting the private agonies of the Labour Party, quizzing a grand-daughter about the exact focus of her work, confiding in me her final resolution of the ever-absorbing subject of her marriage and having had one last precious week in the Isle of Wight with Helen and more recently Christmas in Dorset.
She long ago decided that the only thing about death which she feared was being a burden to others, more particularly a burden whose mind and recognisable personality had fled from an exhausted body. She never was that sort of burden; and to the end she knew who she was and who we were. She wanted death to come before that happiness was taken from her. And it did.
It is true – and I am happy to be able now to pay tribute to them – that she inspired such devotion and affection in her dedicated carers that she certainly was well supported as bodily strength ebbed away. But it was a labour of love; and I give thanks above all to Catherine who with Stewart’s unstinting support made it possible for Peggy to triumph over death in the way she wanted, but also to Jill and Larissa and most recently to Egne, and Lynn and Hyacinth and her caring team from Camden. Peggy’s very last words, ever thoughtful of others, were thank you to them, who loved her and whom she loved.
But even more than her triumph over death it is the triumph of Peggy’s life that we celebrate today. Deeply interwoven throughout most of her ten decades were in fact two lives: her public life as campaigner, tribune of the people and fighter for causes both national and local; and her family life, also highly combative, as daughter, sister, mother, aunt and matriarch.
The list of the causes which she championed is long, spectacular and extraordinarily successful. Sister Catherine has perhaps best diagnosed the key to her effectiveness, namely a rare gift for perfect timing, launching her campaigns just when an idea’s time has come. As Victor Hugo remarked there is no more powerful force. Perhaps this came from her endlessly repeated conviction that her much loved father’s career was wrecked by his gift for launching daringly radical and eventually successful new ideas two decades too soon.
Examples abound of her ability to see when the moment was right to put her formidable energies behind a new cause:
O Abolishing the hated 11+ exam which condemned those who failed to a second-class existence from that age onwards
O stopping the splitting up of homeless families so that mothers and children were sent to reception centres without their husbands
O fighting hospitals who thought sick children did better when their parents were kept away from them (unfortunately this insight arrived some years after I was isolated for many weeks in an oxygen tent in Great Ormond Street at the age of 2; but happily not before Catherine was in hospital for 2 weeks with pneumonia age 6 when Peggy hardly left the hospital much to the fury of the matron. She was rightly proud 20 years later when grand daughter Emily spent 5 weeks in Great Ormond street with parents and families woven into the fabric of the nursing teams)
O opening the 1 o’clock clubs for mothers and young children… realising long before it was well known that new mothers can be isolated and need somewhere to go where they can get support and make friends
O campaigning to bring mentally handicapped children out of long stay hospitals (often as in Friern Barnet in adult psychiatric hospital) and into community family homes where they could be offered education as well as basic physical care
O appreciating long before the environment and protecting it became fashionable that the Heath needed protecting and that having a beautiful and large open space in London is a hugely important asset
O fighting McDonald’s and their proposed take over of what is now Waterstone’s long before burger bars became unpopular (even if her reasons had more to do with aesthetics than obesity, which fortunately she did not regard as a great evil)
O protecting Well Walk’s great trees by interposing her person between them and Council vandals armed with power saws (even if her response to the argument that local council tenants were otherwise forced to live in the dark 24 hours a day was not politically entirely correct, remarking as she did that such people were not fit to live in Hampstead)
This penchant for direct action could be unnerving to her accompanying children, not least her tendency on hearing, or fancying she heard, a crying baby in a house she was passing, to hammer on the door, reprimand the inmates for gross neglect or worse and threaten to summon the police or other guardians of abused children, sometimes to be told that the bawling infant was in fact on the telly.
Peggy was too an early pioneer of spin, making full and effective use of the press to advertise and broadcast her campaigns, supplying them with good copy, which she was always ready to dictate to any willing reporter. The Ham & High in the great days of Gerry Isaaman’s brilliant editorship – I see him in his place - could hardly, it sometimes seemed, fill the space between the ads without her. This too was an idea whose time had come, even if some of its latter-day practitioners have lacked Peggy’s ability to distinguish the “good fight” from a squalid brawl.
All-in-all, as the obituaries have so extensively recognised Peggy the public person was a great lady, a woman with a super-charged social conscience, a suffusing sense of public duty, the courage of a passionate and resonating heart, an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong and a liberating indifference to wealth and recompense. Whether in council chamber, committee room, parole board, magistrate’s bench, on the open heath or out in the street, wherever she found herself and wherever wickedness showed its face, she fought the good fight with all her might
And now I come to family. In this too she was a fighter, a tigress loyal to her progeny loving, encouraging, directing, sympathizing, at times also bossing, nagging, bribing, poisoning and stealing, or - as she called it - recycling.
I was her first born; and there will be those here who know what I mean when I say that a special load is carried by an eldest child, placed as it were are on the steepest slopes of their mother’s learning curve, experimented upon, victims of both trial and error, doomed to suffer the absurd indulgence extended to undeserving younger siblings and ever bound to shoulder the lonely responsibility for the well-being of the whole family. None understood this better than Peggy, the first chapter of whose memoir is most poignant on the subject.
Accordingly I account myself exceptionally fortunate that from the earliest years – after Great Ormond Street anyway – my memories (with Martin through the blitz, the V1s, the V2s, falling ceilings and exploding front doors, to say nothing of the far more threatening hazards of Peggy’s cooking and Douglas’ conviction that the way to keep warm was to run the stove full on without bothering to ignite the gas) are of huge fun and all-encompassing love.
Family custom, however, obliges me on all occasions honouring Peggy tradition requires me to tell the story of her attempted intervention in my naval career.
Having contracted German measles in Hamburg, yes really, I was isolated in a Scottish hospital and therefore unable to attend the board on which my promotion to Midshipman depended. Terrified as I then was of all forms of naval authority, a petty-officer for example or even worse a two-striper lieutenant, I was struck closer to permanent paralysis than at any time before or since by receiving a letter from Peggy telling me not to worry because she had spoken to Uncle John’s neighbour, the First Sea Lord.
Peggy, despite her lifetime commitment to left-wing and radical causes, was on occasion an unashamed snob. Family members who brought reports of appointment to head office were warmly received, after years of vital work in the field had been sedulously ignored. Those who won places at universities not attended by her father or herself were referred to in particularly sepulchral tones usually reserved for news of fatal illness.
She would have liked the title Dame Peggy which the Ham and High, if not alas the Sovereign, posthumously bestowed upon her last week. As well as an occasional snob Peggy, though no athlete, was a good sport. Few who were there will forget the awesome spectacle of her in her eighties and in the fullness then of her well-nourished frame rowing out to sea in a tiny dinghy not far from where Nelson boarded the Victory for the last time, to rendezvous offshore with Hugh Stephenson, who I also see in his place, in his catamaran LaRoha into which she was then hoisted by bo's'un’s chair slung from the end of the main boom. Stern indomitable men looking on could not stifle a cheer.
Thus to our mother, our aunt, our grandmother, our great-grandmother, our mother in law, our friend, our neighbour, our champion, our comrade in the fight, all the roles which she so magnificently filled in one way of another for all of us here today, we say thank-you, we say well done, we say we loved you and we miss you. You made us live. You made us laugh, you made us cross, you made us think and feel and care. We are better because of you; and now we lay you to rest, not with tears and sad faces, but with pride and hearts aglow.
So, let us rejoice. Indeed let us dance in celebration of Peggy; and, even if British decorum and the all-too-slowly changing climate prevent us from issuing forth from the Church door in the manner of the African funeral dance Umlalisa with drums and fantastic steps to surge across Hampstead Heath proclaiming the death of our Queen, in our hearts we may jump for joy and say to one another
“My God, she did it. She fought the good fight and now looks down on a world that is better for her victories”.
Had she been a Roman she would have been awarded a triumph and we would have saluted her, as I do now “Peggy, Imperatrix”, Peggy the conqueror, Peggy vanquisher of so many of humanity’s foes.

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