People who inspire stories

I’ve just finished checking the proofs for my new book, Journeys Without a Map — almost ready now to go to the printers. I’ve been surrounded by the people in it, real people, who have made my life what it is, and inspired my stories.

This one goes back to 1977, when we had recently arrived in Britain, casualties of a political crisis in Zambia where we had been living. It’s called ‘Ruth Warren’s Notebook’ ….

I owed my job – organising English language classes for adults – to an extraordinary elderly American woman, Ruth Warren. She walked with a stick, lopsided, but determinedly getting about. She had spent most of her adult life as a missionary in India, married an English missionary, retired with him to Croydon, and was now a widow. If you happened to have preconceptions about missionaries, she quietly undermined them. She spoke Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Urdu, and when she met women in saris or shalwar and kameez waiting at bus stops she stopped to talk to them. They were delighted to be able to talk in their own language to this friendly old lady. They invited her home, plied her with spiced tea and pakora, and told her that their children learned English at school and their husbands at work, but they were stuck at home, not even able to to talk to their neighbours. Ruth said she would see what she could do.

She got herself a small notebook for names and addresses, and went around talking to church groups, calling in her friends. Their names and addresses too went into the notebook, potential learners from the front, potential tutors from the back. She paired them off, and when she had made a good match, committed the surprised tutors to visiting every week. She knew about loving her neighbour and was not afraid to tell other people how to do it.

Then she started knocking on official doors. The Community Relations Council. The Adult Education Department. I can picture it, busy men confronted by this bent-over woman, gently spoken but unshakeably persistent as she explained to them what they ought to be doing … Until it became easier to do something than to keep turning her away. The Education Department put up a salary for a full-time organiser —

I am given a small office, an empty filing cabinet, no budget, and the promise of a half-time assistant. The Director of Adult Education briefs me on my role. It is unilluminating. He really hasn’t an idea. You’ll need to find out from Mrs Warren, he says.

I visit her. She receives me in a small front room of a semi- detached house with lace curtains that doesn’t in any way fit with her. I’m sure she was more at home in the dust of the Punjab, dressed like the women around her. This is the house of her step granddaughter, who joins us with a tea tray. Ruth is retiring to California, she says. She’s just here until she goes.

She has the notebook on the coffee table between us. We go through it together, and she tells me something about each of the people in it. My head is buzzing with detail but it doesn’t seem the right moment to be taking notes. I’ll get the general idea and learn more from them each when I meet them. Most of the volunteers have come from her talks to church groups, of many different denominations. I ask, in passing, which is hers. She says vaguely that she doesn’t have one any more, by which I understand that the business of doctrines and ritual and membership has become irrelevant.

‘When do you leave?’ I ask, hoping it is not soon.

‘As soon as I’ve had my hip replaced,’ she says. Then, with a smile as if to excuse herself, ‘I’ve been needing to go for a good while, my dear.’

‘Tell her,’ the step granddaughter prompts; and then she does it for her. ‘She’s been on the waiting list for a year, and every time they say she can have it, she says she’s not ready. She has been waiting to hand over to you.’

‘And you took your time coming,’ Ruth says drily. ‘

It seems this was the second time they had advertised. There were people in the first round that the Director of Adult Education thought could have done it, but Ruth wouldn’t have any of them. ‘They were all too professional,’ she says, ‘I couldn’t see any of them visiting the women in their homes.’

So I got the job not because I was professionally qualified, but despite it. It is the greatest compliment.

She hands me the notebook.

**********

For a few months I saw her regularly, as she took me around introducing me to people, handing over relationship by relationship. She was consistently warm and open, but nobody’s push-over. Of one potential volunteer, a self-important man who invited us to a meal (elaborate, produced by his wife) she said drily afterwards that he was primarily interested in the status that would attach to being a tutor, and unlikely to be of any use to anyone else. There was a woman recently widowed whom she was particularly concerned for. Ruth herself had been visiting every week, and though she left the decision to me, it was clear she didn’t want me to find anyone else to teach her, she wanted me to do it myself. So I did, for most of a year, and it was the highlight of my week.

Too soon Ruth was gone, and I was on my own. I felt her mantle on my shoulders many times in the years that followed … As I visited Asian women and got drawn in to their lives. As I put up posters and went around to local groups inviting new volunteers. As I cycled around town, getting to know each street, and thought about Ruth moving from one region of India and Pakistan to another, long enough in each to become fluent in four languages. At moments of unexpected challenge, when I thought, ‘I wonder what Ruth would have done?’ —

A middle-aged man arrived at one of the class centres. With him was his young sister, Rashida, who had recently come from Pakistan. He explained that she had had meningitis and become profoundly deaf. He was long settled in Britain, and had brought her here in the hope that doctors could reverse the damage to her hearing, but nothing could be done. Now, he had applied for permission for her to stay; and she needed to learn to speak English. 

How would that be possible? She had almost never heard it spoken. But her teacher made it possible, skilfully adjusting her teaching style while an Urdu-speaking volunteer sat next to Rashida, transcribing in Urdu script the English words being taught so that Rashida could attempt to pronounce them. She made extraordinary progress. Soon she went on to take a range of other practical courses, and inspired us all with what is possible. 

Then the Immigration Department refused her permission to stay in the UK. Her brother was a British citizen, devoted to Rashida, and desperately wanted to keep her here and support her. If she were sent back to Pakistan, she would have none of the opportunities she had here. He sought legal advice. If she had been his wife, he would have had the right to keep her with him. He told them he had no intention of marrying. Could he not keep her here instead? But as his sister she had no right to stay. The legal adviser said the only thing that might help would be to ask for a concession on compassionate grounds, and that would only have a chance if he could get a lot of people to press for it. So he came to see me. Could I organise a campaign? 

It was one of those moments when life throws at you a challenge you really don’t want to have to think about. With a full-time job and young children I had enough to do just keeping the family-work-life show on the road. I was also nervous. My own family’s immigration status was not yet sorted, and I didn’t want to draw the officials’ attention to myself. For several nights my sleep was disturbed by dreams of calamities of one kind or another. But how to say no? Rashida was an example to all of us, in determination, in making the best of what life had handed her. How could I do nothing? 

I spoke to her class teacher, Mary, and we decided we would try. ‘We’ started out as her and me, other teachers and friends, but gradually it extended to a whole lot of other people who heard her story. We made leaflets, with ‘Let Rashida Stay’ as the strap-line. We started a petition, and people took it to adult education classes, churches, work places, wherever they could talk to people and get signatures. I contacted the Royal Association for Deaf People and they circulated the story to their members, country wide. The numbers signing the petition grew, and went on growing. We organised a public meeting which Rashida herself addressed in English, choking us all up. She had almost never heard the language spoken and here, a year and a half after joining our classes, she was talking to an audience of 150 people. I remember still how she began, asking our patience that her way of speaking might sound strange to us, because ‘deaf people cannot hear their own voice’. Our local MP, Bernard Weatherill, was there. He was Speaker of the House of Commons and his position meant he couldn’t take up the case in Parliament but he got a fellow MP to do it. A group of us went to listen on the night it was being discussed, and heard the answer. No exception could be made. 

Through all those months we swung repeatedly from hope to despondency. Then just when we thought it was all hopeless, Rashida got a letter granting her permission to stay.

We never knew what caused the change. Had someone senior in the Home Office been touched by her case? Or had we become too much of a nuisance, and it was easier to say ‘Yes’ than to keep having to say ‘No’? — 

Like Ruth, knocking on official doors eight years earlier?

****************

Ten years after I first met Ruth, A Language in Common was published, a set of fictional short stories inspired by my experiences in Croydon. I sent her a copy. She wrote back in delighted appreciation, saying, ‘You are obviously having a good time!’  We had taken the work, she said, beyond where she could have imagined it going. ‘In my day it was all so simple. Now so many things are involved.’

Perhaps, but we were simply doing what she had taught by her example, responding to the people in front of us.

The last time I heard from her was after she had had her leg amputated, and wrote a reflection about the experience which she sent to her friends:

What did it cost?
Pain!
Hallucinations
Bad dreams
Lots of money
Lots of time.
But little is really lost.
I’ve lost one of my physical abilities
(Can’t hop, skip and jump any more)
But nothing else is changed.
The eternally faithful loving-kindness of God —
The warm closeness of friends and their deep caring —
Sights and tastes and fragrances —
My ancestry, heritage, education, ability to think.

===========================

Adapted from a chapter in my book, Journeys Without a Map: A Writer’s Life, to be published on 28th September, in paperback and e-book. To see early reviews: https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/autobiography/journeys-without-a-map/  

You can pre-order a copy – ordering through a local bookshop might also encourage them to stock it so others may find it!
UK : If you have an independent bookshop, do use them. Otherwise here’s the Waterstones link:
https://www.waterstones.com/book/journeys-without-a-map/marion-molteno/9781800463394
International:  Order through The Book Depository to get free delivery anywhere:
https://www.bookdepository.com/Journeys-Without-a-Map/9781800463394

42 thoughts on “People who inspire stories

  1. From this excerpt, this promises to be an inspiring account of an inspiring woman. I look forward to reading it.

  2. Thanks for sharing the inspirational story about Ruth and Rashida. I look forward to reading the book.

    Please keep up the good work.

    Donna Kesler

  3. I really enjoyed reading this extract Marion. Despite all the adversity there is hope and solidarity! Quite poignant during these times when things are so damning for refugees and migrants.

    1. Lucky to have met Rashida but wish I had known Ruth! But so glad I had the opportunity to work alongside inspiring women like you Marion. What a privilege it has been to work so closely with learners and colleagues from all over the world and be enriched and inspired by them. Looking forward to your new book!

  4. Thank you, Marion,

    as ever your words take me somewhere special and help me remember the joy of teaching English with Neighbourhood English Classes in Brent in the 1970s and 1980s and how much fun it was. So many preconceptions dispelled and so much laughter! But I feel that the person who was learning most was me, one of those jobs where you cannot believe they are paying you for doing it,
    Helen x

    1. I echo Helen’s thoughts. Reading your account, Marion, has reminded me of when I set up the first ESOL classes in Sutton in 1989. It demonstrates how much can be achieved if you believe in a cause and how important it is to speak out for people who do not have a voice. And it’s true, the one who learns the most out of it all is you.
      Looking forward to reading your book and wishing you every success with it

  5. Moving and inspiring. Reminds me of the adage, Himmat-e-mardaan, madad-e-Khuda (Much is achieved with God’s grace and the individual’s effort). May your book travel far.

  6. That was an un-put-downable extract, and now my mugga tea is cold! I am SO looking forward to publication day.! 🙂

  7. Ruth sounds so great, Marion, it is indeed an inspiring story and how wonderful that you could take it so much further yourself. Like others above, it reminded me of my own pleasure in my pre-covid weekly hour with an older Syrian couple, I’m not sure whether I helped their English a whole lot, but it was lovely getting to know them.

    I can’t wait to read your book either!

  8. Sometimes it takes a very special person to get to the heart of pain and work to bring healing. Ruth is clearly one of those people and you clearly are another, Marion. Clarity of purpose and courage and resolve to overcome, brilliant and motivational. Thank you.

  9. Thank you Marion, a wonderful story. I look forward to reading your new book, gaining insights and connections through your writing, as ever.

  10. dear Marion, I read your extract with great interest. First of all, I had forgotten about the beginning, and since I remember very well the last days in Lusaka, it was very impressive to hear how you got going. Im sure Ruth knew, when she met you that you were the person she had prayed for. No one who knows you would be in doubt that you could and would take over. And in a very organized fashion.
    The great satisfaction of your work has been all the extraordinary people, you have met and worked with. I have met some of them and profited enormously from the encounter. Also talking with the women, their words open up for you, and there is stuff for books and books and books. I have enjoyed your books , and find it a wonder, how you manage it all. I look forward to your next instalment.

  11. Whenever your stories arrive on the blog I gobble them up and ask for more. Thank you Marion for another moving and inspiring woman’s story.

  12. Thank you so much for inviting me to read your beautifully written blog. I found this story so heart-warming and humbling. If writing is the offspring of thought then how lucky are we readers to have writers such as you to articulate that thought?! Looking forward to the paperback (e-readers are a last resort).

  13. Well, Marion, you too are inspiring. Not everyone will know that you practically invented a whole sector of humanitarian action called ‘Education in Emergencies’. At the time (the 1990s) donors laughed at the concept. Now it’s an orthodoxy and millions of children have benefited. You weren’t the only one, you’ll say – and that’s true. But you were a leading light, working with a blend of grace, wisdom and conviction to make a vision come true.

  14. What a very inspiring story. What challenges you and your pupil Rashida faced and overcame. We hear too often of Immigration Department decisions that seem unjust. Nice to hear of one that, with your help, turned out right.

  15. Like Ruth you too are a remarkable woman Marion! Your writing is inspirational…. Thank you. I feel priveleged to know you xx

  16. What a wonderful person Ruth Warren seems to have been. And what a person she managed to recruit to carry on her work! 🙂 I loved the bit where in answer to your question about her (Christian) denomination she says she doesn’t have one any more, and you say: “by which I understand that the business of doctrines and ritual and membership has become irrelevant.” It’s significant that she didn’t say that she isn’t a Christian any more. What you understand her to have been saying is so insightful. This is precisely where more and more Christians are finding themselves and are now exploring how do church differently and in the process re-finding the sort of authenticity that characterised the church in the first couple of centuries.

  17. Such a lovely story, full of strength of purpose. I love the way you write Marion.
    looking forward to you new book.

  18. I love the way you are able to bring your people to life and make them real to your readers. I also appreciate the work you are doing with them. It it heart-warming. You will never need to say “Why am I here? What is the point of my life”.

  19. What an inspirational woman Ruth must have been. And how succesfully you took over her mantle!
    When I read A Language in Common all those years ago I had no inkling that the stories were fiction or fictionalised. I just took them all as true stories. Which just shows how good a writer you are.

  20. Lusaka 1975. The girls are small, Robert is busy at the university, Marion is having a group of community elders in the sitting room for a meeting, part of her job. Someone is translating between English and Nyanja. The discussion drags on, the group is getting restless, hungry. The girls need attention. Marion has prepared sandwiches and sweets, which she brings to the table, clearly hoping to keep the discussion moving forward, the meeting concluded. The elders look at the sandwich tray, impassively. There’s an awkward silence, until a younger woman tells Marion, “They can’t eat this; they want nshima and meat.” I recall Marion’s look of desperation as she envisaged the next two hours cooking in the kitchen with the group waiting and the girls wanting their mother. But somehow, nshima and meat was cooked and the meeting successfully concluded. About a year and a half later Marion found herself in London, where she picks up her story. I believe she came well prepared.

  21. Marion, such a special story and wonderful example of “the Power of One”.
    Your writing is so insightful, warm and a joy to read.

  22. It’s the sort of story that brings you to tears and makes you realise the resilience and determination required to make things happen. Covid 19 sharpens all those reactions, not to mention Brexit. What an unwelcoming society we are becoming. Stories like the ones you tell/write remind me ( and, I hope others) of the richness that we gain in return which far outstrips any cost to ourselves.

  23. Your stories light up so many lives of those we would never have known of. You are the most generous writer I have read, Marion. Your story is not your own but a tapestry of how interconnected we all are in making another world possible – with sharing and caring for so many who bring hope and joy.

  24. A wonderful story – and so elegantly told! This is so often the way hugely important adult education is achieved; but the depressing part is the complete lack of interest by successive governments. Last year, an excellent centenary report on the future of Adult Education was published, but partly because it was in the middle of the pandemic, it has been largely ignored. Also, bureaucrats like tidy limited prescriptions (“size of classroom”, when you may want to meet in a comfortable front room, or school-type syllabus, when that is the absolutely last thing needed) and don’t rise to the really inspiring challenges. The story is a bit better in Scotland, where some of the community education work is of this less formal kind.
    Incidentally, for all of us who find ourselves inspired by a Ruth and find our own outlooks changed, it is a great encouragement that President Obama’s views of the world were partly shaped by his work with poor people in Chicago.

  25. This is quintessential Marion: a person celebrating the goodness in people. A person who is devoid of an trace of cynicism.

  26. Thank you Marion for introducing us to Ruth and Rashida. It’s an inspiring story of human determination and a reminder of what people can achieve by coming together for one another.

  27. I enjoyed reading about Ruth and Rashida, and look forward to the publication of your book. This story brought back memories of being in the sixth form (in a girls’ grammar school in Huddersfield) in the 1960s, when we were encouraged to do ‘community service’, one option being to go into the homes of women recently arrived from the Indian subcontinent to informally teach English. We soon realised it was an enriching two-way experience, exchanging recipes, sharing meals and learning about a culture other than our own.

  28. This was so inspiring to read, Marion – although demanding what a wonderfully rewarding experience it must have been. We meet only a few people in our lives whom we can truly say influenced us or changed our direction, and obviously Ruth is one of these people. What an incredible lady! And I am so glad Rashida was allowed to stay in the UK.

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