A Tribute to Joan

One evening during the war a young woman clerical worker from SOE, which organised the Resistance movements across Europe, met a Canadian Air Force officer at a West End servicemen’s club. That meeting has brought us together here this evening.

Winifred Burrell and Hugh Macdonald later married and moved to Vancouver where 75 years ago today, on November 9th, 1946, Joan was born.

The couple were not happy with their new suburban life in Vancouver and within a couple of years they were on a boat back to Britain. Joan was sent to Holland Park in the first intake of the nation’s first comprehensive school. Discipline was lax and she skipped a lot of classes but she did become President of the Science Society and led an outing down a Kentish coal mine.

Her first job was with Theo Cowan, then the pre-eminent showbusiness pr agent. She worked on films and West End musicals including Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof, as well as individual clients such as, David Niven, Brian Rix and Michael Caine. It was at Theo’s that we met.

Joan never actually liked showbusiness. She couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. I remember how Theo once took her to a lunch at the White Elephant where the eight guests included Ryan O’Neal and Elizabeth Taylor; when she returned, she couldn’t think of anything of interest to report.

In 1972 we left Theo’s to spend the summer island-hopping in Greece before returning to restart our careers. After a period running a flat sharing agency Joan joined a textile import company. Her task was to source clothing manufacturers for big American companies such as Gap, Banana Republic and Lands’ End which wanted cashmere, lambswool and corduroy. Here she found her metier. She had a real feel for fabric and aremarkable eye for colour. She loved the manufacturing process whatever the product – she insisted that we go to Kings Lynn to visit the factory which was going to make the floor that we are now standing on.

Joan developed a strong bond with her manufacturers and had a fervent desire to secure the orders which would keep their factories in business. It was gruelling work. She’d drive for miles across the snow-covered roads of the mid-West to reach the Lands’ End HQ in Dodgeville Wisconsin where sometimes she along with the workforce would have to shelter from a tornado in a vast underground panic room. She sweltered in the Turkish summer dragging her case of sample fabrics around the industrial estates where her business meetings were sometimes disrupted by small earthquakes. Once she phoned me from Chicago where she was trapped by a snowstorm. Her airport hotel’s heating system had broken down and she was so cold she had to keep her shoes on in bed. She would drive high into the Turkish hills to negotiate with carpet dealers in remote villages where there was a loom on every porch. She travelled to Hungary to buy glass, Italy to source yarn, Israel for cotton, and Lithuania for linen.

After setting up a European headquarters office for Lands’ End in Bond Street Joan started her own company, Sourcing Solutions which became a success thanks to her dogged physical and mental energy. Colleagues from different periods in her career have written to tell me of the influence Joan had on them, of the example she set, of the help she gave them.

Our holidays were a vital break from her frenzied work schedule. We fished for piranha in the Amazon basin, skied on the slopes of Steamboat and in the shadow of the Matterhorn. We stroked the stonework of the Incas, explored the citadel of doomed Aleppo, drove carriage horses in Hungary, wandered the Casbah of Algiers. We saw the great harbours of ancient Carthage, sailed on the Aswan Nile; rode on the backs Cuban dolphins; swam with the fat cats on Mustique.

Joan was more physically adventurous than one might expect. She’d been a sickly asthmatic child and did little sport but made up for it later in life dragging me on to the tennis court in our thirties. In our forties she thought we should try skiing. In her sixties she bought a dinghy with a friend and took sailing lessons in Chichester harbour.

At home she was an enthusiastic gardener moving from Good Life self-sufficiency at our agricultural hovel in Slapton to trying to bring some shape to the wilderness at Number 16. From an extremely unpromising start she became an inspirational and much-admired cook. Her marmalade was never equalled. Although her schooldays truancy had left her appallingly ignorant about history, she developed an intense interest in it becoming engrossed in historical novels about the Ottomans’ struggles in the Balkans as well as contemporary Turkish writers.

She loved the opera and dance. She had a fast grasp of a Netflix plot. And we shared a taste for physical comedy, for slapstick. Her laughter was as always a joy for me. Her taste in music was broad. She was as happy enjoying a local band in a Senegal bar as listening to Handel in Hanover Square.

Most of is become more knowledgeable and wiser as the years pass but I realised that Joan actually became cleverer. Fascinated by business and the stock market she was a shrewd investor. She was an exceptionally good judge of people. In argument she was feisty but always gracious, a contrarian who thought things out for herself. She was thoughtful, interesting and curious whether discussing the intricacies of residents’ association politics or the West’s catastrophic retreat from Kabul. It was easy for people to underestimate Joan. She did more listening than talking. She was very understated, her presence was, like her clothes, muted and quietly stylish.

I had, of course, always been well aware of Joan’s remarkable qualities but in her last months her cruel illness brought out something very special. In spite of her poor emaciated frame, the discomfort and pain she was enduring, she seemed so very noble and gallant in her bearing and conduct. She accepted her fate with an extraordinary equanimity I could not match. She was grateful to have lived the life we did, and grateful to have been given four more years of it. She was content.

Joan spent the morning of her last day lying on the sofa looking out on to the garden which she had created. She adored our home and never wanted to move out of Earls Court. She loved its quirky cosmopolitan buzz, the proximity of everything – the shops, the Piccadilly Line which gave us the West End and which also gave us Heathrow which gave us the world. It was all just there at the end of the road.

I cannot describe the depth of my grief or the chasm that her death has left me to face but I am thankful that that death intervened before her suffering grew worse. I am thankful that she died in our home as she wished and most of all I am thankful that she went first so that I did not leave her on her own.

I do not know how to offer my thanks for having the joy of her, nevertheless not a day passes when I do not think, ‘Thank you for having given me Joan.’

Joan dreaded parties. We’d start with the I-haven’t-got-anything-to-wear routine and then it would be I-think-you-should-go-on your-own. . . I-wont-know-anyone-there.

Well, my darling, you don’t need to worry about tonight – you know everyone because they’re all friends who have come here specially to remember you and how your life touched theirs. So now I’m going to ask them all to raise their glass in a toast to you to thank you for your time with us and to thank you for being you. To Joan!

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