A Beautiful Human Life: Remembering Pip Wilson

A Beautiful Human Life: Remembering Pip Wilson

With the blessing of Pip’s family and of the writer, Martin Wroe, here’s an edited version of the tribute that Martin gave at Pip Wilson’s funeral earlier this October.

‘They say you’re available on certain conditions. 
Quiet ones.
That if I can find an air of tranquillity
It carries that still small voice.
But I don’t do quiet, stillness.
I am not tranquil, except when I am asleep 
And then I am not available
As far as I know.
So, what’s the chance of a still big voice in the noise,
Of hearing you in the roaring traffic,
The screaming mealtime,
The crowded train,
The supermarket queue,
The smoky, throbbing bar?
I know that time you weren’t in the fire, the storm. 
But everyone’s different.
Maybe Elijah was better at quiet.
You’re usually quiet. I’m usually wired.
If I try for your silence,
Perhaps you could try for my noise. 
Your place or mine?
I know they say you’re in the country, 
But maybe we could meet in town. . .’

A few days after Pip’s death, his family – Joan, Joy and Ann – found one of his trademark mind-maps – sketches or doodles he did to help put his thoughts in order. This particular one was headlined ‘My Funeral’ and mapped out many of the elements for his funeral service – readings, music, hymns and poems. 

It mentioned the poem above, which I wrote about thirty years ago, and thinking about his service I realised it was probably a poem written under the influence of Pip. It’s about finding a sense of the divine in an urban landscape. When the volume’s turned up to 11 as well as in the deep silence. The same idea is in the words Pip chose for the service from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, living 2,700 years ago: ‘Seek the welfare of the city … for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’ 

Pip came to those words through Jim Punton, a Church of Scotland minister, who worked for Frontier Youth Trust.  Jim was an early board member of the Greenbelt Festival, a little while before Pip and I became board members, in the mid-1980s. When Pip was working with gangs in east London, he used to visit Jim every six weeks for what you might call ‘spiritual coaching’. At the end of Pip’s memoir Gutter Feelings, he quotes Jim, quoting Isaiah: ‘Seek the shalom of the City – because in its shalom, you will find your own Shalom.’ 

Shalom, peace, integration, welfare, wellbeing, welcome – different words we might come up with to try and capture the elusive presence of love in our lives. 

Love with a capital L. The presence of the other, the presence of the divine. 

I looked through the hundreds of online tributes to Pip. 

‘He had such an impact on my life…’ 
‘The man who changed my direction… ‘ 
‘I’ll never forget what you said to me..’ 
‘You saved my life…’ 

Pip was an influencer before the word had been invented.  He taught us to think differently about each other and about ourselves  Unlike today’s influencers he didn’t influence your brands – he was more likely to influence how you feel about yourself, or your relationships, or your community.  He influenced so many of us. 

Pip, said someone else, was ‘fun and formative’.  Pip was usually fun – he loved his games, as thousands of Greenbelters will recall from taking part in The Rolling Magazine at the festival. And he was always formative. For many of us he was part of our formation as people.  He made time, he listened and he didn’t rush to judgement. 

Training down to Whitstable to visit in recent years I would sometimes jot down an exchange afterwards.  For instance, one morning in a hospice: 

Nurse: Alright this morning Pip? 
Pip: You’re the light of my life.
Nurse: I wish my husband could hear you say that. 
Pip: Bring him in.
Nurse: Maybe I will, he’d have a surprise. 

He would have had a surprise, to meet this open, curious, generous man. This young man, despite the passing years. Ever since I’ve known him he’s often been the youngest person in the room. And Pip rarely asked what you were thinking – he usually asked how you were feeling?  He was a professor of the soul and never forgot that although he became a Christian when he was 21, it was not until he was 40 years old that he discovered his feelings. 

‘Of course,’ he said, ‘the feelings were always in me but I didn’t even go there. They just exploded or stayed submerged. No consideration that I could get into contact with them. Welcome them. Understand them….’ 

This was long after he and Joan had married – she was early twenties, he was mid twenties – and after the two of them had been running a Young Offenders unit in Manchester in the 1960s.  Also after they’d been Youth Workers in the Y Club, a Youth & Community Centre in St Helens, the two of them living in an upstairs flat with Joy and Ann, their young girls.  The holy family Wilson were outliers, trying to seek the shalom of the city and in that shalom find their own. 

Pip himself had been formed by meeting Joan – his lifelong Mrs Beautiful – and his life would be shaped more by Joy and Ann, by their partners, Pete and Dave, and in recent years by their grandchildren Connie and Nell.  We’re all shaped by our family – the one we arrive into and the one we’re looking for. But Pip’s experience working with young people had shown him that the influence of a family isn’t always so good. 

‘We all have an upstream,’ he said, ‘and becoming aware of it helps us in our living. We can’t change the past but we can learn from it.’ 

There were key formative influences for Pip from outside as his work developed – people like Michael Eastman and Jim Punton from Frontier Youth Trust, an organisation supporting people living in urban priority areas. It was when the family had moved to the Mayflower Centre in Canning Town, often working with young people caught up in gang life, that Pip realised he had to manage his own emotions if he was going to be any good at helping people manage theirs. 

He was good with metaphors. He said, ‘I had to put my own oxygen mask on first, so I could help others…’  He had to introduce himself to his own feelings. 

This first half of his life – working with Joan alongside people in difficult or desperate situations –  was to help him understand the second half, where he was to lead Romford YMCA, become a passionate trustee of Greenbelt Festival and travel widely as a trainer, group facilitator and author. And in the second half, he said, ‘I’m on a journey of learning how to love because I believe I’ve got me toenail dipped into understanding what love is.’ 

Pip didn’t pretend that faith delivered all the answers. He was once sitting with Jim Punton and told him, ‘I don’t feel spiritual anymore’.  He felt he’d become hard, as he put it, that he was losing his resilience… maybe even his religion. 
‘I’m glad,’ said Jim, ‘because you’re going through change.’ 
As Pip often reminded you, ‘Change does not reside in a place called comfortable.’ 

Considering he left school in his mid- teens, worked in a factory and always claimed not to be academic or bookish, he really was very good with words as well as emotionally and intellectually perceptive. He could read you. On another recent visit one of the medics asked Pip if he had any more questions. 

Pip: I like your freshness you know. You’re a good engager.
Medic: You’re from my part of the world. I support Liverpool. 
Pip: Is that the round ball? 

Pip cherished where he came from, exemplified by his beloved rugby league. In the second half of his life he was also a man with a mission. He blogged his mission – he blogged most things – and he told you about it.  Or he’d get his brilliant blobbing buddy Ian Long to turn it into a book. 

‘I will live to love,’ he wrote, ‘modeled on my developing commitment, understanding and faith in God.’
‘I will continue to believe, behave, and affirm that all individual persons are unique, special and valuable – “beautiful human persons”. 
I will live to love myself,
friends, colleagues 
and be active socially and cosmically.’ 

He could compress his mission to a dozen words: ’I’m going to make everything around me beautiful – that will be my life.’ 
Or five words: ‘I will live to love.’ 

This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was won by a Norwegian novelist called Jon Fosse.  Fosse has said that all of us are ‘longing for God, because the human being is a continuous prayer.’ 

‘The human being is a continuous prayer’.

I would have texted that to Pip and then he’d have blogged it. It’s what Pip believed, that’s why he said we were all of us not so much human beings as human becomings.  We’re all prayers waiting to be answered. 

And in our longing for the unnameable divine presence, words break down and we’re left with our emotions, our feelings.  And Pip, to use another of his self-descriptions, was ‘an emotion detective’. 

Rev Rachel Webbley visited Pip and Joan every month for a little service of prayer to share bread and wine. One week, as it concluded Pip said, ‘I can feel the stillness… that was beautiful… my insides have all gone quiet.’ 

Pip could do quiet as well as loud. He knew the divine presence might be disclosed anywhere. He had learned to read his own feelings and translate his own emotions. 

Feelings are signals, he said. They’re not right or wrong – that’s behaviour. Feelings are information. 

He would quote the Irish poet John O’Donohue, who he had met over whisky and a cigar late one night at Greenbelt. 

‘Feeling is the secret bridge that penetrates solitude and isolation. Without the ability to feel, friendship and love could never be born. All feeling is born in the heart. This makes the human heart the true jewel of the world.’ 

And it explains why the idea of Level Five had became so important to Pip – and why through him it’s captured many of us. 

Level 1 – cliches – how are you?
Level 2 – facts – where you went last night
Level 3 – opinions – about the ref in that match
Level 4 -–feelings… and here’s where Pip saw we often dodge the question and resort to thoughts – Pip was looking for emotion
Level 5 – total and complete openness. That’s hard to reach, it’s vulnerability and that’s what the members of Pip’s Level Five group have spent forty years working at together. Humans becoming themselves. 

This had grown from Pip’s second conversion. When he was forty, when he took a journey through his feelings and realised he had permission to love himself, 

‘I started to see beyond behaviours and to see the person, love the person, rather than just get blocked by the behaviour. You can see a person’s behaviour but you cannot see the journey. You cannot see their upstream.’ 

That’s how Pip came to understand that everyone of us is a beautiful human person. 

‘When you see people as beautiful,’ he said, ‘their own innate beauty becomes more obvious. And when we accept and affirm the beauty in each other, all of our behaviour may change.’ 
And human life begins to mirror divine life. 
Life becomes a continuous prayer. 

Pip knew that in his life with Joan. 
As for me and God, he said. It’s like being married to Mrs Beautiful. 
I consider breathing as praying. God is a constant partner as we journey together. 
It is a closeness like ‘Level Five’.
It is a closeness like a human friend.’ 

Peace upon you Pip Wilson, Beautiful Human Person.  You helped us understand each other. You helped us understand our selves. 

An edited version of a talk delivered at Pip’s funeral service in Whitstable in October 2023. The poem, ‘They Say You’re Available’  is from When You Haven’t Got a Prayer published by Lion, 1997.