I am in love with people I never knew, and one of them is Mary Wilson. The great lady has died at the age of 102 and, despite being the wife of a former prime minister, always displayed a sensible, old-fashioned refusal to pretend to like politics.
She met her husband, Harold, on the tennis court in 1934. After a week of courtship, he told her that a) they were going to marry and b) he was going to be an MP. “She laughed,” Harold later wrote, “and has said a hundred times since that if she believed me she would never have married me.”
In 1964, he was elected Labour prime minister and Mary was forced to move into Number 10. Happily for her, he lost the 1970 election and they moved out. Regrettably, he won again in 1974 and they had to return. The outgoing tenant, Ted Heath, had not only redecorated the place garishly but cancelled the television rental.
Mary was her own person. She disagreed with Harold about policy (anti-nuclear, anti-European integration) and became a bestselling poet, composing the kind of “dear old England” verse that was popular probably because it was contrary to the very “forward-thinking” Britain that Harold was trying to build. Mary was a close friend of John Betjeman, who dedicated a poem to her about a day trip they took to Diss in Norfolk; it’s naughty, it hints at an affair (“We’ll meet, my sweet, at Liverpool Street”) but one can no more imagine the Wilsons playing away from home than one can imagine Margaret Thatcher going to an all-night rave.
It’s precisely that loyalty that I find so captivating about Mary Wilson. Sometime in the mid-Seventies, possibly even while he was prime minister, Harold began to show signs of Alzheimer’s. After years of enduring the show of politics, Mary now had to switch to caring full-time for her husband. They moved to a bungalow on the Scilly Isles, where Harold descended into terminal confusion: “It takes me three hours to get him ready,” she confided to a friend.
And yet she did it. Having had my own brief experience of looking after a relative who was dying – and discombobulated – I have enormous admiration for Mary’s stoicism. Was she religious? I haven’t been able to find out, though it’s noteworthy that she was the daughter of a Congregationalist minister. A throwback to the Labour non-conformist tradition, perhaps, which within one mid-20th century generation went from being intensely religious to stubbornly humanist, and yet retained the ethical framework it was born with. You don’t find that in Labour nowadays. It’s pretty much the church of liberal atheism now.
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