Obituary: Dame Alix Meynell

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The Independent Culture
WHILE, AS obituary columns daily attest, it is no great thing these days to live to 96, it is surely exceptional to mark one's 95th birthday by publishing a new, well-researched and substantial book. What Grandmother Said, published in February last year, was the latest of a number of rare achievements that Dame Alix Meynell accomplished in the course of her long life.

That of which she was most proud was to have been, in 1925, one of the first two women to have entered the administrative grade of the Civil Service by examination. Even as a child her ambition was to have a desk; she got one - of, metaphorically, progressively increasing dimensions - at the Board of Trade. There, apart from a distinguished, but from a career point of view diversionary spell with the newly formed Monopolies Commission, she served for 30 years before taking early retirement in 1955.

Her 1988 autobiography, Public Servant, Private Woman, published when she was a mere 85 years old, charts her progress towards Damehood through the corridors of what might be thought one of the less glamorous departments of government. She, clearly, did not find it so and the presence of the young, attractive and unmistakably able Alix Kilroy introduced a novel, and generally welcomed, ingredient to the Whitehall fastness. It was ironic that in 1947 it fell to the Board of Trade's still distinctly attractive Under-Secretary to enrage the fashion industry and its thwarted clientele by resisting demands for allowances of extra material with which to execute Dior's "New Look".

The irony was perhaps deeper than appeared for the younger Miss Kilroy's private life had been less conventional than might have been assumed of a young woman pursuing a successful career in such an outwardly sub-fusc environment. A.K. (as she was known to colleagues) was the daughter of a surgeon commander in the Navy, educated at Malvern Girls' School and Somerville College, Oxford, where she read Modern Greats. But, while excelling in her work, she enjoyed an enterprising extramural life.

At this time, her personal relationships tended to a sub-Bloomsbury intricacy. Public Servant, Private Woman (an unusually frank chronicle wholly characteristic of its author) contains a cameo of her being driven to the funeral of her first love, Garrow Tomlin (killed in an aeroplane accident in 1931), in company with another of Tomlin's lovers and with Francis and Vera Meynell - she having also been in a relationship with the deceased and he shortly to become Alix's suitor, companion and, eventually, husband.

The 13 years in which the relationship with Meynell - poet, book designer and founder of the Nonesuch Press - remained unformalised and the inhibitions imposed by the conventions of the day effectively denied her the possibility of having children of her own. This lack was to some extent compensated for by devotion to her large family of nephews and nieces and to those whom Francis brought with him: it was touching, if sometimes confusing, that she always spoke of them - as she considered them - as her children and grandchildren.

The relationship with Francis, though not without its unconventional aspects, was deep and loving in the gemutlich sort of way which, as she acknowledged, meant most to her. Marriage in 1946 bestowed, as the wife of a "K" (he was knighted that year), the title of "Lady" though this honorific was, technically, to be trumped by the DBE awarded to her in her own right in 1949.

At about the end of the Second World War, the couple acquired "Cobbold's Mill" between Lavenham and Hadleigh in Suffolk, and there, for more than 20 years, they combined keeping open house to a multitude of friends with, until retirement, pursuit of their respective careers. Alix took up small- scale farming, in which the livestock benefited greatly from her deep fund of compassion which found other expression in CND and anti-Suez activism, in identification with the ideals of early post-war socialism, and a principled belief - put into practice - in the rightness of public service.

Later, she was to become a founder-member of the SDP and as late as the 1997 election she encouraged her left-inclining friends to vote Lib-Dem rather than Labour on the grounds that this could end the Tory stranglehold on Suffolk South. In the event, much to her chagrin, it did the opposite.

Most recently, she was deeply engaged in her "campaign" for improved travel facilities for the aged - a cause which seems unlikely to be realised as a memorial to her abiding concern with the public good.

The "Public Servant, Private Woman" dichotomy of her life was echoed by the use of different appellations for different contexts, but for family and friends she was "Bay". Curiously, the familiar name was adopted by her mother in emulation of her much-admired Mrs Patrick Campbell, the actress, who used it for her son. Quite how this veteran of the chaise- longue entered the pantheon of the vast, respectable, right-thinking, well-to-do and good-doing Midlands family into which Bay was born, is not clear. It is evidence perhaps of a propensity in the family's genes not always to follow convention.

What is known, as it forms the subject of What Grandmother Said, is that grandmother Alice Greg's lifelong identification with liberal beliefs and espousal of liberal causes set a syllabus which her granddaughter both followed and fulfilled. Bay's success in the civil service examination must have seemed a gratifyingly personal vindication of Alice's lifetime of campaigning for equality for women. It was a cause of which Alix Meynell was herself to become an icon and protagonist and it was with regret that she increasingly found herself out of sympathy with the more aggressive manifestations of feminism as now practised and promoted.

Alix Hester Marie Kilroy, civil servant: born Nottingham 2 February 1903; Under-Secretary, Board of Trade 1946-55; Secretary, Monopolies and Restrictive Practices Commission 1949-52; DBE 1949; called to the Bar, Lincoln's Inn 1956; managing director, Nonesuch Press 1976-86; married 1946 Sir Francis Meynell (died 1975); died Brent Eleigh, Suffolk 31 August 1999.