Pauline Knowles: Lighting up the Stage

Posted by in March's Magazine

Sally Fraser on her brilliant friend. A force of nature and quite possibly an angel

My friend has a son who is obsessed with unicorns. She pretty much rolls with it; lets him have unicorn costumes and everything. My friend is an atheist, and she was surprised recently when her boy had said “hands up who believes in God” and raised his own hand.


“You believe in God?” She asked, not judgementally, but bemused.

“I believe in all the made-up things,” he said.

Pauline Knowles as Clytemnestra in This Restless House at the Citizens Theatre 

I am not sure if I am quite as rigorous as he is, because I’ve realised lately that I’m not sure if I really believe in angels it may be they are a made-up thing too far for me. Apparently that’s okay angels are a sort of optional extra, dogma-wise, the spiritual equivalent of a Sat Nav or under floor heating – a bonus though not compulsory.

But then, well, my friend Pauline died. And I suppose if I think about what I would want an angel to be like if they did exist then maybe it is Pauline.

She certainly had the voice of an angel. Some of you might have been lucky enough to see Pauline Knowles at the Traverse or the Lyceum or anywhere else where she was lighting up the stage in a way that made you realise what the phrase ‘lighting up the stage’ actually meant. Then you might have heard her singing too and heard what was not the voice of a nativity, tinsel wearing angel but a mature, womanly, glory-to-god-from-the-depths-of-your-soul kind of angel. 

Although when I read the obituaries which detail Pauline’s incredible theatrical career I find myself thinking that is not my Pauline. Not the woman who walked into the revolving doors at John Lewis when applying for a holiday job and left her beautiful face printed across the glass, wryly stating that they had asked for a CV not a DNA sample. Nor the woman who stood somewhat sadly in the corridor of my flat on Easter Sunday when everyone else was hunting eggs I had hidden. Who, when I asked her what was wrong and why she wasn’t joining in, opened her hands to reveal half a dozen foil wrapped treasures and shrugged “I have seven brothers and five sisters. I am very fast at finding eggs.”

” I am not sure I’m quite as rigorous because I’ve realised lately that I’m not sure I believe in angels, it may be they are a made-up thing too far for me

We used to sing together at the cathedral at the top of Leith Walk, me always punching well above my weight singing alongside professionals and I remember singing Mendelssohn’s Lift Thine Eyes (and this is another one of those articles where it wouldn’t hurt to google the song to play alongside reading it), a complicated trio where, due to someone else not turning up, we were each bumped to a different, higher part and it was very tricky. After we had finished creating this heavenly sound, Pauline, who was strictly an ‘emphasis only’ swearer muttered “for fucks sake” under her breath. Possibly the original angel with a slightly dirty face.

ut my enduring memories are of extraordinary kindness. Eating disgusting gluten-free, dairy free Yorkshire puddings I had made her because of her food allergies. An act of love to make them but a much bigger act of love to eat them, and go back for seconds, stating simply “they are crispy and they go with my gravy and I am touched that you cooked them.” 

Or her walking into my bedroom, when I was learning to breast feed my first baby and for some reason could only do it lying down and completely topless and lying down. Tired and hungry and in pain, with one friend trying to feed me lasagne, and her just coming and sitting right next to me and putting salt on it for me, as if to say ‘okay, naked lasagne eating. That’s where we are at today’ and us all just carrying on chatting as close to normally as we could.

I am deeply grateful for the time, when I had not been going to church long and was embroiled in one big emotional crisis after another, and she said in a firm, low voice “do you understand that we love you here unconditionally?” As I reach the age she must have been then, it would be my deepest hope that I could be that voice to someone else. 

I bumped into My Mate Mike on the way to her funeral. Guess we are going to the same place he said, as we got on the 35 bus together. He said he was reading a good book, and I gasped as he took it out of his bag to show me. A book I hadn’t seen or thought about for fifteen years or so, since Pauline lent it to me. As I stared at the cover I could almost hear a low firm voice saying “are you ready to believe now?”

There has been a few times since, where it is slightly easier to imagine that heavenly voice encouraging me that “I can do this here”, reminding me I am loved unconditionally there. So maybe Pauline I am a little closer to believing – to being ready to believe in all the made-up things after all.

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