Ex-M16 man whose mum vanished when he was four questions why

Baby John and his mother

Baby John and his mother - Credit: Archant

Ex-Colchester Royal Grammar School boy and ex-MI6 man John de St Jorre’s has written a book Darling Baby Mine: A Son’s Extraordinary Search for his Mother. Here he tells more.

Grace and John’s father in 1934

Grace and Johns father in 1934 - Credit: Archant

Is there a more surreal way of learning the name of your mother, who vanished when you were four? A woman airbrushed from history.

John de St Jorre was sitting at the kitchen table… filling in vetting forms so he could join MI6 as a “spook” running a string of spies. “They want to see my birth certificate,” he told his stepmother. Edith dug it out. Under “Name of mother” was Grace Rose de St Jorre. “I sat back and stared out of the window. It had taken me twenty-four years to learn my mother’s name.”

He couldn’t answer the questions about his father’s first marriage. The only man who could was his dad, George, watching TV in the living room.

“My father slowly got up out of his chair. He looked as if he were going to the scaffold… ‘What do they need to know?’”

Grace’s date of birth. April 18, 1907. (“Eighteen years younger than him, effectively from a different generation.”) Date of marriage? March 31, 1934.

“He looked so miserable, so trapped. We ploughed on... ‘Did she die?’ I prompted. ‘No,’ he said flatly. ‘We were divorced.’”

John and brother Maurice

John and brother Maurice - Credit: Archant

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John realised how painful these questions were for his dad. But he had to ask one more.

“Is Grace still alive?”

“I don’t know.”

The form-filling was done.

“As he left the room, I pushed the papers away and sat back,” John says. “Grace could easily be alive – she would only be fifty-two years old – but nobody seemed to know. Or care.”

John de St Jorre with his aunt Olive and his mother in 1975

John de St Jorre with his aunt Olive and his mother in 1975 - Credit: Archant

This tale is told in John’s book Darling Baby Mine: A Son’s Extraordinary Search for his Mother. To cut a long story short: Dad remarries. John and brother Maurice board at Colchester Royal Grammar School, and thrive. John joins Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service. “The job was to recruit spies and run them from under diplomatic cover in British embassies around the world.”

Later, he pursues the mystery of his mum. Stories emerge of mental hospitals. A sad picture forms of a vivacious woman who had her troubles; who probably wasn’t cut out to be a young mum; who had a tyrannical mother to deal with; who wasn’t actually a good match with the man she married.

There was a heart-rending letter Grace wrote in 1940, after moving out of her mother’s house.

The lads had gone to live with their dad in a flat. Grace admitted: “Sometimes, I’ve just ached for the kids. But, to be perfectly honest, I do love my job and this sort of life better than being at home all day, especially as George and I are not in love with each other.”

It rocked John. His mum “took solace in her belief she would see us regularly wherever we were. She could not have been more wrong. My father had another plan. For him the break was final. There would be no visits, no correspondence, no photographs, and no contact... He intended to wipe the slate clean.”

And then John learns Grace’s sister Olive is in Kent – and that his mum is still alive. In a mental hospital near St Albans.

A studio portrait of John de St Jorre’s mother, inscribed ‘With best wishes for Christmas 1933, Grac

A studio portrait of John de St Jorre’s mother, inscribed ‘With best wishes for Christmas 1933, Grace’ - Credit: Archant

Olive confirms Grace had a breakdown after Maurice was born. There were rows; the boys had sometimes been neglected. Grace had been in mental hospitals; treated with electric shocks and a brain operation. Hospitals had become home, but she seemed happy and sometimes spent a weekend with her sister.

A call. They can visit. Thirty-five years after he last saw his mother.

“Olive appears at the entrance with a plump grey-haired old woman, a vacant look on her face…” Grace looks at him. Who are you? I don’t know you. What is your name?

“I look down at this little old woman with the clear, direct gaze and say ‘John de St Jorre,’” he writes. “My mother stares at me, her first-born, blankly. I smile. What else can I do? No point in saying anything. There is nothing to say. She has no more reason to recognise me than I do her.”

They go to the cafeteria, and talk. Grace looks tired, but is lucid. She can’t remember John’s birthday but knows his brother’s is in June, and knows they weighed 10lb and 8lb when born. “We are delighted. She seems to be connecting with me, and with the past.”

John de St Jorre with father George in 1939

John de St Jorre with father George in 1939 - Credit: Archant

When they leave, Grace says, formally, “I’ll see you to the door.”

“When we reach the lobby, I instinctively kiss her on the lips and she responds. Something deep down inside me makes me do this, although I am still not sure she knows who I am,” John says.

He arrives back at home. “I slumped into a chair, feeling as if a vacuum pump had been attached to my emotions and left running.”

Later, he speaks by phone to a doctor. “Grace is a lovely person,” he’s told. “She was delighted with the reunion and hasn’t stopped talking about it… but I don’t think she could live outside.”

John learns of his mother’s history, during years when treatment of the mentally ill could be appallingly unenlightened. Grace suffered post-natal depression after the birth of Maurice and was in and out of hospital. In the 1940s she’d had ECT – electronic convulsive treatment. In 1953, a bilateral leucotomy – a brain operation that, John was told, makes a patient more docile. Records had her down as a chronic schizophrenic. She’d spent nearly four decades in mental hospitals, often crowded ones, was on powerful daily drugs, and would likely see out her days in hospital.

More visits: including trips out for tea. John feels a transformation is taking place, with mum perking up. She is allowed to spend a few days at Olive’s. They all sit around the table like a normal family, and for the first time Grace talks about George. “We married in love.”

John's dad, George, with second wife Edith

John's dad, George, with second wife Edith - Credit: Archant

Olive is later astounded by how much “improvement” her sister is making. Grace even spends a week with her. “We went for walks around Rochester, where she commented on various ancient buildings. Oh! I can’t begin to tell you how miraculous this normality was,” she tells John.

Work takes him to New York, where he meets a woman called Helen. They marry in 1978.

Early in 1979 the Observer sends him to Iran. He’s been there three days when a cable tells him his mother has died of a stroke. She was 71. Apart from the minister and a crematorium official, Olive and her partner are the only people at the funeral.

In 2009, John is back in England, and tries to find the final resting place of the mother he’d known, properly, for only about four years. The spot proves elusive. Not that it matters.

“I didn’t need to see my mother’s name written on some cold, weatherstained stone amid tangled undergrowth,” he writes. “I had my memories, and that was enough.”

* Darling Baby Mine is published by Quartet Books at £20.

John's book

John's book - Credit: Archant

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