By Jane Plastow (University of Leeds)
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 70 (2008), pp. 6-9]
John Holmes 1948-2008
John Holmes was a Leeds man. He was born and brought up in the house he would later inherit and live in for the final ten years of his life, in Guiseley, on the outskirts of the city. His father was a working class autodidact, passionate about education, who brought his sons up in a house full of books, and it was from this beginning that John inherited the omnivorous love of knowledge: about astronomy, languages, local history, opera, music, cookery and world cultures, to name just some of the topics he seemed to know more about than anyone else; that so enriched the lives of all his friends.
John’s first degree was in chemistry, but he then went on to train as an English language teacher, and it was in this connection that he began to travel. In the 1970s he worked for a while in Colchester before spreading his wings to lecture in Kosovo where he learnt fluent Albanian and acquired a lifelong interest in the area that saw him in recent years become involved in the founding of the Balkans Peace Park. In the 1980s John was an ODA advisor on the Brazilian national ESP Project. Of course he learnt Portuguese, which was vital when he moved on to become a teacher training advisor in Angola where he met his partner of 28 years, Pedro Duarte. In the 1990s it was newly independent Eritrea’s turn, and John became head of English at the University of Asmara, before the outbreak of war forced him to flee the country and take up a job at the University of Leeds.
At Leeds John was part of the TESOL teaching team in the School of Education. He worked for many years on a major training project in Oman run by the School with a group of colleagues – some of whom he managed to persuade to come camping in the mountains with him in their free time to share his love of wild places. He also taught a huge range of international postgraduate students and always made them feel welcome in Leeds – and in Guiseley. For LUCAS John was an enthusiastic Board member. He taught on our elective module, Contemporary Africas, contributed to this Bulletin, and working with LUCAS and the British Association of Applied Linguistics (BAAL) he set up a special interest group in African languages that has now held three annual conferences in the Centre.
In every place his work was characterised not only by his excellence as a language teacher, but by a great interest in developing new ideas about language teaching that would eventually lead to him writing a PhD on language learning at Lancaster University. However, language for John was always about communication. While he was teaching others English he was always also busy learning the languages of the countries he was working in. This led to his fluency in at least seven languages; the only one he was defeated by being Tigrinya in Eritrea which is notoriously difficult. And John used his languages. In a series of memorial events not only in Leeds but also in Brazil and in Eritrea, both in the capital, Asmara, and in the tiny Eritrean village of Bogu, what time and again his friends and colleagues spoke about was how John broke down the barriers between people. I knew him only from the 1990s, but Eritrean friends spoke to me about how groundbreaking was John’s attitude of informality as he regularly invited both faculty members and students round to his house to eat and party. And in Leeds his hospitality was famous. All those he worked with and taught were likely to be invited to Guiseley where the usual form was a walk through the village accompanied by a lecture on the ancient history of the local celebrity, Saint Oswald, or a hike up on to Chevin Forest, followed by a wonderful and probably very spicy Brazilian meal with all the trimmings and plenty of gin and wine.
John Holmes was a polymath. I have heard him speak with equal enthusiasm and authority on astronomy and education, on horticulture and opera. Yet he spoke only when asked, and while his wit could be quite spiky his brilliance and huge range of interests he often kept to himself. John was a committed Quaker who quietly supported his chosen faith in a range of ways. He was a member of the Leeds Gay Writers Society and wrote some very funny and pointed pieces about perceptions of homosexuality. He worked regularly as a volunteer at the Leeds Refugee Centre, and still found time to attend opera and concerts, to paint, to cycle everywhere and go on epic walks in the Yorkshire dales.
Moreover he maintained lasting relationships with the places he had lived and worked in. The Balkans Peace Park was only one interest. He regularly travelled to Brazil and worked on language projects there, and he maintained both research and personal links in Eritrea. From 2000-2007 John worked closely with the Asmara Teacher Training Institute on a project tracking the progress of new teachers in rural areas, and he and I developed a project promoting child centred learning and the use of culture in a number of Eritrean villages. We also worked to support a school in the village of Bogu where we raised money to install solar power, TV and computers. Only three weeks before he died John successfully ran with me a half marathon: and not any half marathon. The Baildon Boundary was my first such effort, which I was talked into by John, and it involves a massive climb from a deep valley up on to the top of Baildon Moor. We did it to raise further funds for Bogu for more solar power, to build latrines and to set up sports facilities for the children. Sadly John never lived to come with me to see the funds used, but when I went back to Bogu this summer it was to find that the school had been closed and no villagers had gone to the fields for three days when they heard of his death. For anyone who would like to see a short film of the visit to Bogu to spend the money so many of John’s friends donated in his name there is a Youtube link at:
I have extraordinarily vivid memories of our last trip together to Eritrea. I am not a patient woman so John was the perfect partner in dealing with petty bureaucracy. One day he went out to change some of our money and I and my son were getting slightly concerned when he disappeared for hours. When he finally returned he told us with only the mildest hint of exasperation that he had had a two hour discussion about the wings of a particular eagle pictured on the travellers cheques which the man in the Bureau de Change had insisted were flapping in the wrong direction.
In the villages we went to everyone loved John. He laughed, he happily bent his considerable size on to the tiny stools people sit on in the villages to drink the excellent Eritrean coffee, he sat around in government offices explaining our work to minor government officials, but most of all he prepared his workshops on child-centred teaching methods meticulously to be clear, participatory and enjoyable. The only thing I ever knew more about than John was theatre, but he loved the work we did with primary school children getting them to use drama to discuss their education and culture, and typically picked up on techniques and started spreading them to his other projects in Brazil and Albania. And then, of course, he insisted that we lay on a feast in both the centres we worked in as a finale to our work. Discussions on what was needed and how long cooking would take were given equal importance with teacher training, and I shall not soon forget negotiations for the buying of a goat, the strapping of the bleating animal on to the roof of our Landcruiser and its transport up the terrible mountain road to the village of She’eb before it was turned into the basis of an excellent celebratory meal for all concerned.
John’s death was so sudden that it has been hard for his friends to come to terms with. But, as I regularly pass near his old house in Guiseley it is always with a smile that I remember him. I think his most lasting legacy will be that he made so many people not only more knowledgeable but both happier and better than they were, challenging us by example rather than words to be more than we had been. When his friends had to go and do anything he knew they would find difficult John used to tell us that he would be ‘holding you in the light’. Now he is gone I find the light is still there, and John’s best legacy may be that more of us, of any faith or none, find our memory of him helps us to live nearer the light.