‘One life is all we have’

I admit to being a confirmed landlubber and a Libran to boot making me totally at home on good earth and totally at sea on well… sea. So it was with little enthusiasm and purely in the role of faithful companion that I trailed along with my sailor friend last Friday to hear Dame Ellen MacArthur giving a talk in Liverpool. I have to admit that it even crossed my mind to take my book, as the prospect of sitting through an hour of tales of the high seas was pretty dismal.

I am sick to death of hearing people spout on about their ‘dream’ or their’ passion’ or their ‘journey’ but from the moment that the small figure stepped gracefully on to the stage I was, I have to say, completely captivated and by the end, if she had said follow me to the top of a mast in an Atlantic storm, I would have thrown away my book and gone with her. Ellen MacArthur is five foot three of pure blood and grit. She is wonderfully articulate and speaks using her whole body. Speaking of sails she becomes a wind-driven sail; with the suppleness of a dancer she demonstrates the structural design of a trimaran and with wings she becomes the albatross that followed her boat in the Southern Ocean. With no notes and just a few slides her talk was divided into three parts. The first concentrated upon her childhood: how, living in landlocked Derbyshire, she saved something from her school dinner money every day for 8 years until she had enough to by a small dinghy. Having bought it she could not afford to put it onto the local reservoir so, she sat in her boat in the garden and fixed her eyes upon the horizon. And this single minded determination that drives her whole life took her, some thirteen years on, to the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. She told of approaching Kingfisher (her sponsor for her first round the world race) saying of course at that meeting they had a choice and they chose to back this 21 yr old to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds. But actually, I would think they did not. For you do not say no to this woman. She is instantly recognisable as humanly super special and not because of what she has achieved in the past but in the sheer dynamism of her very forceful presence.

The second part highlighted the work of The Ellen MacArthur Trust which takes young people aged between 8-18 sailing to help them regain their confidence, on their way to recovery from cancer, leukaemia and other serious illness. These children are her obviously her inspiration. The third was a surprise to her audience. A visit to South Georgia eighteen months ago impressed upon her the need for humanity to live in a more sustainable way. Her life now is dedicated to the reduction of her own and her company’s energy and resource consumption and to the promotion of this message world wide. To this end she declared, standing in front of us looking so impassable that even a bulldozer would crumple if it tried to move her, she has given up racing ‘ a sort of sacrifice’ she called it with a shrug. ‘Where do you get your inner strength from?’, someone in the audience asked. “ I don’t know’ she said simply, suddenly and briefly looking very small and alone.

What has all this to do with The Reader Organisation blog. Well nothing really except that in all our reading groups and teaching we say look for the passages in books and poems that move you; that mean something personal to you and put a mark beside them. And so it seems only natural that when in life outside books I have the privilege of coming across that rare thing, a truly inspirational human being, someone that in the pretty impersonal setting of a lecture hall can nevertheless cross boundaries and deeply move me, then I must somehow make my mark beside her.

(If you would like to know more, take a look at Ellen’s impressive website.)

3 thoughts on “‘One life is all we have’”

  1. Wow – she sounds wonderful – I wish I had been there… but then as you say, one wouldn’t have gone if not interested in sailing… It is interesting that this sense of marking something important happens a lot in books but not very often – exceptionally really – in life. Book-world is more concentrated? more deliberate? or just much, much smaller? I am reading a book called ‘Teaching The Moral Leader’ about Harvard Business School course based on reading literature as a way of dry-running complex situations.

    Thanks for posting this…

  2. Angie, I much enjoyed your account of hearing Ellen Macarthur talk. At St Joe’s in Salford, where I have a reading group, there is one man, Jim, in his sixties, who doesn’t attend the group but, I’m told, reads a lot. He and I chat when we meet in the lounge. One week, he came to find me.
    “I thought you might like to read this,” he said. “It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. It moved me profoundly.”
    It was Ellen Macarthur’s ‘Taking on the World’. I was touched that Jim should want to share this with me. Lots of stormy photos and diary-style prose – I didn’t think it would grip me. I sat down to read it the night before I was due back at St Joe’s and was swept away by the valiant, honest voice of this extraordinary human being.
    “I knew you’d like it,” said Jim, the next day.
    This seems to echo your experience. I wish I’d been there.

  3. Thanks Amanda. I wish Jim could have been there to see her, but I have a feeling we will all be hearing more from her in the coming months.

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