My Grandma, Gwen Kartun, died last Saturday at the age of 93. This eulogy was written by my dad.
Gwen was born in Suffolk, in the little village, no more than a hamlet really, of
Little Whelnetham, near Bury St Edmunds. Her parents worked for a landed estate
of the sort that disappeared in their thousands between the wars: her father
Herbert was a groom and her mother Louise was a maid. She had a sister Ellen,
born three years before her and a favourite cousin, Eunice. Eunice is too frail to be
with us today, but we spoke to her on the phone at the weekend and she told us
that Louise was a real gentlelady, with a natural nobility of manner; Herbert was a
little gruff, more of a countryman.
Gwen played with the family’s daughter and was taken out hunting on their
ponies, somewhat reluctantly I gather; Herbert’s love of horses seems to have
skipped a generation. Being blooded can hardly have added to the fun. Music
was more her thing; she played the piano and sang in the church choir. After her
family had moved to Broomfield across the border in Essex, she won a place at
Chelmsford High School of Girls.
The late thirties were not a good time to leave school. One of her first jobs was
in a factory that repaired Spitfires in Hampshire. Gwen’s job was to answer the
telephone. One of the regular callers was Churchill in person; Gwen had to switch
his voice on to the Tannoy so all the workers could hear his pep-talk.
Gwen decided that she could make herself more useful – her phrase – by training
as a nurse. She trained at Westminster Hospital, which was soon evacuated to
Winchester. Her matron told her, “Please feel free to bring your pony”. She didn’t
have a pony but was bolted down Winchester High Street on someone else’s. She
The nurses were allowed out one evening a week for courting, two if they went to
church. She met and married a young teacher, who soon went off to fight the war.
Exactly seventy years ago this month the nurses sensed something was afoot: all
the patients were either discharged or sent to other hospitals; the nurses were
put hard at work cleaning and assembling extra beds, on one occasion working
for 72 hours at a stretch. Soon Gwen was tending the wounded from the D-Day
invasion, and a year later prisoners of war returning from the Far East.
At the end of the war she received a letter from her husband saying that he did
not want to continue the marriage and asking for a divorce. This cruel and callous
rejection scarred Gwen deeply; she never talked about it and we only heard the
story very recently from Eunice. Eunice added that he wasn’t a very nice man
anyway: domineering and a bit of a snob, so it sounds like a lucky escape.
Gwen volunteered to work in refugee camps in Eastern Europe, one summer
going to Yugoslavia and the next to Bulgaria. In Bulgaria President Dimitrov asked
to meet some of the volunteer nurses; Gwen was one of the chosen delegation.
He asked them if they had any suggestions. Gwen, being the most fearless, was
pushed forward and she said yes: the lavatories have been put very near the
kitchens and there’s a real risk of cross-infection. Dimitrov replied, “That’s just
what my friend Stalin said”. Incidentally, Dimitrov died shortly afterwards while
being treated in a Moscow clinic and there has always been a lingering suspicion
that he had become yet another victim of his murderous friend. However, Gwen
told me that she had recognised the symptoms of diabetes, which might offer a
Back in England, Gwen started a campaign for better pay and conditions for nurses
and with a couple of others called on George Bernard Shaw in Ayot St Lawrence
to ask if he would sign their petition. His housekeeper received them and took
them down to his summerhouse studio at the bottom of the garden but the visit
was not a success. Shaw, by then in his nineties and rather hard of hearing, got
completely the wrong end of the stick and chased Gwen and her colleagues away.
Later he sent her an abjectly apologetic letter, complete with very shaky signature,
like Cornelius in Babar the Elephant.
She was invited by the Yugoslav Embassy to a lecture given by a young communist
writer with an intriguing cosmopolitan background. At the end she asked a
question. The lecturer said he didn’t remember the question, but did see that the
questioner was a very attractive young lady and gave her all his attention. Derek
and Gwen were married in 1949.
Derek had a cousin who was a property developer who had managed to acquire
a whole run of rather fine Queen Anne houses in St Mary Abbott’s Terrace in
Kensington. He let Derek and Gwen live in one on the understanding that they
would scarper pronto when the bulldozers arrived.
With her new husband Gwen had acquired French in-laws. She decided to do a
cordon bleu cookery course and that sparked a deep interest in good food that
stayed with her all her life. She was a serious cook and never wore a mere apron,
but a long white coat like a scientist. It was the era of Elizabeth David and the
beginning of the opening up of English food to foreign ideas and ingredients,
especially those from southern Europe; Gwen was an early adopter of the trend,
particularly the classic French and Italian dishes. Anyone invited to their frequent
dinner parties knew they were in for a gastronomic treat. No one liked a good
party more than Gwen and she was a brilliant hostess. And how welcome it was,
when Deborah or Sally had just given birth, to find Gwen on the doorstep bearing
a huge casserole of ossobuco or cod Portugaise. Her Kensington house, with its
classical spaciousness and alluring cocktail of good conversation, international
sophistication and Mediterranean cookery, became the haunt of a large group of
After a couple of years Deborah arrived, and once when she was less than a year
old the family was staying with the parents-in-law in Paris when there was an
unexpected ring on the doorbell. The police had come to take away Derek, then
foreign editor of the Daily Worker and in the eyes of the authorities a suspicious
alien, for interrogation. They kept him for several days. Coping alone with a nine-
month-old in a foreign city, with a husband in police custody, while watching her
father-in-law across the dining table peal an apple with a knife and fork must
really have been a trying time for the young mother.
Then came Sally, and with her Anna Maria, the au pair from Parma. Anna Maria
became very attached to the family stayed for four years; Gwen eventually told
her she couldn’t be an au pair for ever and should get on with the rest of her life.
Even so, she did return for another spell after a few years. She became a younger
sister to Gwen and a second mother for Deborah and Sally. We are still closely
in touch and she sends a large parcel with parmesan cheese and other delicacies
Then came the bulldozers. All that remains of the Kensington household is an
acacia tree in the garden, now set in the pavement of that widened stretch of
Kensington High Street. The family moved to a new house in Highgate. It was
perfect for young families: a triangle of new houses enclosed a large communal
garden with mature trees, formerly the grounds of a large mansion. On Saturday
we received a letter from their very first neighbour…
…I have so many happy memories of Gwen – and also of Derek.
That first glorious summer in Hillside Gardens – our two families were the first in.
Gwen was so pretty in her crisp summer dresses and sometimes lovely in a bikini. We
were the youngest couple there are Gwen and Derek took on our education.
Simon was three months old and Gwen knew all about babies and pretty well everything
else. They were never patronising but taught us so much. They introduced us to their
(very) left wing and (very) intellectual friends. They taught us about schools, holidays,
Gwen was very much my idea of a lady. I once dared to tell her and she was affronted. “I
am the daughter of a groom”, she said, “and don’t you forget it.”
Her working class antecedents were impeccable and she was proud of them. But she
I am glad that you and Sally were with her at the end.
You were both very lucky with your parents.
Bob’s address is now the House of Lords, so all that savoir faire served him well.
In the mid fifties there was a programme on television called Family Affairs that
had a regular feature on childcare. Gwen realised that the interviews with experts
were conducted by actresses chosen for their looks, reading scripted questions
and never following up with supplementaries. Gwen wrote to the BBC suggesting
that it would be better to have someone who knew what they were talking about,
and that by the way she was a young mother and a also a state-registered nurse
and midwife. They asked her to come in to talk about it and immediately offered
her a series of twelve fortnightly programmes, which were followed by other work
in television. Later she worked for Woman’s Realm and Woman’s Weekly, writing
a column that answered questions on childcare.
Gwen and Derek shared a passion for all the arts, especially theatre and music and
made regular pilgrimages to Aldeburgh, Dartington and Glyndebourne.
She was in her element when grandchildren began to arrive at regular intervals,
ending like the climax of a firework display with two at once: Henry, Theodora,
When Gwen and Derek moved to Corsham in 1995 they were amazed at the
friendly welcome they received. They took to leaving the front door ajar so
that friends could just walk in when passing. Derek was still writing and Gwen
threw herself into hosting the play-reading group and the musical evenings. She
busied herself with the garden, her tapestry, reading in French and her favourite
language Italian as well as English and keeping up with current affairs.
Derek died in 2005, but Gwen remained fully engaged in life into her nineties
– giving President Netanyahu a piece of her mind in a handwritten letter (she
never understood why it had become impossible to find a decent typewriter),
and was pleased to receive a three-page reply outlining current Israeli policy
and an assurance that her views had been noted; becoming incensed when her
bank manager not only failed to answer by return of post but also asked to be
called by his Christian name – a sure sign of moral turpitude and national decline;
and asking about the new exhibition by “you know, that young man who’s just
come back from California” – it took us a while to make the connexion with David
Hockney. Her favourite television programme in her last years became Dad’s
Army. What resonances the series must have had for her generation.
In her last years she was looked after by a wonderful group of helpers: Jenny,
Brenda, Carol, Claudia, her artist tenant Caroline and Brian, with all of whom
Gwen made great bonds of mutual loyalty and affection. I would like to end by