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- by David Whitlam
It's impossible, of course, to encompass the life of anyone in a few pages, let alone the life of someone as complete as Hannah, who has died of brain cancer at the not very ripe old age of 42, but we're going to have a try and we hope that the dry eyes will support and console the wet eyes.
Hannah, wonderful, bright and beautiful Hannah, was born in Colchester at ten past midnight , on the 11th of August 1960 to an English father, Bill Dent and a German mother, whom David knew as Trudi. Her father wrote, in a detailed diary of her first years ;''I hope you will like your name;we felt we must choose a name common to both Germany and England. At last we decided on Hannah, a name well-liked in Germany and is a good old English name, which has never been overworked- it was the name of your great great great great grandmother.'' The absolute devotion of Bill and Trudi to their daughter, exemplified in this diary extract, and then to Inge, their second daughter, was mirrored much later by Hannah's absolute devotion to her own children.
One of the qualities which many of us have admired in Hannah is her unselfishness and her ability to share. But few of us know that efforts had to be made to achieve this! Another entry from Hannah's diary ,from 11th March 1963: '' Our efforts to get you to see that it would be nice to let Inge have your toys have not been very successful. However there have been occasions recently when you have even handed her your beloved Teddy. I praise you if I see this happen and say to Inge, 'there Inge, that is Hannah's Teddy, but she will let you play with it. Isn't she a good Hannah?' You wriggle and smile and look benevolent.''
Hannah was educated in Colchester, at Hamilton Road School and then Colchester County High School for Girls, where she excelled in Maths, French and German. She was in any case fluent in German, thanks to her mother, but she decided that modern languages was her thing, and she selected St Aidan's college in Durham as her home for the next four years. Many of the friendships she made in Durham have stood the test of time and have developed to embrace the whole family.
chosen career, translating, took her to her one and only employer, the
Foreign and Commonwealth Office in King Charles' street, in August 1983,
where she immediately warmed to the antiquated charm of the place and
made life-long friendships with many translators who are here in the church
today. One friend wrote ' When I started at the FCO in 1988 I thought
it was quite nice, perhaps a bit dull. And then Hannah came back from
holiday'. Noone was ever allowed to know what Hannah translated, because
it was all so secret, but it included Margaret Thatcher' fanmail, including
letters from an interesting German who still believes he married Thatch
in an earlier incarnation. And everyone just LOVED getting Hannah's fantastic
Foreign Office Christmas cards!!!
David recalls the immense support Hannah showed him in his career, right from the start in 1983.She encouraged him when he moved to Vienna; she also supported the local bucketshop, flying off to Vienna every six weeks to see David and bringing back those lovely chocolate Mozart balls back for the translators and her mum and dad. In 1987 David returned to England and they set up house together in Mantilla road, Tooting Bec and were married in July 1988. In the hospice, just recently, we have been revisiting the wedding photos and, while they bring many tears to many eyes, there is no doubt that the wedding was the wonderful start of a wonderful marriage.
We are very fortunate, in spite of our terrible sorrow, that Hannah's photography, dating back to their first holiday together in Rhodes in 1983, charts the many many travels that the Whitlam family has made since then. Probably because modern language study instils wanderlust in anyone,and also because as a child she so enjoyed her trips from Colchester via Harwich, to the Hook of Holland and then on to see the German side of her family, Hannah has made more trips to more places in her short life than most people make in their longer lifetime. Before children appeared, Hannah planned detailed itineraries in America, Thailand, Portugal, the Burgundy wine trail and then the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. She was no fool- she was happy to let her man do the driving but her map-reading was unparallelled and she acquired such local knowledge through reading the guidebooks and other literature properly, that she soon became quite an authority.There are more than fifty albums of photos, carefully sorted.
Hannah's career, which had resulted in promotion in the Foreign Office within the translation section, came to an end in 1992 when David was asked to move to Russia. At this juncture Hannah was pregnant with Lily and they were moving house to Clapham - a typically busy scenario for Hannah. With legendary calm, Hannah managed all of this, resulting in her obtaining special unpaid leave from the Foreign Office which is only now being cancelled. Seven months pregnant, Hannah stunned everyone by undergoing a five-week immersion course in Russian at Farnham Castle, and she emerged , full of revolutionary zeal, fairly fluent and ready for the off.
She adored St Petersburg, became very well acquainted with its myriad art museums and architectural wonders and evolved a superb skill in showing guests around. Shopping in St Petersburg back in 1992 was quite an adventure , yet she found the best way round everything.Her speciality at that time was coq au vin, since St Petersburg was the chicken capital of Russia, producing delicious, lean, birds which, doused with a whole bottle of claret and decorated with shallots and lardons, remained a favourite of their many guests.
Her visits to the Hermitage are probably still remembered by the lovely babushki , the ladies who minded each room, and who cooed as Hannah wheeled in the infant Lily every Thursday to show her the Matisse and the other masters. Lily grew to love these visits and the Impressionists.
was at this time that her sense of social injustice forced her to get
involved with a children's medical charity, Peter's Children, which was
run by expats, and she regularly took part in the fruit run, aiming to
get some fresh produce to children in need at the hospital for children
As a mother already of two children, in 1996 Hannah and the family were asked to move to Istanbul. Hannah had actually been taken to Istanbul as an engagement present back in 1984 and was thrilled with the chance to live there. She moved to Turkey with a six-week old Sarah, a two-year old Daniel and a four-year old Lily, and for four and a half wonderful years they lived in a lovely house facing the Bosphorus. The memories are the freshest and the hardest to reconcile with the awful short future that was ahead.
Hannah took up driving again after 15 years and soon became very familiar with many of the extremely difficult roads in Istanbul. She is probably the only person ever to have attempted to follow a road map of Istanbul! People have often said '' and you know I never saw Hannah really angry'' -well, there were exceptions: one day, by sheer chance, she ended up just ahead of a male driver who had been in front of her just a short way back...he risked both of their necks as he insisted on preserving his ego and overtaking her where there was no chance... she yelled and screamed at him - that was anger all right, and in fact Hannah did get angry wherever she saw social injustice and blatant chauvinism, of any kind.
She learned pretty good Turkish to accompany the German, French and Russian and set herself the target of visiting every famous mosque in Istanbul. A guidebook which her mother gave her in 1996 quickly became a serious planning document for Hannah, who used every free moment to visit not only mosques but other places of interest, some of which had to be opened specially for her. With three small children, the family set off and covered nearly every corner of Turkey including Van in the more dodgy Kurdish part and, while David did an official Gillette trade visit, Hannah got herself invited to a picnic with taxi drivers wives and children at the foot of Van castle. On these and other visits she collected carpets and various artefacts which are now lasting memories of her diverse interests.
Hannah had lost her beloved father Bill, back in early 1995 but was comforted by the fact that he had held the infant Daniel and pronounced him a 'winner', just like Lily two years earlier. Her mother Trudi came to Istanbul for Christmas in 1996, ten days after Hannah and the children moved there. It was consoling for Hannah, when her mother died suddenly two months later, that she had at least been able to see the family installed in their new home, and it is yet another example of Hannah's ability to make people feel needed and welcome.
Hannah's ability to amaze culminated in the organisation of her sister Inge's wedding, in Istanbul, on a boat on the Bosphorus, with an official from Beshiktash (a city municipal area) stepping onto the boat and marrying them. It was a perfect day in so many ways and saw the flowering of Hannah into someone who not only cared about the details but was able to execute them perfectly. Inge and Bob were so happy with the result and that made Hannah happy too.
Hannah made many many friends in Istanbul; largely through school, and was always prepared to help out with school events. She was such a hit when she organised the summer fete at the childrens' school, Papatya, in 2000, that she was invited back again from England the following year, though her illness prevented her from making the trip.
Hannah loved to romance each and every event; fantastic cakes were baked for the children's parties; brilliant parties accompanied the cakes; a trip to Giza for David's 40th birthday; a rose petal sorbet on Valentine's day; dinner at Sunset on Lily's birthday. Her own fortieth was celebrated with friends on a chartered boat up and down the Bosphorus and with the family on a trip to Venice, where David had proposed to her many years before. She confided to Inge, her sister, that she had probably fulfilled her life's ambitions already at forty.
Returning to England after nearly nine years abroad was another thrill for Hannah, since it gave her the chance to re-establish friendships, get involved in the school and community activities and see more of her sister Inge's family, by now augmented by the addition of baby Emma. For three action-packed months early in 2001 she ensured that the children were happy in their new school, Bonneville, volunteered her services to Sharon to help those with reading difficulties, agreed to become a parent governor and, in her spare time organised a myriad of workmen to sort out the house which had been empty all this time.
The onset of the illness which has just robbed us of Hannah was slow,mysterious and inexorable; starting with temporary speech loss, then memory lapses and finally trouble with the whole right side. Between April and July last year she was in and out of hospital but she never ceased coming to school whenever she could and and at home she continued with the children's evening routine of story reading-in fact this only stopped when she literally couldn't read the words any more.
She insisted on being straightforward in communicating the illness , both to the children and in David's telling friends of the likely outcome, but she was determined to fight and would adopt a wonderful combative pose as she declared to everyone ''we're going to beat this thing, yes, we're going to beat this thing''.She faced radiotherapy and chemotherapy bravely, took counselling, cried her heart out every night for a month and then decided last November that she didn't want to cry any more. Hannah's powers of speech were reduced but she compensated with her amazing gift of listening and empathising. Her reaction to the September 11 horrors was remarkable in that she was easily able to see how much more fortunate our family was than the affected families; in a sense, then, she did defeat the cancer because it did not destroy her outlook and approach to life.
Somehow the Whitlams managed to continue with holidays; NewYear in Newquay with Maggie and Nick's family; a week in the North in February 2002 during which Hannah walked on Hadrian's wall; several days in Islay at Easter during which Hannah loved the walks and the views, and the fact that she couldn't even find her own clothes seemed a minor inconvenience to her!
Just before Hannah went on her last holiday, she attended the Franconia Road street party and was seen dancing and chatting to everyone.A week later she and David decided to host a party at home in her honour. There were plenty of tears at the party on 14th July because everyone knew that this would be the last of the many parties Hannah and David had held in the various countries and places they had lived. There is wonderful video footage from this party which shows a radiant Hannah, in full converation flow, not really able to finish any sentence, yet communicating her outrageous love for the occasion and all the people around her.
The holiday in France and Scarborough was, in hindsight, almost impossibly brave. David's memories of Hannah from these two weeks are very vivid and dear; Hannah sitting in the garden watching her 3 darling children playing; Hannah tasting the Chablis from the grower; walking with Hannah among the massive sunflowers; eating Merguez sausages and other more intricate delicacies while Hannah commented simply 'wonderful, mmm it's wonderful'. By the time they reached Scarborough the whole family was used to taking Hannah by the hand and encouraging her to walk forwards by saying ''boldly go mummy, boldly go'' which seemed to impel her forwards.
mother, sister, partner, cousin, daughter-in-law and friend to so many,
died shortly after this wonderful family holiday and, as those who visited
her in the hospice know, she might almost have felt she were at home,
because she was still surrounded by the love of her family and friends;
she listened to Bonneville School choir and Neil Young on the CD player
and she would know the voices and touch of her brave and desolated sister,
children, husband and best friends.