Lorly McClure, MSc, BA, RGN, RM, DN, RHV, CPT, PGCEA (don’t worry, she’d never make you use her full title) is a retired lecturer and nurse and has published numerous papers in her field. The 74-year-old has tricked herself into taking a daily swim and enjoys rescuing half-finished art project from charity shops. Interview by Joanne Lau.
My mother intended me to be Laura Lee because she was very fond of the Bobbsey Twins books by Laura Lee Hope. But it was spelt wrong on my birth certificate and my husband re-christened me “Lorly”.
Where were you born?
Chicago, Illinois. My stepfather was South African, so we moved to Durban when I was seven. We were on one of the first boats allowed to go, a Union-Castle Line boat commissioned for the war. I remember it had guns on it and everything.
Where do you currently live?
Watlington, Oxfordshire. I was raised in Durban, but moved to Pietermaritzburg to do my nurse training. It was there I met my husband, Jim. He was a patient. I’d been determined I would never go out with a patient or a doctor. Funnily enough, it was his penmanship that won me over; he had the most beautiful handwriting.
Student nurses weren’t allowed to be married in those days, so we were engaged for nearly two years. A few years after we married, we moved to Edinburgh. We’d shipped our winter clothes separately and they’d all been stolen on the journey over. We had £60, no job and a 15-month old baby. We must’ve been insane, but that’s what you do when you’re young!
We moved to Oxford for Jim’s work – he was a journalist and writer. He wrote a television play that never aired as there was a strike on, but using the advance, we were able to put a deposit on a house. It was something like £4,000 – sort of a joke now! It was a big relief, as we had three children and renting was difficult.
What is/was your profession?
When we came to the UK, the cost to register as a nurse was so high I decided not to do it right away. Years later, Jim had written a book that was very well received and won an award, when he suddenly fell ill. It made me think, “what if something happens to him?” So, I went back to nursing. I was in my 30s and felt it wasn’t for me anymore. I couldn’t cope with smart-alec doctors! [laughs] I started an Open University degree and to earn money, I worked as a district nurse, which I really enjoyed. Working and studying wasn’t like it is now where workplaces are very supportive of further education and help you pay. I had to book annual leave to write my exams.
Someone suggested I go for an education course so I could teach nursing. I went to Surrey University, where I got my postgraduate degree in adult education. I already had my job with the NHS and I was very happy there but I thought, I’ve done the degree I might as well go do something with it. So, I took a big risk and became a lecturer in community health at Reading University. I’d done all my degrees, plus all my extra nursing qualifications, so I had to laugh when I took up my appointment and they said, “You’re going to have to do a Masters degree!” I did one in Medical Anthropology, which was absolutely wonderful.
“I don’t take credit for the good things I’ve done because I’ve been very lucky. I had a good marriage, a very good husband and I’ve been reasonably healthy.”
I had taken this big risk leaving my secure job, got my Masters, was publishing quite a bit and took teaching very seriously, but they wouldn’t give me tenure. I went for about seven years on one six-term contract after another. It wasn’t until we had a female professor who said, “This is ridiculous!” that anything changed. Eventually they said, ‘Yes… but you’re going to have do a probationary period.’ Well, she fought my corner there. We got my tenure. Now I’m happily retired.
What are you most proud of?
I don’t take credit for the good things I’ve done because I’ve been very lucky. I had a good marriage, a very good husband and I’ve been reasonably healthy, so I suppose what I’m most proud of is just hanging in there.
What’s your secret talent?
I’ve taken on a little project since I’ve retired. We moved into what I suppose is quite an affluent area and it has lots of great charity shops. What often happens when people die is they leave half-finished tapestries or embroideries or whatever, and these end up in the ragbag at some charity shop, which is terrible! I rescue and finish them. So, I don’t know if it’s a talent, but I very much enjoy knitting, sewing, anything like that!
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
I’m American by birth. It’s quite fun, because when you get some Brits running down Americans, I just go along with it and then drop the bombshell and they’re all embarrassed.
What is your favourite indulgence?
I quite like shopping online, but I don’t actually buy things. I just like looking. Food – all the bad things! I’m not really a drink person though. Alcohol does absolutely nothing for me.
What is your favourite hobby or pastime?
I really like swimming. I used to swim all the time as a child and started again when I had a joint replacement. At first it was a real struggle to motivate myself to get out of bed – especially in the winter! I had to trick myself into doing it by telling myself: 1) I’m not permitted to shower at home, so I have to go swimming if I want to be clean and 2) I’ve been getting out of bed to go to work for these last 30 years. I brainwashed myself into doing it. Now I love it. There’s around five of us who go almost every day, and we’ve all gotten to know each other. It’s almost like a club.
What is your daily beauty regime?
I don’t do glamour, I’m afraid! When I go swimming, I do some dry brushing with exfoliating gloves. It’s great for circulation, which helps my joints.
I periodically do things to make myself look decent, but I’m not fussed very much. I haven’t been to a hairdresser in 15 years. Every six weeks or so, I put my hair in a high ponytail and cut off the ends. For my face, I just put on any old cream. I think all creams are the same.
I occasionally wear makeup, but recently, I’ve been more and more careless about going out without any on. I think, what the hell!
Would you want to be a young woman in the 21st century?
Since I’ve left work, I feel I am a young woman. I wouldn’t like to actually be 25 or 30 though because young women are caught in a bit of a fix. They want to have careers and they want to have children and therein lies many problems.
When I was a young mother, feminism was rearing its head. There were lots of well-known people, Oxford graduates, who met to discuss feminist issues. One day, one of the women at the newspaper said to Jim: “None of us in our group are married and none of us have children. Would your wife mind coming to one of our meetings? We’d like to hear from her.”
I was in a strange country and felt terrified going to meet up with these very clever ladies. They asked: “Do you encourage your boys to play with dolls?” I said “I encourage them to play with whatever they want to. My second son is very fond of his Action Man figure though.”
They wanted to know if I had noticed any difference in behaviour between the boys and girls. I said, “when the children want to do some drawing and the breakfast things are on the table, the boys tend to plunk their paper down amid the mess while my daughter will clear a space.”
Well! They looked at me very sternly and said, “We’d better wait ‘til our child psychologist comes to talk to you about that.” They thought I was brainwashing my daughter to be tidy! I still laugh about it. In the end, I came away feeling better about myself and thinking, “these young women haven’t lived yet.”
I mean, feminism isn’t just about feminism. Equality has so many other factors – socio-economic status, ethnicity and so on. Gender can be entangled in it. When I taught about these topics as a lecturer I always highlighted the fact you have to look beyond just one factor to fully understand a person or form any judgements.
As far as being a young woman in the 21st century, I don’t think I’d like to. I appreciate the problems they have and I don’t know if I’d like to figure out how to get around them all again. Been there, done that!
What advice would you give your 30-year-old self?
Things that seem problematic, often turn out for the best. I think there’s a lot of anxiety around the age of 30, especially for women, about career and children. You can have both, but it’s not going to be easy. At the same time, when you get to my age and you haven’t got children, that’s a whole other story. Essentially, don’t worry so much about things. It might never happen!
Joanne Lau is that tired-looking Chinese-Canadian girl on the tube scribbling in her notebook and staring into space a lot.