Tribute to much-loved Waveney figures

Ian CollinsRaised in Lowestoft and 'retiring' to Southwold, Gill Booth was a brilliant nurse and counsellor who also travelled the world as a diplomat's wife. Ian Collins pays a posthumous tribute to a much-loved Waveney figure.Ian Collins

Raised in Lowestoft and 'retiring' to Southwold, Gill Booth was a brilliant nurse and counsellor who also travelled the world as a diplomat's wife. Ian Collins pays a posthumous tribute to a much-loved Waveney figure.

Southwold has a long tradition of redoubtable women and the town is now mourning one of the most remarkable of them all. Mary Gillian Booth - 'Gill' - has died aged 81.

Born Gill Emms, at 409 London Road, Lowestoft, she was the daughter of a bank clerk. Her maternal grandfather had founded the shipbuilder S Richards & Co and later a local ironworks.

Educated at Lowestoft Convent School and Felixstowe College, she was evacuated to Diss during the war - having watched a Messerschmitt 109 strafing her home street while she waited at a bus stop.

Applying to Barts Hospital in London to train as a nurse she was turned down due to a (temporary) skin condition. She then tried nearby St Thomas's - saying nothing of that earlier rejection - and was accepted, but for years lived in fear of being found out.

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She proved an exemplary nurse, of course, and over 11 years from 1948 trained as a midwife and then rose to the positions of Night Sister and Sister Tutor. She had that power - conviction, commitment, complete optimism - of the truly good.

A protracted romance with diplomat Charles Booth finally produced a wedding in 1958 and a blissfully happy marriage. The trained midwife wanted six children of her own, but finally settled on just the four.

From 1960 the Booths, along with baby Charles, began their postings abroad with a stint in Rome, where Lydia and then James were born in swift succession.

Then it was off to Burma, which in many ways was to prove Gill's spiritual home. Daw Khin Kyi - mother of the detained Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi - became one of her closest friends.

Illness and humid heat marred the next posting to Thailand, despite joy from the birth of daughter Rachel, but after a two-year spell back in England, this model diplomat's wife smiled through a posting to Uganda - and even through a dance with Idi Amin.

Lumbering around the dance floor, the mad dictator told her to arrange for 10 Victoria Cross holders to be on the first VC10 into Entebbe Airport. Gill did her best to oblige, via a party of bemedalled veterans, happy that the caper would give 'some dear old chaps a free holiday'.

Spells in Washington and Yugoslavia followed before another term in Gill's beloved Burma - for Charles Booth's first posting as an ambassador - followed by a final call to Malta before retirement in 1985.

Looking back on her life in diplomacy, Gill concluded that the whole experience - save for separations from her children - had been wonderful. She told me: 'Everyone was so nice to us - they were marvellous in Rome, Rangoon, Bangkok, Washington and Belgrade.'

And then, after the briefest pause: 'They were jolly nice in Malta too. Someone did put a bomb under our car once. But it didn't go off.'

There's niceness for you.

Retirement meant a return to Suffolk - to a fine house in Southwold, and a beach-hut like the one she had loved from childhood at Pakefield. Back in her home county her diplomat wife's skill at rustling up a party for five or 105 on a shoestring budget found a new social outlet.

Sadly, Charles Booth died in 1997 but Gill sailed on as a loving matriarch and universal aunt - busy with a new vocation.

In 1988 her nephew, Neville, had died of Aids at the age of 26, having confided to Gill first that he was gay and then that he was HIV positive. Her response was very positive action.

She trained in Aids bereavement counselling with London Lighthouse, Body Positive, Terrence Higgins Trust and Mildmay and went on to help set up Waveney's Fightback Trust.

This was a time when people with Aids faced a death sentence and probably a lot of cruelty beforehand. Gill's annual fund-raising vigil in Southwold High Street melted the hardest heart and opened the meanest purse.

Gill Booth was living proof that you get out of life what you put in. At her nephew's funeral she said: 'Neville's gift to me has been the realisation that I may be able to reduce the prejudice which exists against young people who are HIV positive or have Aids which so often results in rejection and isolation. I shall always love and respect him for that.'

More recently Southwold's parish magazine contained a statement from a cleric that, while compassion should be shown, 'homosexuals are fundamentally disordered and not part of God's perfect plan'.

Gill wrote back: 'Everyone is part of God's perfect plan because it is just that - perfect.'