A Celebration of the Life of Joan Levitt MBE, 1925-2012
Foxlowe, Leek, 23 June 2012
On behalf of all our family here today, welcome. For those of you who haven’t met us, I am Sally, also known as Sarah, and this is my brother Tom. These are our children, Joan’s grandchildren, Catherine, Annie and Jonathan.
It’s wonderful to see so many friends here from different aspects of Joan’s life; some new, some very old indeed. Every one of us has been enriched by her somehow, and so we have come together today to mark her passing and celebrate a life well-lived. Many of you comforted and supported Joan in all kinds of ways during her long illness, for which we are incredibly grateful. Our heartfelt thanks go also to all of those Hartington Street neighbours who have actively supported Joan over many years, especially since John died, and have been such good friends to Joan and her sister-in-law Peggy over the last year.
We are also really grateful for your published tributes to her, in the Leek Post, the Sentinel and elsewhere, the literally hundreds of letters and cards we received, and all the donations to Douglas Macmillan Hospice, which came to well over £1,000.
We do hope you enjoy this event, which will last about an hour, followed by tea. We also thought you would like a souvenir hand-out, and a slideshow. These were quite a challenge – how ever can you capture such a life in a few words and pictures? Also there was quite a lot we simply did not know. So if you spot any errors or omissions, or have any nice pictures, we would love to hear from you.
It was fun looking through all our photos to make the slideshow and remembering the things that made Joan “Joan”. You can see the way she twinkled as a ten year old, about the time Moira Davies, who is here today, first knew her. Look out for Moira as Joan’s bridesmaid, wearing the yellow dress my grandma made for her, and you’ll also spot John’s sister Peggy in the wedding photo. Greta Plowman, June Wrathall and Betty Ward, also here today, have equally venerable pedigrees.
The mounted pictures show Joan in her last couple of years, on holiday in Edinburgh, having coffee last March in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, washing up, and then, when she was already very poorly last November, valiantly leafing through Delia Smith and triumphantly creating a sponge pudding. What a great cook my mother was!
Remember too, the way Joan talked. For “a Saint” she was often surprisingly forthright. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, she had a strong puritanical streak, and a way of saying “poo!” when she didn’t approve of something, which was actually quite often. She was a stickler for detail. Her mother, my grandma, drilled this into both of us- she was a dressmaker who liked homilies, and used to say “you must always be willing to unpick and do it again”. I did just that yesterday. I wasn’t happy with the original handout and found a new printer in Leek. When he saw the job he said “Oh, it’s for Joan Levitt is it? – I’d best get it right then!”
Joan would also make things you told her sound so much more fascinating when she relayed them to someone else- all in the interest of a good conversation and wanting to share her enthusiasm, but you did want to curl up sometimes! I have own up at this point to inheriting her tendency to add glamour- I inadvertently substituted the cosmopolitan Alsager for Congleton in the obituary we originally sent out, as the town where she first taught.
Joan did this because she was an optimist about everything. She was a huge believer in Progress, and that it was possible to make anything happen if you worked extremely hard, prepared meticulously, and collaborated with other people. This last was absolutely crucial. I talked to Joan about what sort of memorial event she would like. She looked at me in complete surprise and said “I won’t be there so I have no views on the matter.” then she relented and said “I expect the Organisations will want to Say Something”. We are delighted that they will indeed “Say Something”. Thank you so much to all our speakers, who Tom will now introduce, accompanied by Joan’s grandchildren.
TOM Thank you, Sally. I will have my say shortly, but in this main section of our tribute it’s over to you… Since Mum’s illness and passing we have been inundated with messages of support, remembrance and kindness and we would like to share some of them with you. If we don’t use yours in this collection please don’t be offended! There were just so many to choose from.
Throughout her life, Education was perhaps Joan’s principal love, her career choice, the common interest – perhaps in different ways – of her and John over almost 60 years of marriage. Over the next few minutes Joan’s grandchildren will be reading out some of those comments.
But first I’m going to ask Judy Samuel, former Head teacher of Leek High School, where Joan was Chair of Governors for many years, to say a few words about Joan and education.
TOM Thank you, Judy. Here in Leek that passion showed itself not least in her role as a teacher – and there is at least one of her former pupils here today – at least two, actually, as I was her pupil for (I think) just one lesson in the early days of St Edwards. As Judy has said, it is in her role as a school governor that she is best remembered by the education fraternity. In that role, no fewer than three Heads of Leek High School wanted to express their respect and thanks to Joan.
First, Pat Fisher’s words, read by Catherine…
CATHERINE She always demonstrated the utmost perception and integrity and provided continuity and unfailing support through our school’s many changes.
TOM Kevin Hollins wrote in a similar vein…
CATHERINE I can say with absolute sincerity she was one of the ‘best’ people I have ever known. She combined compassion, sincerity and dedication in equal measure. I never knew her to act other than to promote the interests of the young people in the school. She lived rather than espoused socialism.
TOM More of the living socialism later! Judy Samuel wrote to us about Joan chairing the board that appointed her as Head at Leek High…
CATHERINE I knew straight away that I had met someone very special: very strong, very determined and with a deep strategic vision.
TOM Leek High was not the only school which benefited from Joan’s skills, wisdom and energy, as Caroline Coles of Horton Lodge Special School reminded us:
CATHERINE Under her steer, Horton Lodge transformed into a National Centre of Excellence. Joan was a formidable chairman of governors and someone who really knew how to play the role of “critical friend”, providing sound advice, guidance or support whenever it was needed. All Joan’s meetings were structured and organised and no reports or documents ever escaped her fiery scrutiny.
TOM Often overlooked in Joan’s contribution to education was her part, with John, in creating the body of academic literature about our language itself. Written whilst bringing up two young children – who were necessarily farmed out at weekends to grandma in Macclesfield to watch George Formby films on the television around 1960 – the book is still available today and used in universities around the world.
CATHERINE I treasure my copy of The Spell of Words, the book that was your parents’ joint production (as you both were!). It is so like them, a combination of erudition and wide culture, yet wholly in touch with our common humanity.
TOM John Toft there, who knew Joan for over 50 years. There were many messages from people who knew John and Joan before they knew each other! Mary Marsden remembers them meeting in Manchester…
CATHERINE I recall John’s radiance when he first met Joan! One took for granted the utter reliability of their relationship.
TOM Whilst others knew Joan even before that. From the Adelphi Players in Macclesfield Greta Plowman, who is here today, said…
CATHERINE I am sure there are some brilliant people being born at this moment, and others just coming to maturity, but it is little consolation when the Joans of this world are taken from us.
TOM Indeed Moira Davies, the bridesmaid Sally mentioned, is also here today. The other bridesmaid cannot be here as she is in poor health in the south of France; Jean Battaglini. Jean wrote:
CATHERINE Ours was a friendship which lasted over 80 years even though we didn’t meet for long periods. We spent such enriching and affectionate times together.
TOM Yet another who was at their wedding was the pianist, Harold Taylor, a friend from school days in the 1940s:
CATHERINE Joan’s mother and father were very hospitable and a gang of us teenagers used to gather “up at Joan’s” on Sunday afternoons to listen to music (often my piano playing), play cards or discuss the burning issues of the day. She was ‘politicised’ even then.
TOM Harold went on to observe something so many here will recognise:
CATHERINE Of course, Joan kept up that tradition of hospitality throughout her life.
TOM By the 1960s Joan was making her presence felt in North Staffordshire, not least as the Chair of the BBC Radio Council, as Sandra Chalmers, sister of Judith and Manager of BBC Radio Stoke in its formative years, remembers…
CATHERINE She was a wise, canny but always supportive Chair… Joan was so proud of North Staffordshire and its solid but creative roots; I was privileged to know her and to learn from her.
TOM Thank you, Catherine. The University of the Third Age and its base at Norton House were symbols, standard bearers, of Joan’s contributions to the community of Leek. To give us the ‘official’ memory of Joan from the University of the Third Age, please welcome Tessa Abberley.
TOM Thank you, Tessa. Many of those involved with U3A were keen to share their memories of Joan with us. As Tessa herself told us in a letter, read for us by Annie:
ANNIE Her skills were legion: her ability to access grants, find speakers, refuse to take no for an answer, meant that Leek U3A flourished.
TOM Even last November, well into the period of the cancer which she knew she had for eight months, though possibly had it much longer, when the challenges of getting up the stairs and keeping herself nourished in the absence of appetite would have been enough for anyone else, she still had her priorities – as Maureen Wiskin observed:
ANNIE Joan herself, while clearly in some discomfort, was bright of eye and eager to speak about plans for a writing project at U3A and the process of getting Labour candidates for the forthcoming by-elections.
TOM In Trevor Siggers’ recent Chair’s report to U3A he did not spare the praise:
ANNIE Norton House would not be what it is today without the driving vision and energies of Joan. She has never sought fuss, only action, results that translate into good fellowship and enriching activities for older people. So, in a Wrenish ‘look-around-you’ way, our appreciation of her leadership and efforts over so many years is most fittingly demonstrated by a busy and buzzing Norton House and U3A.
TOM That sentiment – that a busy and buzzing Norton House is the finest memorial – is one of which she would have heartily approved. And here, again in Tessa’s words, is how that happened:
ANNIE I met two people this week who run U3A classes and have done since it began. I asked them how they became leaders of their groups. Both said the same thing: ‘Joan Levitt persuaded me’.
TOM Those powers of persuasion were legendary. Pat Fisher describes a phenomenon known to many, not least (I have to say) Joan’s children…
ANNIE Although I couldn’t speak Italian I soon found myself teaching it at the U3A! Joan had the knack of easing people into jobs without them even realising it!
TOM It was that ability to bring people together that was so potent.
ANNIE Joan had a wonderful capacity to gather people around her, make them feel welcome, and to encourage and appreciate anything they were able to do.
TOM The words of Liz Bradshaw, of Norton House. U3A’s Hazel Robinson wrote a wonderful eulogy to Joan in the organisation’s magazine, but in her letter to us she dwelt on Mum’s character rather than her achievements:
ANNIE She had an uncanny way of getting people to listen, I don’t recall her ever raising her voice or getting angry. She could quickly run through a set of accounts, correct grammar, discuss history, geography and – of course – politics.
TOM …these sentiments are echoed by many, not least Chris and Marianne Wakelin, colleagues from Keele University:
ANNIE Our first conversation ranged from Sugden and Staffordshire dialect to kitsch, a flying start. Over 35 years Joan has been such a force for good in our lives: kind, generous, tactful and wise.
TOM And this was publicly recognised, too. Here are the words of Belinda Hargreaves, formerly of U3A but now a reporter on the Leek Post:
ANNIE She was a lovely and most inspirational woman.
TOM The last word in this section goes to another former member of U3A, now moved away from Leek, Penny Spinks. She describes another quality which many will have felt – in the nicest possible way:
ANNIE Joan was an inspiration to me always, though in our early relationship – she terrified me.
TOM Thank you, Annie.
The Staffordshire Moorlands Council for Voluntary Service was another organisation close to Joan’s heart. Here is Jill Norman to tell us about my mother’s contribution.
Joan was a leading campaigner in setting up a voluntary services centre in Leek. In 1978 Leek Town Council identified Bank House as a suitable building and Joan worked hard to find the money to make it happen.
As well as writing to Lord Northfield of the Development Commission in London to get a grant she also argued for an additional levy on the town council rates to pay for the purchase and refurbishment.
That decision attracted a lot of criticism from District Councils and in the local Press which she countered in her typically robust and effective manner.
As part of the development of the Voluntary Services Centre, Joan helped to set up the Leek Voluntary Services Committee which was the forerunner of our organisation today – Staffordshire Moorlands Community and Voluntary Services.
In 1979 the cost of running Bank House was £3,500 and the staffing for the voluntary services centre cost £3,800. Today the costs are rather different at £25 K for running Bank House and £½ M for salaries. With 27 paid staff, 175 volunteers and a wide range of services across the Moorlands – from helping the unemployed get into work to advising voluntary organisations how to tender for contracts – the CVS has grown and developed over the last 30 years. And Joan played a major role in that development.
Joan was chairman of the CVS Board for many years and remained a very active Board member. She was involved from the start and stayed on the Board for more than 32 years until she had to resign due to her ill health at the end of last November.
We very much valued Joan’s input to meetings with her thoughtful and forthright contributions – often spotting things others had missed – and her emphasis on the future of the organisation – she always looked forward and she never said “we used to do it like this” Even at her last CVS Board meeting she made a difference, encouraging the trustees to look to the future.
Thank you Joan.
(By Harry Edwards, Chair of SMCVS and Jill Norman, Chief Officer of SMCVS)
TOM Thank you.
Those legendary powers of persuasion were evident in many of the walks of life along which Joan strolled. Jonathan, please.
JONATHAN I was thinking of her famous fundraising pitch and it made me smile. I am sure you’ve heard her say “If you can afford a Mars Bar a week…!” She was so persuasive you hardly knew you were parting with any money at all.
TOM Maggie Saxon, there. Public recognition of her contribution to the community was never overtly sought – other than in thirty years of seeking to win elections, of course – but it came: not just in the form of an honorary Master’s degree from Keele University but in being summoned to Buckingham Palace to be invested as a Member of the British Empire, MBE.
JONATHAN Joan and John were a brilliant team but she was also a marvellous member of society in her own right who achieved so much for Leek and Stoke. Her MBE was much deserved. I will miss her very much.
TOM Jane Pickles sums up the thoughts of many there, though Joan would have politely demurred: whilst she may have been a catalyst the achievements, she would have claimed, were always the achievements of others. Talking of the MBE, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Matheson of Matheson sent us his condolences:
JONATHAN (in a military style) As Registrar of the Order of the British Empire may I send sincere sympathy to you and your family and friends in your loss.
TOM From the public to the private. As one of Joan’s neighbours in Hartington Street wrote:
JONATHAN What a kind and generous neighbour you have always been.
TOM Another who came across Joan in many strands of public life, Cynthia Lubascz, wrote that Joan had been:
JONATHAN A true friend, trustworthy, from whom one could always expect and receive intelligent comment, compassion, sympathy and understanding.
TOM Anne and Paul Anderton were amongst many who came to Leek and found her so helpful:
JONATHAN On Joan’s death we suddenly felt that a light had gone out of our lives. As we found out in 1962 she took newcomers under her wing, offered friendship and unobtrusive help and put other people first, never rehearsing her own achievements, which were substantial.
TOM And amongst those who left Leek a long time ago the memories remain. Former teachers of both Sally’s and mine at Westwood, Catherine and John Pallet:
JONATHAN With both Joan and John gone Leek will not be the same for us. But they will live on as friends, mentors and touchstones of enlightened and civilised living.
TOM ‘Touchstones of enlightened and civilised living’; I like that.
As we have said, Joan was active right up until the end, in her 87th year. Although a committed member of the British Humanist Association and never assuming a religious persuasion, she acknowledged the role of believers in Leek’s local history and community. ‘Church, Parish and People’, the last book to which Joan contributed, is the story of St Edward’s church in Leek – next door to where we are now.
Faith Cleverdon, its author, described Joan as:
JONATHAN Someone who cared deeply about others and was unsparing in the time and thought she was willing to give.
TOM Her character attracted admiration from across the generations. Here is George and Maureen’s daughter, Hannah Wiskin:
JONATHAN I will always remember her as the life and soul of the community with a mischievous sense of fun and a true role model for us all.
TOM And the final word in this section goes to Nigel, Julie, James and Bethan – and I’m sorry I don’t know your surname!
JONATHAN It was always a delight to be in Joan’s company, a considerate and engaging human being who exuded so much positive energy.
TOM Thank you, Jonathan.
From 1960 onwards, originally as running mates in the council election that first brought Joan into public life, Eileen Murfin was a close political colleague and friend. Eileen…
TOM Thank you, Eileen.
Joan always knew that for campaigns to be successful, collective thought and action was necessary, however eloquent the protagonist might be; and she saw the Labour Party as a base for collective actions based on common and community values. Joan’s approach to politics is summed up by the Scurfield family – Jenny was a Labour councillor alongside Joan in the 1960s and 70s. Catherine…
CATHERINE Your mother had a tremendous and extremely good influence on me when I first came to Leek … Joan taught me everything about politics, especially one’s personal responsibility to get involved.
TOM Derek Parry reports that at a party to celebrate Joan’s MBE, Jenny Scurfield said –
CATHERINE “Every town should have a Joan Levitt and we are very fortunate to have one”.
TOM And Jenny’s daughter, my political and social contemporary, Georgie, remembers from her home in Nevada…
CATHERINE She was such a great role model for us all. All that great political thinking and work – the combination of analysis and activity is so powerful – I try to follow her example every day.
TOM Anne and Paul Anderton commented:
CATHERINE Joan has been such an inspirational person in Leek and surrounding areas with her commitment to local politics, social organisations and the arts. She has contributed so much and has been greatly and justifiably admired.
TOM In 1970 Labour lost what was then the Leek constituency to the Conservatives and was not to regain it again until 1997, as Staffordshire Moorlands. If this depressed Joan, she didn’t show it. In the early seventies a young man came to Leek to try, unsuccessfully, to become its Labour MP. As with all Labour’s local Parliamentary hopefuls over those years, Joan took him under her wing and was delighted when he won a seat elsewhere, going on to become a much respected Minister for the Arts. Mark Fisher writes:
CATHERINE She was a wonderful example of how to live a decent life – modest, tenacious, indomitable, unselfish, always liberal and altruistic. And invariably positive and optimistic. To enter 2 Hartington Street was always to enter a decent world, of the best values.
TOM ‘A decent world, of the best values…’ Mark goes on…
CATHERINE And for an extraordinarily successful and effective person who achieved so much (we’d never have had a New Vic without her) she was always more concerned with others than herself, forever pushing aside my stated belief that she ought to have been a Labour Peer – think what good sense she would have contributed on Local Government, the BBC, Health, the Arts. And look at some of the people the Party did put in! Oh dear, what a waste!
TOM Mark was not the only future MP to have learned their trade at my mother’s knee, as I know very well, having served 13 years! Charlotte Atkins was the MP for Staffordshire Moorlands from 1997 to 2010, including time as a government minister, and she recently became Councillor Atkins of Staffordshire Moorlands District Council.
CATHERINE You have been an amazing friend and role model! Thank you for everything you have done. I could not have achieved what I have without you.
TOM Joan’s name became known in the wider political field, too. Former Education Secretary, now Baroness Estelle Morris wrote to me –
CATHERINE The obituary was lovely. Your mother was clearly a determined, principled and lively woman. I can tell why you went into politics!
TOM Leader of the Labour Group on Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, Councillor Margaret Lovatt:
CATHERINE We celebrate Joan’s life both as a wonderful mother and grandmother and the amazing contribution which she has made to the Leek and North Staffordshire community.
TOM Mike and Beth Finch put mum’s political passion into context:
CATHERINE May we add our tribute to the passing of a true socialist stalwart, of a generation who gave back to society much more than they had gained and without thought for any personal or financial reward.
TOM Perhaps Pat Guy (nee Lovenbury) sums it up most succinctly:
CATHERINE Leek has lost one of its best public servants.
TOM Thank you, Catherine. Passionate about the built and intellectual heritage of our country and region, another of Joan’s interests since her early days in Leek was the town’s heritage, such as the Brindley Water Mill. Here to say a few words is John Newall.
TOM Other political colleagues have also left their memories with us. Jocelyn Morrison, from the local Labour Party:
ANNIE A wonderful lady whose enthusiasm inspired us all.
TOM And Charlotte’s agent, Terry Riley:
ANNIE An inspiration, friend and guide… Joan’s influence will benefit the many for years to come.
TOM Phil Egerton said that Joan was:
ANNIE A dear friend and inspiration.
TOM Whilst John Newall put his finger on a set of talents that mark the difference between a politician and a statesperson:
ANNIE I served with her on many committees and her ‘charming firmness’, if I may put it that way, kept many erring negotiations and discussions on track. She was an inspiration to many people.
TOM Sarah Fitchett said that Joan was…
ANNIE … an inspiration to all and a wonderful human being, generous and understanding and a great loss to the community.
TOM And in the words of Trudy Alcock:
ANNIE She was always a source of inspiration as a woman, a politician, a campaigner and a carer… thoughts of Joan have always evoked great respect and will continue to do so.
TOM Now, you will have noticed one word running through all of those quotes and some of the earlier ones, too. It’s the word ‘inspiration’, the most common of all those found in the (literally) hundreds of tributes that we have received. I’ll return to this theme in a little while. Sir Roy Shaw was John’s boss in the Adult Education department at Keele University, who later became the Secretary General of the Arts Council. Joan and John became close friends of Roy and Gwen, who in their tribute remembered the first time they met her…
ANNIE Joan and John were the first to entertain us when we came to Keele. We arrived at Hartington Street that evening and Joan came rushing in behind us, a little flustered. She had been at a Labour Party jumble sale… We were impressed by the way in which Joan handled her many roles, not letting entertaining John’s new boss stop her from carrying out her political commitments.
TOM On hearing of Joan’s death Roy sent us his apologies for today’s event, due to his own ill health. Unfortunately, he died himself two weeks later. Some of the tributes we received were, of course, of the more formal kind and it was nice that Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, upon which Joan sat for over quarter of a century, paid their respects. It was even more touching that the letter came from the Chair of the Council, Councillor Jason Hails, whose wife Doreen is one of Joan’s former pupils at Milner Hall and whose daughter Charlotte is a long time friend of my daughter Annie. Jason wrote:
ANNIE Everyone has different memories and stories to tell of the good work she did, be it with the U3A, Staffordshire Moorlands Community and Voluntary Services, as a school governor, as a local councillor, teacher or more generally a good and caring citizen of the town. The local community has lost a great, tireless campaigner and trusted friend and she will be hugely missed by all residents of Leek.
TOM We earlier heard a reference to Joan being a superb grandmother and these three fine specimens on the stage are, of course, her grandchildren. We should also note the unconditional and immediate way in which John and Joan accepted Teresa’s children, Alex and Vicki, my step-children, into the family – and subsequently their partners and now four step-great-grandchildren too. Annie, please read us the thoughts of your half sister, Vicki and her family: Greg, Barton, George and Amber out there in Australia…
ANNIE So wish we were there with you to celebrate the life of our gorgeous grandma Joan.
TOM As we have already heard in another contribution, the Victoria Theatre in Stoke and especially its successor, the New Vic, were a real passion for Mum. In this contribution from Albert Cooper we see again that penchant for organising which was Joan’s hallmark:
ANNIE Joan was a democratic chairman who handled the sometimes dreary business of meetings efficiently, in such a way that it was a pleasure to attend. She was a miniature powerhouse having enviable energy and utter commitment. Well into her seventies, she never missed an important engagement. Despite her many achievements, she was ever modest and delightful to be with.
TOM A recent programme from the New Vic remembers Joan’s contribution. Fiona Wallace, the current Executive Director of New Victoria Theatre tells us:
ANNIE One comment, made by John Morton our Head of Marketing was – “Joan was a wonderful woman, one of that post-war generation that was determined to build a better world and has kept on building through her entire life”.
TOM It was not just theatres but relationships that Joan was adept at building.
ANNIE The fact that you cared made us all feel valued and consequently we all care about you.
TOM The words of the New Vic’s Theresa Haskins. Back in Leek, says Betty Ward:
ANNIE She roped us in to organising coffee mornings for the New Vic, over many years. She was a real inspiration to us all and will be missed greatly.
TOM There’s that word again: inspiration. And from Romy Cheeseman:
ANNIE Joan was an inspiration and I shall treasure her memory.
TOM Thank you, Annie.
Brian Fender is the current Chair of Trustees at the New Vic, and was also Vice Chancellor of Keele University both when John worked there and when Joan received her honorary degree. Brian, please take the stage.
Sally’s further thoughts
Thank you so much to all our speakers. Brian’s final contribution also reminds us of Joan’s long association with Keele University, where John worked for nearly 50 years. John was an outstanding academic, but Joan too had a deep knowledge and interest many academic subjects, for example English language and literature. Joan especially enjoyed poetry and so I leave you with a poem.
This is Abou ben Ahdem by Leigh Hunt written in the early 19th century.
Some of you may wonder why I have chosen this. Joan was not a believer in divinity, and indeed her non-belief in the supernatural, or life after death, was extremely important to her. But what Joan did believe in was humanity. Joan valued religious expression as part of the rich culture and heritage of mankind, of our developing understanding of how we should behave towards one another, and of the lives of so many of the good people with whom she shared her 86 years of existence. All of us, whatever our religious belief, will recognise Joan in this poem:
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
2012 seems to be the year for celebrating small but dynamic women who have spent 60 years in public life: a diamond jubilee, no less. Indeed, a speech I heard recently on a similar subject began “Your Royal Highness… Mummy”.
Today we’re remembering not Mummy, but Mum. Joan. Mrs Levitt.
Before I say a few words I’d like to remind you that you are all invited to stay on for tea and refreshments, and to look round the building; to see what volunteers can do when they set their minds to it!
I want to talk about Inspiration – that word that kept recurring in the quotes you heard.
Jane Pickles said how much Joan deserved her MBE, and so she did: for services to the community.
MBE – it stands for Mother’s Brilliant Example
Her life was committed to the values of public service – values, not structures, ideologies, certainly not ‘reasons why not’ of which public life has too much.
Living those values is about how you conduct yourself. As Kevin Hollins said, Joan did not espouse socialism, she lived it
The influence someone might have in public life might be due to power, money or position, though especially within a locality it’s about argument, discussion and persuasion. So many have testified today to Joan’s powers of persuasion! Didn’t various people say in our presentation that Joan persuaded them to commit to doing something, to giving something, to becoming something, without them realising that the persuasion had worked?
But you can’t persuade people unless you convince people.
And you can’t convince people unless you are convinced yourself.
And that was where Joan was a master of her arts: seeing a problem, understanding it, choosing her campaigns; acknowledging the rationality that underlay the public service ethos; knowing her limitations, recruiting others to address those limitations, building a team; never taking her eye off the ball, always making sure the fundamentals were secure before building on them.
Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.
Our mother entered public life when I was six and Sally 4. By our teenage years we had already clocked up many years of electioneering experience. I was elected Head Boy at 16, Sally was elected Head Girl 2 years later. I was Student union secretary at 19, then a Councillor, then MP at 43.
Who do you think was my inspiration?
Going to Parliament is what Joan, as Mark Fisher said, ought to have done and no doubt would have done if she had been of a later generation. And she would have been great at it.
In some respects I feel I did it as proxy for her.
And Sally has worked all her life in the public sector too, in arts and heritage, a career based on values, culture, equality of opportunity and access, broadening the understanding of who we are and why we are who we are, subjects so close to Mum’s heart.
Mine and Sally’s earliest political memory – Mum putting Labour leaflets through letter boxes and us following behind, pulling Tory ones out of them. Apparently you’re not allowed to do that after your 8th birthday, or so I understand.
It was a world of jumble sales, of number taking at election times, of the Labour Party office here in Foxlowe.
My second earliest political memory: 1965, Joan adamant that we shouldn’t eat oranges or sticky, sickly sweet mints from South Africa, frustrated that she could find no products from Rhodesia to boycott.
My third earliest political memory: Dennis Healey with Mum in our front room. I was talking to Dennis a few weeks ago, just days before Mum died, and he said how well he remembered Harold Davies and visiting Leek that day.
He said he remembered the day well, but you know what 95-year old men are like. And you know what politicians are like…
Not all of them.
And Joan and John wrote a book between them when we were children, a seminal work, as you heard in John Toft’s quote; and Sally produced her first proper book before she was 30 and several more since, and Joan contributed to many books over her lifetime – we have heard today about her final literary contribution, to Faith’s book on St Edwards church, next door – the book is being launched next week – as is my first proper book! Look me up on Amazon, ask me about a discount…
And that book – ‘Partners for Good; Business, Government and the Third Sector’ is dedicated on its opening page to my inspiration… to my mother, who unfortunately did not live to see it in print.
That is what we learned from our mother.
As natural as breathing.
Breathing – as any biologist like me will tell you – is a process of inspiration followed by expiration, as is a fulfilled life.
And it is both inspiration and expiration, an inspired woman and an expired woman, that we are remembering and celebrating today.
The passing of a truly original, wonderful, inspirational person – who wouldn’t have taken exception to a bad joke like that.
A true leader of people whose mark on this town – when she chose to apply it – can never be overstated, whose influence on this family is there for all to see not least in the public service records of Sally and myself.
A woman whose ashes are now mingled with John’s in the River Dane, the river which marks the interface between the Cheshire of her birth as Joan Flood and her adopted Staffordshire where she lived as Joan Levitt, on their way out to the sea.
And as we say Goodbye to Joan we acknowledge the end of an era, a life well lived and a woman well loved.
An inspiration to us all… which is why we have come together to say thank you to Joan.
Thank you, Mum.
Thank you, everybody.