The other morning my phone buzzed at 5.30am; I was half-awake, and I rolled over to see who the email was from.
But it wasn’t an email, it was a reminder that it would have been my Aunt Kathleen’s 97th birthday. It would have been, but she died peacefully in her sleep the day before.
Kathleen was my mum’s sister, and those of you who know me well will have heard me tell of her bizarre and interesting life, and lifestyle.
She had always lived a nomadic existence and until she died, lived in a caravan and travelled around by hitchhiking, even if was just to go into nearby Cheltenham to place a bet on a horse; that was her life.
We were a close family, but as Kathleen got older the chances to see her became less frequent. She no longer really liked the hustle and bustle of life in London, as she had done in her youth. The Coach and Horses in Soho was her local, hanging out in Ronnie Scott’s or The French House, friends with Picasso and always staying with him as she hitched through the South of France.
Here are a couple of stories to try to explain how she lived her life, and hopefully there will be more stories that she will have written down and my brother, my mother and I can uncover to tell you in the future.
There was a time when you were required to list your occupation on your passport. Whilst I always dreamt of putting down astronaut, racing driver or secret agent, Kathleen’s occupation was described as “storyteller”.
Having this in her passport gained her access to all sorts of strange and wonderful places. During the time of the Shah in Iran, she turned up to register at the British Consulate in Tehran and was asked to explain what she meant by storyteller. Word got back to the Shah of this strange English woman and she was summoned to the palace to explain. My brother and I still have the book that she was presented with, a gift from the Shah.
Life was not all palaces, she just loved talking to people and being on the road where one story often led to a new one.
She could make going out for a pint of milk an adventure. Sometimes when staying with my mother this could be inconvenient and a tad frustrating.
Mum asked Kathleen as she was going to walk down in to town one morning to get the newspapers; The Daily Telegraph and The Racing Post, if she wouldn’t mind picking up a pint of milk.
So off Kathleen wandered, at the end of the road she stuck out a thumb and rather than walk the half mile into town, she’d hitch a lift.
As luck would always have it, a car soon stopped and offered her a lift. Conversation followed and as the driver was going to Exeter, some 60 miles from Minehead, Kathleen thought she’d go along for the ride.
She wandered around Exeter, bought the papers, the milk and hitched a lift back to Minehead although it would always be out of the driver’s way, she would keep them spellbound with her stories and they would always drop her at her required destination like a taxi.
By this time mum’s tea had gone cold.
I will always remember the moments sat spellbound as she recounted one story after another. We spent last New Year together with my mother and all got drunk together.
At the weekend we cleared her caravan of a lifetimes worth of objects, enough Elastoplast to stretch to the moon and back, pens so that one was never out of arms reach and most importantly more than 20 lever arch files full of stories and documents that will tell a remarkable story.
Her various caravans that served as home have been parked in fields and caravan parks all over the south of England, but in the last few years she couldn’t have found better friends than Peter, Jan, Adrian and June who ran the park where she lived.
Hi Adrian, thanks for posting photos of your aunt, Kathleen. I have been attempting to trace her since Jim Phelan became a subject of my research some six years ago. I have been in contact with people who met her years ago, and was convinced that she would still be alive. Unfortunately by the time I had discovered her whereabouts, she had died the previous week. I would love to know more about her earlier life, her life with Jim, and her life after Jim. If you decide to publish any of her writings please let me know. Jim
Hello, I’ve been trying to get in touch with Kathleen Newton/Phelan’s relatives via J.Y. from the caravan park—with little success so far. Have now found this blog & post, and stolen the image of Kathleen to put on my own website—with acknowledgements of course and links back to your blog. Do understand that my only interests are curiosity, fascination and commitment to rescuing tramp writers from the dustbin of history—I have no financial or business interests, and nothing to promote about myself, being only interested in promoting others. My research is a labour of love, nothing more. Please do get in touch if you’re so inclined. Yours in anticipation, Ian Cutler
It’s incredible to find all this info on Kay Phelan, I’m so pleased. I wondered what happened to her. She and Jim used to stay with us in the 1950/60sin the Lake District and became great friends. The last time I saw Kay was in Broadway Worcs. ten years ago when she sought us out at my husbands exhibition.
97 is a grand age for someone who lived out on the road. If anyone would like to know more about her days with us, let me know. I also have some of her pamphlets.
Hello Kerry, I’m collecting stories of people who knew Kathleen for my ‘Philosophy of Tramping’ website. Already did a two part profile of Jim. Have three memoirs of Kay up on the site already. My email is iancutler – at – virginmedia.com if you feel like getting in touch. Ian
I met your Aunt about 17 years ago at a caravan park in Shropshire. I was a child at the time, only about 10 or 11 years old. She spoke to my father and I about her life travelling, and the people she had met. Truly inspirational. I told her that i was a keen writer, and she actually gave me a collection of her short stories and poems! I read them when i am a little stuck with my writing! Anyway, if you would like to get in touch, my email address is; firstname.lastname@example.org