Mum’s the only word

Rowan Pelling

Hazel Pelling

You may fondly imagine your mother was the most wonderful woman in the whole wide world. I’m here to tell you mine was even better. This is the founding belief of my entire existence, so don’t expect rational argument on the point. So much so, that when I sat down to write a piece on “the women who formed me” I realised there was only one who mattered. I probably wouldn’t be sitting at my laptop now if I hadn’t grown up watching her bash out her daily diary on an old Remington. I concluded writing was something you did for pleasure, rather than a sure-fire way to induce despair as you stare down the gun-barrel of a deadline.

So, what, exactly, was so marvellous about my mum? If this was a novel, she’d be a glamorous blonde spy, who swept off to London in Dior taffeta, leaving a whiff of jasmine in the air. Back here in real life I must report that Hazel Pelling was an unshowy, grey-haired landlady, who teamed pleated M&S skirts with knee socks and sandals.

She felt so shy and plain during her late teens that she’d tell her family after parties, “I might as well have worn a balaclava helmet.” She wasn’t thought clever at school, didn’t go to university, but was dispatched aged sixteen to learn typing and, apart from one moment of uncharacteristic intrepidness, didn’t seek adventure.

The aberration happened when she was 25, commuting from her parents’ home in Kent to her London office job. Sitting on the train, she saw an ad in the paper: secretary needed for British construction company in Ghana. A few months later, mum was in Accra, dodging black mambas and being courted by the expat bachelors.

What no one expected was that 53-year-old Ronald Pelling, an itinerant quartermaster with a penchant for booze and at least two marriages behind him, would sweep her off. My parents returned to Britain in 1967 with two infants, another on the way (me) and nowhere to live. Which is when dad reinvented himself as a country publican.

My hearth-loving mother never flew again, except for one brief trip to Prague to visit my big sister. In fact, she almost never left home at all, except to have babies, and by 1979 there were five of us. Instead, she worked dawn-to-dusk 364 days a year, with a day’s break for Christmas, if you call cooking for sixteen or so people a break.

There were always waifs and strays at the table, often pub customers who were so far from home or such social misfits (mum had a vicar’s sense of mission) that no one else would care for them. Even when the pub was briefly closed she kept on working: unblocking drains, sweeping chimneys, mowing lawns, gardening, bottling fruit, cutting logs with her chainsaw (a terrifying vision), driving to Cash & Carry, making pub lunches, calculating VAT, changing barrels, doing the school run, or murdering vegetables in one of her three pressure cookers. I often found it hard not to cry when I looked at her hands, as they were aged far beyond her actual years.

When my father and little sister contracted TB in 1984 (a whole other story) she had to fit in hospital visits and keep the pub running. Two years later she fought a tooth-and-claw battle to stop the brewery owners evicting us. Just as well, because in 1987 she kept the whole village warm and watered for a fortnight when the hurricane Michael Fish said wouldn’t happen uprooted all the woodland surrounding us. It took a fortnight for the army to break through.

When dad died a year later from lung cancer, she took on the pub’s tenancy and kept the show running for another fourteen years. During which time she fought and won a trumpeted case for publicans after the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2021.

Her insurers tried to claim they weren’t liable for her losses (a 75 per cent drop in trade over many months), because it wasn’t a human contagion, but mum made her own legal case, proving there was no such clause in their contract, and scores of other pub landlords benefitted.

Above all else, she was the kindest and most moral person I have ever met, always doing what she believed was right, even if it was to her own detriment. Which makes her sound a bit dull, but Mum was vivid and passionate about politics and literature; she liked nothing more than civilised debate over her bar counter. If she was alive now, she’d be fundraising for families in the Ukraine.

While I admire many actresses, singers, female politicians, explorers and sportswomen, I don’t think any could hold a candle to my mum, or thousands like her. Fame brings its own rewards – and pitfalls – but what staggers me is the quiet selflessness of women who work tirelessly for their community, who foster children, run soup kitchens, give rooms to homeless strangers and put every waking effort into making the world a better place, while expecting nothing in return.

Although mum certainly reaped a great store of love and respect from her kith, kin and the extended family of our customers. When she died aged 66 (killed by a cancer brought on by hard work and, I suspect, years of passive smoking) the church was so packed that some had to stand outside in the graveyard. After countless stories of her generosity, mild eccentricity and constant wisdom, a local tenor sang “The Paring Glass” and a friend read RS Thomas’ “The Bright Field”.

As life goes on without her, I often think of this line: “But that was the pearl of great price/ the one field that had treasure in it.”

Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review

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