MY GRANNY THE DRAGON SLAYER

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MY GRANNY THE DRAGON SLAYER
Olivia’s granny, Olive Ruby: street-style starlet by day, WW2 codebreaker by night

TO PARAPHRASE ONE OF MY FAVOURITE WRITERS, Caitlin Moran, nine times out of 10, you probably aren’t having a full-on nervous breakdown. You just need a cup of tea and a biscuit. Get a big biscuit tin.

This humble yet ingenious piece of advice has been one of life’s most effective coping mechanisms for me. It also involves Hobnobs, so… bonus. But on the rare occasion that confectionery doesn’t work, I like to ask myself, “What would granny do?” I have a friend who does the same thing, but with Jackie Collins instead of her nan. As you can imagine, she’s an absolute warrior in leopard print.

Anyway, as evidenced, it’s a great strategy. I urge you to try it. When the chips are down, there’s something empowering about reminding yourself that you’re part of something bigger. For me, it’s knowing that I’ve improbably sprung into the universe, the latest in a long line of strong, gobby, downright heroic women, none of whom took anything lying down – ever.

International Women’s Day, then, is the perfect time to honour these women; the ones who made me who I am. My part-Italian, part-Greek maternal grandmother, a cherubic-looking, yet tough-as-nails woman who, well into her 70s, was still up at dawn every day to water fig trees up the mountain in her back garden; my beautiful Cypriot mama, the rebel daughter who fled Cyprus during the invasion of ’74 with a suitcase full of Ossie Clark; and my dad’s mum – my namesake – born the day after World War I ended, and called Olive, for peace.

As British as they come – think getting us all round the piano to belt out Knees Up Mother Brown – she was the most grannyish grandma anyone’s ever had. She wore a Harris tweed overcoat that was so heavy it needed its own crane, owned an actual tea cosy, and bought me a new Enid Blyton book from WHSmith every weekend. She also had a consistently strong biscuit offering – mostly Custard Creams – inadvertently setting me on the same philosophical path as Caitlin Moran from a young age. We called her Fuzzy.

But all this wasn’t why I loved her. I mean, it helped, sure – but it was her dramatic, awe-inspiring backstory that will always make me remember her as a truly amazing woman who genuinely changed the course of history; tenacious, brave, and blessed with the kind of keep-calm-and-carry-on wartime stoicism that I can only wish I’ll inherit one day.

Fuzzy’s first husband, Reggie Sparrow – that was his real name, I promise he isn’t a character I’ve just nicked from Dad’s Army – was killed in action in Madagascar just one month after they were married. Shortly after, she was called up by the Foreign Office, vetted, made to sign the 30-year Official Secrets Act, and billeted off to Bletchley Park, a mansion house just north of London. Codenamed Station X, it was the top-secret, central hub for Britain’s codebreakers during WWII, intercepting encrypted German naval signals.

If you saw Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the man who invented the computer that finally cracked the Enigma code, you’ll know what I’m talking about. For everyone else, Alan and the codebreakers – including my gran, who worked alongside him in Hut 8 – were, according to Churchill, “the golden geese who never cackled,” – so crucial to the Allies’ victory that the whole operation remained shrouded in secrecy until the ’80s.

“Grandma was always so modest and discreet about it all,” my dad remembers, “she didn’t even tell grandpa what she did during the war until 1985!” Modesty and discretion. Two more things I could stand to learn from her if my Instagram is anything to go by. But regardless of what she’d think of that if she was still around today, I hope that she’s proud of me, and that she knows she will always be the pinnacle of what I consider to be an incredible woman who deserves to be remembered – and not just by me.