Happy families

By Emma Soames, Tuesday 6 November 2012

Emma Soames enjoys a four-generational get-together to mark the 90th birthday of her mother Mary, Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter
Saga Magazine Editor-at-large Emma Soames will be hosting our event at the Hay-on-Wye literary festivalSaga Magazine Editor-at-large Emma Soames will be hosting our event at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival

A few weeks ago my mother celebrated her 90th birthday and we, her five children, managed to get ourselves, our children and her three great grandchildren – not to mention a few of the better behaved family dogs – gathered together for a riotous Sunday lunch. Luckily, one of my brothers has a room that could accommodate all 27 of us at two long tables. (The only absentee was Harry Soames, eldest son of my brother Nicholas, who was abroad on business.)

As if this logistical organisation were not in itself pretty impressive, after lunch the photographer, Ian Key, managed to take a picture in which we are all smiling and looking at the camera. No one is grimacing, blinking or pulling an unfortunate face. Consequently we will all still be speaking to each other come Christmas.

It was an extraordinary and rather moving moment. As we drank our mother’s health there really was not a dry eye around the table.

The word matriarch could have been coined for my mother. She is a benign figure who has managed all her life as a mother and grandmother to pull off the trick of not showing any favouritism among her offspring and indeed theirs.

I must be getting old, but having the occasional family group photograph gives me increasing pleasure. When I was a child I’d hide in the bushes rather than be included in a group picture, but now I see their value. In 30 years’ time, later generations of Soameses will perhaps gaze at the picture and wonder who all those large old people were – and get a sense of where they spring from.

My mother has spent some of her birthdays in extraordinary places and under truly historical circumstances. She spent her 18th birthday in 1940 at Chequers, to which the Churchill family had just moved when her father became Prime Minister. In 1943 she turned 21 aboard HMS Renown, accompanying her father back on a perilous crossing from visiting President Roosevelt for a seminal meeting that had great influence on the outcome of the war. She cut her birthday cake with a midshipman’s dirk, but the following day was nearly swept overboard by a huge wave. So hitting 90 in peacetime with her now numerous family was a peaceful doddle.

I have just returned from Livingstone in Southern Zambia where I had the great good fortune to represent Saga when the Princess Royal visited the Butterfly Tree project in Mukuni. I will report on this in the next issue, but I must share with you how impressed I was by the Princess Royal at work. She is focussed, well informed and crams a lot into a programme such as this Jubilee visit to Zambia. Her questions about Butterfly Tree, which Saga sponsors, were intelligent and demonstrated her years of knowledge and experience gained from her patronage of many charities. It struck me that she was in her element.

Read more from Emma Soames every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe today, or try three issues for just £1.


  • The secret life of my mother

    The secret life of my mother

    As a granddaughter of Winston Churchill, Emma Soames knew that her mother Mary must have a wealth of stories and treasured memories – especially from the Second World War. But until now Mary Soames was never one to talk about the past – so when Emma read her mother’s new memoir, it was a revelation

    Read on

  • The Princess Royal on her visit to Mukuni village, Zambia

    Emma Soames's Zambia blog: butterflies spreading their wings

    In the final blog from her Saga Charitable Trust trip to Zambia, Saga Magazine's Editor-at-large reports on the excitement of a royal visit to Mukuni village.

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  • Jane Kaye-Bailey at Makuni village, Zambia

    Emma Soames's Zambia blog: it'll be all right on the night for arrival of a special guest

    A royal visit is a stressful event for hosts everywhere, but in an African settlement where facilities are basic, it's a fight to get things up to scratch, writes Emma Soames.

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  • Mrs Jean Ryan

    Posted: Monday 13 May 2013

    Hi Emma, I am writing to say thank you for the wonderful discription in May Saga about the cheery cheeked Christians in Norkolk. I laughed and laughed and when I attempted to read it to my husband I could'nt get the words out I was laughing so much, I could see it all happening, The late comedian Dave Allen would have made one of his comic sketches out of it.

    Wonderful stuff.

  • Myra Walder

    Posted: Saturday 17 November 2012

    The churchill comment to the labour MP : Drunk, tomorrow I'll be sober but he forgot to say and still very ugly. Bessie Braddock was large but not unattractive.
    This family is kotzig and overated.


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