7 June 2022

HAPPY BIRTHDAY VIRGINIA!

Will Travers OBE pays tribute to his incredible mum, and Born Free’s matriarch on her 91st birthday.

A selection of photos of Virginia McKenna and her family

I am sure almost everyone thinks their mother is the best mum in the world. I am no different! 

Goodness me she has had quite a time of it!

An actress, a poet, a writer, singer, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother and friend to many, she combines elegance, understatement, a steely determination - and, seemingly, she has time for everyone. 

The adventures we had as children, especially travelling (the three of us, Louise, Justin and myself) with Mum and Dad (Bill) to Kenya when we were small when they starred in the film Born Free. Despite long-gruelling days and several near misses – Mum’s leg was famously broken by a young lion named ‘Boy’ as part of a game that got slightly out of hand – that year (1964) was when we all fell in love with Kenya, her people and her wildlife. And Mum’s love for a nation that holds a special place in her heart continues to this day, especially the children who study at the schools supported by her charity, the Born Free Foundation, children she has met many times over the years.

If wild animals are her passion, then children are her constancy. The four of us (we were joined by my youngest brother Daniel in 1967), her many grandchildren and, now, great grandchildren. Also, the children she has worked with, memorably the youngest members of the London Palladium cast of The King and I, with the incomparable Yul Brynner as The King to her Mrs Anna. To this day she receives letters from young people from all over the world and I know that, for her, children are our best and only hope for a better, kinder, more compassionate future.

Seeing the luminous faces of the children seated around the Punch and Judy show at our local Fete only a few weeks ago brought a warm smile to her face.

And as for the wild animals? No one expresses outrage at the way we treat our non-human travellers like Mum. ‘Disgusting’ and ‘disgraceful’ are words liberally applied whenever she uncovers yet another example of how brutal, callous and uncaring the human race can be to other creatures - and all too often to our fellow human beings.

"I ask you to raise a glass, a cup, or a smile to Virginia, my mother, the fearless Born Free Matriarch – and to all mothers everywhere. Their nurturing spirit, constant guidance, and unfailing love make life worth living.” 

She lights up whenever members of the Born Free team report success – a zoo animal rescued; a snare removed; a wildlife-friendly law passed; an animal circus closed. Make no mistake, as she arrives at her 91st Birthday, she is still a very active member of our Board, offering unrivalled insights and perspective with the benefit of nearly four decades of experience.

That brings us back, once more to children. The education work done by Born Free reaching, as it does, thousands of students in the UK, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, and around the world via our website and the internet, means that our message of hope – her message of hope – continues to build an unstoppable constituency that refuses to stand by and do nothing in the face of cruelty and suffering.

So, if you have read this, I ask you to raise a glass, a cup, or a smile to Virginia, my mother, the fearless Born Free Matriarch – and to all mothers everywhere. Their nurturing spirit, constant guidance, and unfailing love make life worth living.

Will x

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