My mother: Irene McNair

August 12th 1918 – January 2nd 2007


Irene McNair was born on 12 August 1918 at Ross on Wye, the second daughter of Samuel and Sarah Brookes.  She grew up in the Vale of Evesham, where her father worked in market gardening, giving her a lifelong passion for gardens, fruit and vegetables. Her parents’ enthusiasm for literature and amateur dramatics provided her with a love of literature and theatre, as well as an encyclopaedic store of quotations. However, her childhood was not always easy. Her father had been a conscientious objector during the first world war, and they were forced to move jobs and homes several times in response to local hostility, well into the 1930s. During her childhood a baby brother died while they were living in a converted railway carriage.

In 1938 when working on a holiday job at a Holiday Fellowship centre in Devon she met John, then about to go up to Cambridge. Here they developed the shared passion for walking and the country, which stayed with her throughout her life. In 1942, when she was working for the BBC Monitoring Service at Caversham, she married John on leave from the Army.

After the war they lived in Kent with her mother (then a widow), and then with John’s extended family in Yorkshire. While there, while John was training as a teacher, their first child, Stephen, was born.  Although she spoke little French, they moved in 1948 to France, still recovering from the war. There John taught in Grenoble, and her daughter Barbara was born.

Returning to England in 1950 they moved to Wembley, and three years later to Hatfield where they lived while Stephen and Barbara grew up and left home.  She was active in Oxfam and CND, and with John she raised funds for  the local Boy Scout Troop, organising Jumble Sales and Dog Shows. Family holidays took them camping in England and Scotland, on marathon tours of France and Spain, and pioneering canal cruising holidays.

In 1966 they moved to Alderley Edge in Cheshire when John became a Lecturer at Manchester University, and in 1967 Stephen married Margaret, and produced her first two grandchildren, James and Andrew. At Alderley Edge Rene took on an allotment, from which she produced copious quantities of fruit and vegetables for many years, and began winemaking, which she pursued with passion.  In 1982, John undertook a research project which involved interviewing educators in many parts of Spain. Together, they spent five months living together in a caravan touring the country.

In 1983 John retired, and they moved to Todmorden, to be closer to the hills and walking which they loved. In these years Barbara produced two further grandchildren, Grace and Thandi. This was a difficult time when John was diagnosed with cancer, but she supported him through surgery and recovery, and they were determined to demonstrate that life could continue, as fully and actively as before. They worked together for the Hebden Bridge Citizens Advice Bureau, the Urostomy Association and the Labour Party, and helped to found Todmorden Easy Theatregoing.  They spent much time with their grandchildren. They also travelled together, to Germany, America, Zimbabwe and Canada.

In 1992 they celebrated their Golden Wedding with a large party, demonstrating the wide range and large number of their friends, and the event was repeated on a smaller scale, with the Diamond Wedding in 2002, the year when she made her first public speech, to a regional meeting of the Urostomy Association at the age of  83.  In 2003 her first great grandchild, Andrew’s daughter, Hope was born.

In the last few years her health deteriorated, with a number of strokes, and arthritis which left her increasingly immobile. With a characteristically businesslike approach she set out to make John self sufficient, teaching him to cook and manage the garden, and they continued cooking, gardening and theatregoing together until, in September 2006, she was admitted to Halifax Royal Infirmary after a severe stroke. In November she moved to Millreed Lodge in Todmorden.  John was at her side every day throughout the last months of illness, never giving up hope that she would recover. She died peacefully in her sleep in the early hours of 2nd January 2007, leaving her widower, John; two children Barbara and Stephen; four grandchildren, James, Andrew, Grace and Thandi, and one great-grandchild, Hope.

So what was she like as a person? One side her was firmly rooted in the home and family: in her role as mother, grandmother, and most recently great grandmother, and in her marriage to John. Their 65 years together was a deep partnership founded on a very strong set of shared values, and on shared enthusiasms: for walking, for social change, for travel, the theatre and literature and for friendship. When they disagreed, as they did from time to time, it was usually about the means not the ends. But she was never a solemn person. She came from a family where political and moral issues were treated very seriously, but the theatre, entertainment and joking were part of the lifeblood of the Brookes family. They revelled in amateur dramatics and entertainment, in jokes and songs.

She married into a family which shared the values, but took them in a more stern Presbyterian form, and she always saw part of her job as preventing us all from getting too solemn about things: the soundtrack of our childhood includes political argument, the news and Woman’s Hour, but it also includes the Spike Jones and his City Slickers, the Goon Show, Kenneth Horne, and later Jake Thackwray.

She saw her role in the marriage as equal but supporting to John.  Her job was to make the home and family work, and she saw being a “good housewife” as an art, something to be done thoroughly and well, and never a trivial activity, or one conducted to impress others.  She was an excellent cook, she made clothes and curtains, and kept the house spotless and organised. We ate well, even in the dark days of post-war rationing, and her Sunday dinners, jams and marmalades were memorable. We also ate adventurously, partly fed by her experience of living in France. In the 1950s I recall searching the shops of St Albans for olive oil, in the days when it was something you could only buy from a chemists for medicinal purposes.

In Alderley Edge she added winemaking to her skills, and the quantities and quality grew over the years. At its peak there were 400 bottles of home made wine in the garage in Todmorden, and it is a tribute both to her enthusiasm and hospitality and our capacity that they were all drunk.

Gardening was another passion. Her father had instilled a love of fruit and vegetables, and of growing things. Wherever she lived she created a garden, most strikingly in Todmorden, where she produced an orchard, and quantities of soft fruit from a most unpromising piece of cold, sodden, Pennine hillside. And her politics, her homemaking and her passion for gardening intertwined. She always tried to support local, and Fairtrade products, and would always prefer to buy from the market or the farm rather than the supermarket. Every visit to the house included a trip to Gordon Rigg’s garden centre, and it is touching now to receive condolences from the market traders from whom she has bought our food over the years.

Above all, she saw keeping the family together as her job, even during the struggles of adolescence. Maintaining the relationships was vital, through shared meals and outings, through a hand of cards (at which she often “forgot” the rules), and party games. It was touching to see this spirit passing on down the generations when, before Christmas her three year old great grandchild, Hope visited her in Millreed Lodge. As they left, Hope said to her mother “mummy, we should take great grandpa home with us because great grandma is poorly and she can’t look after him” – the caring inheritance lives on.

But her life was about much more than just making the family work. It was part of a much broader political commitment which she put into action through a range of causes.  She always described herself as a Christian, by which she meant a set of values, which she distinguished clearly from formal churches. No doubt her early upbringing had much to do with this: she was born in 1918, at the very end of the first world war, and her parents choice to name her after Irene, the goddess of peace, reflected the hopes of a whole generation for an end to war. Her father’s conscientious objection to the first world war laid the foundations of the pacifism and socialism which she shared with John.  Her concern for justice and equality, for good neighbourliness, at every level from the family, the local community and internationally can be seen in the causes which she supported..

She was not a natural joiner of organisations, and was never one to stand on platforms, although finally, at 83 she was persuaded to make a public speech to a regional meeting of the Urostomy Association. However, she was a member of the Labour Party, she did door to door collections for Oxfam in its early years, she was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and took us on one of the earliest Aldermaston marches. She was involved in Amnesty, and the Anti-Apartheid movement, and the Boy Scouts. My childhood memories include long discussions in the kitchen about social and political issues. When she moved to Todmorden it was natural that she should join the Citizens Advice Bureau as a volunteer, as well as supporting John as secretary of the regional Urostomy Association. Her love of theatre was one of the forces which helped create Todmorden Easy Theatregoing, which has brought pleasure to many people in the area, as the condolence cards testify.

She was also an adventurous person. For someone with very limited French, moving to France with a 2 year old immediately after the war was not an easy thing to do, nor was having a first baby in a French hospital. But she took on new challenges throughout her life. We spent long holidays camping. In a Morris Minor Traveller piled to the roof with luggage and with Barbara and me perched on piles of blankets in the back, we spent weeks crossing Europe on sweltering summers in the days when holidays abroad  (and aircon) were almost unknown.  On one memorable occasion near Madrid we tried Sangria at lunchtime, and after discovering that it was not, as described, a refreshing lemonade drink, all four of us spent the afternoon sleeping it off on a roadside verge outside Madrid. We tried canal cruising when it was still an eccentric, and distinctly primitive occupation, When, in 1983, John embarked on a research project involving interviewing educators all over Spain she gamely embarked on five months living in a modest caravan as they travelled around. When Barbara moved to Zimbabwe, and Grace was born, she travelled with John to visit them, and subsequent holidays took them to America, Canada and Germany. I vividly remember taking them to the airport and watching with trepidation as they set out, unescorted, in their 80s to visit America for the first time.

But finally all journeys led back to her first home, the Vale of Evesham, to buy fruit to preserve, make jam and wine, and just to return to where she had been happy as a girl with her parents. When I was a child she used to tell me stories of her childhood, little stories of games with her friend Margaret Rose. Throughout her life she always returned: she could manage to make Evesham seem a natural stopping place on the way from Canterbury to Alderley Edge.

Until her health declined in the last few years she was always a bundle of energy, endlessly at work, and determinedly, and sometimes stubbornly, pursuing what she thought was right, sometimes impatient of the compromises which others saw as part of the world of real politics.

 She lived in a family of teachers, and she loved teaching her children and grandchildren, stories, songs and poems, how to read, how to cook and how to grow things. We all remember snatches of verse, often comic, sometimes poignant, many of which she herself learned from her father.  She was never half hearted about anything, and sometimes impatient of other people who took life differently. She was fiercely attached to her children, fighting for us, and hanging on to us through thick and thin. Later this extended to her grandchildren, especially Grace and Thandi who lived spent much time with her in Todmorden. She was always keen to convene family events, to keep us in touch with each other, to have a meal and a hand of cards.

She made our home, she made us laugh, she made us what we are,   she helped shape our beliefs and enthusiasms, the way we talk, and the way we think. We will be for ever in her debt.