It was the first week of our final term when Jane fell backwards down those stairs.
Her death changed my life. Stopped me in my tracks. Then it led, over the years, to the life-affirming work I’m doing today. In her father Roy’s words: “Everyone gets something from tragedies as well as jubilations.”
There were six classicists in our year at Newnham…
We were six young women who appeared to think translating Homer from the original Greek on the steps of King’s College in the heart of Cambridge could be a good thing. I hasten to point out a) this was not for fun and b) I was pretty appalling at it. Partly because I’d only done Latin A level but mainly because my brain just wasn’t big enough.
We also studied filthy Roman texts, analysed emperors’ spin and propaganda, wrestled with Greek philosophers, and argued about the Elgin Marbles. Seriously. It was brilliant: totally surreal, but brilliant. Classics was the perfect training in how language, art, and societies work, as well as how ancient worlds shaped and continue to influence our own.
The absence of blokes is because Newnham was one of the University’s all female colleges (not that that stopped men looking sheepish in borrowed dressing gowns during fire alarms). This was a problem for Jane at the start (the all female bit, not the fire alarms) as Newnham wasn’t her first choice of college, just as it wasn’t mine, but both of us grew to love it.
‘How common and cataclysmic was famine in antiquity?’
As wonderful as our subject was, Cambridge’s lack of reality and occasional pretension could still get to you. Whenever an essay title such as “Do the amoebean Eclogues have any claim to be considered as A-R-T?” became overwhelming my reaction was to buy an Asterix cartoon book, whereas Jane’s was to make mobiles out of wire and razor blades. Does that tell you all you need to know?
I still remember laughing in despairing horror when asked to write about famine in antiquity. All I knew for certain was the world wasn’t quite perfect yet, people were starving in Africa and I wanted to do all I could to change it. That was when I decided to get five or so years of ‘transferable training’ with a multi-national company before putting my skills to work for a charity.
That was the idea, until I realised what really matters in life.
The final term
Jane was unconscious in hospital for a week before she died.
The term was idyllically hot as we desperately focussed on our Finals and clung to each other and to our sanity. It was only when the post-exam celebrations began that my mental world started to fall apart. Our close knit group had strong friends and an even stronger Director of Studies in Mary Beard. Chances are you’ll have seen or heard Mary letting off well-directed steam about modern life with an ancient twist in her blog A Don’s Life, A Point of View on Radio 4, or asking us to Meet the Romans on television. There isn’t space to say all she did for us here but she really couldn’t have done it better.
Thanks to the support I was narrowly able to avoid a breakdown and decided I wasn’t going to spend five years of my life preparing for anything. I was going to get on with doing whatever I could now.
“You can change things in six hours or six seconds”
Jane may well have rolled her eyes scathingly about many things but she shared much of my anger at the world back then and had joined in my work in the homeless nightshelter. I know she would love how we work with women in Styal and our plans to work in other prisons, with men, and in the community.
When I chatted to Roy about our coaching last week he said: “This idea of six hours… If we had another six hours with Jane it would make a difference. You can change things in six hours or six seconds.” We can also take some of our energy from those we love who have died. They are always with us. And that’s what keeps me going.
Today would have been Jane’s 40th birthday.
So, this is for Agnes, Roy, Anne, Fergus, Hannah-Jane and Harriet. It’s the least I could do. Your fabulous daughter, sister, sister-in-law and aunt is a constant source of inspiration for me. I’m so very glad to have had the pleasure of arguing, laughing and mangling Homer with her.
Just six seconds
So, what could you do if you took just six seconds out of your day to change your world or someone else’s?
If I were you I’d start with smiling and move forwards from there. But I’m not you. You’ll have much better ideas.
Let me know how it goes?