I have known the Mitchison family all my life; our family friendships go back to the 1920s, when my grandmother, Tish, first met Dick and Naomi Mitchison.
I remember attending Naomi (Nou) Mitchison’s 90th birthday party and now it was the turn to celebrate her older daughter, Lois’, 90th. I must have known her earlier, as one of the vast army of grownups at Carradale, the Mitchison home in Scotland. But I first really came to know and appreciate her as my landlady, for two of my years at Oxford.
I did not like my college, St Hugh’s and Lois willingly connived to persuade the college bursar to agree to my living in Cherwell, the Haldane family home at the end of Linton Road, . To do this, on the day of the bursar’s inspection she banished the other six lodgers (all male) for the day.
I loved living at Cherwell, an eccentric late 19th century pile, complete with JS Haldane’s gas chamber and laboratory. I had the old drawing room – a vast space, impossible to heat in winter – which looked out over a field that led down to the River Cherwell.
We undergraduates (plus a medical graduate, at that time pretty wild, later in life boringly mainstream) lived on the first two floors, while Lois and her family lived on the top floor. Undergraduates tended to live this rather insular life, meeting only other 19-25 year olds, so it was rather fun bumping into two small girls each day.
The sheer size of my room made it a natural party venue. In my second year in residence I think I tested Lois’ tolerance by somehow allowing some pretty loud events. I remember one with interminable drumming and another with a juke box. But Lois was tolerant and good fun, soon forgot her irritation, and was a sparkling presence, with her background of travel, journalism and writing.
In the decades that followed, when Cherwell had been sold to the University and Lois moved to Park Town, and I in turn had two small girls, I loved calling on her there.
July 2016. Lois is 90
I’m so glad I came across from France for this birthday party. There were over 50 of us assembled beside the lake at Wolfson College, built on the site of Cherwell House, when Lois arrived by punt (the pole wielded by her older daughter, Tabby) to her surprise party.
Lois’ three surviving siblings, Denny, Av and Val were there, almost all the next generation, a vast number of grandchildren, many of whom had become young adults since I last saw them, and a small number of old friends like me. There is something precious about meeting up regularly with this group of people who have been the backcloth to my life since childhood.
I can’t say I am enamoured by the architecture of Wolfson College – too much sixties and seventies use of concrete and institutional wood, though the setting is wonderful. And the huge hall provided ample space for mingling and for the main activity of the evening: Scottish dancing (an old favourite past time of the Mitchisons). And there in the midst of the dancers, for well over an hour without a break, was the tiny figure of Lois.
There were speeches too (including a short one by me). In particular two grandsons, Terence Mitchison and Jake Arnold-Forster remembered with affection how Lois had supported them through difficult periods of their education, Jake of course reminding us how Lois had moved on from writing to teaching history, specialising in rescuing and inspiring A level students who had stumbled.
I then went on to have a delightful evening in Richmond with Graeme Mitchison, my oldest and closest Mitchison friend, and his father, Denny.
Well worth making the trip from France.