“Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. That’s how the philosopher Thomas Hobbes described life. Of course, this was part of his treatise “Leviathon”, but it’s one of the few things I took away from the Political Philosophy module I was forced to take as part of my degree. It is a quote that I often reflect on when I hear news of bad things or when I receive knock backs and when I do, it’s invariably the “nasty and brutish” bit that I’m thinking of.
On the subject of the nasty and the brutish, my wife’s work as a barrister involves her extensively in the murky world of child abuse. She is an expert in the field of historic abuse but in more recent cases, the internet, especially Facebook, plays a very big role. Acting as an advocate for prosecution or defence is her main job but she also works part-time as a judge in the Crown Court. While doing so late last year, she discussed this issue with a fellow Judge. He reflected that Facebook had played a part in every single child abuse case he had dealt with that year. Needless to say, Amanda is very much NOT a fan of Facebook or of Twitter or of social networking and media generally.
Whilst listening to the radio yesterday (Sunday) morning, a train of thought started in my head concerning Amanda’s old university friend Julie Saville. Julie and Amanda had driven across America together and Julie had been a bridesmaid at our wedding back in 1996 (here’s a picture of her). I had met her a few times and in 1998, shortly before emigrating to the USA, she came to spend a weekend with us at our first home, a little terraced house in Thetford.
Julie was one of those unfortunate people born with no conventional sense of humour. That’s not to say she was a very serious person. With her blonde hair and ready smile, those who knew her informally might reasonably have described her as “ditsy”. I spent most of my time with her cracking jokes, trying to get her laugh instinctively. However, the outcome was invariably that the delivery of the punchline was followed by a brief silence after which Julie would rock her head back, close her eyes and issue forth a breathy laugh. I am not sure that she was aware that I knew that her laugh was false but whether I did or not was not the point. The point was that she didn’t want me to feel bad because she hadn’t understood the joke.
But the glint in those green eyes of hers betrayed a steely sense of determination. Julie was a teacher but her ambition was to run a school as soon as possible, she was already by that time acting-headteacher of her school in West Yorkshire. She was barely 30. My recollection is that she was offered the chance to take a role as deputy Principal of a school in New York and that the role came with a green card. That might not have been quite how it was, but whatever the situation, she jumped at the chance. We didn’t hear from her after she left but we would occasionally joke that she probably had no time at all, that she was likely running the education system there now and probably had met a nice local man and married him.
I thought: what a lovely opportunity to demonstrate to Amanda that Facebook could do wonderful things, like reconnecting old friends, rather than just being used by evil people to manipulate and harm. So I set to Googling for Julie and I soon found her. She had been appointed as the first head teacher of the newly formed British School of Boston. On 23 September 2000, just a few weeks into the school’s very first term, Julie drove home as usual. Taking the exit from the motorway, she came face to face with an SUV being driven in the wrong direction, chased by police cars. The car ploughed into Julie’s VW Golf. Julie was taken to hospital and died there later that night.
The driver of the other car, a woman named Martha Powers, was drunk. It was the third time that she had been found drunk at the wheel of a car. She was convicted and sentenced to three years imprisonment. The local paper described what followed as an “outpouring of grief”. A charity, Julie’s Fund, was set up in her name and every year the children of the British School of Boston raise money for the fund, the proceeds of which go to schools in deprived neighbourhoods.
To have discovered this about an old friend unexpectedly would be shock enough. But to find that it had happened over twelve years ago, literally a lifetime ago – our eldest, now 11, did not arrive until December of the following year. That has sparked in my mind such a curious combination of emotions that I don’t know quite where to start. My first concern was for Amanda. Would it be better to leave her thinking that one of her old friends was still doing what she loved in the country she had adopted as home? And that one day we would reconnect and reminisce about that wonderful weekend in the Yorkshire Dales? But those that know Amanda won’t be surprised to hear that she soon realised that there was something on my mind and with her years of experience, it didn’t take her long to drag it out of me.
I didn’t know Julie very well, but I knew her well enough to know that she was a lovely, friendly woman but one who was clearly also single-minded and talented in her chosen profession. And I, as somebody who didn’t know her particularly well, feel a sense of being bereft, but at the same time, something of a sense of shame that I hadn’t tried to make contact with her before. And somehow, it feels a bit odd, to feel quite so unsettled by the loss of someone we had last seen almost 15 years ago and who died 12 years ago.
So here we are, with Julie long gone, wondering what we are to make of it all. It’s a bit much to take in, I suppose. But one thing I am sure of is that for Julie, life was neither solitary nor poor and it was never nasty or brutish. But it was short. Much too short.
Julie, we have only just started to miss you.