I’m sure we are all inspired by different people at different stages in our life. As a geeky teenager, I thought Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were where it was at as I trotted off to study French at university. I read everything I could get my hands on, in French of course. Can I speak French now? Of course not. As a young marine biologist I thought Sylvia Earle was just wonderful, and parts of me still do. But her image became tarnished when I heard her speak at a conference. She was “Me, me me!”, ran over her time by half an hour or more and then handed over to her photographer for another hour. Bad chairmanship of course, but I don’t think inspirational figures should really let on that they think they’re wonderful as well. It should be a one-sided affair.
Somewhere between Sartre and Earle, I met Monsieur Edwards, or maybe Edwardes – I don’t know the spelling and can’t remember his first name. We were staying in Sombra, a cottage near Port Antonio, on the north coast of Jamaica. It was an idyllic spot with its own little beach, a terrace overlooking the water and coral reef a couple of hundred yards away and we frequently came from Kingston to stay there. Messing about in the garden one afternoon, we climbed through the fence to the ramshackle cottage next door. It looked like a ruin and we thought it was deserted until a shuttered window opened and a voice called out “Hello?”. How we jumped! The whole family came to know Mr and Mrs Edwards and whenever we stayed at Sombra we called in to drink fresh lime juice, nibble delicious toasted coconut and listen to a whole raft of stories of a fascinating life.
They came, I think, from Mozambique and were in their eighties when we knew them. The house was like a Robinson Crusoe residence, built onto the hillside in several levels and with an almond tree growing up through the centre of the living room “because we didn’t want to cut it down”. I don’t think it was made entirely of driftwood but that’s how it seemed. It was reputed to be the only house on that stretch of the coast to have withstood one of hurricanes that batter Jamaica. The house was full, stuffed full to overflowing, with shells and marine artefacts from all over the world. The only similar collections I have seen are in museums and I wonder where the collection is now. They abounded with stories, this elderly couple, of a life of adventures. For instance, he told us that he had dynamited parts of the foreshore around the house so that developers wouldn’t be able to build on it. I was never sure if this was true or not – an early ecoterrorist perhaps – but I liked to believe it. He claimed to have introduced pink limes (a blood orange version of lime) into Jamaica by saving seeds from lime slices in gin and tonic.
Mr Edwards was the first real marine biologist and genuine collector that I had met. I still have a shell that he gave me – a specimen of Purpurea nobilis, a small whelk from the Mediterranean. The Romans extracted the purple dye for their imperial togas from this little beast. I think it was this elderly gentleman and that small shell that planted the first seed of my career as a marine biologist and perhaps my love of museum collections.
But my inspiration now comes from a different place. As I was thinking about this post, I realised that there are three people who keep me going – husband and sons. When I was told my cancer had come back, all I could think about was how much I want to see my children grow up and how much I was looking forward to some happy retirement time with my husband. This treatment I’m having is horrible. “Please sit here while we bludgeon you with a sledge hammer. No, no, it needs to be harder. ” That’s what it feels like – so totally non-selective, primitive. Roll on the days when they can target specific cancer cells rather than pummel every cell in the body. But I know that, however horrible it is, I’ll go through it all again if I have to, so that I can have some more years with Iain and the boys. I’m not ready to give up yet.
So, time to ditch my pretend anonymity? Here’s my inspiration these days, both taken a few years ago admittedly.