I received some pretty glum news this week when an email dropped into my in-box from Sir Anthony Seldon to the broad Wellington College community to tell us that his beloved wife Joanna had come to the end of her very long journey with an incurable cancer. Joanna was a special person and will remain so in the memory. It was clear and evident to us all at Wellington that given Anthony’s legendary work rate and manic enthusiasm for all aspects of College life he could only have sustained his extraordinary efforts over ten years with the support and counsel of an extraordinary partner. Over dinner a few years ago, while on a parents trip to Auschwitz, I was chatting with Anthony about his soon to be published book about happiness and asked him, ‘Do you have a sort of editor figure who helps you plan the publication timetable and subjects for your books.’ Without hesitation he said, ‘yes, Joanna.’ What a wonderful team and I am proud that they had such a fabulous influence over my children and their education. Joanna though was much, much more than ‘wife of.’ She taught English. Well, she didn’t so much teach, rather she shared her love of English and imbued her natural enthusiasm for our language in her students. She championed and led creative writing, ran the Jewish society, was a close friend and confidant to many staff in the Common Room and opened her house to students, parents and visitors for informal fireside talks from guest speakers, pre match drinks on Saturdays, teas, lunches and any number of other events that Anthony dreamt up. Joanna was of course an accomplished writer and poet herself. Her website is well worth a visit.
To deploy the tired cliche, ‘she lost her brave battle against cancer,’ would be idle, untrue and something of an insult. It seemed to me that Joanna treated the unwelcome news of her diagnosis with grace and equanimity but then approached the problem with an intellectual curiosity that was entirely characteristic of her approach to life. If you have a moment, the talk she gave at Wellington about ‘Living With A Chronic Illness,’ is very much worth listening to. After her diagnosis in 2011 Joanna dealt with the many discomforts and hospital visits with admirable matter of factness while her self deprecating humour quickly put the rest of us at ease in conversation. It was in fact common to be at a College event and Joanna would wander into the room carrying her drip with her without a hint of self consciousness. Rather, she exuded a nonchalant serenity and dignity that demanded our affection and respect all the more. We produce some very great women in this country and in my mind Joanna is one of them. She wasn’t large in stature, more Piaf-like but my she was a big figure in every other interpretation of the word.
I offer my sincerest condolences to Anthony, Jessica, Susannah and Adam with warmth, love and respect. Joanna was a remarkable woman. There simply aren’t many of us that have lived a life so fulfilled. I remain, grateful to have known her and cherish her memory with affection.