By Julian Lewis
Memorial Service, The Claremont, Hove – 17 September 2022
Let us begin with the hardest part. Forty-two years ago, in February 1980, the Turner family travelled from their Pimlico home to their weekend house at Redruth. After a swimming excursion to Portreath, with Elizabeth a babe-in-arms and four year-old Jane by her side, Susan watched transfixed as a freak wave broke over the pier and swept Alice, aged five, into the raging sea. Momentarily, from further down the pier, Nicolas half turned towards Susan raising his hand as in a farewell wave before diving to help his daughter. In a work of fiction, he might miraculously have succeeded; but in the harshness of the real world, both of them were lost.
Nick died a hero; yet the courage shown by Susan in the days and months that followed was no less remarkable. The tragedy was headlined on the national news. I heard it on the radio myself – though no names were mentioned. So did Keith Hutchence, another Oxford University friend. This was long before the era of the mobile phone and it took Susan a couple of days to track me down via my parents. However, she knew that Keith was working at ITN. She got through to the newsdesk. His programme editor, Derek Dowsett, took Keith aside, broke the news and sent him home. Thus it was, thank Heaven, that he could be present on the platform to meet the train when Susan, Jane and Elizabeth came back to London on their own after the disaster. True to form, Keith is present today: the embodiment of enduring friendship.
Susan’s dignity and fortitude in the aftermath were extraordinary. I saw this at close quarters, when I rented two rooms in the Pimlico house, while writing up my thesis between 1980 and 1981. It enabled Susan to go out of an evening, after the children went to bed, and to start to rebuild. As well as her circle of friends, she was blessed by the presence of the wonderful Freda Barry whose original role of helping with the housework was soon transformed into that of Guardian Angel. “I don’t know what my family would have done without her,” Elizabeth has said. Geraldine – Freda’s daughter – continued her mother’s great work by caring for Mollie in her later years: we are thankful that Geraldine is here on this special day.
Margaret Onians, Susan’s lifelong friend, and Susan’s parents, Duncan and Mollie Burn, were the other stalwarts on whom she could always rely. Duncan and Mollie had met when living as neighbours in Cambridge, where Duncan had moved in 1927 to take up a lectureship at the University. He was also hard at work on his magisterial volume on The Economic History of Steelmaking, which came out in 1940. Mollie was a mathematician with, I am told, excellent coding skills – make of that what you will! Barbara was born in 1934 and Susan five years later. At the age of four, Susan was struck down by encephalitis – an inflammation of the brain which slowed her mental development for a number of years. Yet, in a sign of things to come, her calm, tolerant and patient nature saw her through the ordeal.
Duncan’s war work assigning heavy metals for armaments production led the family to move to Leamington Spa in 1942; but at the end of the war he seized an opportunity to apply this further expertise as Industrial Correspondent for The Times. The family relocated to 5 Hampstead Hill Gardens and, while the purchase was underway, they stayed for a month with Richard and Rosalind Onians. These were long-time friends, dating from the mid-1920s when Richard and Duncan both taught at the University of Liverpool. During that stay, a childhood link was forged between five year-old Susan and six year-old Margaret Onians, which was to last for 75 years.
Susan attended South Hampstead High School for Girls, before winning a place to study Economics at the LSE from where she graduated with an Upper Second. Her first job was in the Shell Mex Building, but a career with the great oil company was not to be. Susan was strongly allergic to the cigarette smoke which pervaded the office environment in those less health-conscious days! In her early twenties, she decided instead to retrain as a teacher, working with infant school reception classes. This suited her creativity, her facility with crafts, her protective nature and her empathy with other people’s problems. She constantly went back to this vocation, despite the severity of the trials to which life and fate subjected her.
Childhood illness notwithstanding, Susan had developed into a strong and athletic young woman. As a teenager, she was an exceptional swimmer, training with one contemporary who went on to win an Olympic medal. However, she took it greatly to heart when her coach died unexpectedly and decided to focus instead on other interests – notably her love of nature and the countryside. Cycling long and arduous distances held no fears for her at all. With Margaret she completed a 300-mile round trip to Devon, courtesy of a chain of youth hostels along the route. She was also a formidable hill-walker, covering the ground at a cracking six miles per hour!
It was at a party that she met Nick Turner, who happened to be the first good friend I made on going up to Oxford. He was a year ahead of me, but already had a degree under his belt. Since 1969, he had been working on a thesis at Linacre, a graduate college – but his heart was set on a Parliamentary career, and he was in full campaigning mode to win the Presidency of the Oxford University Conservative Association. This he duly achieved at the end of 1970, with me as a foot-soldier on his supporters’ team. Our co-operation continued: I still have a picture of both of us in 1972, when serving on the Standing Committee of the Oxford Union. Nick was an unforgettable character – colourful and charismatic. His oratory was fiery and insistent, so much so that I incorporated some of his debating techniques into the Advanced Speaking and Campaigning Courses which I and a chap called Bercow used to offer to would-be MPs in the 1990s.
Had Nicolas not been taken from us at the age of 34, he would undoubtedly have made his mark in United Kingdom politics. He was larger than life: the passage of 42 years does not dim the vivid impression he made on his friends and Conservative activists. Even now they describe him as “flamboyant”, “ambitious”, “determined” but “with a fun side”. Already he was carving out a career in the City of London, and at the time of the accident he was moving between W N Middleton and Hill Samuel. It is good to record that one of these companies generously made financial provision for Susan, over and above its legal obligations, given that Nick had only just been changing employers.
Neither of Susan’s parents was a churchgoer, and she felt that she had missed out on the support that membership of a congregation confers. She absorbed some of Nick’s religious commitment, just as she appreciated his taste in fine French wines embodied in a well-stocked cellar in their Pimlico home. All the time they were together, they revelled in welcoming their friends to dinner and picnics. Susan was the perfect counterbalance to Nick, calm, grounded and with a touch of the Bohemian about her – which may explain why she was drawn to colourful and outspoken characters.
Susan was an intrepid traveller, spending time in Malawi in the late-1960s, visiting Margaret who was teaching in Tanzania, and (both before and after the accident) venturing four times to California to see her sister Barbara who married David and moved there sixty years ago. Though grieving for Alice and for the husband she had lost after just eight years of marriage, Susan would tell Jane and Elizabeth stories about them designed to make them smile. She liked to have people around their home, and particularly welcomed their childhood friends, joining in enthusiastically with their games.
As the girls grew up, Susan took pleasure from Jane’s and Elizabeth’s academic achievements, in turn, at University College, London. Then, in 1999, after moving to Brockham at a friend’s suggestion, Susan struck up a conversation with a gentleman whom she met in the street while he was carrying a chessboard. (Duncan had been an accomplished chess player, so that gave her an excuse!) This was Alan Cutmore, an analytical chemist who had lived a rather solitary existence until Susan swept into his life. So began a relationship that led to 16 years of happiness and contentment – and considerably more travel – following their wedding in the year 2000.
Following Alan’s death six years ago, Susan moved to her final home quite close to Elizabeth and her partner Sam in Brighton. Back in the early 1980s, Susan had successfully fought off breast cancer, and later she did so again. Subsequently, though, she struggled with successive bouts of mouth cancer, which made communication difficult and eating even more so. Yet, when I went to see her in hospital shortly before the end, her warmth and her fortitude shone as brightly as always. Though her prospects were poor, she was undismayed and unafraid. We spoke especially of her children and their father. “Oh, Nick was lovely,” Susan whispered, emphasising the adjective. We can all say the same about her.
[NOTE: This is an updated version of a eulogy originally drafted for Susan's funeral in the Spring of 2020, which had to be scaled down to only a few attendees after the introduction of pandemic restrictions. For an example of Nick in full oratorical flow, during a debate for the Presidency of the Oxford Union Society, click here. I am grateful to Keith and David Hutchence for finding it and making it generally available.]