My mother, Valerie Grace Patton, sadly passed away on 10th January, following a short illness.
Born in 1939 in Seaford, Sussex, her early life was inevitably shaped by the Second World War. Her father, Joseph James Chrismas, served with the Royal Engineers, helping to build the Mulberry Harbour in the weeks following D-Day. Her uncle, Frederick William Haynes, serving with The Buffs, was decorated for bravery in Italy – he spent a whole night stretchering the wounded off the battlefield under heavy fire. She herself was evacuated to Cheltenham when a Nazi invasion looked likely, but returned to Seaford before the end of the war, and could remember standing in the garden and watching a “doodlebug” (V1) flying over.
Mulberry Harbour in Normandy, which my grandfather helped to build.
As a young woman, she was caught up in the mood of heady optimism that followed the end of the war. She was one of the first cohort of nurses who helped to build the NHS. Many, including her own mother, told her she was not up to this role, but she proved them wrong, nursing with commitment and dedication, first at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in London, and then at the General Hospital in Jersey.
Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, Hackney Road, where my mother nursed.
It was in Jersey that she met my father, John Francis Patton, a hairdresser from Strabane in Northern Ireland. They married in 1964 and I was born shortly afterwards (1965), followed by my sister, Amanda (1967).
There is so much I could say about our childhood in Jersey but, more than anything, my mother imbued us with a sense of wonder about the natural world. There were long walks along the cliffs of Jersey’s north coast, and across the sand-dunes of the west; afternoons spent fishing in the rock-pools at Noirmont Point, always stopping to identify the birds, animals and plants we saw along the way. There are, of course, echoes of all of this in the pages of Undreamed Shores, as well as in my academic writing.
The sand dunes of Les Blanches Banques. We walked our dogs and enjoyed picnics here. It is also the "Bildosola" of Undreamed Shores, and the highest point on the photograph is where Meruskine speaks to Amzai, Nanti & Gwalchmai.
Then, of course, there was our love of literature itself. I learned to read before I went to school (to the disgust of my first teacher, who believed that only the prescribed method of teaching was appropriate) and, thereafter, we visited the public library in Saint Helier regularly, borrowing and reading three books each week, generally a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. My interests crystallised quite rapidly: by the age of ten I was reading a great deal of historical fiction (Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Renault, Henry Treece), archaeology (Glyn Daniel, Jacquetta Hawkes, Mortimer Wheeler) and anthropology (Sonia Bleeker), none of which will surprise anyone who reads my books.
Our annual holidays, when we could afford them, typically involved a week at Christchurch, rambling through the New Forest, visiting Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge for the first time; followed by a week at Seaford with Grandad, Uncle Fred and other relatives. Fishbourne Roman Palace made a convenient stopping off point on what seemed the epic journey between Dorset and Sussex (I have to laugh at this perception now, but it was the authentic perspective of a child growing up on a tiny island, and my memory of it explains why I have written the character of Amzai in the way I did), and this started me wondering about the questions that led me to write my second novel, An Accidental King, scheduled for publication later this year and dedicated to the memory of my parents.
In later years, my mother was able to travel to a far greater extent than was possible when we were all younger (I think she and my father pretty much covered up the material sacrifices they had to make to give Amanda and I the best possible start in life). She made three trips to Australia to visit her younger brother, Joe, and two trips to India, which Amanda and I shared with her (Amanda is married to Caj, whose family are Indian). It opened up a whole new world for her, a world that she secured for us through education before even tasting of it herself. One of my happiest memories is a day of bird-watching from a boat on the backwaters of the Mandovi River, where we saw ospreys, golden orioles and four species of kingfisher, among many others.
The backwaters of the Mandovi River, Goa.
Now that she has gone, it falls to us to make full use of the opportunities she opened up for us, and to do whatever we can to open up those opportunities for others.