Sunday, 27 May 2012

A special visit

What a brilliant week it has been with almost wall to wall sunshine here in Yorkshire. The eleven Sierra Leonean teachers who were visiting their link schools in Craven had a perfect week. I met them on Friday when I was helping them and their English teacher partners to review and evaluate their visits (the Craven teachers visited Sierra Leone in the February half term) and joint global learning projects. We also did some action planning and discussed the possibility of setting up a teachers’ resource centre in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city and where the Sierra Leonean schools are located. Simon and I met in Sierra Leone when we were starting our teaching careers and worked in secondary schools in the capital city, Freetown, for two years. It was a life changing experience for both of us then so I was very excited to meet the visiting teachers. 
Schoolgirls in Bo
Earlier in the week I had been wondering how they would be adjusting to our affluence; how expensive things would seem to them even in our cheapest shops and markets – Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world and teachers’ salaries are a fraction of what they are here. Then I had an idea. Simon didn’t have a huge number of clothes but what he did have was always good quality so why not choose some of his leather shoes and lightweight jackets and offer them to the eight male teachers. Lucy, the link coordinator in Craven, thought it was a great idea so after we finished the training she put names in a hat and we got out the shoes and jackets – the first name out of the hat got the first choice and so on. The four pairs of shoes went first – leather shoes are impossible to buy in Sierra Leone. They were hugely appreciative and it makes me smile when I think some of Simon’s things will be loved and worn with pride in the country we both loved.
I had a chance to speak to Millicent, one of the female teachers yesterday as we ate our lunch together in the sunshine in the Millennium Square in Leeds. She was telling me about her experiences during the civil war that ravaged the country from 1991 to 2002. She was four months pregnant at the time and had to run for her life when the rebels attacked Bo and burnt down her house. As she and hundreds of others ran many were shot. She managed to get shelter for a night in a village 70 miles to the north but the rebels arrived the following day and lined up everyone, separating the women, men and children. They all thought they would be shot and she prayed earnestly. One man tried to run away but was captured and beheaded in front of his three children and everyone else. She was spared and took the children of the man eventually managing to get them back to Bo and their grandmother. When she returned to Bo she had nothing so had to manage by collecting firewood and selling it on the roadside. Yesterday she was content to sit in the sunshine and marvel that twelve years after all this happened she was in England. She had no money to spend but she has a future and a job she loves, three children and a home. It was a privilege to meet Millicent, a lovely gentle Christian lady.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Pig Racing

Pig racing, a trip to the cinema to see ‘Salmon Fishing in Yemen’ which Simon would have loved, a Fairtrade Schools event in Harrogate and a walk across the fields to the Yorkshire Dales Ice Cream Farm with my two youngest grandsons this morning, are just some of the things I’ve been up to this week. Oh and I’ve been wearing my new jeans and they are far more comfortable than I was expecting them to be. I also met up for lunch with a good friend and former colleague of Simon’s who now lives and works in New Zealand. Simon had been so looking forward to seeing her again but sadly it was not to be.
It’s just six weeks and two days since Simon died and yesterday the bill arrived from the undertaker. I can almost hear Simon saying well that’s the final nail in the coffin then. Despite all that has happened since Simon died I still can’t quite believe that I will never be able to have another conversation with him. I know that some people, including my dad - I still think talks to my mum every day - find comfort talking to their departed loved ones but I don’t. From time to time though I do recall Simon’s words to me, - usually the encouraging supportive ones and when he was teasing me.               
At last, the catalogue for the exhibition which includes some stunning photographs arrived on Tuesday last week; 5 days after the pots came home but it was definitely worth waiting for. Included is an interview with Simon about his collection – it gives yet another insight into my multi faceted husband.

I expect not many of you have experienced an evening of pig racing so I thought I would tell you all about it so that you know what you’ve been missing. First of all as you can see from the photo real pigs are not involved. By the way Adam, my 5 year old grandson acted as one of three official starters for two of the races – he’s the one with the Union Jack face in the photo. The pigs are identical, fluffy and pink and battery operated. The coloured ribbons around their necks identify them, for example my pig Roody in race 2 had a green ribbon. The ribbons are taken off after every race so no one knows the pig that is programmed to go a little faster than all the others. You bet on a pig or pigs in each race (in units of 50p). It gets very exciting as the pigs walk, or is lurch a better term, erratically towards the finishing line with their noses and tails twitching. The punters who have placed bets on the winning pig get a share of the winnings. I won nothing all evening and the two pigs I had sponsored were useless but Adam won a race with the much fancied ‘Scooby Do’. Pig racing evenings are not only good fun for all the family but great fund raisers – we raised over £800 last night for our church. So what’s stopping you organising one? The next thing I want to organise is a ‘Big Bra Hunt’. It’s an OXFAM idea – more about that another time.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Beautiful things

Simon would have been so pleased this week as he got a letter saying that his Cultural Quarters book, translated last year into Italian, has won the Premio Opera Straniera. I am not sure what that is but it sounds very grand doesn’t it? He would have also been pleased to see his pots back home after a very successful exhibition for Craven Museum and Art Gallery. There were 12,948 visitors, many more than usual for an exhibition at this time of year. The Arts Officer wrote in the visitor’s book ‘Thank you so much for your generosity in lending us this collection, which has made this the best, highest quality exhibition we have ever had in the gallery.’ I had lots of reservations when Simon said he wanted to do this but it was absolutely the right thing to do. I’m glad they’re back home now though.

It’s good to experience new things isn’t it? Yesterday I bought my first pair of jeans! Simon never liked men or women wearing jeans. My daughters who seem to live in jeans when they are not working will be amazed. I also helped to lamb a sheep for the first time this week as my neighbour and farmer friend needed me to hold a ewe while he pulled the lambs out. I now have a large bruise on my hand from a horn as the ewe struggled to free itself from my hold.

I’m discovering that I need to embrace sadness and find ways to combat restlessness and not being able to settle in the evenings sometimes. Looking at the beautiful things we have acquired together works wonders. Simon gave me some lovely contemporary jewellery. He chose carefully and my favourites are the very individual fun pieces. That reminds me of Keats’ words, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever, its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.’ It’s so true and I am very lucky to have beautiful things to enjoy - thank you Simon. You have certainly left a wonderful legacy in so many ways.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Lessons from Simon

Simon mentioned his friend Ian in several of his blogs and this week’s words apart from this opening paragraph are his. To go with Ian’s thoughts I have chosen the photograph he took last winter. It shows part of our boundary wall which Simon recently used as his computer screen saver. I have been thinking about walls this week perhaps prompted by seeing Eve’s extension walls grow and interior divisions emerge. The new walls stand where the garage used to be. It was so much easier to knock down the garage walls than build up the new ones. Walls are very like our feelings aren’t they? It’s quite easy to make people sad by the things we say or don’t say. This week my walls are feeling strong because of the time I have spent talking to friends on the phone, reading email messages and letters or even better spending time with them. I have also felt free – as Simon’s body was failing him increasingly walls were hemming me in, but now they have been knocked down. Ian’s thoughts follow.

I cannot claim to be Simon’s life-long friend as I have only known him for about the last ten years. At first like many others, I felt a little intimidated by his direct manner and fierce intellect – he was never one to hold back on his thoughts, especially on art and education. Prior to MSA taking hold, we “enjoyed” many of his very long walks in the Dales and I therefore got to know him better - his immense energy and a passion for work, education, family and community.

He was an excellent hill walker – we called him the Mountain Goat who went faster up the hills when we were all flagging. My wife would bring along copious amounts of cakes and tea to try to slow him down but only with partial success.  I’m sure he thought we were all wimps and needed to toughen up. 

The onset of MSA was a great tragedy to a man of such drive and intellect who thrived on debate and communication. But Simon refused to be cowered and beaten. His approach to MSA was so inspiring. 
He made sure we all knew everything there was about it but he never complained to me about his condition even though I knew he was facing tremendous physical and mental challenges.

At our monthly lunch, we would witter on about politics and financial markets as well as his “hot buttons” of tuition fees, workplace learning and motor racing. I found myself doing more of the talking as his condition worsened but he never failed to listen carefully and come up with some insight or witty comment that would take me back or make me laugh.

My friendship with Simon taught me many lessons about how to live a full and ambitious life through whatever it throws at you. Just say yes to all new experiences, work and play hard, retain a positive attitude with a sense of humour, remain curious and hungry for knowledge, and above all, never accept no for an answer or second best. I learnt from him that it is good to question, challenge the accepted wisdom, and do things differently with a dogged determination.          

Simon, I will miss your wise counsel and never forget your valuable lessons on living and illness. It was an honour to carry you in a beautiful woolly coffin to your natural place in the Yorkshire Dales where I know you will rest in peace.