Many of us never even heard of her name until the disturbing circumstances of her death appeared in the news. Olive Cooke was a good woman, with a firm sense of duty to others. And now we have a duty to remember her, properly


Ritualistic as we are, we humans thoroughly enjoy the curious eccentricity of investing tiny pieces of base metal with the honours and finest achievements of our lives entire: trophies, pendants, plaques, rings and lockets. Got medals? Maybe if you don’t have one of your own earning you might have one passed down from an ancestor who triumphed in a deer shooting at the 1908 Olympics, or from one who attended the EXPO Paris 1900, or from one who served their country at Inchon, or El Alamein, or Gallipoli.

The presence of one young Sergeant Cooke at that latter battle inspired his daughter, Olive, to begin selling poppies for the Royal British Legion in 1936, at the age of just 14. She stood in the doorway of Bristol cathedral in the run-up to Remembrance Day. As faithfully as Cooke and his fellows provided their country priceless service and defence did his young, noble daughter serve the RBL that year. She did the same the year after and the year after that; not for one of the 76 years that intervene between her first sale and this time of writing did she neglect her compulsion towards charity. Olive sold poppies every year in the honour of her father, her husband whom she lost in World War II, and of every casualty of war.

She was not selling poppies this year though, nor will she in 2016. In the spring of 2015, Olive’s body was found in Avon Gorge; police ruled out foul play and a coroner ruled her death a probable suicide.

Regardless of the absolute tragedy of her manner of passing, when someone great goes the correct questions must be asked as to how we intend to go about remembering them. Were Olive a movie star or a great woman of letters there would be no time for any dispute; an engraved monument of some kind would have probably been pre-prepared, some kind of plate to remind all passers-by forever after just who stood and sold and served there. And yet this woman who received recognition in person from the Prime Minister and by the Council of Bristol, who alongside fellow poppy-seller Dionis MacNair (78 years of charitable sale and counting!) was a pillar of her community, risks being treated by posterity in a way that does not befit her achievements.

The manner of Olive’s passing is really too sad to properly accept even as a perfect stranger, and it is predictably this that has caused the greatest flares of emotional reaction since the reportage of her death (and life). Unfortunately, this plays into the vices of a media which neglects to preserve accomplishments in the memory of their readership.

Welling-up or raging with righteous indignation against ‘culprits’ of untellable guilt are both fine reactions but, without reassertion or some attempt at the immortalisation of Olive’s achievements, they will only stay in the public’s short-term memory and then rapidly fade from it. We should however, give time to considering the profundity of Olive’s choice to commit herself to giving, to love and to charity, and so too should we spare a thought for just how one might go about preventing someone getting into the same tragic position she found herself in.

In accordance with this emotive scenario, a great deal of reproach has been directed towards the charities to whom Olive was a generous benefactor even outside of her work with the legion. There have been damning indictments, not least from Dionis MacNair, who after her friend’s passing shared her own experiences, bemoaning those charities who ‘never leave you alone’ and singling out their exchange of donors’ information as being particularly ‘deplorable’.

Of course, charities, like any industry, have their own marketplace and they must compete in it rabidly; such is the tragedy of there being a profusion of vital causes within our world. Even so, regardless of the size of their arena, charities are beginning to perceptibly behave in certain ways that mirror the most unscrupulous of capitalist enterprises: aggressive, unyielding, unethically acquisitive and even willing to exploit the ‘customer’. Indeed, the only reason Olive could’ve been targeted by so many charitable organisations was because there were already so many of them who knew of her soft touch and propensity towards giving. The only reason so many of them besieged her with up to 300 requests a month was because they were willing to illicitly share her details amongst themselves.

One cannot possibly point to this and say ‘here is the cause of death’. The quiet dignity with which Olive conducted herself does something to obscure the relative degrees of influence held by the various factors that compelled her to choose to end her own life. Just as well as we know from the testimony of MacNair and Michael Earley that Olive felt ‘under pressure’ from charitable requests, do we also know that she was a lady of ill health and prone to depression, which may have been exacerbated not just by the requests but by a cheque she sent worth £250 to a relative which never arrived.

The end of Olive’s story is not played out on a perfectly well-lit stage, and raises all too familiar questions about depression and how we care for our elderly. But more important than the end of Olive’s tale is the tale itself, and how it must be told in the years to come.

The raising, by the richness of history and the growth of the media, of the need for personal acts to be on a huge scale before they are deemed noteworthy has caused many of the world’s greatest importances to be classified under that maddeningly poky banner of ‘the small things’. You’ll hear it day in and day out, often accompanied by a sigh that suggests the realisation has come late or too late, that ‘it’s the small things that really matter’. Well, sigh again, because once again the punctuality of that realisation has been found wanting. If we value both human goodness and celebrity, then Olive Cooke was not appropriately celebrated in life, but that’s because the simple act of the devotion of one’s time to a worthy cause (which Olive did both in the weeks of Remembrance and throughout the rest of every year since 1936) is too often dubbed as merely a ‘small thing’. Those who commit the ‘big things’, even when the big thing is just a career’s worth of entertaining movies, are lavished with privilege and protection. Those who commit the so-called small things, even when they have paid towards improving the quality of life of those who most need assistance, are asked instead to simply give in to death.

We must banish such notions from our heads. These are not small things. Olive’s contribution, her life, was a great act that just so happened to be committed by a modest and wonderful individual. Her dedication was so much more than the exorbitant donations made in the name of charity by the very wealthy few. She was an individual who maintained her corner of the garden in every way she could for the rest, and by emulating her example we’ll find that our universal lot will not be redeemed by a superhero, but rather by each individual doing their part. Moreover, if we recognise her example in the way we recognise the example of those who may have also been remarkable but in more common or garden ways, we will help ensure that people like her will never find themselves exploited or lacking in care again.

It is not just in pendants or medals or plaques that human endeavour receives remembrance. Aside from these tokens of giving and generosity, which has existed in every period of life on this Earth, individuals can also be remembered in legislature. Conservative MP Rob Wilson is spearheading a campaign to have Olive Cooke’s Law ratified, which includes measures aiming to reasonably prohibit the excessive submission of charitable requests. More constructive than this would be the bill of the same name proposed by Denise Anstey, which would prohibit the exchange of classified information pertaining to donors between charities, reducing the likelihood of certain very giving individuals being targeted with troubling extremes of regularity. As Ian McQuillin so thoughtfully warned, one must not yoke Olive Cooke’s name into some ill-fated crusade against cold-calling, or worse against charities altogether. But the duty she certainly felt towards every worthy cause, which was somewhat used against her, could not have helped a lady in her position, or indeed her condition, and it could do with being regulated.

Another question posed by this situation, concerns the distortions we allow our media when it comes to arranging their priorities. Olive Cooke’s was a quiet death, with her achievements as a champion of human empathy overlooked for their modest appearance. If she had seen an alternative towards ending her own life, the press would never have reported her death. I, for instance, would never have known of her achievements. That this margin is so fine, and so dreadful in its implications towards recognising exceptional people, is what led me to start a petition for Mrs Cooke.

Aside from hoping for an honorary regulation to better protect people like Olive Cooke and Dionis MacNair, I believe Olive should have a plaque too. Given that the express aim of any city’s posterity program is to celebrate the richness and diversity of achievement among its past residents, it seems incomprehensible that these programs unfailingly appear to undercut the richness and diversity of achievements the locals themselves contribute. Olive is the shining example. She did something wonderful for others not once but incessantly, setting a golden standard and standing as a credit to her city if ever there was one. Her example should transmit a message, growing ever more important in our world obsessed with celebrity, namely: that it’s love, care, work and dedication, not starry-eyed attention vulgarly won, that makes a person great and worthy of a special place in the social memory.

I bump into Dickens, Darwin, Cetshwayo, William and Joseph Hooker wandering round London whenever I see their plaques on a wall. When next I do the same in Bristol, I should think myself as lucky as can be if I could bump into Olive Cooke in the same way.

[If you’d like to support the campaign to get Olive Cooke her blue plaque, please follow the link here and sign the petition]

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