Conducted February 18th, 2011
Karen’s daughter Katrina talks about her earliest memories of Karen
So Katrina, can you tell us some of your earliest memories of your mother?
Yes, I think so, I think so. I think that the first memory, and I think it is a real memory, is of when I was about 18 months old, I think. And we were living in Paddington or Westbourne… where were we? In Bayswater. And I think my room was right up the top of the flat we lived in and actually one of the memories I have of living there is of my father, and him showing me the moon out of the little window, and that was a very nice memory. But the memory I have with my mother was that I climbed out of my cot and tripped over my nappy and rolled downstairs and my mother was totally, totally shocked. And it was that fear which I suppose was unusual for her to express, and she picked me up and she gathered me up and she put me onto her back and I just remember her saying things about my head – was my head alright? And I’m sure that they made a phone call, and she was just really really anxious and I think it must have stayed in my mind because it wasn’t the way she normally was. She wouldn’t normally have reacted in that way. I mean that’s my memory in England, earliest memory. And then I think that – and I do have memories – that she will always say that she used to take me to Kensington Gardens for example, when I was little, and look at the Peter Pan statue and of course it’s difficult to know if that’s a real memory, but I’m pretty certain that I do remember stroking the animals, down below at the bottom of the statue, [that] had become so smooth over all the years from children stroking them.
But then we went to Denmark because my father developed TB. And I think I was about two and a half, three, I’m not absolutely certain. But I do think that something blew off into the sea (laughs) from the boat side – a doll or a hat or something that was upsetting for me. But then we got to Denmark because my grandmother had said that she didn’t want foreigners looking after my father (laughs), but in any case, all the sanatoria were full in England and so we probably got better treatment in Denmark. So a memory that I have in Denmark is of being propped on the kitchen surface. It was a very big kitchen that my grandmother had on the farm and all the sisters, as far as I know, were all there, and fighting, arguing with each other and throwing plates across the room (laughs), and me sitting there completely not being able to understand at all what was going on and just watching these plates flying all over the place. It wasn’t a particularly sad memory for me, but just one of those things that adults do. And my mother crying and so on, I do remember that. But then I remember other nice things: about my uncle looking after me; about the animals on the farm; about the dog; about the tractors and so on and so forth, and I do think that, apparently, I learnt Danish very quickly and so I do have that memory of translating for my father.
So then we came back to England and the memories then are very much to do with school. I think it was then that I picked up on the fact that my mother was different from other mothers. And one of the things that she did do was making me beautiful – beautiful clothes that stood out as being particularly beautiful. So for example I would have hand-made smocking done on the top of my dress and she would have matching knickers with frills on and a matching bonnet. And this went way beyond anything that other children had. And I was always very conscious of my social surroundings, not just the physical, but very sensitive to those sorts of things, which I think I got from my father. So there I was with these pretty dresses, with the other children not having pretty dresses, and so I wanted to disguise myself. So despite of my mother, in a way it was to do with my mother, I wrung my dresses so they were crumpled and horrible and so I looked like everybody else. And for some reason I must have been reacting to the perfection that I became more and more aware of, that existed in my house. Everything was always… my mother did everything to perfection. And I found that quite a difficult thing, especially in front of other people (laughs).
Another memory I have of my mother, which is quite funny really, is that for some reason we had to have a regular visit to the Coal Board (laughs) not quite sure what it was. It was always done in anger, it was always done in irritation (laughs), I’d no idea what it was about. So we’d get on the bus and then we’d get off the bus and we had to cross this very busy road, the Uxbridge Road in Acton, in order to get to the Coal Board. And my mother would get hold of my hand and walk straight across the road, not looking left nor right – it was just very clear to her no car would knock her down and she knew what she was doing, they would stop if they had to and she would just keep on going. And this characteristic of my mother (laughs) remained with her throughout her life and my father became very upset with it. He would be absolutely terrified each time we went anywhere near a main road (laughs) and try, desperately, to hold her back. But that is what she was like in life, she just went straight for everything and she was impatient – still impatient, hasn’t changed – and she walked fast, and one of my memories again is of her walking in the house, it would be quick quick quick quick quick. Just always walking backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, up and down. Just an amazing amount of energy the whole time.
But I won’t go into… obviously as a daughter you’ve got many many memories, but they seem to try and sum up. But then other memories are not so easy to pinpoint – the memories of social occasions in the house. And the fact of my mother’s laughter. She did really have a very infectious laugh and she loved my father’s sense of humour. And that was one of the things… he had male friends who shared the same sense of humour, and they would have a wonderful time together, all of them. And in fact they used to take it in turns to go to the cinema with my mother, and I would be babysit by one of them, and then she would go with (laughs) the rest of the men and my father to the cinema, so that was again… I mean it’s not… I remember my mother working hard all the time, but also I remember the fact that she always found time for social occasions and to have fun and to be happy and to laugh. Especially the laughter. So that’s a nice memory.
Obviously, I had a lot to do with Denmark. I mean my mother being foreign at that time was not normal, you know (laughs). And because she had lived in occupied Denmark form a very young age I was super sensitive to the stories from the war – I picked up on things like concentration camps, about what had happened to the Jews and so on. And to the degree that when I was at school at the age of seven, my best friend was a Jewish girl, Marilyn, who was being teased and bullied for being Jewish. I think that it wasn’t just so many years before the war and the opening of the concentration camps and the things having been exposed, and yet anti-semitism was absolutely endemic. And I was really horrified by this, because I had been brought up on the fact that you stood up for what was right and that had been the whole lesson that I had been told, and so I said to the people who had been bullying her “you know I’m her cousin so I’m Jewish too, and so if you’ve got a problem then you tell me about it and I’ll look after her”. Because I was a little bit of a fighter I managed to keep them at bay and they didn’t go near her again.
And you think this is something you inherited from your mother?
I do think that… I haven’t inherited my mother’s creative talents, but she gave me lessons on life. And I did learn from her that you go for what you want, you don’t let anyone stand in your way. She gave me lessons on how to defend myself so I would be safe in whatever environment, and she gave me the confidence that nothing would hurt me, that I would always be able to sort something, I would always be able to get out of any problem – I would always be able to find a solution. And she also made me very independent in relation to other people. I mean I was travelling to the Victoria and Albert Museum at the age of seven (laughs) on the underground – I couldn’t even reach up, I was too small to reach up to give the man my money to go on to get a ticket, so he had to reach right down. But I would spend my summer holidays… I would get on the train, I would go cross all the roads, I’d go into the V&A, I’d ask where my mother’s room was (laughs) and I would find my way. And these are nice memories of going to the workrooms there because they smelt of glue and there was coloured pencils and there was cardboard and there was all sorts of things that you could play with. I would spend days in the costume section of the V&A and that was the bit that I liked, and I would do drawings of the costumes and that was the bit that stayed with me. And that was a practical thing, that I made my own clothes, I used to make clothes for my dolls, I would design the clothes and then when I was at university I did the costumes for the drama club for a bit. And I always had an interest in vintage clothes and I used to buy old things and dye them and make them up and sell them and so on. So I had that interest, and I used to think that I’d like to have a vintage shop, you know vintage clothes shop, years and years [ago]. And I made things all the time, I mean I was taught to crochet, how to knit, how to embroider, how to sew clothes. So it was a part of my life, but I didn’t have that spark, I didn’t have the originality. Maybe with the clothes a little bit, but I wasn’t my mother. And that is a strange thing.
I don’t know if she told you the story of the queen’s dolls, did she? This is where my mother, you know, she’ll go for what is right and I was brought up to go for what I think is right and not be diverted away from it. And if it defended other people who were being bullied and so on then you went for that, you defended that person, that was the right thing to do. I was brought up in a home where racism was absolutely not allowed. I didn’t really… those words weren’t used when I was young and I didn’t think that what I was doing was begin anti-racist if I defended Jewish people – I didn’t know those words. I just knew what had happened in the war and so on. And so when I was about 11 or 12 a lot of Asian men, single Asian men came to Britain and they weren’t used to seeing single girls being as free as we were. And I remember sitting at the dinner table and saying “oh they’re so awful these men, and they whistle at us and they try to touch us” and “I really don’t like Asian men”. And my mother told me to shut up she said “I won’t have that kind of language at the table, if you’re going to pursue that you’re going to leave the table”. Both my mother and my father brought me up to have those strict ideas about those things and to be open-minded, and not to be prejudiced and not to be cruel to people. All those kinds of ideas came from both my mother and my father. But I always picked up from my father… I mean I was very close to the Danish family because I spent all my holidays with the Danish family, all of the family, all of the women are intellectually… all of them have got creativity, all of them are ‘doers’ and very energetic, active. And the thing I picked up from all of them was the fierceness of their love. And that nothing could hurt me, because they would die rather than have anything… you know, that was the sort of feeling that I did get from them. And so that issue of to die for a cause, that was part of my life in a way. It’s dramatic.
My mother had been brought up in an environment in which things were made all the time, people were very creative and as I said, you know, all my aunts could make things. However my mother had… for her, her creativity was her life. The others could make things, they could do it very well, but for her she was the one who was creative – she couldn’t avoid it, she had to make things, she had to express what was inside her, and it was her nature. It’s very hard to pinpoint it but for example, you know she would… when she went to weaving school, weaving itself is an immensely creative activity that requires vision and very skilled technique, the two aspects together. And sometimes people can be a little bit… they can think ‘oh it’s just a tablecloth’ or you know, ‘that’s just a rug’ you know, they don’t always see the art in it. And through her I have appreciated those aspects of life that are as much art as drawing or painting – they require exactly the same kind of vision, exactly the same application, exactly the same knowledge of your materials and techniques you’re going to use the end product you’re going to get to, by using whatever technique. And when she came to England she couldn’t do the weaving, because there wasn’t a market for it and it wasn’t possible to do, so she diverted those creative activities into other fields but still using the vision and creativity, but not to produce the objects.
She always made things, for example she upholstered this chair. She made curtains, she made rugs, and she made my clothes. Always making things, but for her they were an expression of her creativity and they were one-offs and she never wanted to repeat it. And in that way she was the artist who always wanted to change – the present was never enough for my mother, it always had to be something else, always striving, always going ahead, always changing, everything, which was very disturbing for my father and I because we’re not those natures. We’re those natures that like safe surroundings that stay the same forever. And so that was quite hard for us to take.
But we would have lots of people coming to the house from everywhere, who were artists in their own right. They would be potters, or they would be weavers – all sorts of people would come and it was very stimulating and I of course didn’t appreciate it until afterwards, how stimulating it was to have these people coming. And I used to think ‘you know they seem to have a much better life’, especially the ones that had stayed in Denmark. It could seem that if my mother stayed in Denmark she would have had a much less stressful life, been more fun, there would have been all these people around her all of the time. Instead she had to deal with bureaucrats and civil servants and money people and so on. But that actually wasn’t the whole truth, that is one side of it. But the other side of it is that internationally she has got so many friends from the art world, so many friends from the museum world and all of those. She travelled extensively, she went to see museums and cathedrals, prehistoric sights and each of those things stay in her mind – that is the amazing thing about my mother. I can see 10 cathedrals and in my head my memory is an amalgam of those 10 cathedrals and I could not tell you one unique aspect about them. My mother will remember everything uniquely about whatever sight she’s seen. But also the pleasure she’s had with sharing that with other people. She has very rich memories of her contact with people – they are her friends and she had fun times with them, you know, it wasn’t all serious, not by any stretch of the imagination. They had meals, they had walks, and they had talk. It was… I shouldn’t feel that she had been deprived, it just was another strand that she maybe could have gone along, but she didn’t and she had another life.
In our house, for example, I always knew that our house was nicer than other people’s houses (laughs), as it had that Scandinavian simplicity to it and it also felt as if there was money, and there wasn’t. Everything had been made by my mother, had been adapted by my mother. When I was about five they built shelves in the alcove of the window made from planks of wood and bricks. And other people would look at that and some people would think ‘I’d rather have proper shelves’ but of course it was very effective and I had noticed it, that other people wouldn’t have that, and yet I liked them. So it was in some way I had learnt about differentiating how different people… that creative spark allowed her to make the best of materials to adapt, to use old stuff and make it look like new and to create a unique home that nobody else had. Everything was hung perfectly, everything was done so that it all had meaning. Everything had a place, she always created a calm, serene backdrop to our lives. And that was combined with my father. And one of the memories, when I think about how much they achieved, my father could also do DIY and he was the one who would do the things with me. He went rollerskating with me, he took me to the park, he did the growing up things, taught me how to ride my bike and so on. But my mother would make my costumes – I did a lot of dancing and she did the most wonderful dance costumes and she would come along and teach the other women, the other mothers, how to do the costumes and she would do the patterns for them and so on. And there they both are, working those long hours, full time jobs, got a child, but still there was always this feeling that there was space, there was time, that everything got done and nothing would be left undone. And I compare it rather negatively (laughs) to my own life where I feel there are more things that are left undone than are done. But she did them.
My mother and father obviously were quite different. One of them was English, one was Danish. My mother came from a middle class type of home and my father came from a working class home. He left school at 13 unskilled and my mother had the benefits of college and going through education and so on. And so there were those discrepancies. However my father was striving and he was naturally clever and had many skills. And he worked on developing those skills, so that when he came back to England with my mother they were different but symbiotic – that’s the word – so my father could do things my mother couldn’t do, so they did work, in a way, like a very modern couple. My father was very very particular about cleanliness and household things, so there was no fighting about those sorts of things. He knew exactly what needed to be done. And I would be part of that. Regular cleaning, and it was shared. My father and I on Saturday would do the washing and the shopping, and my mother would be at home doing the cleaning and eventually I did cleaning.
But later in life my father said to me “you know I haven’t achieved anything with my life” because he was aware of everything my mother had achieved. And I actually turned round and said “you know it’s not true. From where you came from, you have made the most enormous leap. In some ways my mother already had some benefits, where she had advantages, and you had no advantages. You know, you didn’t have parents, you had no money, no education. You had to teach yourself”. On my birth certificate my father is described as an “export packer” which was a pretty lowly, unskilled job with very little pay, and my mother wasn’t working then so they didn’t have much money at all. And he ended up being a trainer for the Timber Industry Training Board. Which was a big leap, so in many ways his journey was just as dynamic as my mother’s if you see where they both came from and where they ended up. So I think he felt happy with that. But my father was a very very people person, a very kind person. But he absolutely adored my mother, absolutely full of respect for her and supported her and the work that she did. So when he retired early he was the driver (laughs), he did the cooking and he was very proud, very very proud of her. And he loved all the people coming to the house and he would always father the young people who came and were taught by my mother. He looked after their practical comfort, needs. My mother didn’t (laughs) – my mother would just say, “there’s the fridge, help yourself to the food. Just make sure you tidy everything up”. Because she wouldn’t have brooked any washing up left behind. But she just wanted them to look after themselves. She wasn’t going to be doing the motherly bit there (laughs).
Yes so now my mother is an old lady. And it is, actually it is hard to accept that she isn’t the powerful woman that I always knew. The one who intimidated me and I was frightened of sometimes. But at the same time it gives you confidence that your mother is so powerful. And I feel sad for the loss of her powers. But I am pleased that she’s living here and I think and I am still in awe of her intellect (laughs), she can still catch me out which is… she will still be right about things. Now I can be… my first instinct is to be dismissive, “no no, it doesn’t have to be like that” and then I’ll see that she was right. And even at the last occasion at the table. So I think that I’ve had the time to appreciate what her life was made up, to appreciate what made her so unique, and to appreciate her talents, more than I ever did really. And her reasoning powers, her foresightedness, her ability to always see forward. Even at this age she remains adaptable. Unfortunately physically her body lets her down. And of course she’s very upset about that. In her head she still wants to be doing all the things she always did, and she is extremely frustrated by the limits on her physical state. But at the same time, whereas some old people if you phone and say “well now we’re going to do this” they will say “no no I need a week’s notice to decide”, my mother will just go with it. She’ll still do that. She’s still able to pick up the situation, see what it’s about and deal with it. Which is pretty remarkable and shows you what she was like when she was young.
I had an extremely close relationship with my father – we were more similar than I am to my mother, overall. However in marrying Alan, I seem to have married my mother and my father. Alan… we couldn’t live here, all of us together, without Alan and his caring for us all. And in particular the fact that he has such a close relationship with my mother. They share fantasy. I’m not a fantasy person. I’m the realistic one. But what I do share with my mother and what I think that she has instilled in me is a sense of history. And that’s why I hope that she’s enjoying doing this film. We’re enjoying doing it and I really hope that at the end of it she’ll feel really proud of her life and everything that she’s achieved.