Early morning at Belfast’s Merchant Hotel, and Gloria Hunniford is working like the showbiz trouper she truly is.
Never mind that she is 67, that she flew into Belfast late the previous evening after days of back-to-back live TV and radio interviews to publicise her new book, that just hours earlier she also made an appearance at her great friend Sir Cliff Richard’s bash to celebrate his 50 years in the music industry — “a wonderful evening, wouldn’t have missed it”.
Today, before I arrive, she’s already squeezed in a gig for Action Cancer and after we chat, it’s off to a book signing, then back home to England for another charity function that evening. Even by Gloria’s standards, it’s a tight schedule, so husband Stephen Way will meet her at the event’s venue in Wentworth, Surrey, with everything she needs to ensure she makes it on time.
And yet here she is, impeccably made-up and with her trademark coiffeured honey-blonde hair tweaked to perfection, apologising to everyone else for the early start, greeting all and sundry with genuine warmth and enthusiasm and ordering tea all round to rally the troops. Turn a camera onto Gloria and she lights up even more, running through a repertoire of head-tilting poses that she’s been practising virtually all her life, since she dreamed of stardom as a young girl back in Portadown, where her father was a newspaper advertising manager by day, a conjuror by night, and she would beg him to be allowed to stand at the side of the stage and watch.
When a passerby spots her and stops to watch, she turns a megawatt beam in his direction and strikes up conversation. And, ever the seasoned professional, as we settle down to talk, she dispatches with the press officer from her publisher and instead directs me herself on when we’re off the record — “do you want to switch the tape off for a moment, we’re just chatting between ourselves now” she’ll say so charmingly you find yourself obliging without hesitation.
Gloria is, of course, here to talk about Always With You, subtitled Facing Life After Loss, a very personal, deeply moving account of attempting to climb out of the “black hole” down which adored daughter Caron’s death plunged her. A mum to two young boys, Charlie and Gabriel, she died at the age of 41, on April 13, 2004.
The book is a sequel to Gloria’s huge-selling Next To You, which told the story of Caron’s hitherto secret battle with breast cancer, and includes some of the 8,000 letters she received from readers following its publication. Many are from grieving parents, including a considerable number in Northern Ireland, such as Rita, from Londonderry, who lost her daughter and son-in-law in the IRA bombing of the La Mon hotel. She also enclosed a copy of a handwritten note found in daughter Elizabeth McCracken’s handbag, which had survived the blast. ‘The only moment we can ever live in is the present ’ it began, which Gloria says echoed much of Caron’s writings. “The big lesson was to live in the now,” writes Gloria. But the “now” can be a painful, desolate place.
By turns, a harrowing and uplifting read, Gloria clearly feels bound to pass on the “nuggets of advice” she has received, as well as what she herself has discovered over the past four years, which have also seen her contend with Caron’s widower Russ remarrying, to TV presenter Sally Meen, with whom he now has a baby daughter, TJ. That, however, has been the nub of some interviewers’ questions to Gloria over the past week: shouldn’t she, too, have attempted to move on? Indeed, in the book, she herself, perhaps inadvertently, touches upon the subject when she writes how her sons Paul and Michael “don’t want me forever to be associated with grief and loss”. Isn’t there a possibility that she could become defined by Caron’s death?
“Am I worried about talking about Caron too much?” she says, taking the difficult question with good grace. “No, I’m not. I feel that I am doing it as a means to helping other people, that there is a purpose to it. If I didn’t think this book would help others to cope with loss, then I would never have embarked on it. But these letters were so pivotal to me that I believe it would be crass of me not to use them, not to give back that advice from the public to the public.
“And I’ve also tried to carry Caron’s spirit on through the Caron Keating Foundation. Just as my own work is important, so is my work with the Foundation, and 50% of my time is spent with that. It’s like the work I was doing with Action Cancer this morning. Because of both of us being in the public eye, by talking about Caron and raising money in her name, we’ve been able to help cancer patients across Britain. For example, we’ve opened Caron Keating treatment rooms, plus we’re spearheading Action Cancer’s campaign for breastscreening for women outside the NHS age bracket. I feel I’m putting her loss to some good, creating something positive in her name. If that means talking about her, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Always With You is indeed a powerful account of what it is like to stumble one’s way through the wasteland of grief; the disbelief, anguish, anger, the slow coming to terms. Then there are the taboos, like the selfishness of extreme grief, which Gloria subsequently recognised in herself, especially in relation to her sons and husband, when she was so lost in her own loss, she didn’t notice how bereft they were. Plus, there’s the undeniable hierarchy of mourning.
“I’m very careful and wouldn’t undermine anyone else’s grief,” says Gloria. “I have been through the grief of losing my parents, of losing my former husband, of losing friends and colleagues, and I’m not undermining any of that. But having been through that and then
losing my child, there is no doubt in my mind that is the worst type of grief to experience. You can’t conceive that child, carry her, give birth to her and have her for 41 years in my case and not feel that is the worst thing in life to lose. It takes you to a different depth, one you could not have imagined. And that’s where one nugget of advice came in, when someone said to me that if this God-like figure said to me it would give me this gorgeous girl to love and enjoy and relish but that after 41 years he would take her back, would I then chose not to have her? Of course, there is no question about the answer to that and thinking about that helped me because I knew I’d been so lucky to have her.
“But in the weeks after Caron’s death I was shattered and I remember at the beginning saying to [my son] Michael that I didn’t believe I was ever going to smile or laugh again. What a horrible thing to say. Michael tells me now that when I said this it was deeply upsetting for him. He wanted to say ‘Hang on, Paul and I are also your children.’
“I also remember talking to footballer Bob Wilson’s wife Megs, and they had lost their lovely daughter, Anna, in her thirties. Megs told me how one day she was rushing out to her charity and her son put up his hand and said ‘Stop, Mum, I’m your child, too.’ I think she told me that for a reason and it was a bolt of lightening going through me. Of course, I was concerned for Paul and Michael and what they were going through, but perhaps I had not been concerned enough and from that moment I really did try to suss them out more on their own. I do believe you talk more about your inner feelings in a one-to-one situation.”
She also believes that people in Celtic countries are better at addressing grief as opposed to the “stiff upper lip attitude in England”. Since she began to talk openly about Caron, she’s been amazed at how many people she has been in touch with who have never talked openly about the death of their loved one, which she believes is unhealthy.
“Somehow, somewhere the grief must come out,” insists Gloria. “I know of a man who loved his wife very much but when she died he locked all her things away in the attic. Subsequently, in his teens, their son went off the rails, on drink and drugs, and when asked about it, he said he had never been able to express his grief for his mum, that he didn’t even have a photo of her. Only when he was allowed to address this did his healing begin.”
One of Gloria’s attempts, however, to talk to another mother who might under-|stand what she was going through was|
unsuccessful. “I was desperate to talk to Carol Barnes, the only person I knew who had lost a child in recent times, but it was disastrous. We were both too raw, we did not have a good conversation, my call came out of the blue ”
There is a sense, too, that Gloria is continuing Caron’s work in Next To You, which included many of her daughter’s surprisingly profound writings about coping with her illness, treatments and, of course, fear of dying. Though working in TV, Caron, who’d studied English at Bristol University, had a sharp intellect. Gloria now admits that Caron probably found aspects of television “superficial”, and would have found great fulfillment in writing. “A lot of medical people told me how revealing it was that Caron described so adequatelty what it was really like to have chemotherapy shot into your veins. You can be trained to look after cancer patients but unless you’ve received treatment yourself you don’t really know what it’s like. In a different way this has compelled me to pass on what I and my family have learned on our journey since her death.”
Vital, too, for Gloria, is that Caron’s boys know as much as possible about their mum. “I’m the only one alive who knows Caron’s story from beginning to end. Her dad had already died and I want to keep Caron’s name on her sons’ tongues because I want them to remember Caron and when the time is right to know how hard she fought to stay alive for them and what she was like as a young girl, as a teenager, at university.”
How did she really feel about Russ getting married again? “I preface this by saying I don’t talk about his married life because he is a former son-in-law and so it’s not my prerogative to talk about his life,” she says. “I can only talk about how it affects me. I always knew that Russ would re-marry and I told him so weeks after Caron died. He said to me one day ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen now’ and I said ‘In time you will meet somebody, you are a very attractive man, you have a lovely nature.’ He said ‘Who will take me on with two boys?’ and I said ‘You watch, you’ll see.’ But what I wasn’t prepared for — and I address this in the book — was the loss of the family unit.
“Daughters come home to their mothers, particularly Irish daughters and Irish mothers, Irish children in general, thank God. I never had to wonder what Caron and the children were up to because we talked two or three times a day on the phone. Similarly when they went to Australia, we were always on their doorstep. The unit was just so close. After Caron died, Russ and the boys stayed with us for a few months, then we went back to Cornwall with them and settled the boys in school, but then when we came home I knew we would not have the unit any more and that is another loss But in all honesty I wouldn’t have wanted Russ and the boys sitting somewhere sad and lonely. I’m grateful for the fact they are well looked after — and they are well looked after. I’m very grateful f that I see them, even though I’m a bit more of a diary entry now, but I’d have become that anyway as the boys became older, with longer school hours, football. But Russ and Sally make sure that I see them for good chunks of time in school holidays and in between times I drive over, pick them up from school and take them out for tea.
“But I do find myself getting angry for what Caron is missing out on. Charlie was shopping for his first major disco recently and I couldn’t help thinking ‘Caron would be so thrilled by all of this’.”
Gloria has never gone down the route of visiting psychics, though has made no secret of believing the white feathers she finds from time to time are messages from Caron. There are, she says, incredible twists in this story, such as how she discovered Russ and Caron’s former house in Australia had now become home to the Buddhist monks who brought her such peace in her final months. “If you tried to write that in a film script, you’d be told it was too far-fetched,” she says.
In the meantime, Gloria keeps working. With seasoned showbiz aplomb she parries back my question about Sir Cliff’s recent comments on gay marriages by saying she never talks about his private life, adding: “He’s been a good friend. He and Caron often sat up late into the night, talking. I don’t know what they discussed but I’m sure Cliff took in a lot of her deeper fears. Cliff’s an extraordinary, ordinary person. He has that X-factor on stage, but then puts on an old T-shirt and heads out to do his own garden.”
She’s certainly busy, with series including Celebrity Cash In the Attic. “I love what I do workwise. I have to laugh when I read people sniping about ageism in the papers. I’ve always gone for longevity throughout my career, and as you get older you need to be realistic. You won’t always have primetime on Friday and Saturday nights and you need to be prepared to branch off. When I first started on Channel 5 people said to me ‘You’re not going to do that, are you?’ I said ‘Well, yes, they’ve given me a blank sheet and their money is the same as everyone elses’s’. Now, everyone is clamouring to work on it. Celebrity Cash In The Attic may not be going out primetime but it got an enviable 5.15pm slot on BBC2 so ”
Though Strictly Come Dancing helped her survive, she wouldn’t do it now. “It was very innocent back then in series three. If you made half an attempt, you’d get by. Now it’s so competitive I wouldn’t do it for a fortune. All those size-six girls were saying ‘Just take a little more material away’ and I was going ‘Could you just drape my shoulder with chiffon.’”
The truth, of course, is that Gloria wants — needs — to work, because it helps her fill the gaping chasm left by caron’s loss. She’d be the first to admit that it was an escape in the early days, and it continues to be so. As she reaches for the teapot to warm up our cups, I ask her is she feels Caron is close by. Her composure doesn’t falter — that doesn’t happen that often publicly with the woman named after Gloria Swanson — but she starts to stroke with the fringing on an adjacent chair. “Initially I’d look at photos of her and all I could think about was this terrible separation, what I and my family had lost. I’d think ‘Where have you gone?’ Now, and I don’t want to make this sound too wacky, but I feel I can take her spirit with me. I don’t dwell on the separation as much.”
She adds: “I know she has gone but sometimes I trick my mind that if I go to Australia I might find her there with the monks, travelling through the palm trees. It’s just a little area of escapism. It helps me cope.”
Always With You: Facing Life After Loss by Gloria Hunniford, Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99