There was such a warmth about the Phipps family and how they welcomed every stray, whether it be animal or human, into their bosom and made them feel special. They had nothing but gave everything with a generosity of spirit seldom seen. I was not a stray as such, more a lost soul who sought to appease her conscience by doing something to help the animal kingdom, aside from being a vegetarian. To this end I joined Coventry Animal Alliance run by Nancy and helped man their stall each week handing out literature and collecting money towards animal rescue activities. Jill would often join us, with her cheeky smile and ready banter, sometimes with her lovely little boy Luke in tow. During the lulls in between customers we would discuss literature and lend each other novels. Jill was a voracious reader of both literature and newspapers and was always well-informed. She also loved cooking and I remember her giggling that she had made a veggie shepherd's pie so scrummy that she'd had to get up in the night and help herself to another portion! At our regular meetings Jill was often to be seen in the corner playing with the pet rat nestling in her dreadlocks. Her mother Nancy would regularly sigh; 'I don't know why you had to do that to your beautiful hair!' Jill would grin good-naturedly. She hadn't washed her hair for more than five years either, but the 'self-cleaning' theory seemed to work for her and those locks not in dread were always radiant and glossy. Pale blue drainpipe jeans and a green oversized army surplus jacket typically encased what hinted at a model-girl figure.I felt awkwardly square by comparison with my conventional haircut, conventional clothes, day job in a card shop, and worst of all, extreme cowardice. I was in awe at the courage of Jill and her family in engaging so fearlessly in the cause of combating animal abuse, though I did take in a stray cat which Jill rescued and pressed upon me and Moggins the Mog and I became inseparable.
However getting arrested in a failing Birmingham fur shop (where the owner had pre-empted our visit by squidging eggs in the pockets of several fur coats so he could get us charged for criminal damage) was not my idea of fun on a Saturday. Nor were the harrowing and frankly terrifying hunt sabs through the Warwickshire countryside on a Sunday following a nailbiting drive in Jill's rusty old Renault, a wheel of which looked about to rust off its axle, where I tried to restrict my activities to the liberal spraying of Citronella to confuse the hounds, but was aware of a constant need to pee in my quaking terror (and the brutality of huntsmen is not to be underestimated when they spot anyone trying to spoil their fun - a couple of hunt saboteurs have indeed died as a result of such retribution). However I forced myself to do these things and when Coventry Airport started a live export trade of baby veal calves to Amsterdam, I was there at weekends when the day job permitted. However to my shame all I could do was burst into tears when the large Scanias rumbled along to turn into the high security gate full of scared and lowing baby calves. Jill and her comrades would stand in front of them until the Police dragged them away, but somehow my legs would turn to lead and root me to the spot, waving my Ban Live Exports placard futilely.
I was on a course in Manchester for my new job working in a bank when I heard the news on my hotel room TV. Our beautiful Jill had been crushed to death by a lorry driver who claimed not to have seen her. Her weeping mother Nancy was interviewed. I was in bits and struggled to absorb any information on my second training day.From that moment on, Jill's death became a media circus with every newspaper from the Coventry Evening Telegraph onwards writing endless articles about Jill, her family and animal rights. I bought them all. Some were quick to condemn a young mother for taking part in direct protest, but actually Jill had spent years following the birth of her young son Luke, focussing on more passive means of protest for his sake, and nothing was more important to her than Luke. It was only because the Coventry live exports were happening on her own doorstep that she became more involved. Jonathan Miller wrote a particularly vile article in which he pretty well accused Jill of throwing herself in front of the lorry deliberately for her own 'vainglorious' purposes. But even if there were the slightest grain of truth in this absolute lover of life (and her family) deciding to sacrifice her life for animal rights, such was Jill's humbleness, there is no way she could have anticipated how her death would have gripped the public imagination as it did, therefore no incentive to be 'vainglorious'. In fact for months afterwards we all kept looking at each other and saying how astonished she would have been.
Later at the inquest two policemen who tried to insist that Jill had deliberately thrown herself in front of the lorry were disproved in their assertions by CCTV footage showing otherwise. Despite the assistance of Michael Mansfield QC though, a verdict of 'accidental death' was eventually returned.
There then followed the battle of Coventry Cathedral. Such was the public outpouring of shock and sympathy at Jill's death, it quickly became obvious that her local parish church in Hillfields was woefully inadequate to contain the number of mourners who wished to attend. Canon Paul Oestreicher visited the Phipps to offer Coventry Cathedral for the service, and was roundly slated for his Christianity by the local Tory MP (ironically named John Butcher) in particular, who felt that a single mother from a council estate did not merit such an honour. The good Canon, supported by other high-ranking clergy, refused to be cowed, and the service went ahead. Some of the more thoughtful media opined that actually it was Christianity which had turned its back on animal welfare and buried its head in the sand on animal issues, having been at the forefront of Victorian reforms such as the foundation of the RSPCA, and frankly, the least it could do to make some small reparation would be to pay tribute to a young woman who was in effect, doing their Christian works for them, even if she never declared herself a practicing Christian. Ironically Jill had also carried out a number of peaceful all-night vigils for animals outside that very cathedral, for some of which I and others had joined her. Personally I agree with the latter opinion and also Harry Enfield's lovely article that he was happy that nought.point whatever percent of his taxes had gone in supporting an unemployed young woman who devoted her life to raising awareness of animal abuse and then actually doing something about it on his behalf. It was those who just sat on their backsides on benefits that he had a problem with.
The cathedral funeral on Valentine's Day 1995 was intensely moving and did not turn into the 'political protest' that local politicians tried to use as an excuse to ban it, but a beautiful and completely apt farewell to a soul who shone a great deal brighter than her detractors, and to whose utter goodness I could only aspire. Film star Brigitte Bardot and MP Alan Clark attended and Ms Bardot made a moving speech in which she promised 'to make things happen for Jill'
My late friend was now officially public property, but I didn't mind. Humble as Jill was, she too would have wanted something good to come of her death, albeit unintended on her part.
Protests naturally stepped up a few gears as a result of Jills' death, and veal calf exports from Coventry Airport ended months later, when the aviation firm belonging to the pilot responsible for the veal flights, Christopher Barrett-Jolly, went bankrupt following accusations of running guns from Slovakia to Sudan in breach of EU rules. In 2002 Mr Barrett-Jolley was charged with smuggling 271 kg of cocaine from Jamaica into Southend airport and is now serving a 20 year prison sentence. The continuing level of protest was such that several local councils and a harbour board banned live exports from their localities. All live exports of calves later stopped due to fears of BSE infection. In 2006 this ban was lifted, but Coventry Airport pledged that it would refuse requests to fly veal calves and has so far honoured this. So the battle against live exports goes on, but not at Coventry airport. However for those lacking the stomach to protest, they can at least feed their stomach locally-sourced, free-range organic meat, if not become a vegetarian. No demand, no supply. Besides which it is hardly environmentally friendly, let alone humane, to fly either live animals or dead ones around the world.
*Note: A nameless individual did the sums during the Coventry live export protests and found it could not possibly be economically viable for Mr Barrett-Jolley to bear airport, plane, crew and fuel costs to fly baby calves to Amsterdam alone, so was his live export business Phoenix Aviation merely a front for earlier drug smuggling and gun running activities, in view of his later convictions? In which case the Police operation to enable him to fly at all costs in the face of protest (and a plane operated by him also crashed with the deaths of 5 crew during his live exports from Coventry Airport, so Jill was not the only victim of Phoenix Aviation), would have made the Police an accessory to his criminal activities! We may never know. And the debate about whether taxpayer-funded Police should ever act as a private security force to controversial businesses liable to attract public protest (or if they do, for how long), goes on. Certainly the good people of Coventry paid a high price for its live exports phase. In more ways than one.