I have always managed to convince myself that Aunty Maggie would live forever. It seemed quite clear that nothing else would possibly make any sense. Surely none of the other ceramicists of the North of England would want to make any pottery if Maggie was no longer part of the potter’s scene? Where’s the fun in that? What would everybody within a 200 hundred mile radius of Milnthorpe do on Boxing Day if she didn’t demand that they pull their decorations off their Christmas tree, attach them to their bodies by whatever means necessary and come to her house for a festive piss up? Who else could talk with such intensity, so adamant that they will absolutely be heard that they could overwhelm my Dad – her little brother – who, doing the same thing, would eventually, with a grumpy face, realise that he simply could not compete and would give up and let her say her piece? What other person on this planet could get so incredibly excited and make such an enormous amount of noise playing Scrabble? Absolutely nobody. The world will be a little bit quieter now.
My earliest memories of her are the Boxing Day parties we’d go to every year. Getting out of the car after the drive up to the Lake District and covering ourselves in tinsel before entering the madness of her house. The presents under the tree in the back room for me and my brother and sister—I don’t remember what any of them were but they were always so strange. You’d open them with a lot of anticipation and every time you’d look at them and just have no clue at all. She’d very excitedly demonstrate what they did but you still wouldn’t understand anything of it. The scent of her house – fresh coffee always but infused with nostalgia—old books from foreign lands, dusty board games, the smell of whatever ridiculously cliché British dessert that wafted over from the Aga, the sweet fumes from the wine that she just knocked over, again.
I have always wanted to live in her house. There is no way you could live in that house and not be inspired to make art. It’s not like a house, it’s a collection of photos and memories and China plates and the floors and the walls (and not the ceilings – why not the ceilings, Maggie?) are made from her strange and original and beautiful tilework that, with the old couches and the wood burning stove, the ceilings so low that they were clearly meant for her and nobody else and the never-ending wine, just makes you want to lock yourself in and buckle up for the Winter and hope Spring comes late. When my ex partner visited with me, after taking herself on a little tour on the way to the bathroom, she came back and asked me very quietly, “did Aunty Maggie build this house herself?” No of course she didn’t. If she had have done it clearly would have been with tiles not stones. It’s strange, I think the house looks quite normal from the outside doesn’t it? And then you walk in and it’s like stepping into Narnia.
I remember my friend who came up to the Lakes with me to visit a school before my parents moved me up there – her face when Aunty Maggie leaned across the table, picked up her frankfurter and squashed it into her jacket potato very forcefully as though that is a normal thing to do to somebody else’s dinner. There that’s better. A potato cooked in an Aga is a bit different on its own, I think the whole thing was a bit of a shock for Amy.
Maggie was one for celebrating life and if things weren’t good there was always something you could do about it. She noticed that I wasn’t very happy and suggested the best thing was for me to go to Gibralter to visit her daughter Pendo and go shopping for some more colourful clothes because she didn’t like the look of mine. I didn’t really have the money for or interest in European shopping trips so I went to work for one of her other daughters, my cousin Mela, in Japan for a while. That helped. If you need to leave where you are and go somewhere else – even the most random place in the world – Maggie would know someone there who would put you up.
She was my claim to fame. Her tiles covered the floors of the toilets in the arts centre I worked in. Commissioned pieces are dotted around the town’s alleyways and old stone walls. Even my friends who never met her referred to her as Aunty Maggie. She was infamous and she had a reputation.
She would have been an inspiration to anyone who met her. She became a full time artist only after retiring as a teacher. Over the years she lived and worked in Tanzania and the US and exhibited her art around the world – Africa, Japan, Italy, America. She spoke Swahili and Italian and a bit of Japanese. She spoke English very excitedly and as she got older she seemed to get louder. She was a lot of fun and I’m a bit surprised she didn’t hold out til 100 so as to have an absolute rave. As far as I know she was going on her walks and doing yoga and drinking plenty of wine pretty much until the day she died, which was a few days ago.
And despite the fact that she did indeed die, I’m still convinced she’ll live forever.
We’ll miss you Maggie.