This is a memoir of my neighbour. The Guardian's Other Lives carried a shortened version this morning.
Our neighbour Pat Ripley has just died aged 84. The street knew her as a bright-eyed, friendly and caring figure who lived alone in her Islington basement flat. Imagine the surprise when it turned out that this modest lady had been a leading shop steward, and had led the occupation of Islington Town Hall for six weeks in 1986 in pursuit of a better pay deal for her fellow homecare workers. Far from being a selfish, cynical 'I'm all right, Jack' trade union militant, she was in every way the opposite of that stereotype.
Pat was born in 1924. Her father was a sailor who told her how he had helped to rescue survivors of the Titanic from the icy sea. He died from tuberculosis when she was only seven. (Pat inherited the disease and was one of the first to be cured by streptomycin when it was used on her in its early trials).
The onset of World War Two made it impossible for her to follow her chosen profession of milliner. She spent the war years making radio parts instead. In the 1950’s she stayed at home to nurse her mother, who was dying of an inoperable brain tumour. By 1965, with a young son, Stephen, to look after she became a home help, taking pleasure in the varied work and independence it provided. By her bedside she had the prayer that opens: “May every day that I may live/ Provide the strength for me to give/ A helping hand to those in need…”
Steve later worked for the council, and became a shop steward for the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE). When NUPE were looking for potential shop stewards to organize home helps, he knew just the woman. He finally persuaded his mother to take on the role, and she never looked back. Her finest hour was sweetly walking into the town hall, looking harmless, then seizing some of the upstairs rooms from which she and her fellow carers unrolled their banner demanding better pay. They stayed six weeks until the Council came through with an improved offer, at the zenith of Thatcherism.
She genuinely personified the self-reliant virtues that Thatcher appealed to demagogically. She sewed and knitted her own clothes. She would bake fabulous fairy cakes for our summer street parties. And with a quiet nobility she looked after herself carefully, without complaining and with a wicked smile.