Last night, when I was on a train coming home from London, the late comedian Malcolm Hardee‘s sister Clare phoned to tell me that their mother Joan had died earlier in the day.
Joan was 84. I met her over perhaps 25 years. She was feisty, redoubtable and with a mind so sharp you could cut cheese with it. She doted on Malcolm and, when he drowned in 2005, it – as you would expect – affected her greatly for the rest of her life. She died from pneumonia, peacefully, in a nursing home near Deal in Kent.
In his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, Malcolm said:
“Just after my dad was demobbed, he met my mum in a pub called The Dutch House on the A20. They met on VJ Night.
“He was quite old when he got married – 32 – and my mum was 20. They stayed rooted in South East London, with never a thought of leaving.”
Joan gave birth to Malcolm in 1950; then her daughter Clare ten years later; and son Alexander another ten years later.
“I was born in the Tuberculosis Ward of Lewisham Hospital in South East London. Immediately after my birth, I was taken from my mother and moved to an orphanage in a place aptly named Ware in Hertfordshire. We were not to meet again for nearly two years.
“The reason I was shuffled off to Hertfordshire was that my mother had tuberculosis, which is extremely infectious and, in those days, it was unknown for working class fathers to look after young children.
“When my mother was released from the solitary confinement of the TB sanatorium, she came to collect me from the Hertfordshire orphanage. She said she nearly chose the wrong child as there was an angelic lookalike contentedly sitting in one corner, quiet as a mouse. But I was the screaming brat in the other corner.
“We went to live in Lewisham, at 20 Grover Court, in a modest block of genteel 1930s apartments with flat roofs. They are still there, set off the main road: two storeys, four flats to each storey, about 100 flats in all.. They look a little like holiday flats in some rundown seaside town like Herne Bay or Lyme Regis. It was fairly self-contained: almost like a village in itself.”
Joan’s husband was a lighterman. He worked on the River Thames, as the captain of a tugboat, pulling lighters (barges). Malcolm told me:
“People who worked on the River used to earn quite a good wage. Sometime around 1960, I remember a figure of £40 a week being quoted, which was probably about the same as a doctor got in those days.”
But Joan did not have it easy.
Comedian Arthur Smith told me yesterday: “Joan had a kind of necessary but graceful stoicism.”
Malcolm, in particular, must have been a difficult son to bring up.
Malcolm’s friend Digger Dave told me: “Nothing could faze Joan. She just took everything in her stride.”
And she had to.
In his autobiography, Malcolm remembered what he was like as a kid:
“I sometimes used to go shopping with my mother and pretend she was nicking stuff off the shelves. I would get up to the till and say: You know that’s Doris the Dip don’t you?
“She actually got arrested once – well, stopped – in Chiesmans Department Store in Lewisham. She’s always been indecisive, picking up things and putting them back and, with me standing behind her, she looked very suspicious. She wasn’t arrested – just stopped. She said she’d never felt so insulted in her life. But my mother has a sense of humour. I suppose she has had to have.”
“Malcolm’s entire family,” comedian Jenny Eclair told me yesterday, “are like him. They are rich, in the best sense of the word – there was so much love amongst the Hardees.”
As a surprise on her 70th birthday, Joan received a birthday card from artist Damien Hirst
Well, it was not a card. He sent her one of his paintings with Happy Birthday, Joan on the bottom right hand corner.
Joan used to work at Goldsmiths, the art college in south-east London where Hirst had studied. When he was a student, she had sometimes let him and other impoverished students share her sandwiches.
Malcolm had bumped into Damien in the Groucho Club in London and asked him if he would create a card for Joan in time for her birthday party.
The Daily Telegraph quoted Joan as saying of the students at Goldsmiths: “I used to buy some of their work at the annual degree show although I didn’t know that much about art actually. I never bought anything by Damien Hirst. I think he did a cow for his degree show and I must have thought Where would I put it?”
Malcolm’s son Frank – Joan’s grandson – says: “For me, Grandjo was another Hardee eccentric who loved life and enjoyed to socialise.”
Frank is coming back from South Korea and his sister Poppy is coming back from Palestine to attend Joan’s funeral, details of which have not yet been finalised as I write this.
I liked Joan a lot. She had more than a spark of originality and a keen, intelligent mind.
Poppy writes from Palestine:
“One of my fondest memories of Grandjo comes from the time when I must have been around 10 and she had sold the Damien Hirst dot painting. She held a party to celebrate with the theme of ‘dress as a famous artist/piece of art work.’ The room was full of sunflowers (a strange take on surrealism by Steve Bowditch, if I remember), me as the lady of Shalott and dad as a policeman (the artist John Constable). Joan roamed around the room in an outrageous 1930s flapper girl costume (she was over 70 at this point) enjoying life and the company of eccentric friends and relatives.
“I will remember Joan as a true character – interesting, vibrant, artistic – and I think the person who has most influenced my vintage style and love of a charity shop bargain. She also gave me also my love of old films, celebrity memoirs and whiskey!
“I always loved Christmas with Joan – her snobbery regarding eating only Capon Chicken (simply corn fed darling!), the argument over whether the meat was drier than last year’s lunch and her love of snowballs (the drink) at 10am! I also loved her for the ‘Queen Mother’s Sausages’ (sold by the local butcher and of a type rumoured to have been once eaten by the QM!), trips to the pantomime as our Christmas gift every year and her speciality onion soup!
“The last years of Joan’s life were incredibly difficult for both herself and the family. My aunt Clare and I took on Power of Attorney for her as she was unable to take decisions for herself and I pray and believe we made the best decisions for her regarding making her last years comfortable and the least distressing they could be in light of her dementia and other health problems.
“I thank Clare, who took on the majority of this task with the amazing support of her husband Steve and gave herself selflessly to the task of primary career and decision maker for Joan. No-one could have done a better job than the two of them and it is thanks to them that Joan got the right care and support in these past months and experienced the peaceful death she deserved.
“I think that, in sad reality, Joan never really recovered from the loss of our father Malcolm and it is a comfort that they will rest together at Shooters Hill in London.”