December, 1975, Dunmore Infants School, Abingdon, and Simon and I are performing in the school nativity play. Simon is the front-end of a camel, I am the back, and we’re both starting to drip with sweat under a heavy sheet and a bank of lights. Led by three very diminutive kings, the camel perambulates uncertainly through a central aisle surrounded by an adult audience beaming with pride and repressed hilarity (so I will eventually come to understand – naturally I can’t see a thing apart from Simon’s buttocks in a pair of cream tights).

As the beast shambles on towards a flight of steps leading up to the stage, our feet get fractionally out of sync, and slowly but surely, one of the humps begins to detach itself from the rest of the body to glacially drift off downstage left. Realising the problem, I desperately attempt to compensate. Unfortunately, in the process, I manage to tangle my right foot in a confluence of step, sheet and Simon’s ankle. At the precise moment that it reaches a hushed tableau involving some stuffed farmyard animals and a plastic baby Jesus, our internally conflicted dromedary totters for a suspenseful moment before collapsing magisterially into a heap on the floor, divesting itself of its sheet and its animal dignity as it goes.

The three kings look on in despair, thoroughly upstaged. Instead of gold, frankincense & myrrh, the Messiah is being presented with a great big sheet, two pairs of thrashing legs and a couple of toilet-roll tubes for eyes. (Which may be a departure from the New Testament, but will no doubt give Mary & Joseph something to laugh about in the tricky years ahead.)

Rushing to our aid, various flustered teachers manhandle the eviscerated animal offstage, allowing the rest of the story to play out in more traditional fashion. After the pair of us have had our humps removed by a couple of whispering staff-members in the wings, Simon stands there triumphantly in his tights, sweatily beams at me through his toilet-roll goggles and says rather too loudly: “That was GREAT!! Let’s go back on!”

 

Front end

 

Right there, side by side, the two of us laying down the template for a significant part of our adult lives: for myself, a life spent on the stage – and sometimes catastrophically all over it; and for Simon, coaxing forward a recalcitrant animal/machine/human being (delete as appropriate) somewhere very hot, and finding every fraught moment worthy of unbridled optimism, every sprawling setback re-engineered as an invigorating shove into the next adventure.

It’s curious that Shaun Hanks & Simon Robinson of this parish, two other Dunmore brethren in the Fenton gang here today, are both convinced that they also were part of that camel. Memory plays the oddest tricks when spread out over a lifetime. Maybe there were two camels. Maybe it was a mutant eight-legged camel specially bred to nuzzle the Christ-child. Or maybe our memories have merely convinced us that we shared that special hump with Simon because subconsciously we’ve always striven to be a part of his story in whichever way possible.

Because of course his story was so damned special. To recap:

  • After university, Simon is recruited at the tender age of 23 to fly out to Vietnam to build and run a pig farm. Here he learns skills such as project management, animal husbandry and how to make nice with the local mafia.
  • He escapes the assignment by the skin of his teeth on a motorbike, with various scary gentlemen in hot pursuit.
  • Back in the UK, he sets up and runs Streetshine, an award-winning social enterprise that tends to the needs of the homeless and destitute in South London.
  • He wins Social Entrepreneur of the Year.
  • Following a shockingly awful year involving suicide, personal injury and a broken heart, Simon throws everything up in the air & heads out into the blue yonder.
  • After various scrapes – one of which involves an encounter with a local Al Qaeda contingent in a storage container whilst traversing the Sahara – he ends up in Senegal, West Africa.
  • He meets & falls in love with local girl Khady, has two beautiful boys with her.
  • He builds a house (several in fact) using pioneering eco technology.
  • He sets up his guest-house business, the Little Baobab, a small patch of paradise by the sea, from which he regularly ventures forth on hiking safaris with visitors from around the world.
  • He writes & publishes two books.
  • He becomes a much-loved figure in his local community of Abene, aswell as a respected voice amongst the global travelling fraternity.

Not exactly one for the nine-to-five, was our Si.

If you want a brief taste of Simon’s life in Abene, go here: https://youtu.be/0tHQ4Pt0GAU


Average commute

When I first met him, hovering over a game of marbles in the playground of Dunmore Infants, he radiated a gentle, softly-spoken charisma even then. He was also incredibly blonde. It would occasionally hurt to look at him, he was so blonde. A bright, blonde, lisping bundle of calm that everyone wanted to be friends with. And I was his friend. In the inner circle. One of the select. He actually reminded me thirty years later that one Monday lunchtime, I came to blows with someone over the privilege of standing next to him in the school dinner queue. Besotted.

Simon and I lost touch after my family moved away from Abingdon at the dawn of the 80s, and that might have been that: a cheerful, impish, blonde smile receding into the crowd of half-remembered childhood faces. I might never have known the venturesome adult Simon who would breeze through my front door every year regular as clockwork with sunshine in his hair & African dust on his boots to regale me with the latest breathtakingly insane anecdote from the Casemance. I would never have had the deep and abiding pleasure of reconnecting with a precious part of my early years every time I clapped eyes on him. And I would not have had the privilege as well as the profound sadness of bidding farewell to him today amongst his treasured friends and family.

But I have all those things because Simon got back in touch via Facebook one summer’s day ten years ago just after I’d returned home from my honeymoon – in Africa, funnily enough. And the reconnection was instant and wonderful – the years fell away like old skin, and we were those two giggling boys from the 1970s once more. It was typical of Si’s assurance and intrepid spirit for him to seek me out like that – and for that and the precious ten years it gave us as grown-up chums, I will always be so incredibly grateful.


Great shirt

Simon was one of life’s outriders. He was a romantic to his very core, believing in the limitless potential for personal and social betterment – whilst at the same time relying on his awe-inspiring pragmatism and ‘can-do’ personality to put flesh on his ideals and make them a reality. He blazed a trail, showing us all what a treasure chest life can be if approached with an open heart, a belief in our better angels and an abiding curiosity about the world. To have witnessed him blossom so spectacularly and turn his life into an adventure that so many of us could join and celebrate beside him, either physically or online or in his books, was an act of monumental self-will – and at the same time characteristic generosity and sweet-natured humanity. I think one of his greatest pleasures in life – aside from Khady, his two beautiful boys and the wonderful community he was a part of in Abene – was to share the delight and joy he found in the world with as many people as possible. And as evidence of how many people responded to that invitation, you only need look around you, go online, follow his blog, visit the website.

http://thelittlebaobab.com/about-us/

Simon, it is a terrible, gut-wrenching thing to have had you taken from us so suddenly and so soon – it has been an emotional hammer-blow that has left me and so many others reeling. But amidst the darkness and the pain of your loss, we can, if we so choose, look at your remarkable life & allow ourselves to be gently taught the following:

Disaster is actually a golden opportunity in drag.

Just do it, right now, tomorrow might be too late.

Grasp life with both hands and let it dance you where it will.

Say yes.

Believe in people, believe in love, believe in possibility.

Stay curious.

Never, ever give up.

And wear a great shirt.


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