The Song of Digby and of Jane

At Birmingham University’s freshers’ week in 1967, a quietly classy Yorkshire girl called Jane met Digby, a shaggy-haired boy from the outskirts of Manchester.

For reasons that remain unclear, in an effort to impress he told her that he was part-Aborigine. 

Despite this unusual strategy, they fell in love. 

The story of their relationship is not mine to tell, but it led to a wedding day four years later, and hands that have held each other for half a century now. 

Digby took some time out from his studies so they spent a time apart and finished their degrees in different years. Their first daughter appears as a carefully-held bundle in grainy, light-flooded ciné film footage at Digby’s graduation. That bundle was me. 

Years followed of brave knitwear choices, bad haircuts, tins-full of homemade cake and holidays in anoraks in a static caravan (I’ve never known excitement in the pit of my stomach like I felt when my sister and I watched the car being loaded with provisions for the summer and the long journey to the wild north).

They trained as teachers and taught in schools in inner-city Birmingham, and on troubled estates. Digby was working at a school in Handsworth when tensions boiled over into rioting. We watched the footage of burning cars on the TV news as we waited for his return, no hope of a call from a mobile to reassure us. 

Like anyone, they knew frustrations and breakthroughs in these years – and searing grief and quiet comfort, stress, strain and everyday happinesses. This, again, is too deep and private a song to sing here; it’s music for a different place, high on a mountain at the end of time. 

Suffice it to say, their lives – like yours and mine – were ordinary and extraordinary. 

They built a family and a home; they taught their own and many other people’s children to love learning and to know themselves to be of value.

After a lifetime of hard work and obligations, retirement is often presented as the holy grail of self-reward. Rest, treats, travel and comfortable trousers await us if we only save and plan and jump successfully through the final hoop.

Digby and Jane retired a few years ago, and they have enjoyed spending time with their grandchildren and getting discount at the cinema in the middle of the week.

But as I’ve watched I’ve seen something else at work. 

As students they were introduced to an ancient book and an ageless love which has been their stay through the decades since. It teaches care for the underdog, the overlooked and the stranger, and it has defined the way they live.  

They are private people. I remember how personally they took it when, on an empty beach in driving rain, the only other people unhinged enough to brave the elements chose to pitch their spot near ours – for solidarity, maybe, or simply to minimise the risk of being swept into the sea. They find it hard to share their beloved Lake District with the other people who keep going there and spoiling its peace.

But despite this, their retirement has not been a time of retraction and withdrawal. Their lives have instead opened wider and more generously, bringing people on the edge closer in to the warmth.

Digby still sees Ed, the friend he made at one school in the late 1970s. They talk on the phone and meet up to play pool and chat. The school was a special school for children with disabilities and learning difficulties. But Ed wasn’t a colleague – he was a pupil, and their friendship has flourished for over 40 years.

They live on a leafy road where people have long been civil and smiled and waved at their neighbours, but few have known each other well. The last few years have seen them nurture a thriving Street Association, bringing a once disparate community together into each other’s houses, into the local hall for quizzes and cake and tea, and out – together – to dig through the dusty grounds of the brain-injury unit at the end of the road, where they planted flowers to brighten the view and scent the air for those recuperating inside. 

One of their neighbours has lived reclusively for years behind a growing thicket of brambles. Gently and slowly they have built trust and connection with her. After leaving a note to invite her to a talk they thought she might find interesting, thinking it highly unlikely that she would respond, they found her waiting at the end of her drive for a lift. She now comes out to join the neighbours when they meet, and finds a welcome there.

On Friday nights at midnight, when I’m asleep on my sofa, they head off to Broad Street, the home of many of Birmingham’s busiest nightclubs, bars and restaurants. They put on their City Pastor jackets and earpieces and walk the streets in the darkness. For the next few hours they look out for people who have lost their phones, their keys, their friends or their way. 

They stop to talk, to hand out flip-flops, silver space blankets, to receive a drunken kiss or hug, to point someone in the right direction. Their visible presence is designed to dissuade those who might take advantage of people who are drunk or high, vulnerable or in despair. 

A taxi driver, accompanied by his friend, was insistent that two young women who had not been looking for a lift get into his cab. They intervened, asked the women where they were heading and saw them to safety and away from who knows what.

I am so proud of how, even on dark and inhospitable nights, they leave comfort behind to reclaim a place of safety and kindness for those who find themselves in harder, colder places.

It’s fifty years since they met, but their love still has a youth about it – a freshness and a hopefulness and an aliveness – that is perhaps best captured by Bob Dylan, the voice of their generation (and soundtrack of my childhood Sunday afternoons):

‘May your hands always be busy 

May your feet always be swift

May you have a strong foundation 

When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful 

And may your song always be sung

May you stay forever young

Forever young, forever young 

May you stay forever young.’







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