I’ve just returned from saying goodbye to a man I’d only known this past year but who quickly made an impact on me. The tributes I heard for Peter Watson today at his funeral have only deepened that impression.
It may seem an odd thing to do, to begin the first post of 2015 thinking about a man local to my area who has recently died. Considering this blog’s focus on community, however, I think it is quite fitting for Peter was, without doubt, a man of the community.
Born in Sussex, Peter ‘adopted’ Egremont – a town I knew as my own for many years – in 1969 and never left. Head of English for twenty years at the local school, the Oxford scholar was a formidable intellectual (I learned he could quote most of Shakespeare from memory) but also had a huge heart for the area. In 1990 he began the Egremont Today which he continued to produce up to his death. It is through this publication I came to work with him and know him a little better.
As someone who can be a ‘tad argumentative’ I take heart that this much-loved and well-respected man was also known to be a strong debater and someone who didn’t back down in an argument easily. One person shared that you could leave a meeting with Peter and by the time you had travelled home you’d have an email from him telling you why your argument was wrong and Peter was right! I also took heart, as a father who has taught his own children over the years, that Peter’s youngest son gave tribute to a father who expected high standards from his children with the result that they have all excelled in adulthood. He shared of a father who was fair to all and gave to all. Never a push-over but never one to walk away from a person in need. I truly hope my faults will be remembered as warmly and fondly as Peter’s when my time comes and that they will not be all that can be said of me.
I learned today that Peter had spent his life helping others either through work as councillor or teacher or through the newspaper keeping the community informed. I knew him as a kind and gentle man effusive in his praise (I feel doubly honoured, now knowing his academic achievements in literature, that he was so kind towards my own writings) and remarkable in his stamina. Men half his age couldn’t do the things he did on a daily basis and I know he inspired many in his efforts.
A friend recently said to me she saw no point in making a fuss over New Year’s Eve. What is the big deal, she posited, about going from December to January? But I would counter that human beings aren’t like that. We’re temporal creatures – born one moment and dying the next. For me, the new year signifies both a looking back on the past and a looking forward to the future. January takes its name from the Roman god Janus (literally doorway) who was depicted as the gatekeeper with two faces – one looking back and one forward – and so it is an appropriate time to reflect on what has been and what is to come. The average life expectancy in the UK is 81 and so I stand as a man closer to his death than his birth (though not by much, should I be granted a full life). Perhaps this makes me more inclined to consider the past than my friend, much younger than I? Certainly I find myself looking at Peter’s life and wishing I’d been half as useful to others as he. This thought makes me inclined then to look to future and do something to change it.
2014 has been a bumpy year for my family, to say the least, and Peter Watson was one of the kinder hands that helped us on. Although he is now gone his legacy continues in numerous ways – not least of which will be the continuing publication of his newspaper – and I find myself almost envious of the man who did so much for those around him.
A church filled with local people from all walks of life and glowing, loving tributes to the man have told me that ‘Mr Egremont’, as he has been called, worked hard for small town and did so not for power nor fame but simply because there was work to do and he believed in doing it. I feel ashamed of my own selfishness and lack of heart in comparison.
We’re living in a world where we’ve seen many of our heroes of the past fall spectacularly from grace and come to wonder if we can trust in anyone. I think it’s time we paid more attention to people like Peter Watson, locals who give more to their community than they take back and never for fame or fortune but out of concern for others. Those who attended his funeral today knew Peter’s faults and rather than bring shock and dismay they made him all the more ‘one of us’ – an ordinary man who did extraordinary things for a people he loved.
I’ll finish with sharing the quotation taken from Isaac Penington (1616-1679) – one of the early members of the Quaker movement – which was printed in the service sheet for the Thanksgiving service. Peter was a lifelong member of the Quakers:
Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness;
and bearing one with another,
and forgiving one another,
and not laying accusations one against another;
but praying one for another,
and helping one another up with a tender hand.
Peter’s tender hands will be remembered with thankfulness and affection by many and for a long time to come – but it’s up to us to turn those remembrances into action for others.