Jacqueline Munro-Lafon: An appreciation

JACQUELINE Munro-Lafon was the doyenne of the French community in Scotland, an iconic and much-loved figure. On February 13 she died peacefully in Glasgow, in the presence of her son and daughter-in-law, a fortnight after her hundredth birthday.

Jacqueline Lafon was born in 1921, in Paris like four generations of her family before. Her father was a wine merchant, and the family lived in the Latin Quarter, that alluring fusion of bourgeois elegance, intellectual enquiry, and student buzz. After leaving school, she undertook a journalism degree, her life seemingly mapped out. The Second World War was to change everything.

The Franco-British military defeat, after the German invasion of France in 1940, cowed French parliamentarians into voting to liquidate the Republic, leaving de Gaulle in London to continue fighting for the honour of France, and its freedoms. Jacqueline, the would-be journalist, could now only mentally record the material misery and arbitrary terror of the ensuing Occupation.

During those four endless years, one of her worst memories was the breakdown in trust: dangerous talk really did cost lives. Matters came to a head in August 1944, when General Leclerc’s Free French army division arrived near Paris, provoking a week of urban warfare. The family home, inconveniently situated near German army headquarters in the Palais du Luxembourg, was at the centre of the storm, its windows shattered by shrapnel.

Immediately after the Liberation of Paris, Jacqueline volunteered for the French army, and was assigned to British forces as liaison officer. During the months that followed, in devastated German towns and liberated concentration camps, the young sub-lieutenant witnessed many scenes which she was always reluctant to rehearse.

The war also changed her life more happily, for in the army she met Major Hamish Munro. They married in Paris and, with demobilisation, went to live in England: three children followed. It was only in 1960 that they settled in Glasgow, where Hamish worked as a business consultant.

It was there that they settled, for Jacqueline immediately fell in love with Scotland, and with Glasgow in particular, where she was immediately made to feel at home. She had a fund of stories in illustration.

She would recall, for example, taking the bus somewhat nervously a few weeks after her arrival in the city, and asking the conductor where to get off. A fellow passenger, alighting at the same time, kindly offered to escort her to her destination. That reached, some distance away, Jacqueline asked her guide if her own house was nearby, to which the lady replied that she was going back to the bus stop, since she lived several miles away.

In England, Jacqueline had always sensed that many, however polite, showed some coldness, as if unwilling to forgive the French for 1940. But now, suddenly, a stranger’s selfless, unassuming gesture brought tears to her eyes. Well before the slogan gained currency, Jacqueline learnt that people make Glasgow.

Jacqueline was a loving daughter, sister, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Her family was at the very centre of her life. That said, her warmth, vivacity, and interest in others gained her a wide circle of friends well beyond.

Her ability to listen, and her constant willingness to give support, made this friendship lasting. In the public part of her constant activity, she immersed herself in the life of her compatriots in Scotland. She was the librarian of the French Institute in Glasgow, and a loyal supporter of the French Cultural Delegation, Alliance Française, and Franco-Scottish society.

She unhesitatingly volunteered to assist, whether in running a polling station for French elections, organizing Christmas gifts for children, or giving freely of her time when help was needed. This sustained contribution to the invisible but real Auld Alliance between Scotland and France received its recognition from the French government, when Jacqueline became Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.

Before his newly-wed daughter left for Britain in 1945, her father, himself a Croix de Guerre from the Great War, reminded her solemnly that she was to be an ambassador for France. That mission she accomplished on a daily basis, with energy and charm.

It was fitting that, on this modest ambassador’s hundredth birthday, in a room filled with letters and cards, the congratulatory message from the Queen sat beside a bouquet of flowers sent by an attentive Consul General in Edinburgh, on behalf of a sad but grateful French community.

Jacqueline remained vibrant to the end. If proof were needed, one would only need to consult the exuberant presentation she gave at Strathclyde University, for over an hour, when almost 99 years of age (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93FOtLNVrLQ&t=490s).

This joie de vivre is not the whole story. Jacqueline experienced not just painful episodes, such as a life-threatening cancer requiring major surgery, not long after losing her beloved husband.

There also came sudden and shattering personal grief, with the loss of her daughter Fiona, her daughter-in-law Geraldine, and her granddaughter’s husband Alex, all at a young age. As with her traumatic wartime experiences, she never allowed this suffering to take over, sustained by a Christian faith precious to her.

To the world she remained the always-elegant and engaging Jacqueline, bright and cheerful, invariably ready to help and to share, to discuss and to laugh. Even at dark moments, Jacqueline continued to radiate light and warmth around her. It is not just France and Scotland, but our common humanity that has lost a much-loved ambassador.

John Campbell