Rhys’s eulogy

Rhys Morgan remembers his wife and soulmate

We met in 1993 in a Liverpool student union bar. I was introduced by Miriam, one of her best friends. It was a very brief meeting, a quick hello above the loud music. She remembered me years later as the boy who was jumping up and down on the dancefloor all night. She never really did like my dancing style.

My best man at our wedding, Andy, told our wedding guests that it was twelve years later from that first encounter and desperation that eventually brought us together.

It was at a party in London at Miriam’s house. I was an uninvited visitor turning up late at night and, while my memory of the evening is a bit hazy, I imagine I made a nuisance of myself in my own special way until Polly capitulated.

This was the beginning of, at first, a long-distance relationship between Liverpool and London. She would come up on the train on a Friday evening and I, having spent several of the preceding hours in the union bar (it being a Friday after all), would be waiting for her, shouting her name at the top of my voice as the hundreds of passengers disembarked. A very Morgan-type style of greeting.

Alternatively she would find me asleep on a bench in the station, with loud salsa music blaring out of my headphones, and struggling to wake me.

I’d eventually gaze into her eyes and say, hi babes.

It was true love.

She was hilarious. She was warm, clever, kind, tender, beautiful.

She introduced me to all her wonderful friends and family.

After a couple of years and a new job for me in Cambridge, we finally moved in together in a flat in Finsbury Park in London and a year later we decided to get married. There was only one place, St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. My family’s home. My father, the Rev Bob Morgan married us. Thank you to all of you who managed the seven-hour-plus journey.

Polly Rose Josephine Corrigan. She didn’t add Morgan to her name. Was it because of reading, in her formative years, Simone de Beauvoir, and developing a deep feminist mindset? Or was it simply to do with the number of small boxes available on the passport application form.

Polly brought so much to our relationship. Or to be more accurate, changed my life entirely. I was, am still, and always will be, a philistine by comparison. For those of you who’ve visited our home, you will know it is entirely shaped and curated by Polly; the only indication of my existence is a few engineering books stuffed in the downstairs loo. She wouldn’t allow them on the shelves on public display.

She was committed from a young age to arts and culture, and her knowledge of art, theatre, cinema and literature was extraordinary. She would often attend theatre performances on her own as a teenager. In her sixth form, she directed Blood Wedding, a Lorca play at the Almeida Theatre in Islington. Her university interview to study history turned into a long conversation on Brecht who the admissions tutor was also particularly fond of. Back in London, after university, she produced a short film with friends in the mid-1990s. No small feat, before the advent of digital recording and editing equipment.

After jobs at the Guardian and Wide-Learning (an early dot-com company) her love of the arts and her skill at writing led her to become the first online features editor at the Telegraph newspaper, working with lots of lovely new friends, and in the course of her work, meeting and interviewing many artists, writers, film directors and musicians.

When we started going out with each other, she would take me to all sorts of exhibitions, art galleries and installations. On one particular evening, we ventured deep into East London to an abandoned warehouse. On entering we found a large white room with a selection of mobility scooters which we were invited to ride around as piped classical played from the speakers. Our visit culminated with me, polly and other complete strangers riding in formation at four miles an hour to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries – like some bizarre OAP version of Apocalypse Now. There were so many experiences that she provided me with like that.

Her time at the Telegraph very nearly ended abruptly when she inadvertently posted an entire Jeffrey Archer novel online ahead of publication. She was only supposed to publish the first chapter as part of a serialisation. She was hauled into the manager’s office with Archer’s lawyers present. She would have probably got the sack, were it not for the fact that only three people had bothered to download it. There was much sniggering as her final written warning was handed to her.

Russia and Soviet History

I’m not sure there is any obvious nucleus to where her love of Russia started. It was a lifetime of ideas and influence from many and various sources.

Above her love of art and culture however, were two even more important things: Russia and our children.

Her great grandparents were Ashkenazy and fled Kaliningrad before the Russian revolution, emigrating to the UK. Her grandparents’ house in the Lake District was filled with books, journals and paintings of Russia.

Her parents and their families on both sides were strongly socialist, and in parts bordering on communist, and discussions at family meals would espouse the virtues of Marx, Lenin and communism.

Socialist and anti-fascist songs were often sung on family walks in the Lake District or around dinner tables. As James mentioned, a trip to Moscow in 1992 was a particularly formative experience. She was only 18, probably looked about 13, and the iron curtain had just fallen. Polly would talk to me and the girls about how she would walk down streets in -20degrees popping in and out of people’s houses every few hundred yards to keep out of the cold. It was the first of many visits to Russia and other former Soviet states including Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia for her studies. She read all the great writers; Solzhenitzin, Bulgakov, Vassily Grossman, and her favourite, Tolstoy. All these well-thumbed books adorn our shelves.

This interest culminated in her starting a PhD on soviet history, on Stalin and the great terror. Her focus was on the KGB and its relationship with dissident writers, many of whom were killed while others were allowed to continue their writing. Her work was intended to highlight the complexity and chaos of the secret police; the apparent killing machine having many flaws and failures. 

The challenge was finding original, primary evidence – the KGB archives in Moscow being closed. But she found new sources of information as Ukraine and Georgia opened their archives to the West.

She was among the very first people in the world, probably the first in some cases, to study previously classified documents on dissident writers, their criminal records and trial evidence. She spent weeks in dusty, windowless rooms photographing thousands of pages of documents, unsure whether they held vital information for her work then coming home to slowly interpret the contents.

Her first paper was published just a week before she died.

2020 would have been an exceptional year for her. She has a chapter in a book which is being published in January. She was invited to speak at international conferences in Washington and San Francisco in the spring and would have submitted her thesis in the summer. It would have been the start of a long-held desire for an academic career.

With the support of Mike Goodman, her academic supervisor and her colleagues, in particular her mentor James Harris, we will endeavour to ensure all her work is not lost, although none of us speak Russian.

Above even Russia however, was her unbounding, unending love for our daughters. She devoted the last thirteen years to them, giving up work, being there for them every single day. They were the centre of her life.

I recently found a journal of Polly’s in which she had written her thoughts while she was having chemotherapy this summer. She wrote that it would take a million more notebooks to even begin to approach how much she loves her girls. They were, are, her ultimate triumph.

I’m going to embarrass you for about twenty seconds now girls. Sorry.

Martha’s, our eldest, whose name was decided about twenty years before I’d even met Polly, was born in 2006, a year after we married. At the hospital on the night she was born, the nurse tried to put Martha in the cot beside the bed. No chance. Polly would not let go. Grumpily, the nurse tightly wrapped Martha to her mother’s chest and they stayed like that for the night.

Rosie was born at home in 2010 and was in Polly’s arms within seconds, later eating Sunday dinner with Rosie at her breast.

Polly was not interested in her girls sleeping in a cot. They had to sleep with her. Little did I know then that both Martha and Rosie would sleep in bed with us for the next thirteen years. It continues to this day.

Martha is the intellectual. Like her mother, is an extraordinary reader, finishing books within a few hours of receiving them, when she’s not on social media. Rosie has inherited her mother’s love of nature and the outdoors, craving fresh air, the wind, trees, flowers and open space.

Both are beautiful, kind, loving, girls. Their mum was so proud of them and her values live on strongly in them, even if they don’t know it yet.

I would like to thank Polly’s mother and father for all the time they have given in helping to bring up our children.

But while Polly was a wonderful mother and wife, she wasn’t always the easiest person to get on with. She was deeply principled, was not prepared to compromise, but this made her difficult. She was easily irritated and this would often flare into anger.

She was angry about many things:

Social Injustice, massive income inequality in our society, poverty and deprivation, the state of public services, which she had experienced first-hand.

She would get angry with those among us who didn’t support Jeremy Corbyn. A fair number of us, family and friends, got on the wrong side of her on that topic.

She was frustrated with journalism and its anti-Russian bias, obviously. She pretty much turned her back on the news, preferring instead long swathes of small-type, nuanced argument in the London Review of Books. She was however, partial to social media, and consumed more than her fair share of twitter and Instagram. Which then made her angry that she’d spent so much time on it.

She argued with all of us. But she would would keep her best arguments, anger and rage for me and her mum, whom she loved and could lash out at the most. Seeing some argument brewing I would often devise the most perfect case, only for her to carefully dissect each word and turn it against me ending in me apologising once more for being a terrible husband.

Our last conversation was indeed an argument. One which I’ll cherish forever. In the hospital Polly wanted to get up from bed to go to the bathroom. I explained I needed to unplug the intravaenous drip machine and wheel it round. She said it was fine, the wire was 1.5 metres long. Don’t get into an argument about the length of wire with an engineer. Suffice to say, I won that one.

About 5 years ago, Polly found a lump in her breast. It was nothing, a cyst, to be checked by the doctor.

It was a lump, a tumour. But it was okay. It could be removed with relative ease. Some radiography to ensure any remaining cells were obliterated.

Three years ago, over Chrismtas, Polly noticed her eyesight becoming blurred. She arranged a trip to the opticians. But nothing was identified so a further trip to the hospital was arranged. After various tests, a potential diagnosis was cancer.

She had a scan to find out the extent of the cancer. It had spread to many organs.

It was at this point, Dr Tim Crook entered our lives. At the depths of our despair, he brought extraordinary hope. Those of you who lived through this period with us, know how much we clung to his optimism and how he consistently delivered positive outcomes for us.

I’ve no doubt Dr Crook kept Polly alive for many years longer than she would otherwise have managed, through his careful and thoughtful planning of her treatments. For that I and my girls, and indeed all of us, will never be able to thank him enough.

Polly was, at least for the last 20 years, probably the most healthy person I knew. Constantly caring about her diet, carefully choosing organic produce, taking care of her body, excercising regularly, rarely over-indulging.

It wasn’t genetic. It wasn’t lifestyle.

Yet it was cancer that came to her. A chance mutation of one of the many billions of cells in her body. Chance, Probability and statistics.

It could have happened to any of us. How unfair, that it should happen to her.

My life and Martha’s and Rosie’s will never be the same again. Her mum who has been with us throughout this terrible journey over recent years also suffers.

We will all miss her.

But all our lives are all richer for the time we spent with her.