This is Melanie Bassett, recording for the War Widows’ Stories Project. I’m here with Maureen Jarvis, and it is the 20th September 2019. Could you tell me your name and age, please, Maureen?
My name is Maureen Jarvis, and I’m 64 years old.
And what do you do currently?
I work as an executory paralegal, which means I deal with the paperwork after someone dies, basically taking them through the procedures of obtaining what we call in Scotland ‘confirmation’; the English equivalent is ‘probate’ – to go through the whole administration of the deceased’s estate, distribute it in accordance with the will, or not.
Is that something you’ve always done?
No, it was something when I first moved to the area with my husband, I used to do tax work, I used to work for the Inland Revenue, and when I moved to the area I got involved in this line of work. Roll on the years, when I went back into the workforce, I ended up doing it again and the employer I started off with in this area, in the late 70s, headhunted me, so back with the original firm nearly full time. So it’s work I enjoy, I’ve got empathy with clients, and it’s varied work; very technical in some cases, challenging in others, and rewarding in most.
Thank you. Can I ask you about your childhood and early life? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Sunderland. I was the eldest of three, where I began my career in the Inland Revenue. I met my husband and initially moved to Lincoln, where we stayed for a few years until he joined the Air Force.
Can you tell me about your family? What did your parents do?
Mother didn’t work, and that was the thing in those days, of course; once she fell pregnant work went by the by. My father worked as a buyer in the local shipyard – Sunderland was very famous for its shipbuilding, and they lived in Sunderland all their lives. One of my sisters continued to live there and my other sister moved to London for a while but is back there. So yeah, I’m a Northern girl, or a ‘mackem’ as we used to call them – people from Sunderland are called ‘mackems’ because they used to ‘mackem and stackem’ when it came to ships. [Laughs].
What about your education?
Education – I managed to pass my Eleven Plus so I did end up at grammar school, though much to my primary head teacher’s annoyance, and parents, I wanted to go to the comprehensive school because it was a new school and it had a swimming pool and I loved swimming, but I was convinced to go to the grammar school, which initially was an all girls’ school, which was fine and there was no distractions in the way of boys so I actually did very well in the first few years, until boys were introduced and it became a comprehensive. I left school when I was 17; decided that I didn’t want to go to college, and again, in those days, I think we were very pushed towards being a teacher; there didn’t seem to be the career opportunities in some ways. I did not want to teach so I applied for two jobs – one with Libraries as I liked reading, and one with the Revenue, which I got, and I just landed on my feet as it was a job I loved because it involved meeting taxpayers but it also meant dealing with maths and I liked maths. So I worked for the Revenue for several years, and yes, I loved that work. Sunderland, obviously, now is totally different, but it was a reasonably small town in those days so I had a great many friends and had a good social life there. But yes, the time came when I met my, then to be husband, and we moved away from that area.
Can you tell me about that then? How did you meet him?
Well, I’d gone down visit a boyfriend in London; we broke up [laughter] and on the coach back from London – it was very long journey because the bus got lost – and this young man sat next to me and we got talking, and I think the bus journey ended up something like 8 or 9 hours and we just talked non-stop. When we got to the bus station in Sunderland, he asked me out on a date. His name was Alan. It was quite interesting; he’d been across to Le Mans for the 24-hour racing so he had been camping; so, his hair was long and he had a full facial beard etc. We met about a week later, by which point he’d shaved the beard but he was still okay. His parents were still on holiday and he was going back to work, he worked in a bank, and again in those days, the banks frowned upon facial hair, so by the second date, he’d shaved the moustache off. So I was left with this clean-looking baby-faced guy. [Laughter]. Again, I thought “hmm, really…?” but by then, we’d made the connection and continued dating, yes.
Okay. At what point did you sort of start to think about moving in together and…?
It was fairly soon on we realised yes, this was it and we wanted to be together, so we did get engaged after about a year. As I said, my husband worked for the bank so bank mortgages were cheaper in those days…..but Sunderland was very expensive for housing in those days; long before the Internet, we did a wee bit of research in the papers and discovered that either Wales or Lincoln were cheap places to buy houses. Neither of us had been to those areas at all beforehand and when I think back, we were 19-20 years old – I don’t think I’d be encouraging my sons at that age to have done this – but we put in our notices for a transfer to our respective employers, and having decided on Lincoln, we just went down there. And again, it was frowned upon in those days – even though we were hundreds of miles away from our parents, we still had separate accommodation. Eventually we found and bought our house, and at that point we did move in together – we realised that financially it would make more sense – and by then it was okay as we were engaged so that was okay with our parents, and the wedding date had been set so it was okay that we were living together. It was the mid-70s at this point.
So yes, in 1976, we got married in Sunderland with all our family around us, and then headed back to Lincoln. My husband worked on a mobile bank from the head office in Lincoln, and it went round all the RAF camps. I think one particular day he must have been feeling a bit fed up and said, “Ah, I should join the Air Force. You only need five O’ levels.” So he thought he’d try it, and at no point did anyone ever explain during those early stages of interviews for the Air Force that you could actually be failed and thrown back. But he passed the initial interviews, he passed the selection procedure – I think it was at Henlow. He was told he hadn’t made the grade as a pilot but he could be a navigator. He literally hadn’t a clue, he thought he was going to do admin work or something but he thought, “ah, that sounds fine, I’ll be a navigator”, and thus began the 16-20 weeks training, at which point when he got there and he made his first telephone call home and said, “they can fail me,” I said, “no, they can’t, we have a mortgage. You have to stay. I’m the breadwinner at this moment”. But yes, he got through and he sort of chose, I think, Shackletons and RAF Lossiemouth, because with Shackletons he could smoke his cigars on board and they could make meals and have teas and coffees whilst still flying. That sounded quite good to him. So after his navigator training, he ended up at RAF Lossiemouth.
Can I ask how you felt when he came home to say, “I’m joining the RAF”? What was your initial reaction?
[Pause]. I think, well, I was concerned because we had got a mortgage through the bank so that was a financial tie, and mortgages in the real world were expensive, so we were paying 2.5 % and in those days it was nigh-on 20%, so we had to seriously consider the financial implications. So it was a bit of a worry, but at the same time it sounded quite exciting. I was aware that my life would be disrupted career-wise, but I assumed – incorrectly as it was – that I’d be able to get a transfer up here with the Civil Service and just carry on as normal, basically. Certainly while he was training at Finningley, I worked locally so there hadn’t been interruptions, shall we say, at that point.
Were you worried about his safety at all?
No, nothing like that because there weren’t really any conflicts in those days, apart from the likes of Northern Ireland for the army, but Air Force-wise, it was safe. I think in those days it was considered to be a glorified flying corps.
So can I ask you about military life then, how you adapted?
During training, it was fun – lots of parties and lots of people our own age, and obviously we socialised with people on the course that were going through the same so it was fun, it was enjoyable. We lived in quarters, which were a wee bit shocking because we had our own home before, but fortunate that we had good-sized quarters. And mess life, again, was fun, it was enjoyable and we quite enjoyed the parties etc. in the mess. There was a lot of involvement, I think, because he was on a course, so that was that family-type unity, shall we say. So no, it was all good fun.
Did you adapt quite well to the hierarchy? Did you understand it?
[Pause]. Did I adapt? Um, once Alan was an officer… I don’t consider myself to be class snobbish, shall we say, so it did seem strange at times, I would say, the hierarchy and the mess rules, you know, like report has to be passed in a certain way and you mustn’t do this and you mustn’t do that at mess functions. So it did seem a bit OTT and the devil in me would want to change that sort of thing, which I tried to later on in life, shall we say.
Did you have any prior military connections?
No, none at all. Absolutely none at all. Sunderland actually did have recruitment office in in the town but I never knew anyone who’d been in the military, none of our families had been, and none of our friends, so it was completely [new]. I think his parents were quite shocked that he would actually want to go into the military, but since he passed that graduation, the photograph was set on the mantelpiece. They were very proud of him.
What did you understand about his job and what he was doing as a navigator?
Whilst he trained as a navigator, I obviously knew it was navigating – A to B – but when he then went onto the training course for Shackletons, he’d actually swapped in essence. The Shackleton had two sorts of navigators; there was the true navigator but then there was the sort of the surface to air… No, it was air to air missile direction, so he was directing the military onto enemy military aircraft, was the scenario for the job. And he would come home with maps and scribbles of how they did that but it meant nothing to me; it was a wee bit of pure maths involved, I think, so no…
So at what point did you start to move around?
Well, once he was settled up here, I did try to get a transfer. Unfortunately, there were three tax offices in the area: Inverness, Buckie and Aberdeen. Buckie had no vacancies and whilst I would have quite happily have accepted a transfer to either Inverness or Aberdeen, I guess I was fortunate that my inspector in the tax office knew the area and he said, “No, you won’t be able to transfer; you won’t be able to get to work very easily, especially in the winter if there is bad snow, the roads are particularly bad”. So I asked for a sideways transfer to the Civil Service on the camp but there was nothing going, so I eventually, reluctantly, had to leave that job and moved up here, and twiddled my thumbs for a few months and thought ‘oh, I’m going to have to retrain in some way’. So I did go to college to do typing and shorthand, which were foreign languages, especially shorthand which was a foreign language to me. I think I was only at college about a month when a job with a local firm of solicitors came up doing tax work and I jumped at it. It was a lot less pay than I had been used to but at that point we were thinking that at some point we would start a family, so it seemed ideal to get used to the lesser salary. And again, once I got into the post, again, I enjoyed the work. And one of the bosses was quite good at delegation, shall we say, and got me into doing this executory type work, and so I did both jobs alongside one another until I fell pregnant. I think I worked there for about three years when I fell pregnant with our first son, Alastair. That would have been in 1983, and I gave up work to look after him.
Again, it was the norm in those days – very few people returned to work after having their babies. So by then we were living in a place called Burghead, which was along the coast. We only had the one car so I was stuck there with this child that didn’t want to sleep, which was quite challenging. It came to a point where he didn’t sleep more than two hours ever for the first year of his life, and by then there was lots of talk about 8thsquadron Shackletons being disbanded and moved around; they were looking at replacement aircrafts. So Alan had come home via visiting – unknown to me – my GP, because he was worried at my reaction that he was likely to be posted and he would be spending the best part of two years training for this new aircraft that they were considering, and it was literally three months here, six months there, three months here. So not long enough for him to be established in any one place for us to get a quarter, so I’d be left on my own for two years up here. That didn’t go down well, and actually my GP said, “Maureen wouldn’t cope”, because he was well aware that my little one wasn’t fond of sleeping. So, thankfully, the GP knew the station medical officer so the said posting was cancelled. Again, in the early years of having a child, mess life sort of dwindled off, and we are living away from Lossiemouth but had lots of friends locally, and I had made lots of friends at work, so they were my family, shall we say.
But then Alan came home, this would have been late November 1984; he said, “I’ve got a posting and it’s to RAF Cranwell. I’ll be a flight commander on initial officer training”, so he would be in charge of a group wishing to be officers in the Royal Air Force. I said, “Okay, fine, where is it based?”, “Cranwell, Lincolnshire. We’ve got four weeks to go”, and literally we had to be there at the start of the New Year. We had a house to sell, we had a house to pack up, we had to find accommodation down there and had to move, so that became a bit fraught, shall we say, but miraculously we sold the house within the first week so we were very fortunate. So we did all move together, complete with a caravan going down the A9 when it was about two feet of snow, so what people thought of us, I’ve no idea. So we had a quarter at Cranwell, a very big house as it turned out, which was great, but there you were aware very much of the hierarchy and the rank structure, and I have to say I wasn’t comfortable with it. It soon became apparent that the guys that were applying to be officers were not just coming from civilian life, there were a lot of foreigners, certainly from the Middle East, but obviously there were people from the ranks wanting to become officers. And in many of those cases they had spouses who were still in lower rank positions but they weren’t allowed to come to some of the mess functions because of it, because we were in the officer’s mess. That didn’t sit well with me at all, I have to say, I didn’t like that. The job was full on; each course was 16 weeks and Alan put through five courses as it transpired, but worked many weekends. So being left with a youngster who was now into the ‘terrible twos’ and having tantrums like I’d never seen before, was hard. I know I probably gave my husband problems [Laughter], because I didn’t like being stuck at home and him being away, and obviously he enjoyed the life. He was actually ‘God’ because he had the say in whether these people were going to make it or not, so he quite enjoyed that for a wee while.
Then in ’86, I fell pregnant with my second son, so I had two boys. Thankfully the second one was a lot easier than the first – he ate and he slept, and that was fine but I still found it very difficult, that life there, because my husband wasn’t at home much. By then we had our own home, but it did need work doing to it so I was project managing that. Yes, it was a difficult time, I’d say, and I think my youngest would have been about a year old when, thankfully, my husband got his posting to come back up to RAF Lossiemouth. So I was delighted because I still had friends in the area, so yes that was a good move.
What about your family connections? Were you able to see them?
Well, obviously, my parents were in Sunderland – obviously, they would come down and visit. Alan’s parents by now had moved from Sunderland and they were living in Greenock, which is where they originally came from – they were all Scottish. So there were some sort of family visits but because of the nature of Alan’s course we were stuck there for 16 months and then we would get a break of 2 or 3 weeks possibly. By then, we wanted a complete break somewhere for a holiday, a family holiday. Quite often we went down to the New Forest; Alan had family there that had a caravan so we’d go down there and just relax as a family.
So how did your life change when you came back up to Scotland? Did it stay similar to what it was before you left or was it more challenging?
No, in some ways it was better because, as I say, I was back with friends. Certainly, I’d kept in touch with two of the girls I’d met down there, and it was different… I did not like the area because where we were living, south of Lincoln, was flat, and I was used to… We were miles from the seaside so I’ve always been used to, even in Sunderland, being next to the coast and hills and suchlike, so I did not like Lincolnshire as a place to live. So coming back here was like coming home, so that was great. Did we have a preliminary visit up here and started sussing out houses? I think it was actually on the drive up here that we found out we’d been successful in a bid on a house up here. So we were only in quarters for about three or four months before we moved into our house in Lossiemouth, which became the family home for 18 years.
So again, with a young family, you don’t tend to go to a lot of the mess functions as such, but because I had an outside life, that never bothered me. I went to the odd thing but I tended not to bother myself with wives’ groups on the camp. Yeah, I just went to some of the functions that Alan was involved in. A fantastic one was “8th of the 8th 1988”, so the 8th Squadrons were invited from all over the world, for a week, as it turned out – for lots of fun and events, lots of drinking and barbecues etc. That was a good week. At that point, actually, my mother did come up and looked after my children, and I was a fleeting presence in their life that week, if I recall.
Whilst we had no intentions of me going back to work until both boys were at school, Alastair would have been about 5 years old at this point – he’d just started school, and Alan and I were in town… Alan was happy enough with his job but he wanted to see what the answer would be out there, should we choose to stay in the area, so we went into the local job centre for him to have a look but there was actually a job for me working in an accountancy office doing tax work, so it was like, “should I, should I not go for this?” I thought, well, the extra money would help with doing stuff on the house so I applied and went for the interview and was offered the job on the spot. I did hum and haw about it over the weekend and thought, no, we’ll get some sort of childcare set up for Fraser, who was only a couple of years old at this point, so I did take on the job. We got basically a nanny to come to the house to look after Alastair after school, and Fraser we’d got set up in a wee nursery, so it was a nanny for the afternoons, basically. Everything was in place and it seemed to work well. Alan’s job on the Shackletons, because they flew long sorties – it could be 8-10 hours – meant he could be at home during the day with the boys, so the boys probably saw more of their father than me coming in after 5 o’clock each night, and both of them were very much Daddy’s boys anyway, because Daddy did all the fun, mischievous adventure stuff with them. So it worked well, it worked well. I enjoyed the job – again, back doing tax, loved it, seeing clients etc. I had arranged with my bosses that’d I’d consider doing my tax exams, so I sort of started looking at that, at the time.
But then that changed; I think I’d only been at work for 14 or 15 months when my life changed – 30th April 1990, to be precise. Alan was up for some very, very early sortie and I wasn’t the dutiful wife that would get up make his breakfast or whatever before he went, so possibly the last exchange would have been me grunting at being woken up. But he went off at 5 o’clock or something; I got up at the normal time and got the boys ready, dropped them off at school and nursery, then went to work. It was very much a day like today, actually, sun, blue skies – so much so I took my picnic lunch and had it in the local park. And on my way back – my office was on the high street of Elgin but was actually on the first floor so you went through the front door and you went up a flight of stairs – and going back in, I was aghast to see all my work colleagues on the landing, which felt strange. I was gradually walking up the steps and realised I recognised a face from the squadron and a friend’s wife from the squadron.
She, at that point, came running down the stairs screaming, saying that there had been an accident, there had been a crash but they didn’t know anything about it. The guy from the squadron dressed in civvies and he said, “we’re going to take you away to someone’s house. The squadron doesn’t know what’s going on, so until we do know, we’ll just take you somewhere for the moment”. What had happened, it was a mishmash crew – Alan had told me the night before that people were off sick, people were away, so it was actually the boss of the squadron, the wing commander was captain and first pilot; he was assisted by a navigator – a squadron leader – and he was assisted by the boss of the Buccaneer squadron – again another wing commander who had never flown a Shackleton before, so it was a wee bit of a jolly. There was at least one down the back who was hitching a jolly ride, as they could get away with in those days. So it wasn’t the normal crew. They were meant to be flying over the sea at the time of the accident, but over on the West Coast, along the Western Isles, it was bad weather – there was low cloud and it transpired they were about 40 miles off course, so they were actually flying over land, and it’s very hilly out there, so there had been a crash. But it was reported actually on BBC1 lunchtime news, because there were people in the area listening to police broadcasts as they do – obviously no social media in those days – and they were aware there had been a crash and this was reported. The squadron had obviously got the message and things were in uproar. They literally hadn’t a clue and thought it couldn’t be a Shackleton because it’s meant to be here. So as I say, I was taken to this house and was told not to phone, because the squadron was in such disarray.
Of course, I hadn’t a clue, you know, two hours on, I still hadn’t a clue. I managed to escape my captors and find a phone to phone the squadron, and it was someone I knew quite well, and he said: “I have to tell you that it was the plane. They’ve found nine bodies; they will find a tenth”. I think, initially that they thought if they were over sea it maybe would have landed, glided into the sea, and there would have been lives saved. But no, it crashed literally about 20 foot from the top of a hill, sort of nose in first, and then catapulted basically. The crash scene was described to me insofar as that Alan’s team down the back were not part of the flight, you know, the pilot or navigation side, they were actually having their lunchbreaks, as the hill was covered in coffee cups and sandwiches. So, having been told that, I said, “No, I’ve got to go back home. I have to tell my children”. I think by this point, the school had been alerted and the boys were home with the nanny; there may have been other people there, I can’t recall. So I sat them out in the garden – by now they were ages 3 and 6 years. [Whispering]. It’s the worst thing you can ever do is tell a child… that their dad’s not coming back. But our youngest was into Care Bears at the time, and the Care Bears used to hold hands and have this magic rainbow effect or something that could cure anything. My eldest son was into Transformers, and, of course, they could be fixed. So their initial response was basically, “Oh, can this not be fixed?” I said, “No, this can’t be fixed”. Kids, I’ve come to learn, are incredibly resilient. I think the younger they are, they actually deal with things better us older people. They went, “Oh, is it time for tea?” [Laughter.] I had to go in to make their tea and they wanted to play and all the rest of it.
But it set off a whole barrage of people calling in; someone had come and said, “Someone from the camp, the station commander, will be coming to see you.” Somebody must have told me it would be done in rank order, so here was this rank structure that I’d come to hate. So, of course, there were two wing commanders, there was a squadron leader and there was Alan, and then the rest of the crew. So I had certainly two or three visits from the military padre and somebody else from one of the church camps; meanwhile, friends were pitching up. Eventually, said station commander pitched up with, again, another religious person. I can’t recall what was said – no idea. I’m just existing at that point. It just so happened that my next-door neighbour, a friend, was also my GP – he came in and said, “I’m not giving you anything. I know some people would but unless you’re desperate, I’m not giving you anything. You have to go through this, Maureen”, which, I came to respect that actual opinion. But then another religious body turned at the door from the camp and I have to say, at that point I got angry and couldn’t deal with somebody, in essence, promoting God, who I wasn’t believing in at that point, so I sent them away with a flea in their ear. I think that night we just spent on our own, with the boys. Obviously, I had to tell my parents; I couldn’t tell my mother-in-law and father-in-law. I thought “this is going to kill them”. They were quite elderly and not good health. So I phoned Cath, Alan’s sister, to tell them. One good thing that the Air Force organised was they organised somebody from RAF, to go and visit them, so that was a nice touch – it was actually somebody who knew Alan so that was good.
The next day… I do recall in my mind I thought that the boys’ routines had got to continue. But to backtrack slightly, Alan’s family had been through this before because Alan’s sister had lost her husband three or four years previous to this; he had died through an asthma attack and she was left with three young children under the age of about seven. So the family knew what grief was like, especially this type where a young husband was killed, leaving young children, so they were my rock, in essence. So family and friends all over the country, we were told, and spent the morning by taking the kids … I thought their routine had to continue so I took them to school and to nursery, both of which were absolutely excellent with them, I have to say. I can remember I went to Lossie beach and, again, it was a lovely sunny day. I thought why, how could this have happened? I do recall screaming and throwing stones, very much aware of tourists on the beach avoiding me, because it was a bank holiday weekend by then.
Eventually I came home and one of our friends came by and said, “I’m going to be”, what’s it called, “your ‘effects officer’” – so he would be go-between. As I said, the squadron were thrown into disarray; there were ten on the flight so they had to find ten people to be the go-between, between the families, and the squadron… I doubt there was ever training given to these guys, and it was guys from the squadron; it wasn’t from other sections of the camp, it was from the squadron. So these guys were our friends, and I have to say, he was really good and we were very friendly with the family anyway. He was really good, he explained everything to me and said that Wednesday would be the day the bodies would be repatriated back to Lossiemouth, and he explained what would happen.
Again, I just recall the house – we had a big house, but I recall the house being full of people; people just kept visiting. The boys, I think, treated it as a glorified party at times, they hadn’t a clue what was going on, because everyone must have been quite attentive to them and they were getting presents etc. So, the boys, yeah, weren’t aware of what was going on. I think some girls from the squadron were taking any children from squadron members and looking after them, away from this repatriation ceremony. Well, on the Wednesday late morning, a car came to pick me up and the said effects officer said, “Oh, there’s something you’ve got to sign first if you don’t mind.” It’s amazing how some things stick in your head, how in that time when everything is blurred and fuzzy, but I was handed a blue sheet of paper – it was Air Force blue – and it basically said that should I remarry or cohabit with another man, I would let them know because it would affect my pension.
Now, the car was waiting outside, I haven’t seen my husband’s body, it was, you know, “is this real?” So the way you think – “oh, I have to sign this paper before I can get to see him,” so I signed, not really thinking of possible consequences to that but I signed, and went off to the repatriation service, which, again, was handled quite well. The press were there, but the way it was done, we as a family were shielded; the press did not see us. They saw other squadron people, but they didn’t see us; it was handled really well. But walking into the squadron hangar, again, I wasn’t prepared for the fact there was ten tables draped in black. You know, it was quite shocking. The station commander said a few words. I think the band played some music, I can’t remember. And then we were aware that an aircraft had landed, and then aware of the black cars picking up – and again, it was done in rank order, bringing the coffins in which were then draped with Union Jacks. We were told that we could not see our husbands’ bodies because while some were okay, some weren’t, so that was it, it was a blanket rule that we could not see those bodies. So, again, you think “is he really in there? I haven’t really got any proof as such.”
So, in some ways, it was a very surreal experience. So, the families were left alone with the coffins for a while. I came home, and it had been televised, so I said, specially to the older one, “would you like to see this?” So, we sat and watched it; it basically showed people from the squadron, it showed the aircraft landing and the line-up of black cars and the coffins being taken off. But the following piece of news after that was on about a forest fire somewhere in the world, and my two said, “was Daddy burned?” I said, “I don’t know but I’ll find out.” It was my way of dealing with the children always if I didn’t know an answer to their question, I would find out for them. By now, my 3-year-old has built a plane out of Duplo and he said, “is this how it happened?” as he flies it into the cushion. I said, “yeah, pretty much so.”
So again, as I say, the house was filled with people. It was a big house we had. We had, in essence, a lounge, a sitting room, a dining room, a big kitchen, and I was aware at one point that the entire house was full. I was actually sitting on the front doorstep with people because the house was full. But people were great, they were bringing goodies. Other wives on the squadron who weren’t affected, actually had a bake off and baked meals and cookies and cakes and left it with us, which was great. Family was pitching up on the Friday, and I had elected… I thought “I can’t bear the family to be with me, they can stay in the mess.” Again, the mess was really good. I had decided in my naivete that I would hold Alan’s funeral as soon as possible, so his was actually the first. His was on the Saturday. Again, a local church literally at the end of the road where we stayed, and the church was packed. Again, one of those things that Alan and I would talk about from time to time – “What would you like done when…?” Never thinking…. Both of us wanted to be cremated but the nearest crematorium then was Aberdeen, and I just thought “I can’t put his parents through that journey”, because it’s a good two hours at the best of times, so I elected that he would be buried at Lossiemouth.
After the burial, we’d gone back to the mess, the officer’s mess, for the refreshments. Again, there was a huge turnout – lots of people there, lots of Alan’s family were there, and quite a number of my close family was there and other relatives were there. I wasn’t made aware of this until afterwards but the then station commander’s wife treated it as a glorified reception, I think, and had gone over to Alan’s family and had said, basically to his parents and to his sister, “Oh, Maureen will be fine, once she gets that first year out of the way – that first anniversary and the first birthday, she’ll be fine”. As I said, my sister-in-law had lost her husband and I think she nearly pinned this lady against the wall and she said, “No, it’s not the first year, let me tell you, and it’s not the second or the third or the fourth. It’s the thereafter”. So, when it came to people starting to make moves to going, at some point I had been told who from the squadron had identified Alan’s body, and he was at the funeral, and I saw him and thought “my boys need to know this”, and, again, I think I can probably laugh in hindsight, that I approached this guy and said, “you identified Alan…” and I think the guy just froze on the spot, and I think when people are challenged in such a way, they just react, so I do believe him. He said, “yeah, he just looked as though he was sleeping. Facially, he wasn’t damaged. He just looked as though he was sleeping”. So, I could tell that to my children, and I did tell that to them. So, I was happy with that, because obviously I’d been aware of other crashes and the aftermath, so I was happy I could tell my children: “daddy looked as though he was sleeping”.
Of course, the other funerals followed after. I couldn’t go but, of course, the guys from the squadron had all these funerals to go to, you know, it was very hard on them. Meanwhile, my effects officer was coming backwards and forwards, helping out with forms to fill in – pension forms, etc. He somehow was aware that we dealt with the local Bank of Scotland, so he’d informed them. Everyone was very kind and helpful. Basically, if there was any information from the squadron, the effects officer would come out and tell me. The squadron, the station, was planning a memorial to which all and sundry would be invited, so we were asked what sort of things we’d be looking for – this was about three weeks on. As I say, the effects officer had been there quite a number of times but all of a sudden, he started pitching up with his wife and three children. I must have said something, like, “I can’t cope with this.” Basically, even though it was within the first month, she was pitching up because she thought I must be having an affair with her husband because he was with me so much. So yeah, there were a few words about that. I was not interested but hey-ho.
So, I was asked questions about the memorial, there had been mention of a fly past, and I said, “you know what, I can’t sit through a fly past”. That proved to be a bit of a problem because there was only one of me and if family are there, I’ve got to be… I said, “I’ll sit in the crew room. I know where the crew room is, I’ll be happy on my own”. The other thing I said, “I really don’t want to be paraded, in front of whatever…” Because by now, we were told there was going to be the best part of 1,000 people – be it from the camp, local VIPs and invited guests – and I said, “I don’t want to be paraded. I want to be sat”. “Yes, yes, that’s all fine, that’s all fine”. So, come said day, again, once the boys realised – again, there was another party on for the children of the squadron – they were more than happy to be a part of that and not the service. So, all the immediate families, parents etc, congregated in the crew room and we were led into the hangar with this Shackleton there, and then the 1,000 people seated. I froze, and my brother-in-law – my sister-in-law had remarried by this time to a GP – and I froze and had a panic attack, so basically, I had to blow into a bag to calm down. But we were led from back to the front though all these people, to be gawped at, which I thought was horrendous of whoever had organised this on the camp. Not only that, we weren’t put in the front rows; we were put behind the VIPs. It just so happened that I personally knew [our] MP at the time, the late Margaret Ewing, and she said afterwards that was atrocious. She said, “I felt so awful that, here I am in the front row and you, the families, were in the rows behind”. So, at that point, I think I lost respect for the Air Force. I thought, no, you’ve not considered us at all. This has been a promotional exercise – “Look at us, we’re doing this wonderful thing for the families”. Just… no. I guess at that point it was, you know, obviously, the family are long gone, people were getting on with their lives and you’re left, and you think hey, you know, life continues.
I do recall sitting down with the boys and they’d asked if they were going to get a new daddy. I said, “well, not anytime soon”. [Laughter]. “But we could have so-and-so for a daddy,” and they named a friend of ours. I said, “well, actually, he’s married and he’s got his own children”. “But they could have so-and-so”, and they actually went down this list of basically moving fathers up the line, shall we say, until eventually they found out who was single and didn’t have children. Again, we’ve laughed about that since. So yeah, I – rightly or wrongly – went back to work fairly shortly after. I think I was only off a few weeks, thinking distraction, get on with life. I had to sort out the childcare arrangements, I kept the same nanny but we worked it all out between the two of us, so life – it was a new life – sort of continued, shall we say. I’d get occasional visits from the effects officer and friends of the squadron, so I was aware that the annual squadron anniversary do was coming up. Again, I was somehow told that the replacement boss didn’t want to invite us because it would be too awkward, but the rest of the squadron stood up to that and we were invited, so that would have been the only other function I went to. But it was handled fine, it was fine.
Leading up to the Christmas, form-filling became second nature. I had to fill in forms for a headstone, for example, and I said what I wanted on the inscription, etc. And it would have been a couple of days before the camp was closing for Christmas that I got a phone call from the squadron to say that was it, the headstones, were in the hangar if I wanted to come and see them and check you’ve got the right inscription etc. they’re installed. I said, “no, I can’t face looking at ten headstones. This is what I asked for, could someone check it?” “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine”. Well, that night I got a visit from a girl who was engaged to one of the crew members; they were literally two or three weeks off their marriage when the accident occurred. It’s different now, but in those days, they only dealt with his parents – she was persona non grata even though their marriage was only three weeks away. She came around – she didn’t live in the area –but she said, “oh, the family have had this call about a headstone but, actually, no one’s ever asked us what we want on our headstone”. So, I set about retrieving all the paperwork, so she’d got a list of people to call, numbers, etc. We then set about until the wee small hours putting the world to rights over a few bottles of wine and she duly went off. The next day, I’m dropping my youngest off at nursery and I met one of the squadron wives and I said, “oh, so-and-so was around last night”, and before I said anything, she burst into tears. I said, “what on earth’s wrong?” She said, “oh, no one’s meant to know this but there isn’t a headstone for that guy”. I said, “what do you mean, there’s not a headstone?” In the small print, which no one had picked upon, this squadron member, the family had chosen to have him cremated and his ashes buried, which meant he wasn’t entitled to a headstone. By now, it was, I think, possibly the last day – the camp was closing that day for Christmas, for two weeks. I said, “well, you’re going to have to go back and tell your husband and somebody is going to have to sort this out because she is going to find out”. So basically, all hell let loose, basically, and it just so happened, I think the station commander paid for it out of the station funds. But again, it was handled pretty badly.
It rolled on, weeks, months, I’m at work… I hasten to add, going to work wasn’t always easy. I had a stressful job, there were tax deadlines and there were a few incidents where I just walked out of the office and I certainly do remember getting in the car and driving, heading south. I have no idea where I was going, thinking “I need to get away” but then, thankfully, stopping and giving myself a shake, thinking, “I have two boys back home, so I need to go back home”. But my effects officer and his wife came round one evening, and, something I’d always known about, when it had come to choosing that flight that day – as I said, it was a mishmash crew – Alan, his title was Tactical Coordinator, TACO, and that day, there were a choice of two because of people being off sick or being away, there was a choice of two: him and this other guy, my effects officer, but he’d just come back from a tour in the Falkland Islands, so Alan had said, “no, I’ll take this”. I’d known that, I’d known that before he flew off, and one of the daft things you think about when you’re trying to look for “why me?” is that I was in a better position to be that widow because that guy’s wife, they lived in a quarter and they had three children; we only had two. She’d never, ever worked; I was in a job. She only had Air Force friends; I had work friends, I had friends who lived locally etc, so I was in a better position.
But they came round one evening, and this girl had got a job, and they thought it would be a good idea that they could share my childcare arrangements because both the little ones were at the same nursery. I’m looking at them whilst they’re telling me all this, that their son was to be picked up from nursery with Fraser and come back to my house and be looked after until one of them would pick him up, and I said, “no”. “What?” I said, “No. The reason I have this is, it is the guilty mother complex. I want the one-to-one, in essence, for my children and I don’t want a playgroup type scenario”. Then they came out with this, “after all we’ve done for you”. I just said, “well, actually, if you recall, a few months after Alan’s accident, I did actually thank you by looking after your children for an evening and I paid for you to stay in a local hotel with breakfast, dinner, and wine thrown in, so that was my thank you for what you’ve done. I don’t need to do anything else”, and I basically showed them the door. Yeah. [Laughter]. I was then aware…. In fact, at work, the squadron temporary boss – because by now, the squadron has got an ‘end date’ – he came to the office, no word of warning, with a summary of the accident report. Again, is it a guy thing? Obviously, he never thought but it was February 14th. My husband had always given me a red rose on that day, so of course I got the accident report at my place of work and I think it was just handled so badly.
Yeah, it was basically as I knew it, the squadron got blamed terribly because they’d allowed these hierarchy to fly, when in essence they probably didn’t have good flying hours, shall we say, current flying hours. So, the squadron was blamed, in essence these people were blamed, and on the day, I just think it was an accident; I never looked to blame anyone. I’m backtracking somewhat, but I had actually visited the crash site, probably only about six weeks after the accident. A close friend and I went out, we flew out to Stornoway from Inverness, hired a car from Stornoway to go down, we could do it in a day. Again, in my mind, I was thinking “oh yes, this is manageable”. In those days, a lot of the island roads were just single tracks with passing places. I can recall a couple of things: as the plane was taking off, I thought “I’m in a plane”. All I thought was, “I have to get there, but oh my God, I’m in a plane”.
So, I got there, and we got the hire car, and we were driving down, and I have to say, it’s the only place where I’ve seen sheep with what I’d call patchwork on their backsides, leather patches actually sewn onto their bottoms. [Laughter]. We had a huge laugh about that because we couldn’t decide if that was against the rams or the locals attacking the sheep. [Laughter]. Again, this was all before computers, Google maps, sat navs, but we found our way down to this very sparse, sparsely-populated village called Northton. I was thinking, “right, it’s a hill. Oh, which one?” It hadn’t occurred to me. So, I called upon the first house, which was the old schoolhouse, and this wonderful couple, who, again, I’m still in touch with, came to the door. It was actually a genealogy centre, a fascinating place. But Bill had been one of the first… he’d heard the noise and he’d been one of the first on the scene. He said, “I’ll take you”.
When I’ve taken other people, they’ve said, “Is there a path?” “Er, no”. [Laughter]. You’re literally, in places, scrambling up this hill and wading through streams et cetera. So, we got to the hill and of course, after six weeks, it’s obviously still very much evident where it crashed. I’d chosen the most beautiful day to visit; the hillside was covered in primroses and wildflowers. The view from the top of the hill was utterly, utterly magnificent. You could see the other islands; there were white sandy beaches, turquoise waters. It could have been the Caribbean, and I could see the crash site for myself. They literally clipped the top of the hill. I think had the aircraft been 20 foot higher or the left or right, they would have missed it. So, in my mind, it was a fluke, an accident; that’s why despite the squadron being blamed etc., it was an accident. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that’s the way I’ve always viewed it. I don’t think I’ve shown any bitterness towards that essence of it – the way the Air Force handled things over that. Yeah … But not against the squadron and the surviving family of those involved. But then we all were, and the squadron was disbanding, possibly in the June time. In fact no, it must have been slightly later, it must have been slightly because I decided I would take the boys on holiday that year, so that must have been after the first anniversary. The boys didn’t want to fly and we didn’t want to go on a boat, so I was thinking, hmm, we’ll offer the ultimate Florida and Disneyworld.
A lot of the guys had been out there with the squadron and had said, “Oh, it’s fine, you’ll be fine. Roads are well-signposted. Stick to the limit, its 50mph”. They were the first people to phone up. That was all completely untrue. Again, how I thought I could manage to drive it, again, pre-sat nav. It was a bit of a nightmare, but the boys got to see Mickey Mouse and we had fun, and the squadron disbanded shortly after that, about the July time, and that was it. That was the end of Air Force involvement. There was no follow-up from the camp, obviously. All the hierarchy were still left there, but that was it. We had no involvement whatsoever. Of course, in those days there wasn’t even the Widows’ Association or anything. It wasn’t until about ’93 I think it was, that the RAF Widows’ Association formed, and I did get involved with that. I was close-ish to some of the old widows, that I still kept in touch with, but a few moved away; they didn’t want to stay here. The boys, I think, were initially worried that, “Oh, do we have to move? Do we have to sell the house?” I said, “No, we will stay here until you see your schooling out. This is it, we will stay here”. I stuck to that promise, I made that promise so I stuck to it. In hindsight, hmm… possibly, it would have been easier moving with young children and setting up somewhere else, because with young children you’ve got school involvement so you’re meeting people at the school gates etc. But no, I stuck to that promise. Also, the eldest one was quite angry… Whilst they didn’t mention their father, it was something that had happened in the past – “I had a dad once” – so they didn’t focus on the crash or anything else. But having said that, the elder one was quite angry, and there were quite a lot of temper tantrums and issues that, eventually, I thought, “We need to look into this”. So we did have some family counselling at that point, and then he was fine.
How old was he at this point?
He would have been about 8 or 9 years old. I do recall one incident: at a local sports centre had opened so I’d taken the two of them and two of their friends, to go ice-skating, but it was newly-opened and the timetables were changing so we had got there and there was not much of this session left. So I’d said, “It’s not worth it”, and this child had an almighty temper tantrum, kicked my car and ran off into the park nearby, where there was a flowing river, and was shouting and swearing at me. I was like… I can remember being aghast at where on earth is this language coming from, and this old man was walking his dog and said, “That child needs a damn good smack”. I said, “Well, that child has just lost his father, actually.” I proceeded to retrieve said child and get them home. Me, outwardly, people would think I was coping but inwardly, I was just in bits, so eventually I sought out counselling for myself. Over that first 15 years or so, I would have had several bouts of counselling to get through it all. Again, probably around the time that Alastair would have been about , Fraser was , they would have been at school, and I thought, “I can’t cope”, so I had to leave my job.
Yes, I was angry about it, you know, I’d had to give up a career in the Revenue to be posted up here. I was just about to start doing my tax exams when the accident happened, and here I am again having to give up a job that I really enjoyed. So, the boys, both of them were at school by now and were quite happy when Mum was home when they got in etc. I think after a while I thought, ‘Oh, I need something to do”. So I had this brilliant idea of becoming a childminder, but I’d try it out first, so I borrowed a friend’s baby for a day – “Nah, no way.” [Laughter]. I borrowed a friend’s toddler – “No, no.” [Laughter]. So, I ended up, a few of Alastair and Fraser’s schoolmates, I looked after, after school, so I did that for a few years. Again, I was wanting something for me and I thought computers etc. are going to be coming in and I’ll have to learn about them. The boys will be learning before me, so I went to college, starting off basically doing word processing and everything. I actually enjoyed being at college. I thought, “I quite like learning, I quite like this”. So I after I did a few of these courses, I thought, “Right, I’ll go back”. I did a fulltime course and it worked out well with the school, it was an HND in Information Office Management. So, I enjoyed doing that, but again, it was just … you exist. It’s a strange … You’re acting it out, you’re acting life out, in essence. The world thinks you’re doing fine, but inwardly …
Again, it must have been around that sort of time, Christmas Day, I recall thinking, “I can’t do this”. The boys are happy, they’ve opened all their presents and playing, and it’s just the three of us. I thought “I can’t do this, I can’t do this but I’ve got them”. So I phoned a friend who literally lived round the corner and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do”. [Sobs]. So she left her family on Christmas Day and came and sat with me. She’s since passed away herself, but her daughter wasn’t aware of that. I said to her, “Your mum saved me that day. I don’t know what I would have done”.
My family couldn’t handle it. I think my mother was possibly jealous that I could still live in the big house. So, she was strange about things. Alan’s family were superb, because they’d been there, they’d got the t.-shirt, they’d been through this, so I probably sought more comfort from them than my own. So, over time, I became estranged from them. Yeah, that’s a whole other story, I guess. I think Alan’s parents were anxious that, here they were, they had five grandchildren that didn’t have fathers, so, especially me, they were anxious and about losing touch. So no, we regularly went to see their grandparents because all the family lived in Greenock as well so they saw their family regularly, so that was fine.
Alastair reached 18 and was looking at university and decides to go to Dundee, after a few thoughts. He ends up at Dundee University, which he enjoys, possibly too much. So, he’d ended up doing two first years of university because he enjoyed life too much. He was working in the student union bar and in a hotel bar, and in between times, I think he was in a bar. [Laughter]. So, having failed, he decided to have a year out. Fraser, of course, was coming up through school and was looking at universities as well, and he chooses Glasgow – Strathclyde at Glasgow, to do engineering. Alastair, after a year out – holding down three jobs, I hasten to add: two bar jobs and a day job – decides he needed to look at something, so he got into hospitality, which he’s brilliant at. But in the back of my mind, that’s it, I knew they wouldn’t come back to this area; they’re enjoying this freedom away. I think I’d always encouraged them to be independent in any event, so they were enjoying their lives. Alastair ended up going back to college and doing Hospitality and initially worked in Dundee as a restaurant and bar manager, then did a stint in Aberdeen where he was commuting – Dundee to Aberdeen – but ended up at a restaurant on the North West, North coast from here, North of Ullapool, as, again, a restaurant manager. Fraser, by this time, had done a couple of years at Strathclyde and he gets the chance to do a year exchange with an American university so he chooses Clemson University in South Carolina. Their education years are different to ours, I think it starts around July time, as opposed to here which is September/October.
So he went out there and, I think, within weeks, he met this girl of his dreams – Julia. But at the same time, wasn’t doing terribly well because it was a totally different set up. I don’t think he was even doing, like, engineering-type modules like he was doing here; there you could do a module in yoga and other such things, so, like, he found it a wee bit strange. So he’d said – I’ve come to realise that sometimes my sons will embroider the truth somewhat. [Laughter.] He’d said, “I’m going to fail this year”. This would have been about September-ish time, “I’m going to fail this semester, I’m going to fail this year, so I’m thinking of just stopping now, going travelling, and then coming back to Strathclyde to repeat the year”. Me thinking, financially, he can’t do that as that would affect my pension, I said, “If you’re going to fail, that’s fine, but you’ll be collecting modules/points/whatever – you’ll stay at university”, which he did do, so he got more involved with Julia. He came back to the UK and I was talking to some friends of, actually I think it was one of Alan’s cousins, his family were up and we’d met them. Fraser had just come off the train and we met at Balloch Moray restaurant. Fraser was looking at his further education and suchlike, and had come out with, “I’m thinking, if I can’t join the Air Force” – because he’d had his eyes lasered so he couldn’t join the Air Force, they wouldn’t take him as a fast jet pilot, which is what he wanted to do – “So I’m going to sort out a place where they’ll teach me to fly planes”. “Oh right, okay”. “How much is all this going to cost?” It was something like £75,000. “But it’s alright, I’ll get a loan for it”. “A loan? That’s a mortgage”. Of course, this was said in front of the relatives, to temper my temper. [Laughter]. But as we were sitting there, it just dawned on me, I said, “You said you were going to fail your course?” He said, “Yes”. Which he had done, he’d failed that year and had to subsequently repeat it once he came back to Strathclyde. He said, “Yeah, that’s right”. I said, “Right, but you knew in September?” He said, “Yes.” “So it never occurred to you to possibly come back to Strathclyde to start in the October and do that year so you wouldn’t have had to actually repeat it?” He went, “Oh…” He got caught out on that one, didn’t he? [Laughter].
But yeah, there were a few little Atlantic crossings, shall we say, to go and visit Julia. But he got a job with Maersk, a company in Denmark, so he went off to Denmark, so I knew the boys weren’t going to come back here. At the same time, I’d flitted in and out of jobs. I’d start a job, do it for a few years and get bored or something would happen and I didn’t like there and I’d leave. I had the pensions, so I had that affordability; I could do that temporarily before looking for other work. But I had great friends round and about who would invite me to this, that and the other, which I was always a spare part. I didn’t like that bit. I do recall a few things, getting fed up and thinking, “No, I don’t want to be the spare part. I’m not going”, and friends would be concerned. So I thought, “Oh, I’ll do this online dating thing”, which, yeah… I kept friends entertained by some of the guys I came across, shall we say. I’d do it for a while and think “Oh, this is not for me”, and six months would pass or whatever and I’d think “No, I’m old, I need somebody”. Because no matter how many friends you’ve got, there comes a time at night when you lock the front door, put the phone down, and it’s you, and you think, “I can’t bear this, I can’t bear this”. Then I’d dabble again and think, “No, I can’t do it”.
The boys came, it would have been 2012 … In fact, sorry, can I backtrack? Going back to talking about RAF involvement, and as I said, there was none. But coming up to the 10th anniversary, I was reading the local paper, flicking through it initially just looking at the pictures and thinking, “I recognise that”, and it was the top of the hill. A cairn, by now, had been put up there, using a piece off the aircraft, which I had visited. But there was a picture in the paper and I was reading in the report that the then station commander had deemed that there would be a ceremony to mark said 10th anniversary. So a number of them were going out there for this service and they would titivate the memorial etc. I rang a couple of the other wives and said, “Did you know about this?” “No”. “Do you mind if I follow this up?” “On you go”. Said station commander, that particular one, was very fond of having his picture in the papers a lot – never a week went by where his picture wasn’t in the paper. So I rang, asked for, and got, his secretary and was put through immediately to him. I happened to mention this and said, “Were you not going to involve the families in this?” “No, it’s got nothing to do with you”. I said, “Actually, I beg to differ. It has a lot to do with me since my husband was one of the ten killed in that crash”, and put the phone down, then I proceeded through the RAF Widows Association to make a complaint. Then I was invited. It was only going to be me invited because … well, for one person and the others said, “Maureen, you’ve done this, so you go”. I wasn’t happy, but … So, I got a lift in a helicopter and was dropped off near the top of the hill for said service. Again, one of those funny moments. I do recall a couple of the guys from 8thsquadron, Alan’s colleagues pitched up as well. Of course, it was ten years on, they’ve got grey hair, they’re bald. [Laughter.] I remember thinking, “Oh gosh, what would Alan have looked like?” He’d have been completely different.
Roll on the years and – again, they’d kept no involvement – and somehow or other it came to my attention that they were planning a 20th anniversary event and someone came to the house, an admin guy, and said, “Right, it’ll be exactly a week before the actual anniversary. In fact, we’ve got the Archbishop of Canterbury up to conduct the service and we’re going to have a flypast of this aircraft, and then a lunch in the mess for the families”. I said, “Really? It’s a bit much”. Had they asked us, I’d have said, you know, a lunch maybe, but the Archbishop of Canterbury? But by then it was all set, and come said day, thanks to the Icelandic volcano, the Archbishop couldn’t get up because there was no flying activity so no flights; there would just be this lunch in the mess. My son came down from Ullapool, my eldest son came down. Fraser was in Denmark so he couldn’t make it. Again, naively, I don’t know, we went to this dinner, and huge mess tables were all set round – big, square tables. We were sitting and my son said, “Who is that lady?” Not thinking, I said, “Well, that was the captain’s wife”, not thinking. Of course, over the years, as they’d got older, they asked more questions and obviously, as young adults I could tell them what actually happened on the day. So I said, “Yes, that’s so-and-so, the captain’s wife”.
He goes back to his work, and roll on the actual day of the anniversary, that weekend, Fraser comes across with Julia, who is now his fiancée, and he goes out with his friends and they both came in fairly late, and he’s drunk. I didn’t often see him drunk. But they’ve had a row, he and his fiancée have had a row – something to do with another girl – and a very, very expensive engagement ring gets flung in the bedroom, thankfully in the bedroom so we could find it. But Julia, this is the first time I think she would have been in Scotland, away from her mum, and very upset as she’s had an argument with her boyfriend, you know. So I was comforting her, saying, you know, “He’s drunk”. And she’s aware of the day and everything. I said, “In the morning, don’t do anything rash”. So I’m comforting her and trying to calm her down. Eventually, we all get to bed about 3 o clock in the morning. Then about half-past three, I get a phone call from the general manager of the hotel where my son was – “There’s been an incident”. I said, “What?” He said, “It’s Alastair”. Then he said, “Maureen, I know what the day is, I know what the day is”. I said, “What’s happened?” Alastair, in the line of his work, had had to reprimand a member of staff for having drugs on the premises. So that had been going on in the background, but as is common in the hotel world, especially one that’s out in the middle of nowhere, there’s obviously staff quarters, so after the tidy up after the last sitting in the restaurant, the staff were in the quarters having a drink and a chat and all the rest of it and this guy comes out of his room complaining that they were making a noise and he was tired and wanted to sleep. I think Alastair would have told him where to go, basically. The next minute, seemingly, all hell broke loose and this employee came back with a pitchfork and charged at my son, and my son saw red, and at that point he cannot recall anything. He said, “I’ve heard of it before, Mum, but it was a mist of red that came down”, and he went for this guy. It took three men to get him off. I think he probably could have killed him.
So the general manager said, “We saw what happened, we are not blaming Alastair, but I think he needs a bit of time off work, just a bit of R&R and TLC from his mum. Would you get him?” I said, “Yes, yes. I’ll speak to Alastair.” So it was arranged that he’d get the bus from the hotel to Ullapool, then Ullapool to Inverness, and I’d meet him in Inverness. So of course, I couldn’t sleep then. [Laughter]. So I go to the bus, and it must have been due late morning, I’d say. I was at the bus station and it came in but there was no one on. I got the bus driver to check that he’s not sleeping, but he’s not on. So I rang the hotel and spoke to his girlfriend – “No, he left, he left ages ago. He went to get the bus”. I said, “But he’s not in Inverness”. So knowing the frame of mind he was in, everyone was obviously, “Oh my god, oh my god…” So I am hanging round in Inverness, thinking “what do I do? Where is he? Do I start driving there? What if he’s on his way by some other means?” So they were looking for him. Eventually, eventually I get a phone call from Alastair. He said, “Ah, I missed the bus. I decided to walk from the hotel to Ullapool, but then I missed the bus there as well”.
Now, the said walk from the hotel to Ullapool would be about ten miles or so but it’s twisty, hilly roads etc. He said, “I’m in Ullapool. I don’t know what I’m going to do because there’s some sort of music festival on so I can’t get a hotel room”. I said, “I’m coming for you”. He says, “What?” I said, “I’m coming for you, just tell me where you are”. So I drove a couple of hours, I don’t know a couple of hours – 2 ½ hours – to go and get him, to be greeted with: “Are you crying, Mum? Why are you crying?” [Laughter]. So both of them, and that was 20 years on, most people would say, “Oh, you move on; you get on with your life and forget”. You don’t forget. But both of them were triggered by, in essence the Air Force were doing something that upset them greatly, and I got quite a shock at that, I have to say. That completely took me back and upset me greatly, and again, I thought I was beyond it, but no, I had to have counselling again because I thought. “I’m not coping, I’m not coping”.
As I say, both of them were away, so I was moving on, and dabbling with the online stuff thinking, “Is it for me? Is it not? But how do I meet somebody?” So 2012, both the boys decided to come home. Fraser by now is settled in America; Alastair is now in Australia. I think after that incident… Sorry, I keep backtracking, but after that incident I think he realised that: “Hey, there’s more to life; I’ve got to live it”. So he and a schoolfriend decided they would do some travelling. Alastair sold his flat, made a killing, so the two of them left here and went to Finland, from which they travelled overland, through Russia, Siberia, China and just had lots of adventures for about six months. Fraser has now headed to America to get married. He had an engagement visa to get into the country as he was getting married there, so I joined him and Alastair comes from South Korea, I think it is at that point, for the wedding, and Alastair went back to Australia. I came back home, and in 2012, Alastair decided to come for a visit and he wanted to go to the crash site, because neither of them had visit it before. So we organised a trip and Fraser decides he wants to come as well, but he couldn’t make the same time, so I literally had one son, followed by the other a couple of months later. So I’ve shown them the crash site so at least they’ll know, because I wasn’t sure if I could walk this hill that many more times.
When they went back to their respective homes, I was thinking, “Oh, this online dating, no”. So I literally went into the site to delete my details and thought, “I’ll just take one last look”, and I thought “oh, I recognise that guy. He worked at the Council. He must be alright, he’s local and he’s got a good position in the Council. I’ll contact him”. So, I made contact, and when I had met anyone online, I’d always tell a friend where I was going. They always knew that if they didn’t get an ‘okay call’ from me, then to panic. [Laughter]. I always had this routine that I would correspond via the site for so long and eventually they might get an email address; if they got that far and it was okay, they’d get my mobile. But this, for some reason, went straight there and I gave him my mobile number, and literally within a couple of days, I’d arranged to meet this chap called Graham. So we met in Lossiemouth one evening and we must have had about half a dozen coffees, and just chatted nonstop, got on really well, and I thought, “Oh, I’d like to see him again”, though I didn’t voice it out loud, trying to be coy. He said, “I would really like to see you again but I’ve got family coming up so it will be into next week, but I will be in touch.” “Yeah, right, okay. That’s fine. I’ll believe it if it happens”.
But he did get in touch a couple of days later and he said, “No, I’m leaving my sister and family. I’d like to see you, can we go out for dinner?” I said yes, so we met again after a few days. We met, I think, a few times the next week, and this continued. I thought, “wow, I’ve never felt this comfortable with somebody” and he was obviously feeling the same. He’d been married, and divorced twice, with two children from his first marriage who were obviously grown up. Also, an issue with me was that the odd guys I had met had got second families but they were younger, and so their weekends, odd weekends, were tied up with children, which I thought, “No, I don’t want that”. Well, within six weeks, my friends were totally aghast [Laughter] when we actually arranged to go on holiday together abroad. I told my friends, “You know what, this is either going to be a definitive ‘he’s the one’ or it’s not going to work”, because we’d be in each other’s company 24/7. But we got on brilliantly. In fact, whilst we were on holiday, I had sent something I’d come across in the local paper to my son in Australia, a wanted ad – “Wanted: a whisky ambassador in New Zealand”, with an email address – so I’d sent it to him whilst we were on holiday. Then, Alastair and his girlfriend were coming up to the end of their 2-year visa in Australia; Fraser was married in America, and I thought, “I can’t do this, being on my own anymore”.
But I recalled that bit of paper I signed – if I cohabit I lose my pension, if I marry, I lose my pension. If I’m honest, I was, I have been aware others have cohabited but possibly those guys have an address somewhere else… We’d sort of discussed this issue and I just thought, “I either have love and that security of being with someone, or I have complete financial independence but I’m lonely”, and I just thought, “No, I want that. I want to be with somebody”. Deep down, I know… Both my in-laws had long passed away and they’d always said to me: “You’re too young, Maureen. You’re too young. You have to find somebody. You’ve done a great job by the boys, they’re great young men, but you have to think of yourself”. My sister-in-law said the same. I thought, “I’m going to go down that route”, so literally within I’d say three months of meeting, we were engaged to be married. I thought, well, we could have just gone off to the registry office but I said, “No, I’d really like my two to be here if we can organise a wedding around them both being able to be here”. So it was organised for my birthday in 2014, so literally a couple of years after meeting. It did sort of grow a bit, as these occasions can, they can sort of grow arms and legs, and we ended up getting married in Inverness. I had Alastair and Fraser giving me away. I had their girlfriends and Graham’s daughter as my bridesmaids and his wee granddaughter as a flower girl; his son was best man and his son-in-law did a reading, so it was very much a family affair. My side of friends and family, I think they were all in tears because they knew my story. They said it was the best wedding they’d ever been to, it was so happy, but it was so emotional because one of my sons gave a very emotional speech. I hate getting my photograph taken but those wedding photographs, I’m happy in all of them, so, you know, it was a brilliant day – everyone enjoyed it.
Graham obviously moved in, this was my house before I met Graham. By now, I was in the job I’m doing now and doing well and everything was hunky-dory. I informed the pensions authority, so I lost my pensions. But in November 2014, David Cameron stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street and announced that military widows would get their pensions for life. I thought, “Oh, that’s great. Does that mean I’m getting mine back?” Over those next few weeks, I was corresponding with the Widow’s Association etc., and it was a case of, “Well, no. You’ve lost your pension”. It was coming into force, in essence, on 1st April 2015 and thereafter, they would get to keep their pensions for life. Now, I gave up my pension willingly. I chose, I knew what I was doing, but this was … I don’t know … It hurt, in essence. Because I’ve always said whilst I’m Graham’s wife, I’m still Alan’s widow. So thanks to the powers of Facebook etc., I made contact with others in that situation, and because of my personal situation where I had flitted in and out of jobs, I relied on my military pensions because I thought, “I’ve got them for life. I’m on my own, I’ve got them for life”. So I didn’t ever put money aside or have the luxury of another employment pension to fall back on, I literally don’t have.
Of course, I fall into that category of a ‘50s child so my state pension has been pushed back, so I get that at 66 and a half, I think. So it’s, you know, as we’ve campaigned with the War Widows’ Association, I’ll be 65 on my next birthday and I’ve still got to work for another two years. So that pension issue has come back to haunt me, in signing those pieces of paper and giving my… just making me think all those years that “I can’t be with someone, I can’t be with someone because I know I’ll lost my pension”. So we’re campaigning and, you know, here we are, nearly five years on. Will it be changed? Who knows? I’d like to think so. Certainly, the War Widows’ Association have been pushing for it. I did approach Mary Moreland, the Chair, last year, who I know is actively promoting this issue, and said: “Whenever you go to any of these meetings, do you actually use people that are actually affected by this?” So she invited me and an army widow to go with her to the Treasury office last November, so that was an interesting experience – the Chair, the secretary and me and this other widow, sat facing this Amber Rudd… no, Liz Truss it was, sorry. They swap jobs around a bit. It was Liz Truss, and her cohorts were sat on the other side of the desk and, initially, it was like watching a game of tennis. Mary would say something but then they would counteract and I was thinking, “I’m never going to get a look in”. I actually had my iPad with me, I had photographs on my iPad, and at one point, I thought, “You know what, this is not going anywhere. I need them to be aware of what we’ve lost”. So, I eventually find a photograph and I just sat so people could see it, and sort of, just looked across – this tennis match was still going on – and eventually, Mary said, “Well, I’d like these people to speak.” I thought, “Oh, what am I going to say?”
So I told a story similar to what I’ve been speaking about today, and at that point I had a series of photographs and I had my friend’s photographs as well, so I just sat and said: “I’d like to introduce you. This is my husband: Flight Lieutenant Alan Campbell”, and I held it up and I just went through the photographs very slowly. I said, “These are his two boys, just a couple of years before that, there was an incident…” and I regaled that tale of the 20th anniversary and I got upset, and I could see Liz Truss getting upset, and I thought, “great!” So I continued showing them the pictures, of men who won’t get to see their children grow up or get to see them get married, or see their grandchildren, and that you’ve taken this pension away but given it to some and it’s not fair. So we campaign, still.
Can I ask you about the advice you got when you initially received the pension and they said you were entitled to a war widow’s pension? How did that make you feel?
It was a strange thing because he hadn’t died in war. But as it was explained to me, he died on duty – he died in the course of his work. So it was a strange thing to be given a war widow’s pension, but the reason for these pensions are seemingly very complex, because through involvement with the two widows’ associations, there are those who get but then some are refused, so you think why? So yeah, it did seem strange that I’d got this war widow’s pension. I suppose I’ve … I think probably since knowing Graham, pushing the War Widows’ Association and helping to get publicity, for want of a better word, to say that yes, there are these widows who exist and we’re not going to go away.
I just wondered about your relationship with, the idea of being a war widow, did it take you a while to a point where you identified as a war widow or was it straightaway?
No, I don’t. No, I don’t think I ever… I don’t think I ever identified myself as a war widow as such, just as a widow. Yeah. Just because for a great many of the girls that I know, haven’t been in that war scenario, so we were just widows whose husbands died whilst in the course of their duty. There has been since, locally, RAF Nimrod crashed in Afghanistan. It crashed out there; it wasn’t a war situation – it was a mechanical issue. They, too, are classed as war widows but then there was a war going on around them. The people I identify mostly with have been RAF widows over here, whose husbands have died in plane crashes due to mechanical issues.
At what point did you get involved with the War Widows’ Association?
It was for this campaign. Whilst I’ve always been a member, I’d always been involved with the RAF Widows’ Association; when it formed I became the point of contact for new widows, but thankfully there weren’t many. Actually, when I got involved with Graham, I had spoken to the then Chair and said, “I’m standing down, can you find someone else to cover this area?” But nothing was done about that, I don’t think, and I was actually contacted by the Chair who said, “Can you go and speak to a new widow?” So, I’ve always … I suppose, you know, you’ve been there, you’ve got the t-shirt, so you get involved. So it’s reinvigorated the RAF Widows’ Association locally, I have to say, because there has been a couple of incidents, new widows, locally, so they do meet fairly regularly. Mary came up – I think, they’ve been trying to promote the war widows more – so she had come up with the secretary and other people, and got us together. It was a couple of years ago now. They were basically looking for someone to be a local coordinator, so I was waiting for people to step forward, but nobody does, so I said, “I’ll do it”. So, I play that local role now. Following that, I lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday at the local parade and I’m very proud to represent, not just for myself, but I know the stories of others out there and what they have gone through, so I’m very proud to lay it on behalf of them – not for me, but for them.
Can I ask you about how you celebrate or commemorate birthdays or anniversaries?
Usually it’s very quietly, I have to say. Because Alan and I always marked Remembrance Day in any event. For Alan and I, it was probably the only day we went to church and it still is, and we’d always go to the cemetery. I tend to go quiet on anniversaries. Graham is great. He will come with me, and recently my youngest son, his wife gave birth to a wee girl, so I did go to the cemetery. It just so happened I was in Lossiemouth when I got the news that Isla Rose, she’s called, was born, so he immediately sent through a photograph, so I immediately went to the cemetery to have a quiet word with … a headstone [laughter] and showed him the photograph.
That’s lovely. So, I just wanted to ask you a few round-up questions, really. Is there anything that you would want people to know about war widows that you think generally they don’t know? What are the misconceptions?
I certainly think…. Well, war widows who have remarried, I think it’s a general misconception – especially when it’s in this pension campaign for example – that you’ve married again, you’ve got a new husband so you’re fine. No, because those thoughts never go away. Speaking to others, we can recall such vivid memories of the day, the day of the funeral etc., we are still that person’s widow. The misconception, again, because it’s “war widows” I think people just assume it’s widows whose husbands have been killed in a war scenario, they don’t think of… I don’t think they would even have thought of Northern Ireland as being a war; they saw it as a conflict, so not a war as such. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what people think. I think they think of a war widow as being a little person dressed in black, mourning her husband for the rest of her life, sort of thing. Well, I suppose it’s in the title “War Widows’ Association” but of course, there are also war widowers out there as well.
In your opinion, do you think there any changes from those, maybe World War II widows to more recent ones, from your experience?
Only because I was a history buff and studied up ‘til the end of World War II, and I went to one of Nadine’s presentations on history of the war widow. Is there a difference? Yeah, in today’s society, now, there are all sorts of, well, benefits of some description or another, possibly available. There’s obviously the online access to support etc. I think that would be the only difference of the war widow of the Second World War. Whilst she would have had her family all round about, I doubt there would have been any other support for her as such. I think are we more fortunate that we can access help with mental health issues? Certainly I did, with depression over the years. But then the difference is, you know, our families are spread far and wide, and we stay put, like I did, you know, I don’t have that network of family support that possibly someone would have had in the ‘40s and thereafter. Financially, I think…I know my husband died in a non-litigious society, shall we say, and I know subsequently that – rightly or wrongly – litigation has come into play, and some people… It doesn’t bring your husband back but they have been left extremely well provided for. I think those widows of those early days must have, well, there was the poor house and all sorts, wasn’t there, and they possibly couldn’t work because they had young children. As I say, I could manage on my pension, I didn’t necessarily have to work but working helped to provide, dare I say, the luxuries of holidays etc. Yes, there are differences but whether they are for the better or not, I wouldn’t like to say.
My very last question – this has been a very thorough interview – is there anything you want to cover that we haven’t? Anything you want to mention?
[Pause] As I say, it’s just reiterating that point, that no matter that, for me, it happened nearly 30 years ago – the 30th anniversary is next year – it still gets to me, and I think that’s the point, that again, if you haven’t been through it then you have no clue that it’s something that will always be there and it will always be a part of you. You’re not going to forget. I love Graham but I still love the man that was my husband and certainly, my younger son is very much like him and it’s obviously a reminder. But life does go on, and I know one thing a newly-bereaved person doesn’t want to hear, that time is a great healer. It may not be a healer as such, but time does soften the issue, shall we say, and you learn to cope, you become stronger. I’m certainly not the same person I was way back in 1990, I think my work colleagues would say I don’t suffer fools very easily. [Laughter]. I don’t know if that’s an age thing, but I will speak my… Before, I wouldn’t say I was timorous as such, but I possibly lived in a bubble. [Laughter]. After, I was very much aware of people and their reactions and behaviour, and being quite shocked by it. You know, there were people that would cross the road to avoid talking to me in case I burst into tears or screamed the place down or whatever, but that’s made me a stronger person today. But I think it’s helped with the job I do, I’m dealing with bereaved people every day, but I’m dealing with fighting families who see money as… But having been through that personally, I think it’s made me a better person, that experience.
Can I just elaborate on that then, about how you felt you were treated when you became a widow, did you feel that there was a difference in the way people perceived you, generally?
Oh yeah, yeah. I lived in a big house, and I think I must have lived in a glass bubble – everybody seemed to know what I did. One particular incident, literally just weeks after, somebody told me, “Oh, I’ve heard this rumour that you’re meeting this man in the woods outside Lossiemouth”. I said, “Really? Tell me more. What’s he like?” and they described this person and he’s got this particular coloured car. I said, “Really?” And going back to me going for that guy at Alan’s funeral who had identified him, I retraced said gossip, and again, people are, I think they feel guilty once they’ve been caught out gossiping, but they’re quick to put the blame on somebody else. So I retraced this line of gossip back to, actually, a very, very close friend of mine, and apart from it being shocking, I said, “Where the hell did you get this from? She named the person, and as well as it being someone who in Lossiemouth was notorious for gossiping, I sort of paused for a minute and then it just clicked, I said, “Where does she live?” She said, “She lives on the back road to Lhanbryde”. I said, “Yes. What’s on the back road to Lhanbryde?” She said, “Well, woods”. I said, “Yes, and what’s in the woods along that road?” She said, “The cemetery”. I said, “She has seen me go to the cemetery every day” – as I did in those early days – “and has somehow put 2 and 5,000 together to come up with this awful story”. I said, “Why on earth did you not say something to me before you gossiped to everyone else?” But yeah, certainly in Lossiemouth I was the only one as they were spread round about, some of the guys were single so their families lived away anyway, so I was the only one in Lossiemouth, so everybody knew me.
In fact, just recalling, months after that, again because everyone knew I was widowed, somebody came to the house – in fact, two people, two lots of people – came to the house, a very prominent house that overlooks the coastline from Lossiemouth along the sea and it overlooks all of Elgin to the south and the hills, so I had fabulous views. People thought I was mad to leave to come here, but… So two lots of people came to the house and said, “Are you selling the house?” “Hmm?” “Well, now your husband’s dead, you’ll be moving back home?” “No, this is our home. This is our home and we’re staying”, so they got short shrift treatment. Actually, roll on the years, it came to a point just before my 50th birthday, knowing that’s it, the boys are definitely not coming back to this area, it’s a big house, I’m going to sell it. Going back to that, when I said it might have been easier moving when the boys were little, moving as an adult into fresh new lands was quite scary so I thought I’d have to stay locally. Part of me wanted to move away from the area but I thought, “No, I’ll stay locally”. Eventually, I ended up here. But it was quite a cathartic experience because that family home, whilst I missed the views etc. and it had been the family home so lots of good memories, but in essence it was an empty shell with me being on my own, and far too much for me to look after on my own, the garden was far too big for me to look after. Of course, the rooms were big, the rooms were tall, so we had big furniture – dark oak furniture – lots of furniture, and I got rid of the lot and bought fresh. I moved in literally a week, I think, before Christmas and both the boys came home from their respective universities and it was like, “Oh my god, this is so different.” But I had also got Sky TV, which I had never, ever allowed. I’d also bought myself an open top sports car, to which the boys said, “Why did you leave it till we left home to get Sky TV and a sports car?” I said, “Exactly. I left it till you left home”. [Laughter]. So it was a fantastic, cathartic experience just to get rid of some of that past and unburden myself, and this was a new beginning. But again, when I was leading up to selling the house, I’d spoken to a couple of people that I was going to tidy things up and put it on the market in the spring. But someone approached me, came to the door to say his daughter was interested in buying the house. I thought they must have heard the rumours. I said it would be going on the market in the spring, the market was going up at that point and I said, “I’ll decide next spring”. They came again, “Have you decided yet?” I said, “No, it’ll be next spring. You’ll see it, it’ll be in the paper”. It was on the front page because it was, as I say, such a prominent house, the front page of the local property centre’s brochure.
So I was pestered galore by these people who said, “Can we be the first to see it? Can we give you an offer? This is the offer we…” I said, “No, it’s going to closing”. In Scotland when it’s good and you get lots of offers, it goes to what’s called a ‘closing date’ and you can or not accept what offers are there in sort of, a closed envelope scenario. I said, “No, we’ll decide on the day”. And on said day, their offer was low compared to the others so they didn’t get it. But I did see them out locally and said, “I’m sorry, I got a higher offer on the house. But out of curiosity, how did you know I was going to put the house on the market?” Going back, because I lived in this glass world, for all to see. They said, “Oh, we rather suspected, both your boys were away at university and you’d want to move”. So it wasn’t that they’d heard I was thinking about it, again, it was this assumption that “Yeah, you won’t want to stay here on your own. You’ll be moving”. So yeah, people’s perception of me at the time, it did anger me, I have to say, or at least there were moments. I think I just lived in a bubble prior to that, I just wasn’t aware of people’s behaviour. It’s made me more aware these days. So here I am. I’ve celebrated five years of marriage. I have joked about it with my husband because his first marriage, his first involvement and marriage lasted 20 years; his second lasted 10, and we’ve been together 7 – married for 5 – and I think we’ve got it for life. [Laughter]. We do, yeah. He supports me a lot in many ways and he’s my rock. But I put up with him and his snoring, and it works well. It’s good.
Brilliant. Thank you, Maureen. I’ll stop the interview there.
[End of Recording]
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