Kay Clay

Biography

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K A Y    C  L  A  Y    1913 --  2007


KAY CLAY (Katharine Edith Cambell) grew up in a doctor's household in Southsea, an only daughter with three brothers. At the age of 17 she won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge to read Modern Languages. Italy soon became her first and lasting love: after gaining a First in the first part of the tripos she visited Rome in the summer vacation of 1933. There she charmed Trilussa, the Roman dialect poet, who authorised her to translate his poems "in dialetto cockney". On this visit she also met Giulia Fea who would become her dearest friend in Italy.

In Cambridge she met Robert Gittings, and through him Christopher Fry: in the same year she acted in Fry's Repertory season at Tonbridge -- the theatre would be another lifelong passion and Christopher a lifelong friend. In 1934 Kay interrupted her studies to marry Robert and her first son Rob was born in the following year: understandably but always to her regret she did less well in her finals.. Kay now became (in her own words) "general amanuensis to [my] first husband, in his literary, academic and theatrical ventures", in Cambridge and in London. John was born in 1938: during the war she taught both sons at home, and she supported Robert's stand as a conscientious objector.

Soon after the war, Kay returned to Italy to work for the British Council as a Lecturer in English. She spent two years in Palermo before moving to Turin and later Milan. Rob and John joined her for a while in Palermo and they then spent a year with Giulia in Sorrento while Kay struggled up to see them whenever she could. Palermo was chaotic but inspired Kay's imagination: she was both intrigued and moved by the Sicilian character and wrote sketches, short stories, and later an unpublished children's book called "Sicilian Adventure".

While in Palermo, Kay attended a party for a visiting British naval destroyer, and met a handsome young lieutenant-commander, Richard Clay. By this time Kay’s first marriage had broken down. The ship sailed away but after a while a letter arrived from Richard. They contrived with difficulty to meet again, juggling with their respective leaves. They married in Portsmouth in April 1949, and passed their wedding night in a storm on a cross-channel ferry with two seasick boys. In Turin Kay staged a production of Fry's A Phoenix Too Frequent. She became friends with the conductor Mario Rossi and the Sicilian writer Elio Vittorini. She was proud of a Women's Study Group which she organised in Turin: its purpose was to consider "the new problems and added responsibilities" thrust on women by the post-war world.

Kay left the British Council in 1952 and spent the next two decades with Richard on his postings at home and in Malta, Egypt and Aden. She taught wherever they went -- Italian, French, English, History and general subjects. And in Port Said and Aden she taught herself Arabic, though never satisfied with what she could achieve. She became Senior Mistress in the large co-educational secondary school at RAF Khormaksar, supervising the girls "in a firm but understanding manner". She also organised a drama school "against great odds" and originated a system of correspondence between pupils studying French there and French students of English in Somaliland
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Outside school Kay continued her amateur dramatic activities, both acting and producing: there was a notable performance of Gaslight in Port Said. In Egypt she served on an international anti-tuberculosis committee and in Aden on the Ladies Guild Welfare Committee. She travelled adventurously with Richard: their journeys included two voyages by small sailing boat from Malta to Sicily and back, and several trips into the interior of the Aden Protectorate. Richard was Assistant Naval Attach e in Port Said when Britain invaded during the Suez crisis: their only moment of danger occurred when he was almost shot by a British gunner.

After a second spell in Aden, both as teachers, Kay and Richard returned to England in 1963 and she became Head of Languages at Mary Datchelor School in 1966, leading the department for the next 11 years. Her colleagues describe her as an inspirational and innovative leader, bringing a fresh approach to language teaching in part because of her long experience abroad. She oversaw the introduction of Italian and encouraged students who had finished their exams to taste other languages including Arabic and Russian. She also chaired an ILEA working party which produced a series of language text-books for use in schools. Many younger colleagues became close friends after she retired.

On their return, Kay and Richard had lived first in Bermondsey, where they built up an extensive knowledge of the riverside pubs, and then moved north of the river to Bow (having toyed with the idea of the Barbican). They were committed to living in East London and to local education and support for the NHS. On holidays in the US and Australia, until Richard's sad death in 1991, they acquired a new range of friends with whom Kay remained closely in touch. Recovering with an effort from the loss of Richard, Kay joined the Labour Party and became a governor of Old Palace and Stebon Primary Schools ( and also chaired at Stebon.) She was a home-based reader for the RNIB for 20 years, recording books which ranged from history to religion, including many in French and Italian. She went regularly to the theatre with friends and saw her last West End play in September last year. She was a voracious reader and kept a record of the titles in a notebook which shows she read over 300 books from the start of the new millennium.

Kay presided over an expanding dynasty -- six grand-children and at the last count eight great grand-children. She was punctilious with birthdays, sympathetic with advice, and much loved by all. A musician herself in her youth, she was delighted by the range of talent in the family and greatly enjoyed hearing them play.

A Datchelor colleague has summed up Kay's qualities in these words: Perceptive -- enquiring mind -- modern in outlook -- up-to-date -- determined -- tactful -- articulate -- always had the ‘mot juste’ -- always interested to listen -- wrote beautifully on cards including prompt ‘thank-you-letters’ -- prepared to discuss -- very fair in judgements -- had the gift of making you feel good.


Revised 13 July 2007, jg

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