Pamela Gillilan

By Lesley Gillilan


She was born Pamela Johnson in the north London suburb of East Finchley on 24 November 1918. Her father, William, was a graduate of Goldsmiths, an art teacher at a school for young offenders; her mother Winifred taught English; there were two younger brothers, David and Michael.

Pamela later portrayed her father as a colourful charismatic character, with “red-gold hair”, a talented artist, with a photographic memory, a taste for Bohemian clothes. But it was her mother Winnie to whom she owed her love of literature and the printed word. Not only could Winnie recite entire Shakespearean plays without prompting, but she was driven, like her daughter, to express herself through writing. Pamela was about four years old when her mother scribbled this extract from a notebook diary:

“Pamela in blue woolly frock to match her eyes has demanded a bath for her children and with a kidney-bowl half full of tepid water is rub-a-dubbing sundry and various decayed specimens of doll-hood. She has cadged all the implements necessary: an old piece of sponge-cloth for towel, piece of old hanky for flannel etctera. The running commentary on the subject would take too long to write but it is wonderful.”

Pamela began to commit her wonderful commentaries to paper at an early age. She was first published, aged eight, when My Favourite comic paid her five shillings for a rhyme. She dreamed of writing professionally, of going to university, but after leaving school at 16 she entered the Civil Service as a clerk at the Board of Trade in Whitehall. She described her job as “part of the progression of papers... I helped keep them on the move - wrote a little something, initialed in the space provided, then put the file in the OUT tray”.

The Second World War, declared when she was 21, was to change the destiny of a generation, and for Pamela it provided an opportunity for new adventures and experience. She joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Airforce), trained as a meteorologist and was stationed with Bomber Command at airfields in Yorkshire. Here, her work included forecasting conditions for bombing raids on Germany. It was a formative period of great responsibility, close friendships, and acquaintance with love, death and tragedy. A passionate war-time affair with Jack, an Australian airman was, she said, one of the loves of her life. After the war, he returned to Australia, promising to resume their relationship as soon as he was able. She never saw him again, though she kept his letters until her death.

She was later to say that passion alone was not enough to sustain a marriage. Friendship, respect, honesty, equality, shared humour and intellect were, she said, the core of sound, enduring relationships. And certainly, it was these qualities that cemented her relationship with her husband David.

She met David Gillilan, an engineer from south London, on a train during a post-war holiday in Switzerland. A brief meeting ended with his request for her address in England, which she gave, not expecting to hear from him again. She later discovered that he kept this slip of paper in his wallet for the rest of his life.

Pamela married David in 1948, gave birth to her first child, Andrew, a year later. They lived in a rented flat in Friern Barnet, not far from her parents, before deciding to leave the city for an unconventional new life in Cornwall, away from memories of the Blitz and their perceived dangers of the brewing Cold War. Like young pioneers, they set off for unfamiliar territory, with no money, no jobs, no home to go to. Life, initially, was very tough. They moved from Mount Hawke to a primitive cottage in Heligan Woods. They coped without electricity, running water. David took any work that was available, including a milk round. At times, they barely had enough money for food.

In the early 1950s, while living in Pensilva, on the edge of Bodmin Moor, running what Pamela would refer to as a “junktique shop”, the Gillilans had two daughters, Lesley and Helen, born 20 months apart. Then in 1956, they saw an advertisment for a 25-roomed Georgian house in nearby Liskeard for sale at £500. The house was in an appalling state and under threat of demolition, but the Gillilans scraped the money together to buy it. The risk paid off, and the children grew up in Kilmar House which was later Grade II listed; a furniture restoration and soft furnishing business evolved alongside family life.

Thus, by the early 1960s, Pamela was a working mother, an equal partner in her own business. She excelled in her role, showing astute business acumen and a talent for interior design; she proved as skilled in the use of colour and fabric as she was with words. But her poetry lay dormant. For at least a quarter of a century, she did not have the time to write.

On the 5th November 1974, David died of a heart attack. Pamela was 56, her children had left home, she was alone in a large house with a business to run. In the aftermath of shock and grief, Pamela began to write again. It was, at first, her catharsis and she began with a deeply moving series of elegies for her husband. In 1979, these poems won her the Daily Telegraph/Cheltenham Poetry Competition and, later, major prizes in the National Poetry Competition two years running. They also became the basis of her first collection. That Winter, published in 1986, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, as the best poetry collection published in the UK.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph she talked about the loss of her husband, saying: “On the very night of his death. I made a resolution, that I would never think or say aloud ‘if only’. And although Pamela never stopped grieving for David, she transformed the tragedy of his death into a turning point. She rediscovered herself as an independent woman; formed new friends and relationships, found new energies and passions; she travelled, and her soon-prolific writing won her national recognition and admiration.

In 1986, she sold Kilmar House, gave up the soft furnishing business, and moved to Bristol where, at last, she was able to devote herself to poetry and the literary world of readings, tutorials, broadcasting and discussion. She was in demand as a creative tutor; taught courses for Bristol University and the University of the Third Age.

In 1993 she published The Turnspit Dog, a collaboration with artist and novelist Charlotte Cory, and in 1994 The All-Steel Traveller, her New and Selected Poems. In The Rashoman Sydrome she explored the idiosyncratic, chameleon quality of memory, and this book was published by Bloodaxe to coincide with her eightieth birthday in 1998.

Throughout the majority of her writing career, Pamela chose not to disclose her age. She believed that a woman known to be in her late sixties might well be patronised and passed over by publishers and reviewers. By the time of her eightieth birthday party, however, Pamela Gillilan judged it safe to “come out”.. Eighty, she said, has cachet.

Pamela’s apparent youth and vitality, sometimes made her seem immortal, but in June 2001, she was diagnosed with lung cancer - a cruel stroke of fate, for one who had never smoked a cigarette in her life. She fought the disease with characteristic courage, dignity and even humour, and throughout her illness, she never relinquished her passion for living nor, for one moment, gave up writing.

Her love for David, and his loss, remained a constant theme of her work. In hospital in July she scribbled the rough outline of a poem, which began:
Isn't it absurd
to love for so long, to love for years
a non-existence, just image
held through two decades....

Weeks before her death, her daughters found an urn containing their father's cremated ashes. What, they asked their mother, should they do with them? Pamela's enigmatic reply was “it's in a poem”. The poem asked that she and David's “old grit”, as she put it, be mixed together in a poignant memorial of their lives together.

Pamela died on 26 October 2001. She is survived by her three children, and three grandchildren. She and David’s ashes are buried at the foot of an oak tree in a woodland near Mevagissy in south Cornwall.

Pamela’s sense of humour never failed. During her illness, a friend sent her a card depicting an arty wood carving with a pretentious title, signed by the artist. When the card was found in the room where she died, it was stained by a sticky ring of brown food where a dessert dish had been left. Underneath this stain, she had written: “Chocolate Pudding Ring, by Pamela Gillilan”.

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All-Steel Traveller

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