Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Kate O'Brien 1953 - 2017

Kate and Kei at Cliveden 1994

Kate was born on 23rd March 1953 in Swansea, a much loved and wanted baby and the eldest child of Vincent, a consulting engineer and Alice O’Brien. There were two younger siblings, Elisabeth and Michael. The family had roots in Scotland near Caithness where Alice’s family, the Gunn clan is from. Kate’s grandparents were Irish - O’Brien and O’Callaghan on her father’s side and Scottish and Welsh – Davies – on her mother’s.

Her sister Lis writes: She was a happy infant and toddler although she had strong likes and dislikes – with an early and distinct aversion to both ‘cow juice’ and to dirt.  She always loved books and animals. To her brother Michael she was ‘the witty, pretty one’ and to sister Lis she was the clever, glamorous older sister. During childhood, her weekends were spent riding ponies and visiting her many aunts, uncles and cousins, whilst holidays were spent on the Gower coast and in Devon. Always a minimalist; her bedroom was always immaculately tidy and her belongings would be given or sold to her siblings so they didn’t clutter up her room.  After a convent education in Porthcawl she joined a Sixth Form in Cardiff to study Latin, Greek and English Literature. Her classics teacher was not only the Deputy Headteacher but also her mother’s cousin, Madonna Gunn, which meant there was no escape from hard work.

After that she spread her wings; she spent time in Hampshire where she became extremely fond of Brigit Macnamara and her extended family which included the Thomas’s, and she became friends with the two sons of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, Llewelyn and Colm.

Gus, Kate, Daniel and Hallam in the Dutch Antilles 1990
Photo by Lis O'Brien
Their cousin Edward Marnier writes: ‘Kate came into our lives (the Macnamara’s & Mariner’s) on a rainy night in 1970. My mother Brigit had telephoned us at the local pub in Ringwood to tell us to come home, as some distressed girl-friend had turned up on the door step.  We obediently  returned to Blashford, to be greeted by the this stranger huddling in the doorway of a shed - it was Kate. Once we had convinced Brigit that none us knew her, my mother banished us - and took Kate in and under her wing. 

And there she remained, as part of our family and of our cousins the Devas’s and of course the Thomas’s. Over the years Kate had various jobs. She moved to London and worked at the British Library. Lived abroad looking after one of the Getty children, Tara. She also became a gardener, shop assistant etc.

She had several relationships - but perhaps her most enduring and strongest was with Llewelyn Thomas, (Dylan Thomas’s eldest son).  Llewelyn was a difficult character but with a brilliant mind and great charm. Kate matched him with her own cleverness, beauty and of course contrariness. The pair of them could be by turns maddening and exasperating - or the best possible and most stimulating of company.

Kate moved to London and lived in a flat in Thanet St, and she worked at the British Library from the mid 1980’s where Julie Raven was a colleague. There her work included dealing with incunabula (rare books printed before the 16th century) and protecting documents which were threatened by damage from the River Fleet which ran under the old site. Julie writes: Kate and I met at work in the 80’s. We got on really well and spent a lot of time chatting while doing boring clerical tasks. When I left we kept in touch by letter. We used to laugh about how we might be the only people still using old fashioned post, as if we were in Jane Austen 's day. Kate was kind and was always looking after others. Most of all Kate was really funny. We laughed a lot about the ridiculous aspects of modern life’.

She left the British Library some time in 1990 and Herry met her when she was working at Crabtree & Evelyn in Kensington. He saw her at the back of the shop looking most unhappy; her hands were shaking and she was wearing mittens even though it wasn’t cold. I talked to her a little and on a subsequent visit suggested that she might be happier helping my wife Ayako look after our daughter Kei, who was then about 18 months old. We must have known that Lis would write: ‘She showed great empathy and skill when working with young children’ as she agreed to do this and indeed did so until Kei was a teenager, coming daily to our house in Battersea and becoming very fond of Kei who she found ‘a very bright and creative child and she enjoyed all stages of her growing up’.

Kate, Ayako, Kei, Herry, Annette and Patrick at Stocks 1995
In about 1994 she sold her flat and moved to a rented flat nearby and Kei used to go and stay with her there at weekends. She was very much part of the family and moved into the house when we went to Hampshire to stay with my parents – looking after our dog Archie and Nani the cat - and sometimes came down with us too. She also came with us on our annual holidays to Swanage, where a vegetable biriyani at the local Indian was a particular treat and where we played Jimmy Nail’s ‘Crocodile Shoes’ endlessly in the car.

Ayako, Herry, Kei and Kate in Swanage 1994

Kei writes: My fondest memories of Kate include frequent trips to the Natural History Museum, using London's hop on and off buses and being taught how to spell the word "wait" you see on pedestrian crossings using an acronym. The acronym went like this: W for "water", A for "Archie", I for "igloo" and T for "tomato".

When I stayed with Kate on weekends, it was never without a selection of poetry books - in fact it's what inspired me to write poems, attend recitals and get my work published during my school years.

There are too many other wonderful memories to mention. Kate may have kept quiet about her own life but took a great interest in mine and was a source of incredible support and love all through the years’.

After a while we learned a little – very little – of her previous life and heard about her mother, Elisabeth and Michael, Catlin, Llewelyn, Colm, Edward, Collette, Gus, Hallam, Daniel and Jemima, but never met any of them. She used to travel to see her mother once a year and stay a few days, but despite asking, we never even knew where she lived! The only common connection we came across was with very old friends of my parents’, Pol and Poppet Pol, who lived at Ramatuelle in the South of France, where my parents spent several months of the year and where I also stayed. It was Pol’s grandson Tara Getty who Kate had looked after.   

In the late 1990s when Kei was growing up and didn’t need as much looking after, I found Kate a job with an osteopath in the City, but she didn’t get on with him and left after a few months and never seriously looked for other work.  As a result she continued to come to us daily when we moved to the Orangery near Wandsworth Common in 1998 helping to walk and look after Koko, Archie’s successor. She would also move into our house and look after the animals when we were all in Hong Kong, or Japan, China or Australia. She followed us from her flat in Battersea to a room in Tooting nearby.

Kate at the Orangery 2005

When we moved from the Orangery in 2012 she came less often to Ayako’s house in Kew but still regularly, and similarly when Ayako moved to Putney in 2014, helping to look after the cats Parky and Cecil and moving in when we went to Japan and also when Ayako came down to our house in Hampshire. She was always an invaluable help to us. 

Ayako and Kate with Koko at the Orangery 2007

In 2015 her health became less good and she had trouble with her eyes, visiting Moorfields frequently, but after an operation they improved dramatically. But she was then diagnosed with breast cancer and began treatment but as it was so advanced she declined chemotherapy. She remained fairly active until this autumn and even took a few days holiday with her friend Julie who writes: ‘She came with me to Norfolk. She loved it there especially walking by the sea. That is how I will think of her’. 

Ayako, Kate and Koko at Beachy Head 2010

But then the drugs she took made her feel unwell and she stopped eating much, and at the end hardly at all, declining by last December to seven stone (which she was perversely happy about!). Fortunately she was not in pain and managed on her own in her room, helped by visits from us and friends such as Bernie, until a week before she died, (although she went into St George’s Hospital several times to have her lungs drained and where they finally determined that the cancer had reached her liver). By the beginning of February, she was to weak to look after herself and her doctor found her a room at a nearby care home and she was moved there with with Julie's help and her few possessions and died after a week on the morning of 6th February.

Lis writes: Her nephews and nieces remember her spirited independence, sense of humour, love for books, children and animals, and these are memories that will stay with us.

Edward writes again: Kate was an exciting, clever, beautiful lady who could and would drive you to distraction. She was secretive and vague about herself. Mysterious about her friends; who she kept quite separate from each other. She loved gossip and drama but had no spite or cruelty - except to her self.’

Kate's Crenation at Lambeth Crematorium - Julie Raven, Andrew, his mother and a friend, Lucy, Alice, Lis, Edward, Kei, Prosper Devas, Colette, Derek Hill

For Kate's album of photos, click here

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