Interviewing is one of my most favourite things in the world: getting to ask pertinent, nosy questions of people you might well admire (OK, totally adore...) and then writing it up afterwards is a pure joy. But I find myself wanting to ask questions of people I know very little about - perhaps they work in a field of which I know absolutely nothing - and this always makes me nervous, like the interviewee would laugh in my face for asking such desperately obvious questions.
So I thought in 2013, I'd set myself a bit of a task: to interview women who seem to have really exciting, fascinating lives or jobs or hobbies, and stick it up on my blog. The interviews needn't be life changing or asking the big questions to reveal all to the reader - I just want to ask people whatever comes in to my head just so I can learn a little more about them. So welcome to Inspirational Woman Wednesday, where I will sporadically put a question-and-answer type of interview (because I rarely do those) up on a Wednesday (just because of alliteration). It might be every Wednesday, it might be bi-monthly Wednesdays. It'll be whatever it will be.
Sadly, though, the first ever Inspirational Woman Wednesday is going to be a memorial, a tribute. I didn't think I'd be having to do that so early on. But I've just this week found out that my friend and correspondent died on Boxing Day. I always feared that I wouldn't find out if she had died because I didn't know her two nephews and she had no other family, and unfortunately, this was the case. As I didn't receive a Christmas card - most unusual for her - I tried to call. When the line went dead, I feared the worst and put her name into Google. An obituary came up both in the local newspaper and the organisation for which she was a trustee. I then spent the afternoon rereading the letters she'd sent me since I moved up here in 2003.
It's easy to call someone inspirational and legendary once they've died and you've had time to reflect on their past. But I found her inspirational when she was alive, too. I think I'd even told her that. I'd met her aged 17 when the war with Iraq had broken out. My sleepy old town where not a lot happened had even noticed it, and a pocket of people formed Banbury People for Peace. I was amazed, overjoyed, and went along to the first meeting. Liz was sat quietly in the corner, her short hair slicked back pragmatically. She was in her 70s then, but looked intensely older, the deep contours in her face insinuating a life time of travel and labour in the sun. We struck up a conversation and she knew who I was instantly - she'd been my family's health visitor when we were young - but she kept quiet as she didn't want to scare me off. It was only when I went home that my mum told me who she was.
After that, we saw each other semi-regularly at meetings and when I left for university, we kept in touch through letter writing, occasional phonecalls and visits. She even took me out for dinner once. She spoke in that very definite, old middle class way - much like Diana Athill - where lovely, posh old vowels clank together loudly and she said exactly what she felt. But she wasn't intimidating as a person, despite her fierce views, her knowledge and experience. In fact, she was eager to find out my political views whilst telling me hers - which were right on the money, as far as I was concerned. She was an ultimate defender of the people, as grand as that claim sounds. She'd gone to the controversial Dartington Hall, telling me tales of frequent nudity and her classmates were of note, like Lucian Freud, but she had then trained as a nurse before settling in Banbury as a health visitor.
Though I can't remember her skills as a health visitor, I can't imagine that she'd just turn up, write down her notes, recite her advice and leave. She would have shared experiences, made new parents feel at home and what they were doing was the right thing, signpost them to other professionals if needs be, a real lifeline to the nervous and sleep-deprived. I can also imagine her invincibly pragmatic, forthright.
Her caring and medical skills took her abroad, too, and she was a frequent, extensive traveller. I've got her typewritten notes from a time when she was in south Asia, she had a home in Spain that she aimed to share with families who couldn't afford holidays in the sun, she went backpacking round New Zealand and Africa when she was in her seventies and eighties. (No, not a typo - not the 1970s, 80s - when she was in her late seventies and early eighties!), she would regularly pepper her speech with 'when I was in China...', 'the weirdest fruit I ever encountered was in Jordan'... Oh, and when we're on the subject of amazing feats, she also went gliding and skydiving in her latter years, too, raising money for the scores of charities she supported. She was my only excited supporter when I decided to hitchhike to Morocco for charity - everyone else thought I'd be chopped into little pieces and left for the vultures. I should imagine the charities she supported will know her name well and will be saddened to learn of her death.
Then she was a governor at her local primary school. It wasn't because she had children and wanted to make sure the school was run well. She just wanted to be involved in providing the best for children and their families, she wanted to argue the ordinary person's corner. She probably did loads more things that I had no idea about, because she went about it discreetly. It wasn’t about her, it was about the doing. But she wasn't a saint, and she battled with depression. She was an extraordinary ordinary person herself.
I am unable to go to her funeral and I found out about her death two weeks after it happened. I hoped she had read the letter I had sent her in a Christmas card and I hope she won't mind me paying my respects this way. I think she will always be in my mind throughout my life, giving me courage to do the right thing even when it's more difficult or tiresome.