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When my father was called up early in 1940, my mother took up again her career as a secretary, which she had dropped upon getting married. She went to work for Sylvia Pankhurst at West Dene, Charteris Road in nearby Woodford Green, and I came home from school to stories which fired my imagination.

Ours was a neat and orderly household, with a routine of housework, regular meals and a well-tended garden and allotment. We were a conventional family, with few visitors and even fewer connections with the wider world. Mum was simultaneously entranced and scandalised by the goings on in Charteris Road. She disapproved of the disorderly nature of the house, which after all was her place of work, and the unkempt garden; but she loved the work itself. (If you are a typist, you might as well type something interesting.) Books, articles, lectures – all these things are much more fun than business correspondence or accounts; and Sylvia’s personal correspondence in particular was fascinating.

Mum never quite knew what to make of Sylvia, to whom she reacted with a mixture of admiration and exasperation. George Bernard Shaw had said that there are only two opinions of her, that she was miraculous and that she was unbearable. Mum’s experience of working for her was that these were not alternatives, but two aspects of a single complex reaction.

She liked Sylvia’s companion, the Italian revolutionary Silvio, and found him both exotic and also vaguely disreputable. She ascribed both his charm and his passionate nature to his being foreign; and therefore made allowances, as one did then. One day, when he and Sylvia were having a more than usually heated row, she just grabbed her hat and coat and ran all the way home, gasping out a story, which has stayed in my mind, about them chasing each other round the house with knives. I have no idea, whether this is true or not. Mum loved their son Richard; and I think that she wanted to mother him, feeling him to be neglected.

But then, everything was neglected in favour of the ‘Abyssinian cause’, which dominated every aspect of life. Mum was always typing letters to or on behalf of ‘His Imperial Majesty’, as he was styled. Haile Selassie became as much a feature of my infant mind as the characters in the Arabian Nights, the Heroes of Asgard or the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. We followed the Homeric story of the liberation of Abyssinia with the same partisan fascination as we did the Winter War in Finland or the Battle of Britain overhead.

Eventually the Italians were repulsed and the Emperor could return. As soon as possible he invited Sylvia to join him. She simply assumed that Mum would go with her; and when Mum objected that she had two boys to look after, Sylvia would have none of it. ‘You foolish girl,’ she said, ‘you could have come with me to Addis Ababa and dined off gold plate.’ These words became a proverb in our family. If ever my brother David or I annoyed our mother, who was a very emotional and dramatic woman, she would say, ‘I could have gone to Addis Ababa and dined off gold plate.’

In 1956 Sylvia moved from Woodford to Ethiopia, where she died at the age of 78 in 1960 and was given a splendid funeral. I knew nothing of this; but in January 1971 I found myself working for the World Council of Churches in Addis Ababa. On Sunday 17th (my mother’s 65th birthday) I was invited by my old friend the Abba Habte Mariam to preach in Holy Trinity Cathedral. I began by saying that this was the fulfilment of a boyhood dream, my mother having been the secretary of Sylvia Pankhurst, friend of His Imperial Majesty. At this a great sigh went up from the congregation of several thousand. After the service, as we processed out, Habte Mariam said to me, ‘Doubtless you have come to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Walata Cristos’, the daughter of Christ, which is what the Ethiopian Church called her for lack of a word for ‘Sylvia'. I immediately realised, as one does, that that was just what I had come to do. We went to the corner of the cemetery reserved for the Saints and Martyrs of Ethiopia, surrounded by a greatly increased white-robed crowd and came to a western style tomb with a plain Latin cross and an open book in marble at its foot. I sensed that some word or ritual gesture was required of me, but I did not want to disrespect the integrity of a life-long atheist. An angel came to my aid; and I knelt down and kissed the book. That seemed to suffice; and I was glad to have this opportunity to pay my respects to someone who had so greatly enriched and enlarged my childhood.

On the Tuesday it was Timkat, the feast of the Epiphany, when they read the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts as their own national story, and the Emperor and the Abuna, or Patriarch, go down into a pond and splash each other with water as a preliminary to everyone joining in, in one of the last vestiges of Constantinian folk religion. The Emperor gave a banquet of barbaric splendour. A mud wall of the palace was taken down and the hall extended into the courtyard. Bands played in relays. The Imperial gold service came out; the meal lasted from mid-morning to mid-afternoon; and at about four o’clock I staggered out to the Post Office, took an aerogramme and scrawled, ‘Dear Mum, I have eaten your dinner. Love, John.’

The Very Revd. Dr JOHN ARNOLD, OBE, is the former Dean of Durham. His mother was Ivy Arnold, Sylvia Pankhurst's personal secretary during World War II; he was brought up in Woodford Bridge. John trained as an interpreter in the Intelligence Corps and then read Modern Languages and Theology at Cambridge. He has long been involved in the quest for church unity and international reconciliation, and is author of numerous reviews and articles on literary and theological topics. He has recently written the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book for 2008, Life Conquers Death

Also in the 'Modern Perspectives' section:
Modern Perspectives: Introduction, The Very Revd Dr John Arnold, Berit Sahlström, Sylvia Ayling, Baroness Betty Boothroyd, Peter Tatchell, Linda Perham, Diana Kurakina, Shirley Harrison and Geoffrey Lusty