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Friday February 13 2009

This is the Eulogy that my eldest brother Toby delivered at our Mother’s funeral on Feb 4th.  Toby spoke from memory, but what follows is what he pretty much memorised.  Some of the words he used were his own, but the order in which the story was told was exactly as follows.

Welcome to the funeral of Philippa Micklethwait.  We’re very pleased to see so many people here to give Philippa a good send-off.

Philippa was very fond of cats.  Photos, paintings of cats, miniature cats of all kinds, and books about cats were everywhere in her home.  Philippa liked not so much their cuteness, but rather their calm, self-sufficiency, dignity, self-control and capacity for simple enjoyment.  Cats are sociable and friendly, but they do as they decide.

Philippa recently told of how her last cat, Matilda, died.  First Matilda stopped going out.  Then she stopped eating.  Then she stopped drinking milk.  Finally she stopped drinking anything at all, and died.  Philippa clearly had her own death in mind.  And that was how it was.

She had a fall in November of last year.  A doctor did visit, but she recovered on her own.  But she did not recover from the effort that this recovery demanded.  She retreated upstairs.  She was visibly fading.  We moved in full time to look after her.  She ate as much and for as long as she could.  But in early January, there came a moment when she could eat no more.  Then she couldn’t drink milk, only water.  And then, she died, sparing herself and us as much grief and pain as she could.  We were grateful for the complex equipment supplied by professional carers in those final few days and hours, but grateful also that we were soon able to return it, unused.  Philippa remained alert and in control to the end.

Philippa was born in 1914, in the London home of the Bosanquet family, 38 Kensington Park Road.  They also spent time at Dingestow Court, near Monmouth, where Philippa first met her future husband Robin - when he was twelve and she was a baby in a pram.

Philippa and Robin were married in 1936.  Between 1939 and 1947 they had four children, Toby, Daphne, Peter and Brian.  As a mother, Philippa began by dutifully following the stern, clock-bound orthodoxies of her time, doing, as always, what she thought was right.  But she came to believe that the having, feeding and raising of children could be a more natural, less regimented and more instinctive experience, for both mother and child.

In 1947 the family moved into 71 Harvest Road, in Englefield Green.  The family, then Philippa and Robin, and finally Philippa on her own, lived there from then on.  In their large garden, Robin and Philippa grew an abundance of healthy food, both being organic gardeners long before such words became fashionable.  For decades they enthused and argued about compost heeps.  Happily for us boys, Philippa’s love of the garden did not mean that she forbade cricket, often herself joining in games of French cricket.  Her father having been a keen cricketer at Dingestow, she approved.

We children also remember charitable activities.  During the 1950s and 1960s, Philippa was a fundraiser for the RNLI, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.  We sold flags, and made people put money into cardboard lifeboats.  Was Philippa then working for one fine charity - “funded entirely by voluntary contributions” as it said on the lifeboats - in order then to apply that experience to the building of another?  Maybe.  For by then, she had embarked upon the major project, in terms of its impact on the world, of her life.

Philippa’s mother, Mary Acland Bosanquet, was a big influence.  She had been active in the then very controversial birth control movement, helping women to choose when they had their children in much the same quiet but formidably determined way that her daughter later helped women to choose how they had them.*

In the late 1940s, Philippa had got to know about the work of the maverick obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read, who had expounded his idea of “natural childbirth” in the best selling book Childbirth Without Fear.  Defying current medical orthodoxy, Dick-Read said that childbirth need not be the high-tech, authoritarian ordeal that for so many dutifully ignorant, personally isolated women it had become.  Women could be in control of their bodies, provided only that they were helped to prepare, by such things as learning to relax and to breath appropriately at critical moments, instead of tensing up.  Philippa was one of a group of remarkable women who together turned this new vision of childbirth into a movement and an institution, at first the Natural, then the National Childbirth Trust.  We children remember how pregnant women would lie on the floor of the sitting room doing relaxation exercises.

At the heart of Philippa’s work for the National Childbirth Trust was not the demand that natural childbirth should be a new orthodoxy to replace the old.  Sadly, human childbirth cannot work like that.  Caesarean sections are a regular necessity, and have saved many lives.  But what Philippa did believe was that mothers need not be passive victims of childbirth, as a matter of medically dominated routine.

In 1971, Philippa became the President of the NCT, continuing in this role until 1985.

Philippa’s life was all about control and choice and independence.  Her life’s work became helping others to have and to enjoy the same choices and the same self-control that she wanted for herself.  If a mother wanted to have her baby in a swimming pool, why should she be forbidden?  If the human body supplies milk with just the right nutrients that growing human infants need, why insist on switching at once to cow milk?  If a baby cries, now, why not comfort it, now?  Certainly, if other mothers felt the same instincts as Philippa did, they should not be commanded to override them by bossy medical professionals.

Philippa generally preferred to work behind the scenes, persuading, negotiating, cajolling.  But from time the time the gloves came off, because many mothers were either going to be allowed to do approximately as they wanted now, or never.  Philippa was never happy being “Lady” Micklethwait.  After her distinguished lawyer husband who had earned this title had died, she stopped using it.  But meanwhile, her being Lady was a handy weapon in the NCT’s various campaigns and activities, and in general this appendage helped to make natural childbirth more respectable.  So, Lady Micklethwait she became, for the duration.

Philippa was particularly proud of a letter she had printed in two newspapers.  Christmas celebrates a birth not noted for the dominant presence at it of the medical profession.  But some maternity hospitals were closing over Christmas.  Births were being artificially induced to fit arbitrary hospital timetables.  Was there, Lady Micklethwait memorably asked, “no room at the inn?” An official rethink followed.

By the time she left the NCT in 1985, Philippa was already turning her attention towards helping the elderly.  She drove and organised other drivers for Meals on Wheels, and for the local Darby and Joan Club.  She helped to run an Abbeyfield home for the elderly.  Once again, the objective was to help people who are often bossed about instead to lead lives as independently as they still could.  A particular medical intrusion upon the elderly that Philippa became especially concerned about was (just as it had been in maternity hospitals) the excessive prescription of medicinal drugs, with all their often alarming side-effects.  Sometimes the cure for an old person’s ills, she found, was simply to stop taking the pills altogether.

When active help like that became too much, Philippa went on giving to other charities, in particular those concerned with improving the environment, and with developing more natural, less industrialised ways of growing food.  She did this by helping enterprises she approved of, “I approve” and “enterprising” being among her favourite expressions.  She did not favour laws against things that she disapproved of nearly so much.  There are, she often said, too many laws already.  She also believed, like the RNLI, that government money can undermine the independence of a charity.  When the NHS switched from trying to ban natural childbirth to offering help, saying that the NCT’s job was now done, and when the government began to offer grants, she was suspicious.

Philippa was never a party politician, but she had her opinions.  In 1992 she read a summary of the Maastricht Treaty, and did not approve.  Why should the country be controlled by others, to no purpose other than to boost the importance of those doing the controlling, and to churn out yet more laws?

Personally Philippa was frugal.  She didn’t wear expensive clothes or go on big holidays.  The cars that she and Robin drove were never more than serviceable.  Had she been Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer during the last decade, the country would not now be in nearly such an economic mess.

So, would Philippa have approved of this coffin?  She would certainly have preferred it to the usual sombre and ornate construction.  But she would have thought even this very extravagant.  She would probably have chosen a much cheaper receptacle, made of recycled cardboard.

As the NCT said in their bulletin, when she stepped down as President, “What does one say about someone who is loved and respected but who rejects fuss and praise?” They managed to say a few things: “She had the courage to tackle difficult issue without hesitation. ... She was a good person, and very unstuffy. ... It is her personality, beliefs and true radicalism that have made her unique.”

In the spirit of that radicalism, we will later be singing “Jerusalem”. Philippa did not cease from mental fight.  She did all she could to keep England’s land green and pleasant. 

So we shall sing Jerusalem, to cheer ourselves up, and to encourage ourselves to go on doing the things we think are right, and to do them right.  That is what Philippa helped so many of us to do, and would have wanted for us all.

This made me get all tearful at my desk, but not in a thoroughly unpleasant way.

Posted by Jackie Danicki on 14 February 2009

I think if everyone could manage just one tenth of what your mother achieved in her life, the world would be a much nicer place to be.

Posted by 6000 on 14 February 2009

Here, here!  A fitting tribute to a remarkable woman.  Again, my sincerest condolences to you, Brian, and to your family.

Posted by Brian Mullins on 14 February 2009

The eulogy has unmistakable character as well as the woman it’s been written about.

Brian, what happened to your mom’s cats?

Posted by Tatyana on 15 February 2009

thank you for allowing us to read this lovely eulogy

Posted by KMcC on 15 February 2009

What an absolutely beautiful piece of writing. The ending is brilliant and moving and relevant to anyone who cares about what matters. I especially like how Toby talks about the NCT, an organisation which I personally benefited from, in the form of ante-natal classes where genuine truths were told that the NHS class in my area did not choose to mention.

Posted by Alice Bachini-Smith on 15 February 2009

I am sure that many of those fine qualities live on in you and your relations, Brian. A very fine piece of writing.

Posted by Tom Burroughes on 16 February 2009
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