Wednesday, 27 February 2008

A large lady - a huge heart

Anna Harper arrived in my office breathless, having climbed three flights of stairs [the lift, as usual, being out of order]. Her condition was not surprising, as she weighed all of 18 stone: she was never less while I knew her, and told me that she had been up to as much as 22 stone. Her obesity arose, she said, from scoffing copious quantities of cream buns and other junk food to assuage unhappiness during a stressful period of her life. Today’s New Labour universal nannies would have strongly disapproved of her for that. And for many other reasons as well.

Anna, who lived in Brighton, was in London for a meeting of a drugs prevention agency on whose committee she sat, and had come, “guided by the Lord”, to find out what the Albany Trust was up to. I was not immediately enthused, as other members of that committee included a notoriously puritanical – indeed, pharisaical - member of parliament and others who would almost certainly have strongly disapproved of our work. However, Anna’s visit proved to be the prelude to a warm and loving friendship that we both came to value immensely.

Anna, who was a few years older than me, had an innate sympathy with the young, and especially with the young in trouble. She owned a grand Regency house in one of Brighton’s posher squares [on the cliffs above where the Marina is now]. She let out part of the house, and one of the flats was empty so she used it to house young dropouts and drug addicts who had originally been found camping out on the beach by her step-daughter. Anna was a natural listener, and spent hours with her young guests learning about their lives and problems. She was guided in all things by her strong Christian faith, which was of the unorthodox ‘new testament’ variety: she was never afraid to wade into situations where she believed Jesus would have involved himself. She was a practical Samaritan.

Through this initial contact with the world of illegal drug users, Anna became a dedicated campaigner for the humane understanding and treatment of drug abuse. Now and then, almost inevitably, she was conned as a ‘soft touch’ but this did not deter her and she was gleefully proud of the fact that a Brighton magistrate in whose court she had appeared as a witness for one of her ‘tenants’ had described her as “the most dangerous woman in Brighton”!

Anna’s family were – like my own great-grandfather – upmarket hardware merchants and ironmongers, in Baker Street I believe, and she claimed they had originated the concept of garden centres. Her husband, Hughie, was delightful but extremely forgetful because of alcoholism. He was always cheerful, and used to appear every now and then and command everyone to “BE HAPPY!” Anna once telephoned me and wailed that she had just been weeping with her head on the mantelpiece because Hughie had forgotten that they were temporarily staying in London, and after having a drink or three too many with some former business friends had hailed a taxi and told the driver to take him “home”. When the driver enquired where home was, Hughie gave him their Brighton address, so the taxi careered down to the coast and Anna – who had very little money at that time – was called by a frantic Hughie who said he owed a £50 taxi fare and what should he do?

I often used to visit Anna in her lovely house, and these occasions were always interesting and usually involved some unexpected happenings. I once spent a holiday with Anna and Hughie in a Cornish cottage, where she involved herself in a séance with some local mystics [which I didn’t join]. She had a large motor caravan, and from time to time used to tour the country with Hughie, going wherever the Lord led them.

After Hughie’s death, Anna sold the Brighton house and took a post as warden of a Christian retreat centre in Hampshire. I stayed there with her several times, and on one occasion my mother accompanied me. She and Anna got on famously. Although not the most organised of people, Anna was ideal as a wise and comforting ‘listening post’ for distressed and lonely people.

But alas! her physical problems of chronic overweight and diabetes took their toll, and she died suddenly in September 1983 aged only 63. The owner of the retreat house wrote to tell me, saying she was sure that the celestial trumpets were blowing for Anna, who would be receiving a great welcome in Paradise. However that may be, I only know that I still miss her irreplaceable friendship, and in my mind’s ear I can after quarter of a century hear her voice saying, as she answers the telephone, “Oh, how nice to hear you!”

Dear Anna, rest in peace.

1 comment:

Jose said...

This narration shows good, real friends never die. Their memories are always kept inside our minds to come up whenever something reminds us of them.