The following interview took place before the tragic death of Anthony Minghella. All at Island Life offer their sincere condolences to the Minghella family.
It is telling that Gloria Minghella likens her charity work to making a hamper of sandwiches. We meet just after a fundraising trip to London for the Motor Neurone Society, and she is touchingly delighted by a thank-you letter from one of the trippers. “…words are not enough to thank you, and for that magic hamper with the wine, sandwiches and chocolates”, it says.
Gloria had taken a group to see Anthony’s production of Madam Butterfly at the Coliseum. The coach party had missed the ferry and there was a long wait. Gloria, naturally, had felt responsible, but that morning she and her husband Edward had made a pile of sandwiches, “just in case”. For the trippers, it was the final touch of brilliance that made their day.
“That’s really my philosophy of life, if you put in what you can, no matter how little that is, you don’t know how far the ripples will go.”
Ripples might be how Gloria sees her life’s work, but as she has shown, ripples make waves. Using her son’s films to make money for her causes has proved a winner, though she is finding the organisation of such events increasingly tiring. “I said ‘never again’,” she smiles, “though Anthony always tells me never to say never. And when you get lovely thank-you letters like this you start planning the next event.”
Gloria’s tireless work for charity was recognised last year when she was made an MBE. “I almost turned it down,” she reveals. “Getting recognition isn’t why you do it. But I accepted it for all those people who respond when I ask for help.”
Keeping the honour secret until the news embargo broke was understandably difficult. “I sent emails to the children the day before the announcement so they all knew at the same time, wherever they were – Anthony was in Africa, filming The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. After a few minutes the phone rang and I was told the Botswana Evening News was on the line.” She simulates the look of horror at the realisation that the embargo had been breached. “It was going to be so embarrassing! And so I took the call. And Anthony said ‘I got you, didn’t I mum?!’”
Gloria’s MBE was for giving so consistently throughout her life. From the time when they were newlyweds with their café in Ryde and customers confided in them and sought their advice, Edward and Gloria Minghella were known for their listening ears – and their practical help. Edward became councillor with Medina Borough Council, and it was when she was in her thirties and saw her third child off to University that Gloria felt the need to do something beyond the home, so she volunteered as a prison visitor. It was a daring step for a woman, and one which initially baffled the governor of Parkhurst Prison. He asked what she wanted to achieve. “Nothing really,” Gloria had replied. “I’d learnt through my mother that you don’t have to worry about what comes back, you just put it in.”
“The men I was visiting didn’t want me at first,” she reflects, “and I had no knowledge of what happened to any of those I made friends with – but I think that somewhere along the line, what you say will make a difference to people,” she says. After 10 years, and now a councillor herself, she was asked to be a magistrate. “I’d always wanted to be a lawyer, and thought maybe with what I’ve learnt by listening on the inside I can contribute something extra.”
She is not without a tinge of regret about giving up her prison visits. There is a sense she had strayed into an area which was not quite her. “Anyone can give punishment,” she says.
So when she saw an appeal in the County Press for people to help set up a bureau to give help to people in distress, she thought: “This is me.” The first attempt at a local Citizen’s Advice Bureau folded after a short time, but a handful of the founders felt they couldn’t let it go. “Gloria, your husband’s a councillor, get us some money!” they said. She paints a wonderful picture of her first visit to the council chamber, where she, diminutive and shy is peered down upon by the council luminaries as she tries to explain her colleagues’ vision. But she came away with the princely sum of £40. “I was walking on air!” she says.
The CAB now deals with many thousands of inquiries a year. Gloria rose to become president, and is still involved, praising the work of today’s staff and unpaid volunteers. “It’s one of the things I feel really happy about. I did contribute something to the Island. They gave to me and I tried to give back.”
In the midst of all that, her children went on to be very successful in education. “All went on to do great things, but wherever they go they are still friends.” Gioia, after a successful career in teaching, has taken the family ice cream firm to new heights, exploring new markets at home and abroad; Edana, a consultant to the Department of Health, is also a writer and jazz singer; Loretta, a lawyer, is CEO of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme and Dominic is a highly successful writer and producer for television. “And Anthony, for all that he walks with the greatest in the world, brings something with him which I think comes from here,” says Gloria. “I honestly believe their attitudes, their talents, were all enhanced by living on this island.”
She is almost loath to accept that their success must also stem from herself and Edward: “You know we had a very limited education, therefore we didn’t have a lot to offer them, not really. They taught us in fact. Travelling as we do with all of them, we learn from them all the time – some of their work they can’t share with us but what they can they do. We’ve been more than blessed.”
She insists that she and Edward didn’t push their children – “though I think some people thought we must have stood over them with a big stick!” – but gave them the opportunities they’d have liked to have had themselves. And Edward gave her the opportunities for self-fulfilment. She eventually took over from him on the council and rose to become mayor. “I couldn’t have done it without Edward,” she says. “He is a wonderful man who, after 57 years of marriage, remains as fascinating to me as at the first moment. When it was suggested I went on the council he said ‘I want you to do it and I will help you to do it.’ And he did. Those are too many blessings for one person, really.”
For someone who sees herself so blessed, Gloria has seen, and personally experienced a great deal of pain. Her adored sister died in her arms. “If anyone had told me I would nurse my sister and see her die, I’d have said I couldn’t do it, it would be too much. But you find you have inner strength.”
Inner strength enough to come back from terrible despair – “I thought it would kill me” – and even to establish in her mind a rationale behind her sister’s death. “Because she was such a beautiful soul and had such strength of character through it all, she was an inspiration to all around her.” But it was the sense of being isolated and helpless that led her to establish the Isle of Wight Motor Neurone Disease Association, to give carers and sufferers information and support. They have just given a grant towards a stair lift, and employed a shopper for a sufferer who can no longer go shopping herself.
“We have been so fortunate, so whatever time we’ve got left in this life – and everybody’s life has got its span – while we’ve got the energy I suppose we’ll go on doing what we can, where we can, and looking out for people that might need a lift up. Because one day we’ll need it, won’t we?”
But you know that Gloria’s impulse to work to make other people’s lives better is nothing to do with quid pro quo.