Thoughts from a brother – Gillian Comins remembered

A memorial service for Gillian Comins was held on 15 January 2019 at St James’ Church, Prebend Street. The bells rang out before the service.

Her brother, John Comins, reflected on her life.

Gillian prepared for this service with her usual precision. She chose this lovely church, for which we are grateful to Father John, she chose the hymns and most of the readings. What she could not have anticipated but would have hugely appreciated, was the presence of this marvellous choir. Thank you so much.

One of Gillian’s last instructions was …. No Eulogies

Well, this won’t be an eulogy…. Just some thoughts from  one who knew her longer, if not better than anyone else.


Looking back at our childhood, I can see that among parents and children, the most independent mind and probably the strongest character belonged to my sister. She was the one who faced down the adults, refused to cooperate without good reasons, and instructed me, her junior by 3 years, in the ways of the world. From many aspects, that relationship never altered


Raised in the countryside outside Tewkesbury, she was an early starter; brought on by   an excellent governess. She read Barnaby Rudge at the age of 7 and claimed she enjoyed it,  burst into tears at the postponement by just one day of her attendance at her first school and was generally regarded as bright beyond her years.



At her main school, a bleak establishment in the 40’s at the top of the Malvern Hills she remembered with warmth only the music lessons from Ivor Atkins, Elgar’s great friend. He taught well for music remained a passion all her life..Otherwise she began a long war of attrition with the teaching staff. One in particular was an early entrant on what became in time a longish  list of those whom Gillian thought should spend a fair time in purgatory..


For 4 years she refused to play games and made no friends. As my father said…’’ the cat that walked by herself’’ Despite this or perhaps because of it, she easily got into university. She chose Cambridge,when her parents had expected Oxford and chose Economics when everyone else expected Literature.  Whatever the reasons it may also have been an early example of what became an abiding characteristic. Wherever  a strong tide was flowing , Gillian would often  be found in mid stream battling against it.


Recent manifestations being a certain fondness for President Trump, deep scepticism about climate change and increasing irritation about the number of women on television.




I must say that at this time, we weren’t close. We lived in the same house but shared little. I think she looked on me as a Roman would have regarded a member of the Helvetii, uncouth, untutored, and certainly not wanted on her side of the Rhone.


Soon, all this changed, and she became a very, very dear, loyal and supportive friend.




Cambridge was a  revelation.  There for the first time she made friends, some of them lifelong, found people with similar tastes and ambitions; people who took serious things seriously.  She was taught by the famous Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn; and even taken out to dinner by the great poet of the day, Thom Gunn. In a real sense, Cambridge shaped her.


She supported Labour, with a fervour, which those who have only known her after her conversion to High Toryism will well understand. Aneurin Bevan was an early member of what became an opposing list, of favourites whose faults could be ignored and, if not,.certainly forgiven. .


In those days and to my mother’s distress, Gillian has an academic’s indifference to fashion. To compliment her on her appearance would lead to the instant dismissal of her hairdresser and cloths, often for the worse. It was if she did not think personal attractiveness was a quality she wished to emphasise


And then she was monumentally untidy. Years worth of papers would be thrust under her bed and only disposed of when the mattress started to levitate



What had been early evident but not till then fully developed, was a certain didactism. She wanted to share with others such experiences that she considered important.   She had a good memory and could conjure up, in conversation, a fluent narrative of events. If, at times, one felt, that more information was supplied than circumstances  required ,one was always conscious that a considered coherent interpretation was being given.

She would have made a marvellous teacher.

I say that not only as a tribute to her powers of instruction but to a more important quality, her intense interest in people.

She engaged with everyone, her natural self assurance carried her into conversation at all levels .she never noticed social distinctions, the young were treated as intelligent adults.


And people responded,.her personality left its mark,.her genuine interest in others was noticed and reciprocated..

This interest was, of course, one of the  great attractions  of the  cruise ship, much patronised in later years offering limitless numbers of strangers with whom to become acquainted, their experiences  digested, and then, suitably edited, relayed to family and friends. It was the essence of life.


Gillian had no particular vocation. She.took her chance in the world of commerce.  At Unilever  she was trained in the practice of Market Research and its disciplines of clear analysis, accurate interpretation and objective conclusions  proved very well suited to Gillian’s intellect and temperament. Over the years she established a wide connection  and made a point wherever possible, of making her clients her friends.

A spell with Guinness ended with a management buyout of its market research function and she became a director of an independent company.



. The mechanics of running a profit making operation interested her not at all. She regarded chief executives as generally tiresome and ineffective, lacking understanding of her specialist skills and best employed in providing good car parking and decent stationery. Her principal managing director was quickly added to a new Rogues Gallery of the incompetent and the over promoted, soon to be joined, I fear, by many others, including, and  I speak at random,  a champion jockey, almost all opera directors, our most popular living dramatist and several princes of the church


Gillian would have agreed with Sydney Smith in regarding the country as a healthy grave. Having left the countryside at 18 she never wanted to go back. London was her place, and Islington, for over 50 years, her village There she could enjoy and contribute to cultural and communal life. She often said that England should end at Oxford with the North being left to its own devices.



In conversation at least, Gillian’s judgements on people, as on issues, were normally clear cut. A position once adopted was only abandoned reluctantly, if at all. A balanced view, the careful weighing of pros and cons was not admired. She liked the parry and thrust of a good argument and defended with attack and dexterity, extreme, even absurd opinions.. One could not deny that instinct, even prejudice, sometimes played too great a part. This gave her personality an added bite and no doubt some felt the force of her comments a little too keenly, but, .always beneath the rigour, one could find a great fund of sympathy and kindness



Gillian had I think less interest in sport than anyone I have ever met, and yet.I have at home an early letter from her to my father. It ends with a drawing of something with four legs inscribed  ‘’That noble animal, the horse’’

She adored racing. To her, the names of Ascot and Newmarket and Cheltenham were almost as magical as those of Bellini, Schubert and Browning.. . Her ownership of shares in various horses provided endless amusement and even some profit..

She surprised her great nieces and nephew, by making them minor owners before they were 10 years old in the hope, perhaps of their becoming owners in the future, or even bookmakers.




Which gives me an appropriate occasion to mention her generosity. Dealing with her affairs after her death I was amazed by the number of causes, individuals and charities she supported. The family benefited immensely from her ever open purse. One example I will quote.


She had acquired shares in her company at a favourable price.. The firm prospered and when she came to dispose of her holding, she ignored its proper and much higher valuation and insisted on giving it to younger employees at the same price which she herself had paid.. I was breathless with horror but also with admiration. It was, to her, a moral decision, not a financial one.



That was perhaps but one reflection of her faith The Anglican church was one of the pillars of her life. She was a very regular attender and the chapters of Westminster  and  St Paul’s knew her well. Her interest in the tastes, diversions and careers of the clergy was worthy of a Trollope or a Bronte



And then, there was that other pillar, her friends.  I think people were fortunate to have Gillian as a friend seeing how firm were her attachments and the pleasure she took in their company. Though time had denied her many of her earliest and closest , those of more recent vintage were crucial, and I must here repeat the family’s gratitude for their unwavering attention in her latter days.



Gillian entered retirement with joy.  The dreary journey to High Wycombe ceased,. the hated car was sold. New societies joined, new friends made, new causes promoted. Travel took off and theatre, opera, evening classes, play readings and family visits filled her calendar. Politics were scrutinised as never before. It was a crescendo of life



Ill health brought a diminuendo, curtailing her activities, but not interests and her intellectual curiosity. Her ending was characteristic, matter of fact,  unsentimental and accepting.


In hospital, she immediately got to know all the names and backgrounds of the other occupants of the wards and a succession of doctors were assessed for presentation and competence and her judgement passed on to her next visitor, sometimes rather  loudly


She remained lucid and decisive to the end, which was a blessing, to have been otherwise would have been an affront to nature


I have been fortunate, for over 80 years, to have had her as my critic,  my counsellor and my confidant, and  I shall miss, as will others, and more then I can say, that  generous and resolute spirit..


What utters us

Blind nature, told the trees and birds 

And bright stars; yet of all the words we knew, her name was the most dear.

We give thanks she was spoken here.