Life. Interrupted. Twice: Sylvia Colley

17th July 2009

Jill Glenn meets Sylvia Colley, whose latest collection of poems, It’s not what I wanted, though, uses wit, humour and compassion to deal with big concepts such as life, love, loss and death…

Sylvia Colley describes herself, early in our conversation, as ‘a very lucky lady’. I note her words down, and add an exclamation mark or two… it seems an impossible observation from someone who has not only experienced the greatest grief – the loss of a child – but has undergone it twice.

Retell her story in the style of a tabloid and it would be shot through with words such as ‘tragic’, ‘abandoned’, ‘penniless’. You’d come away imagining a broken woman… yet the person sitting opposite me over coffee, and later wine, is none of these things. She strides in, is instantly recognised by the waiters (‘I live in this place,’ she confesses) and brightens up my afternoon.

Her life has been… difficult… but she recounts it with tenderness and humour, and just the occasional shaft of bitterness. Her childhood was privileged – until her father (‘a brilliant doctor, a very clever man’) left her mother for her mother’s best friend. He married the mistress. Six months later he was dead. He’d left no will, so the new wife inherited everything, while Sylvia, her brother and mother were penniless, in a bungalow in North Wembley. Their boarding schools kept them, out of compassion, but Sylvia’s education was seriously disrupted. She lost years, academically; could no longer process the words on the board, or understand what she was being asked. It was an immense trauma.

Eventually she studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, but chose teaching instead of acting as a career: ‘It seemed indulgent to go into the theatre.’ She taught English and Drama for the rest of her working life, still has a few private pupils, and used her acting skills in the school environment. ‘Not for one minute were they bored,’ she says, with a smile that lights up the café as it once did the classroom.

And then there was marriage, to Ray, and three daughters: Catherine, Juliet, Victoria. And the curse of Cystic Fibrosis.

‘Nobody knew about CF then,’ Sylvia recalls. When she observed that Juliet was failing to thrive, she was deemed neurotic. In due course, though, the Health Visitor refused to take responsibility any longer and, on Christmas Eve when Juliet was three months old, Sylvia and Ray saw a paediatrician at Hillingdon Hospital.

‘You will not have this baby home again,’ he said bluntly. It was cruel – and wrong. With treatment Juliet remained well for six or seven years, before the inevitable deterioration. She died at 13.

By then there was also Victoria. Sylvia had been advised to abort this last pregnancy; there was, in those days, no test to determine whether an unborn child would have CF. She even booked the appointment. Couldn’t go through with it.

Vicky was ‘a nice, plump little baby’; Sylvia and Ray breathed a little more easily – but, a few weeks later, the worst news: she, too, had Cystic Fibrosis. Like her sister, she was well for just a few years; like her mother she embraced life. She studied cello at the Purcell School, where Sylvia was teaching, and went to college in Harrow to learn silversmithing. She died at 17.

Some crises bring couples together; others drive them apart. Ray and Sylvia were separated before Vicky’s death, and Sylvia had what she describes as ‘a bit of a breakdown’ in the years after the loss of her second daughter.

She doesn’t talk about her lost children; she doesn’t write prose – ‘I can’t do it directly’ – but poetry has been a solace all her life. After her first bereavement, she published a book of her poems, called Juliet, which was noticed by the BBC, and for some years she balanced teaching and caring for Catherine and Victoria with compiling poetry programmes for the organisation. It helped her through a very difficult time. ‘I loved it,’ she says, ‘The people were interesting and stimulating and friendly…’ She became a close colleague of broadcaster and critic Piers Plowright, who much admires her work. She has, he observes, a ‘sharp ear, and clear compassionate head’, and is ‘a poet to pay attention to’.

Life has been full. She now has a partner, Jim, and her daughter Catherine (to whom she dedicates the book, to acknowledge her pain at being the one who survived) has children whom Sylvia adores. They brought her, she recognises, ‘a joy in life which helped turn me around, which I totally wasn’t expecting.’ And there’s charitable work, too. She was involved in fundraising for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, when it was a tiny, newly established, charity, and still volunteers for Harrow Bereavement Care, which offers one-to-one support ‘for as long as it takes’.

Sylvia thinks deeply, and talks wisely; she derailed our interview for a long time by unpicking the relationship between faith and suffering, for example; by trying to explain unexplainable things.

I approached her poems with some caution. Having lost my own lovely god-daughter to CF (‘a god awful disease’, as Sylvia so succinctly described it) I was afraid of what I might read – and therefore what I might feel. I needn’t have worried. Sylvia has a keen eye for the poignant, of course, but her irrepressible humour and love for life shine through. And as for the poems that made me catch my breath, that touched a nerve… let’s call it catharsis. It was worth it. In Your Eyes, written for Juliet and Vicky, which ends ‘But now your eyes are closed / I’ve disappeared’ is, for me at least, a razor-sharp description of love and loss.

One of the most moving here is called There Are No Words. It’s a curious title, given that words are what Sylvia does – indeed, they’re what she is – but this funny, jaunty piece that ends ‘Not just joy / Not just ecstasy… It would be wordless. / If Juliet was waiting in the garden / If Vicky came home / Suddenly / Can you imagine? / Can you try to imagine? / You see! / There are no words.’ is beautifully balanced. It’s ironic that it is at the point of articulating such depth of emotion that the poet feels inadequate; her words might have failed her, but she doesn’t fail us.

It’s not what I wanted, though
is available from The New Leaf Bookshop, Pinner,
and the Northwood Bookshop, Northwood.

Proceeds go to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust:

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