Tribute to Alan Bruce Harrison
I would like to welcome you all here today as we meet to remember Alan Bruce Harrison, to honour and commemorate his life and bring some comfort to those who have been especially hurt by his death. At the end of this farewell ceremony you may feel glad that you took the opportunity to do some of your grieving in the presence of others who knew and loved Alan. The catastrophe of death cannot be altered, but it can be transformed by love.
My name is Gaynor Doherty and I am a celebrant accredited by Humanists UK. Sue and Alan didn’t expect us all to be gathered here today. Even in death, he saw an opportunity to educate and had expressed a wish to leave his body to medical science at Nottingham University. Sadly, the paperwork was not signed in time and so Sue chose to return him simply to the earth which nurtured and supported him during his life. This ceremony will be conducted without prayer or hymns. It will simply be a celebration of Alan’s life, telling his story and allowing each of you to reflect upon what he meant to you.
Alan identified with Humanist values – the belief that life is precious. The belief that life should, wherever possible, be lived in a way that is fulfilling and happy – appreciating all that we have, respecting the beauty of our natural world, and showing kindness and respect to those around us. And above all, loving our family and friends.
I never met Alan but had the huge privilege of speaking with Sue and Jud as they reflected upon Alan’s life, sharing messages from friends, memories and stories of his incredible journey. It’s clear to me that Alan was a completely unique, warm, inspiring, hugely talented and giving man who was loved and cherished by all who knew him.
Alan was born in Chilwell, Nottingham on the 22nd of February 1947, the youngest of ten children born to his mother, Margaret, only seven of whom survived. His father was a high-ranking military officer who abandoned his large family when Alan was only two years old. Alan was therefore raised by his mother and siblings. He never missed him, though his anger over the hurt caused to his mother never left him.
For a man who devoted so much of his life to education and the power of learning to change lives, his own academic potential was slow to emerge. He was always in trouble at school. After a particularly bad school report, his mother wrote, “I don’t know what to do with Alan. He lives in a world of his own.” He did however make one very special lifelong friend at school, Richard Beckinsale, who went on to be a famous and well-loved actor.
Alan failed his eleven plus exam and attended the Alderman White Secondary Modern School. At around the age of thirteen or fourteen, Alan began exploring potholes with friends and somehow made the acquaintance of members of the Pegasus Caving Club. Without doubt, those chance meetings and the friendships and support the club gave him changed his life. The Pegasus group became his substitute family and its male members were the father figures he had long missed.
Alan left school with few qualifications and began an apprenticeship at Ariel Pressings, Beeston. Tragically, his mother became terminally ill with cancer and he nursed her until she died. The experience made him highly independent, but he was only sixteen years old and now an orphan with no money. His friend, Jud, had joked that if he ever needed a place to stay he could live with her family. She returned home one evening to find Alan sitting in the kitchen with his wet socks drying on the fireguard. He had taken her at her word. Alan went on to live with his sisters in turn as he came to terms with all that had befallen him.
It was the intervention and wise advice of Doug Scott, a teacher and a fellow climber, that helped Alan onto the road he followed for the rest of his life. Alan was keen to learn, and Doug suggested that he went back into education to attend an FE college. Alan decided he wanted to be a teacher. So, with no money and wearing hand-me-down clothes, each day he hitch-hiked from Attenborough to South East Derbyshire College in Ilkeston to study first for ‘O’ Levels and later ‘A Levels. Alan discovered he had a gift for sharing and imparting understanding to others – a gift for teaching. He became president of the Student’s Union too.
When he was seventeen, Alan undertook an expedition with Pegasus to Gouffre Berger in France, then the deepest known cave in the world. He’d seen how the club raised funds and sponsorship, so in 1968 he organised a trip to the Sahara, finding sponsors for food, equipment and the purchase of an army lorry. Alan’s relentless pursuit of educational goals and resilience were now well established. He always found a way to make things happen. When Alan began cave diving, he struggled to purchase the expensive equipment. His sisters bought a valve and bottle for his 21st birthday and Alan created a harness and backpack from plywood and webbing. It wasn’t aesthetic but it worked!
It was while he was finishing his ‘A’ Levels that Sue first met Alan. She was a university drop-out, working in the civil service in Nottingham. He was flat sitting and working as a scaffolder part time, thanks to Barry Parker of the Pegasus Club. On the evening they met, Sue was on her way to a blind date with Melvin, another Pegasus member. She was being driven by another of the group who saw Alan on the street and pulled over to give him a lift. Sue’s blind date didn’t work out, but she and Alan clicked and from that moment on they became very close.
For perhaps the first time in his life, Alan had some money and was keen to treat and impress his new girlfriend. Sue was sharing a bedsit with three other girls. He announced that he would be taking her out in a convertible and the girls awaited his arrival with excited anticipation. He turned up in the army lorry and drove her to the Priesthouse, where the waiter remarked with raised eyebrows that he’d seen him arrive!
Soon Alan had enrolled at Durham University. He hitch-hiked back to Nottingham to see Sue in all weathers and continued his caving adventures in Derbyshire. After a time, he announced, “This is crackers! Why don’t you apply to Durham and join me?” She duly did, embarking upon a degree in Sociology and Anthropology. They lived in a caravan in Finchdale Abbey. Alan was a year ahead but changed his main subject to Sociology with Psychology and Politics so they could spend more time in each other’s company and share their academic journey too.
As Sue completed her final year, Alan was advised to pursue his teaching goals by experiencing a range of educational settings. Durham had some difficult, rough schools, but he thrived, and it confirmed his vocation. Alan had a powerful sense of public service. He was determined to pay Derbyshire back, as he saw it, for giving him a second chance at education. He wanted to return to South East Derbyshire College and soon gained a position. Many of his new colleagues had once been his teachers. Alan became Student Union Advisor and the students loved him.
In 1968, Sue and Alan embarked on the first of many holidays and the beginning of their lifelong passion for travel. They toured Morocco, sleeping in the back of their £25 minivan, revelling in the exotic sights and sounds of the country. Alan had always worked on cars, making money mending them whilst at Durham. He was good at problem solving and fascinated by engineering ingenuity and the minivan made the trip successfully.
In 1970, they married in the Durham registry office, both with bare feet, he in his black loon pants and beads, she in a dress he bought by cashing in an insurance policy. They planned to travel on honeymoon to Turkey with another couple who broke up the night before they were due to set off, and friend Wyndham still went with them.
When his best friend Richard Beckinsale died at the age of thirty-one in March 1979, Alan was knocked for six. He needed time and space to process his loss and so the following year, they sold their car and took the trip of a lifetime to India, purchasing a rail pass and spending the whole long summer holiday travelling. The following year they journeyed to the USA, Mexico, Belize and Gautemala, where they found themselves in a war zone. Sue was not a natural traveller, but Alan gave her confidence because she knew she could rely upon him completely. She organised the itinerary, researching the wonderful places they might see, and Alan did the rest. He was serendipitous.
Their foreign travels expanded with trips to India again in 1986, Vietnam on buses and trains in 1987 and Bali several times. Sometimes the adventures were hair-raising or lacking in necessities, like one particular occasion when they travelled to Ubud to an exotic, beautiful homestay. Alan suggested dinner and Sue was excited to get ready until she realised there was no hot water or power to run the hair drier. On another occasion he pulled her bed away from the wall and sprinkled ‘magic powder’ around it to ward off a cockroach infestation, allowing her to sleep. The next morning, he confessed it was just talcum, but it worked!
Their trip to Kenya found them in the middle of a coup. The cheap flight with Air Sudan set them down in Juba for an unscheduled stop. They saw their plane take off with another group of passengers. The airline had two planes and three sets of passengers. When they later complained to the airline about their enforced overnight stay, they denied it had happened, despite the clear passport stamps. On their way back from Mombasa to Nairobi there were bodies in the streets and the bus was pock marked with bullet holes. They were confined to their hotel for seven days. Their holidays became the stuff of legend. Mike Clegg, the Principal of South east Derbyshire College would ask where they were going on holiday so he knew where the next coup would be! Their trips were often shared with great friends of many decades’ standing.
As Alan’s career in education developed, he pursued opportunities for international connections. Alan was promoted at South East Derbyshire College and then moved to High Peak College as Head of Department. Soon he became Vice Principal of Clowne College and by the age of just 42 he was Principal of Derby College. It was here he worked with French teacher Rafiq Sfar-Gandoura on the management team to establish a college link with Tunisia. They attempted to do the same in China with Sue and Alan visiting, but it fell through as issues arose over the transitioning of Hong Kong back into Chinese control. Undaunted, he set about creating links with Russia. Two cosmonauts came to the college to inspire the students and several travelled back to Star City along with the Mayor of Derby and Rafiq for an International Science Competition, even sitting in a Soyuz space capsule. The cosmonauts travelled to Tunisia within Alan’s International programme and the next connection was made with Palestine.
Alan’s energy knew no bounds. Even as he developed his career, he renovated their homes. Sue and Alan had already transformed their small cottage in Elton when Alan found Eden Bank. They moved in during 1982. It was very neglected and initially they simply camped inside as they began to repair and secure its structure. For the first year Alan monitored their outgoings closely to ensure they could afford to live there. Over the years they decorated and gave the building a new roof, creating secondary glazing, laying the beautiful wooden floor of the living room and transforming it into a comfortable home. Alan took great joy in working things out for himself, making and mending and defying those who underestimated him. At Elton he had worked out how to install central heating. His methodology was always a little unorthodox, but it worked.
In later years, he became an Educational Consultant, saving failing colleges and turning them around. He made a huge impression on one entirely female senior management team in Liverpool who made a special trophy for their final meal together, adorned with his trademark moustache at the time. The whole team wore moustaches in tribute.
Sue and Alan saved travels in Europe for their retirement. He loved to drive and together they visited Spain, Italy, France and Sicily and also visited friends in Panama. He was not at all materialistic, save for one weakness – cars – and that was really because of his love of beautiful engineering. His pride and joy was an old 1978 Rolls Royce which he owned for twenty years.
Three years ago, Alan was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was very aggressive and had metastasised into his bones. The treatment plan was palliative from the outset, but his attitude was ever stoical and positive. “This condition isn’t terminal,” he mused. “It’s just incurable.” Last Christmas the Derby Hospital consultant, Das, told Alan they had reached the end of their options. Alan chose to die at home. He received exceptional support from social care and the community nurses – Steph, Carol and her team of Saadia and Helen. Jud moved in for the final few nights to help Sue and lifelong friend Christine came to give invaluable daily support. Alan died on the 27th of February, aged 73 and four days.
Alan was a wonderful teacher, a collectivist, and team player who loved to lead but relished working with others. Alan believed in giving everyone a second chance, just as he himself had all those years ago. He never gave up on a student. His loyalty was one of his greatest qualities. If you were Alan’s friend, he stood by you, no matter what. He was inspired by public service and making life better for others. Alan was open hearted and open minded, a rare and beautiful soul who was ever by Sue’s side and they loved one another completely.
Sue has asked me to read this beautiful poem by Lem Sissay which resonates with all the wonderful qualities of her beloved husband.
Invisible Kisses by Lemn Sissay
If there was ever one
Whom when you were sleeping
Would wipe your tears
When in dreams you were weeping;
Who would offer you time
When others demand;
Whose love lay more infinite
Than grains of sand.
If there was ever one
To whom you could cry;
Who would gather each tear
And blow it dry;
Who would offer help
On the mountains of time;
Who would stop to let each sunset
Soothe the jaded mind.
If there was ever one
To whom when you run
Will push back the clouds
So you are bathed in sun;
Who would open arms
If you would fall;
Who would show you everything
If you lost it all.
If there was ever one
Who when you achieve
Was there before the dream
And even then believed;
Who would clear the air
When it’s full of loss;
Who would count love
Before the cost.
If there was ever one
Who when you are cold
Will summon warm air
For your hands to hold;
Who would make peace
In pouring pain,
Make laughter fall
In falling rain.
If there was ever one
Who can offer you this and more;
Who in keyless rooms
Can open doors;
Who in open doors
Can see open fields
And in open fields
See harvests yield.
Then see only my face
In reflection of these tides
Through the clear water
Beyond the river side.
All I can send is love
In all that this is
A poem and a necklace
Of invisible kisses.
Alan was relied upon by so many and his Integrity, kindness and loyalty were legendary. He had a wonderful self-deprecating sense of humour. Alan was never afraid to challenge orthodoxy and held strong views but was always guided by an innate sense of justice and fairness. Sue has received so many wonderful personal messages and tributes which reflect the extraordinary esteem in which he was held.
Rafiq and Nina wrote to say, ‘Alan was a real gentleman, always generous, fair and loyal. He was a man with an international outlook, tolerant and genuinely interested in other cultures. We will cherish his companionship on our travels to faraway places. We will really miss him. Rest in peace our dear friend.’
Another letter reads, ‘I had the privilege to work closely with him for 12 years at Mackworth College from its inception to the merger.
‘I had total respect for him as a ‘boss’, colleague and also as a friend. Through his unique style of leadership and his guidance I was able to develop professionally and as an individual.
‘I will always be grateful to him for how my professional and personal life was enhanced knowing him as a person and friend.’
Finally, Geoff Gration’s words will I’m sure resonate with everyone here. ‘There’ll be so many of us thinking of Al and the strong, big-hearted man that he always was. I remember many times at Mackworth when we found ourselves in a bit of a pickle, Al would say: “If you’re looking for justice, you can forget it!”. But it was Al himself who was the source of so much justice – I think we all felt secure, and safe in a way, knowing that Al would always be honest, fair, and even-handed. Such a good man.’
A Time of Quiet Reflection
Please take a quiet moment now to reflect upon your own personal memories of Alan.
A Final Farewell to Alan
And now the time has come when we will lay Alan’s body in its final resting place. Just as we welcome a child into our lives, so we must say goodbye to those who leave us.
To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose under the sun
A time to be born, and a time to die.
In this last act, in sorrow but without fear, in love and appreciation we let him go.
His hopes and ideals we commit to our minds.
His character and his personality we commit to our memories.
His love and friendship we commit to our hearts.
His body we commit back to the natural elements from whence it came.
Listen. There is silence now. This stillness.
Gradually we will get used to it. But, for now, it is strange.
You have left such a gap.
Our world is in shock, holding its breath.
But listen closer – all your laughter, all your love is still ringing out.
Still holding us.
All our memories of you are still with us.
All the love we shared is still in every one of us. And although we ache from this loss of you, you will always be here – as still and steady, and fierce as any star.
Look. You are shining through all our skies.
Thank you for being here with us.
We have been remembering Alan’s life with love and gratitude for all he gave and all he was; his friendship, his humour, his passions, his talents, his love.
Sue has asked me to share the words of the pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead in her poem ‘Remember Me’.
‘Remember Me’ by Margaret Mead
Remember Me: To the living, I am gone. To the sorrowful, I will never return. To the angry, I was cheated, But to the happy, I am at peace, And to the faithful, I have never left. I cannot be seen, but I can be heard. So as you stand upon a shore, gazing at a beautiful sea - remember me. As you look in awe at a mighty forest and its grand majesty - remember me. As you look upon a flower and admire its simplicity - remember me. Remember me in your heart, your thoughts, your memories of the times we loved, the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed. For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.
So hold on to Alan in your thoughts.
There is no need to part from him too quickly.
Carry Alan with you:
What he would have thought and said and done.
Make him a part of who you are
So that even though he is gone from the world
He is not gone from you.
For that is our immortality, in the hearts and minds of the living.
After this ceremony, you are warmly invited to gather at Sue and Alan’s home at Eden Bank, Whatstandwell, to share food and drink. There will be plenty of opportunity to talk about Alan and tell your own stories of his life.
You may wish to donate in Alan’s memory to The Woodland Trust, a charity close to his heart, but Sue is happy for you to make donations to any charity of your choosing. It’s the act of giving that was important to Alan.
I’m sure he would want you to leave here today with a smile on your face, as you remember his energy, his laughter, and his insatiable love of life. Alan loved his beer, and Sue has asked that you might all share a little now to toast his memory and pour a few drops onto Alan’s casket, in the ancient custom of libation. Perhaps it will help to nurture the oak tree that will soon be planted and rise in this space, transforming death to life in nature’s endless cycle of renewal.
Please travel safely and thank you for being here for Alan.
It's important that this ceremony is welcoming to everyone, no matter what your beliefs, so later there will be a quiet time, an opportunity to recall personal memories.
Thoughts on life and death
As we stand here in this place of beauty, we feel and smell the spring air and see the leaf fall among the trees with their new buds which marks the beginning of this growing season. We know that death is part of the natural order of things, just as night follows day. It will come when it will come. It is a sad time when we lose someone close to us, but we also have the opportunity to celebrate Alan’s incredible life, to remember what it was that we loved about him and share this time together.
Our lives are given meaning by those people who have been an inspiration and given us their love and friendship. A person is not simply an individual, but the sum of the web of their relationships, experiences and interactions accumulated throughout their lives, and that web continues past their death. Alan will always be a part of who you are. Even though he will be gone from the world, he won't be gone from you. What matters is not so much that someone has died but that they have lived.
A Humanist Funeral Ceremony