Alison Tilley
Alison Tilley

Noel Robb: One of the good ones

I met Noel Robb at a momentous time, for the country and myself. I had just decided to give up practice as a lawyer, and become what was known as the

  • National Legislation Monitor
  • at the Black Sash. I was not entirely sure what the job entailed, but reposed great confidence in a small group of women called Legiwatch, who assured me that it was simple — I was to go down and see that Parliament abided by the interim Constitution, promote human rights, and ensure that the Black Sash views were represented. Noel was impressive, and some one of whom if I was not exactly frightened, I was certainly very respectful.

    I grew to know her as a redoubtable woman, who had spent much of her life in public service. She did not work for pay — she told me once that it would not have been approved of by her husband — but worked hard and professionally, as a volunteer for the Black Sash. She was always on time for meetings, always prepared, always up for thinking about new things, — but very seldom prepared to talk of the past. She had little time for nostalgia or sentiment, and it was a real effort to get her to tell stories of the funny, tragic, extraordinary things she had seen. She spoke of some of these in her memoir, but left out a lot of the personal stories.

    She spoke once of calling the police when a fight had broken out in what she called the servant’s quarters, and how utterly appalled she was at the brutal treatment meted out by the police in her own back yard. She never spoke regretfully of anything else in my hearing — but she regretted that phone call. It was one of the simple, human wake up calls that moved so many women to join the Sash. She carried that sense of right and wrong into her work in the new democracy, convinced of the rightness of constitutional government, but intolerant of rhetoric and hypocrisy.

    As she got older she coped with frailty, and pain, by just ignoring it. She would not speak of her aches and pains, and wore a bright slash of lipstick and a dash of powder, irrespective of how she felt. That gave me great courage — was wrestling with a lot of back pain, and I absorbed her example, and tried to emulate it. I learned from her that past achievements are just that — past. I tried to learn, and keep trying to learn, that facing the day and its challenges is where your life must be lived. She was a great lady. I imagine her walking on to her next life, with great interest and enthusiasm, saying to those with her, “Come on — let’s get on with it!”. I will attend her memorial service tomorrow with really good memories.