Manuela Sykes by Romana Canneti
This story is to remember Emmeline Pethick Lawrence who planted her tree on 23 April 1909
It was her profile: the beaky nose and jutting chin, the lips pintucked like hospital sheets over naked gums. Manuela’s face, says my notebook entry from the day we met in December 2016, recalls a raptor. Shamefully, I hadn’t noticed the dearth of teeth before fetching a slice of millionaire’s shortbread from the cake counter. Roger – her companion –patiently chopped the layers of caramel, chocolate and biscuit into tiny bites so Manuela could work each morsel around her mouth before swallowing.
The sugary treat over, her large dark-blue eyes, red-rimmed and hooded, fixed on me again. Their purple sockets betrayed the strain of an animal alertness, the terror evoked by dementia’s magpie thieving: a permanent stasis of fight or flight, a non-stop feed of cortisol.
Why am I here? Who are these people? Take me home to Mummy.
Perhaps, it struck me, the watchful stare was muscle memory – Manuela’s face set in a grim parody of a self she could no longer assemble: politician, social activist, councillor, publisher. A feminist who took no prisoners, who brooked no opposition. A troublemaker, if you liked the status quo; a revolutionary if you didn’t.
But that day in the crypt café of St Martin-in-the-Fields, she was fluffy as a baby goshawk. Someone – presumably a carer – had enveloped her slight frame in a shaggy pink coat, of the kind Anita Pallenberg might have worn, hanging from Keith Richard’s arm, on a stroll down the Portobello Road.
I had, before that meeting at the Trafalgar Square church where she had worshipped for over 60 years, seen photos of Manuela: as a beaming teenager in school skirt and blazer; out canvassing in a tailored tweed jacket with nipped-in waist, a spotted silk foulard around her neck; soft around the edges in her WREN uniform. Manifestly a woman who loved clothes, who cared to look elegant.
I didn’t suppose she’d have gone for the hairy pink coat, given the choice, although there was some evidence of recent grooming: her nails were dyed a scuffed scarlet, her thinning hair a patchy brown.
Roger instructed me to clap during the introductions. The old lady rewarded me with a smile of unexpected sweetness. Later, wordlessly sipping her tea, she punctuated our conversation with loud applause if women’s rights, animals or her mother were mentioned. We received winks, frowns or dismissive sideways waves of her hand if they were not.
Roger tried to draw her in, to kindle a memory. “D’you remember how you made the Queen pay rates Manuela? In your days at Westminster Council?”
Manuela presented her profile, lips clamped. “Men just squirt. Mummy is the only good one.”
Her friend smiled at the insult, stroked her hand, and tried again. “How many times did you stand for Parliament Manuela? Wasn’t it seven altogether?”
The clink of knives and crockery filled the silence.
When I got up to leave, I proffered my hand. Manuela took it, and grasped it firmly, not letting go for what felt like minutes. Her steel-cold grip was so strong that I thought, absurdly, she might break my bones. Her gaze did not waver as she squeezed harder, and I felt an irrational spasm of guilt: I may look ridiculous, her eyes told me, but make no mistake: I know your game.
What was my game? I wasn’t sure.
Ms S has had a dramatic life, and the drama is not yet over. She has played a part in many of the moral, political and ideological battles of the twentieth century. The court is not concerned with her particular political views, whether they are left or right of centre, and nor is it concerned with her religious views. Their main relevance to this court is that by nature she is a fighter, a campaigner, a person of passion. She appears always to have placed herself in the public eye, in the mainstream, rather than ‘far from the madding crowd,’ debating the issues of the day, causing, accepting and courting controversy.
It was 2014: those words, from a court judgment1, were my introduction to the name Manuela Sykes. I was a newspaper lawyer with a track record in the court of protection – courts that hear, every day, stories from the husks of human lives: those of people deemed to lack the “mental capacity” to decide how and where to live. But their rulings, then, were infrequently published. Manuela, I learned, had been fighting
Westminster, the council she had once represented, to be released from a care home back to her flat in Pimlico.
Judge Eldergill and I sheltered from the rain – a chance meeting under a carapace of scaffolding in Southampton Row – as I mentioned that I’d recently read his decision.
“She kept her windows permanently open for the pigeons to fly in; their droppings were everywhere. She is a remarkable woman you know.”
Eldergill’s admiration for the woman who’d appeared before him was patent; his judgment revealed why:
A vegetarian from an early age; a lifelong feminist and campaigner for women’s rights; a Wren in the Fleet Air Arm; a committed Christian; a political activist who stood for Parliament; a councillor on the social services committee of the local authority that now authorises her deprivation of liberty; the editor for 40 years of a trade union newspaper; a helper of homeless people and an advocate for them; and a campaigner for people with dementia, from which condition she now suffers herself.
With a memory span of less than a minute, Manuela couldn’t understand her predicament, despite the efficient-looking 1950s tweed suit and red lipstick. “God knows why I’ve been plonked in this comfy prison,” she pronounced, only minutes after receiving an explanation. “If I’m not allowed home I intend to slit my wrists.”
Aged 89, malnourished and prone to nocturnal wanderings, Manuela had become a danger to herself and others. Nurses were visiting in pairs “for fear of their personal safety” when she struck one with her walking stick and was sectioned.
The judge knew she had made a living will, in which she’d stipulated that her quality of life should take precedence over its quantity. Aware that she had never been risk-averse,
he ordered enhanced supervision arrangements and a trial return home.
Manuela’s case, at first sight one of so many involving the welfare of dementia sufferers, acquired a characteristically unique twist; one that chimed with my own legal campaign for journalists to be allowed into (previously closed) court of protection hearings. She had run a newspaper; she had stood for Parliament seven times: accountability was her thing, too. She insisted on being named in news reports of her case – this final battle, like her others, must be fought in the public eye. Eldergill lifted the statutory anonymity provisions, recognising that she “…wanted her life to go out with a bang, not a whimper.”
It was a landmark judgment, but a short-lived triumph.
Although Manuela had rallied the scattered fragments of a brilliant mind in court, just three weeks into her return to Pimlico she fractured a new carer’s rib and was back in
the detested care home.
It was a story that lodged in my mind. Manuela-style (I now realise), it doggedly made its presence felt. Should such spirit – such courage – be allowed to disappear like water in sand? What is a life; where does it go? Who was this woman?
I tracked down the reporter who had covered the court case and he put me in touch with Manuela’s niece. Over coffee near her office in Peckham Rye, Honey explained that as a social worker, she had opposed Manuela’s wish to return home, convinced that it could not be in her aunt’s best interests. Honey knew little about Manuela’s private life, but was clearly proud that she had once been a formidable public figure.
Manuela’s mother, Honey told me, had been Baroness Ottilie Von Hundelshausen, of a German-Dutch lineage stretching back to the twelfth century. She had travelled to America where she met Manuela’s father, a Yorkshireman who had joined the Canadian Mounties. The couple settled in Mexico and Manuela was born there in 1925. Some years later they moved from Guadalajara to London, where the marriage foundered after the birth of Manuela’s brother Darrell. The problem – perhaps the root of Manuela’s lifelong feminism - was Mr Sykes Snr’s compulsive womanising.
Honey sketched childhood impressions of her aunt Manuela, a remote figure whom she’d see once a year on Halloween, which happened to be grandmother Ottilie’s birthday.
For Honey, those visits to Pimlico with her father were tinged with glamour. An adoring Manuela would present Ottilie, resplendent in peacock- feathered Liberty-print silk. with intricate miniature tableaux sculpted in her honour: marzipan Halloween figurines, painstakingly fashioned and hand-painted by Manuela, the witches’ hats and ghosts making an enchanting, if odd, birthday cake. The high-ceilinged room with its dark, heavy German oak furniture, curlicued with the Von Hundelshausen coat of arms; the imposing marble fireplace; a chimney breast hung with Chinoiserie wallpaper, its delicate tracery of birds and trees an exotic backdrop: it all seemed, to Honey’s childish eyes, like a stage set.
Manuela kept her pledge never to put Ottilie, who suffered from dementia, in a home. But in 2006 she faced her own diagnosis of Alzheimer’s’ Disease alone. She had never married, had no children, and had lived alone since her mother’s death in 1987.
Honey suggested I meet Roger, who had run the pioneering Social Care Unit at St Martin-in-the-Fields which Manuela had helped set up in 1948. As her disease took hold and concerns were raised at church about Manuela’s increasingly dishevelled appearance, Roger had kept a promise to his late wife to look after her friend Manuela. Since 2006 he’d visited Manuela five times a week, bringing her to church, to attend the nearby vigils of the Women in Black – whose feminist take on international causes was close to Manuela’s heart. He took her to the cinema, out for tea. The septuagenarian was at Manuela’s side during her legal battle and his evidence had helped persuade the judge to sanction her short-lived trial return home.
Weeks after our tea at St Martins, Manuela’s maisonette was sold to pay for her care. She knew nothing of this, said Roger, his eyes filling with tears. Manuela had deteriorated considerably, he added, and he was no longer allowed to take her out. If I wanted to see her again it would have to be at the hospice.
There I saw Manuela’s fellow inmates; captives, likewise, of the most pitiless of grim reapers. Not the skeletal one who leads us to the shores of death, but his more sophisticated cousin, the mind-reaper, who keeps his victims alive, locked in closed cells of mute suffering, unable to understand what has happened to them or to reassure those who love them that they are still present. The reaper’s scythe shreds their psyches, leaving only physical husks to be fed, washed, lifted from bed to chair. I had arrived too late to discover much more about Manuela. She was dissolving into silence.
That day, I fed her. No longer a raptor, she opened her mouth like a little bird and sucked spoonfuls of pureed vegetables.
Back in Pimlico, while Manuela’s flat was being emptied, I had glimpsed Roger’s tall frame slumped in a chair, features fleetingly awry like a cubist portrait, the customary mask of gentlemanly humour set aside. It was an icy March afternoon: there was no heating or electricity, so our curfew was dusk. The family heirlooms had been taken away, but the grubby floor was scattered with items left behind. Exhausting though it was, refusing her nieces’ offers to hire some help, Roger laboured to salvage the person Manuela had been, transporting her remaining possessions in his little turquoise Peugeot. He was taking them, he told me, to his garden shed – for me to sift through and order into an account of her life.
The shed in New Malden stood roughly halfway down Roger’s garden. Past a clump of cheery tangerine-coloured poppies, I picked my way down a path of stepping stones across a haphazardly-mown lawn, hemmed in on both sides by tall, orangey-wood fencing: a ginger riff picked up by the shed’s russet timbers. The vaguely Alpine pitched roof was topped, Heidi-style, with a wavy gable trim.
Inside, a four-paned window let in diagonal sunbeams that ribboned the penumbra. They illuminated Manuela’s books and records; filing cabinets crammed with cuttings and letters from associates – Lord Soper, Jeremy Thorpe, Tony Benn; boxed campaign leaflets for the homeless, women and animals; folders with anti-Apartheid flyers; Liberal and Labour election manifestos; Common-Ownership Movement treatises; leader columns for her newspaper The Voice of the Unions; free-Palestine banners; Manuela’s walnut-wood writing desk; her chair.
The shed was the repository of a life’s work, a symbol of immortality and the intended workplace for Manuela Sykes’s prospective biographer: me. It was her Taj Mahal.
Hers was a story, I understood that afternoon, that I would tell.
Roger passed Manuela’s final nights in a chair by her hospital bed. He confided, soon after she died, something I already knew.
“I think, now, that I was in love with Manuela.”
He told the world as much at her funeral at St Martin-in-the-Fields in October 2017:
“Manuela was indisputably brave – which put her in many scrapes in her long life – but always until her dying day, in September of this year, she sought the truth.
I knew Manuela thanks to her friendship with my wife Kath, when she drove her little green Renault round the fields and tents [of the St Martin’s annual pilgrimage to
Canterbury] in a fairly risky fashion and helped run the clothing store. The cruel dementia spoiled her, [it] affected her ability to produce her left-wing magazine; she had to give it all up… Activities she particularly liked were outings to Kew Gardens and Battersea Park where she found solace and wonder in the birds and squirrels that she fed copiously.
It is hard to sum up our relationship, but by the end I cared for her, as she did for me, through some of the most difficult times in her life. I came to love Manuela: now my life
is bereft, while Manuela’s is set free.
God bless you Manuela, peace be with you.”
Manuela’s lifelong constituents were the vulnerable and disenfranchised. Alongside her close friend Tony Benn, she worked tirelessly to promote common ownership and to give workers a stake in the businesses that employed them. The result was the 1976 Industrial Common Ownership Act. An internationalist, her political influence extended beyond British shores: in addition to her work on Kenya, Cyprus and the anti-Apartheid movement, she campaigned against Israeli policy in Palestine, at a time, Lord Alf Dubs told me, when the Palestinian cause enjoyed scant support in the UK. Today her Free Palestine flag adorns the planked walls of Roger’s garden shed. Her calls for action on dementia were from a feminist perspective: “It hits more women than men…they’re marginalised…and stigmatised…and hidden.”2
Half a century later – a little over a year since she died – Manuela is vividly recalled by most who came into her orbit; their numbers dwindling with the passage of years. I have amassed, so far, over 50 hours of recorded interviews, several conducted in the House of Lords. Few afford much insight into the woman behind the public persona.
Then an unexpected email:
I am contacting you to thank you for your notice of Manuela in last Saturday's Guardian3. I am sure it was greatly appreciated by many who, like me, knew her in the past. Reading what you wrote somehow brought to me with great force that she was an extraordinary person, and I wonder if, to your knowledge, a biography of her might be in prospect. I am sure there are many people alive who would be able and willing to contribute their recollections. And there must be a lot in public archives.
I drove to Camberwell where D, a quietly spoken academic in his 70s, was working on a translation of 18-century Greek verse.
How had he and Manuela met?
“It was in November 1962, when she came to talk to the Cambridge University Liberal Club. I was the student ‘External Relations Officer’ of the Liberal Club - the only thing I can think of is that I was proposing that the club provide canvassers for her in Ipswich. In any event, she replied, and accepted whatever it was I that had proposed. In gentle and friendly steps we became lovers.”
It was a relationship which ended abruptly, with pregnancy and an (illegal) abortion, neither disclosed to D until later. He was 19; she, the Liberal candidate for Ipswich, 37.
“Her letter was very sad. I can’t remember what it said, I just remember the reference to ‘so much blood.’ It’s miserable, I don’t remember ever discussing it with her. She was an idealist, an activist, but not willing to compromise with a principle. She was totally straight, honest; and quite without ‘side.’”
“When I read the obituary you wrote,” he continued, “it hit me that Manuela had always been a woman alone. She enlisted allies in the causes she fought for, but they were temporary. In the end they always let her down. Most often she finished on the losing side. With Manuela there’s a story, I think, of a quite extraordinary person who didn’t become famous because of her own extraordinariness.”
John Keats feared oblivion: at his direction, his tombstone in Rome is engraved Here lies one whose name was writ in water.
Those who offered me their memories of Manuela Sykes were determined to keep her name alive.
It lies not in water, but in the silver halide solution photographers use to fix an image. As, interview by interview, I draw the dripping paper from the tank, the blurred edges sharpen into focus.
Romana Canneti is a barrister who recently took a part-time Masters in Biography at UEA’s renowned creative writing school. She is working on a book about Manuela Sykes, the former politician and social activist, who won a landmark legal victory at the age of 89 - challenging our assumptions around dementia, which to her was a feminist issue. Romana’s writing has appeared in The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and the British Review of Journalism.