The Fallans were in Lakeland’s Eskdale for Easter 1999. The elders had no mobiles and would have been completely incommunicado at base camp, but for the younger members of the party. Early one morning, Carolyn's sister rang Joanna with the news that Brian Littler, Carolyn's dear father, had died, finally worn out by his Parkinson's Disease. Carolyn, upset though she was, was determined to be the chief speaker at his funeral at Tunbridge Wells a few days after our return. Her loving eloquence on the day moved everybody present. She reminded everyone that Brian had always wanted to drop dead on the 18th tee at the top of his golf swing. Carolyn's equivalent wish was that, in our dotage, the senior Fallans would have one rip-roaring champagne party at the top of the Wasdale Screes, then leap aboard shopping trolleys and hurtle to a certain death 2000 feet below. She would never have expected cowardly me to do such a thing, but I know that she would have expected me to be up on my feet to honour her this afternoon.
As Kate said to me the other day, “she had style” - not showy and flamboyant, but vivid, good humoured and original. The words and phrases that distinguished her were many – not only “gobsmacked”, but also “vexatious”, “incandescent”, “toe rag”, “bummer”, “mesmerizing”, “ghastly”, “I’m working my fingers to the bone”, “I’ll bet my sweet bippy” and more. “Fleabag” and “Ratbag” were her favourite endearments for me, always used when the going was good. When she called me "Geoffrey", a name she was not fond of, something was usually amiss. So similarly when Kate was reverted to Catherine.
By contrast, contrast Carolyn was known in her family from early days as "Podge". For all I know, Rosemary has probably called her that all her life, but in the forty years Carolyn and I knew one another, I never called her Podge once.
She and I got engaged in early December 1967 in Oxford. Her parents were on the Embassy staff in Washington at the time so she spent Christmas with my family. We had made a pact with Brian a few days earlier, that we would tell my parents the news on Christmas Day over the port before 10 o'clock GMT. My parents had announced their own engagement on Christmas Day 1940 and they had been hoping for good news from us that day. But, as the meal ran on later than scheduled, they became increasingly despondent at our silence. Carolyn and I, in turn, became more anxious because 10 o’clock looked likely to arrive before the port and the expected phone call from Carolyn’s mother in Washington. In the final countdown, everything worked to perfection.
Carolyn was meticulous and maintained our home beautifully. The internal decoration of our house was entirely Carolyn’s work: the arrangement of flowers in vases, the dried flower decorations, the immediate clearing away of anything de trop or contrary to her designs. For me to wipe a work surface was a complete waste of time. She always came along behind me and did it again herself. Indeed she was still insisting on cleaning the doorstep a month ago because, as she said, “I must be doing something.”
Carolyn used to claim she had always been game for a challenge. She terrified neighbours by painting all the external woodwork of our house without a ladder or a scaffold. When she did use a ladder three years ago, she fell off it when there was no-one else at home and had to rescue herself, bleeding, badly shaken and covered in paint. This August, she still managed to redecorate the dining room, hall, stairs and landing – the hardest painting in the house. Her escapades (swimming in rivers and lakes, climbing walls and bum-sliding in the snow - until once on Great Gable her backside crashed on a submerged rock), were as much part of her sense of fun as her letting off party poppers at Heathrow Airport to welcome American friends to London, and spending the night before Charles and Diana’s wedding with the girls at a brilliant pavement vantage point on Ludgate Hill.
Over the years, she and I developed a kind of private domestic teasing and banter - kinder than Harold Pinter, less witty than Oscar Wilde - but better I think than her recent birthday card to me which proclaimed “We have a strange and wonderful relationship: you’re strange and I’m wonderful!” The banter grew out of every situation of our lives together, from making the bed in the morning, to occasions like our holiday in Italy 18 months ago when, most uncharacteristically, she threw away our return tickets whilst unpacking our luggage on our arrival. The mistake only came to light at Florence Airport when we were due to fly home.
Twenty years ago, I helped with the launching of a magazine for those studying classical subjects in the Sixth Form. We called it “Omnibus”. In the beginning, Carolyn watched me struggle throughout half term with Letraset transfers and paste-ups and other arts now lost. Little did she imagine that she would become the magazine’s distributor. It was typical of her selfless devotion to activities of mine that, by the time she became too unfit to cope, she had distributed well over 100,000 copies from our dining room.
Carolyn was an avid follower of several professional sports. In her youth, she was a ball girl for Althea Gibson during the Wightman Cup. Wimbledon fortnight used to make the TV a no-go area. She loved Tim Henman, but could not abide Greg Rusedski. She also followed athletics, golf and football.
When staying with Kate in Newcastle, she was so moved by the way the huge crowd piled into St James’ Park one Saturday afternoon that she suffered an immediate conversion, her faith being all the stronger because of Kate’s unyielding loyalty of a lifetime for Liverpool FC. Kate gave her a pair of Newcastle Magpie slippers and, on Saturday afternoons, she either wore them whilst the matches were being played, or put them on the top of the television, turning on the Teletext to keep up with the match. Alan Shearer was her particular hero. The afternoon before she died in the hospice, Newcastle lost at home to Sunderland and Alan Shearer missed a penalty. Alas, the boots had been left behind in Barnet.
Everything in her life was an enthusiasm, no matter whether it was ironing, reading, sunbathing, swimming, theatre, art, pottery, sheep, cycling and camping on holiday, or even going back to work afterwards. On work days, she used to set the washing machine to come on overnight and, on fine mornings, could be seen in her nightie in the garden, hanging the washing out barefoot in the dew. Her fold-away bicycle, which had done service on cycling holidays in France and Greece, did the run to Waitrose before work and before she might see people she knew who would hold her up!
Carolyn had always wanted to be a nurse. She was under age when she started at King’s and had to wait until she was old enough before she could qualify. She was given a distinction at the end of her 4 years training and then wanted to travel – further that is than the Norfolk Broads where she had been summoned for speeding at age 16 – and more ambitiously than December hitch-hiking in Belgium, which nearly gave her father a nervous breakdown.
Only the army seemed to offer what she wanted, so she signed up. When after 6 weeks at Woolwich nothing appeared to be happening, she went straight to the top, to ask how long she would be kept waiting before being posted abroad. The Matron clearly decided the best thing was to be rid of the turbulent lieutenant and, in next to no time, she was having the time of her life in Tripoli, Libya.
From Libya, Carolyn transferred to Cyprus, then united. The powers that be decided she was the perfect model for a star role in an army recruitment campaign and a colour brochure was produced. On her return to England, she found herself appearing in advertisements in the Evening Standard and her picture, almost life size, was displayed in the window of the recruiting office in the Strand opposite Charing Cross Station. No one could have been less puffed up by this “crowded hour of glorious life”. Her strongest desire in all she did was to be of some use to other people. She had no ambition other than to be an efficient, caring professional - a mystery to some of her appraisers.
When recently the boot was, as it were, on the other foot, she was an absolutely undemanding patient, always reluctant to demand time from her nurses. One of the consultants at Barnet General Hospital described her to me as “an inspirational woman”. How right he was.
Opera, ballet and theatre were the enthusiasms we tried to make the most of in term time. When I fell asleep exhausted, she would fill in the gaps for me during the interval or after the show. Siobahn Davies offered to dance for her to make her feel better – a lovely gesture, never realised.
Carolyn loved hard work and those who worked with her were forever struck by that. She was a cheerful presence in the Occupational Health Department at Barnet General Hospital and was greatly admired as a colleague for her professionalism and her abilities as a counsellor. The one driving force of her life was to help other people. Her generosity to buskers on the tube, and to anyone else she could help, was remarkable. Her enjoyment of life was infectious, her kindness and brilliance as a hostess were amazing. She had a great gift for friendship, a lovely sense of humour and inspired trust in all who dealt with her.
Carolyn was keen to be open to the last about her cancer. She knew full well what she was up against but, from the outset, said she would give it her best shot. She did just that, but to no avail. She said bravely she had had a great life and that her illness would be much more painful for us than for her. Her sustaining love through 32 years of marriage was the buttress and inspiration for everything I can ever claim to have achieved in my professional life. Whenever she could be, she was beside me; whenever she couldn't, she was behind me and she let me know it.
GMF, November 2000