Profile: Sir Christopher Ball

4:07pm Thursday 2nd May 2013

By Gill Oliver

Reading Sir Christopher Ball’s entry in Wikipedia, it is hard to believe he has managed to cram so much into one lifetime.

The 78-year-old former warden of Keble College has had a glittering career in academia, including a knighthood for services to education.

He has been on many government advisory committees and held a stream of prestigious positions in higher education, including chancellor of Derby University.

One of the other main passions in his life is hands-on charitable work and advising charities on how to successfully fundraise.

When they were students, he and his wife Wendy, 74, pledged to give 10 per cent of their income to charity, something they have continued to do since.

Their latest joint project is hiking from the South Coast to the Scottish border to raise money for the national charity Down’s Syndrome Education International.

“The next one is Wigan to Preston but the joke is we walk along rivers and canals, so it is all flat and the sort of thing elderly people do,” he laughed.

Despite all the career and fundraising activity, family life has always been their number one priority.

The couple, who live in Jericho, met in 1957 in Vienna, where they were at summer school learning German.

Sir Christopher, who was in his final year studying English at Merton College, proposed after three days.

Coincidentally, Wendy was about to arrive in Oxford to do an external University of London language degree through St Clare’s.

They went on to have two children, before adopting another four of mixed race, and they now have eight grandchildren. Tragically, one of their adopted sons Peter, who had Asperger’s syndrome, died 13 years ago, aged 31, from an epileptic fit, a legacy of which is that they fundraise for two autism charities, Autistica and Research Autism.

Sir Christopher’s expertise is in all aspects of human learning, brain science, motivation, self-esteem and the exploration of the limits of human potential. That last one seems particularly apt for someone who waited until his late 60s to take up marathon running.

A telling-off from his doctor about being overweight and having high blood pressure, prompted him to reach for a pair of trainers.

He said: “When I first took it up, there were two things I knew.

“One was that I was no good at running and the other was that I hated it.

“I have always enjoyed the challenge of taking someone who knows they can’t or don’t want to do something and then helping them turn things around and in this situation, I turned out to be my most recalcitrant pupil.”

His techniques obviously work, as he completed the London Marathon for the first time in 2003 at the age of 68 — and this was just the beginning.

He explained: “I started to think how wonderful it would be if I could run seven marathons in seven days.

“I decided to do the length of the Thames which luckily, is almost exactly the same distance as seven marathons, or 182 miles.

“I ran 26 miles a day for seven days, starting at the source in Kemble, Gloucestershire and finishing at Tower Bridge. I ran across Tower Bridge on the seventh day and finished one hour earlier than I had estimated.

“Then I realised Wendy and my family were coming to cheer me over the line and would be disappointed if they’d missed the big moment, so went and bought myself an ice cream and sat out of sight while I watched them set up a little stall with balloons and a bottle of Champagne, then, when they were ready, I went back and did my finish for a second time.

“Actually, it later turned out Wendy had spotted me lurking on the bridge and thought it was quite funny that I finished twice.”

Two years later, he founded and was first to complete the 10-in-10 Challenge, a fiendish invention which involves running 10 marathons in 10 days in the area around Lake Windermere.

A series of heart attacks and triple bypass heart surgery in 2011 have put a stop to the running but he says that replacing this with long-distance walking means he and Wendy spend more time together.

Two of his current involvements are as founder patron of the Jericho Living Heritage Trust and, perhaps more controversially, a foundation trustee of one of the new breed of Michael Gove’s free schools, Langley Hall Primary Academy in Berkshire.

He is also a listening volunteer with The Samaritans, including the gruelling night shift, which involves taking calls from worried and sometimes suicidal people at the charity’s offices in Oxford.

Incredibly, the day he had his heart attack two years ago, he insisted on finishing his session before allowing a colleague to drive him to hospital.

Barely a week after surgery, when most people would be thinking about taking it easy, he volunteered to spearhead a fundraising campaign for the Oxford Heart Centre.

He pointed out: “The heart unit at the John Radcliffe saved my life, or gave me back my life as I like to think of it.

“I feel much gratitude for that.” This week he is celebrating the publication of a book of poetry he has written, which is teamed with beautiful illustrations by local artist Katherine Shock.

That Sweet City: Visions of Oxford appears under his middle names of John Elinger, the title a nod to Matthew Arnold’s 19th-century description of the city.

He has been composing poetry since his teens, though he began writing in earnest only after he hit 70.

Two of his previous collections of poetry, Still Life and Operatic Interludes, were well received.

He also won a national prize four years ago for a poem about the cooling towers of Didcot Power Station.

That same year, he was appointed visiting poet at the University of Augusta in Georgia.

Going to America purely on the strength of his verse was a liberating experience, he explained.

“At home in Oxford, people know me as someone who used to be head of an Oxford college, not as a poet, but when you are abroad, no one knows anything about you. “Using my middle names, John Elinger, as my pen name is a way around it.

“I feel that when I write, I am this guy who has notionally long hair and sandals and doesn’t know what day of the week it is and I get away from Christopher Ball, who could be described as vaguely competent.”

He and Katherine Shock plan another instalment in the That Sweet City vein, this time focusing on London but his ultimate dream is to write an illustrated book of poems about one of his and Wendy’s favourite cities, Venice.

So, what drives him to keep trying new things and pushing forward, when he could so easily relax and enjoy the fruits of his success?

He explained: “The fatal thing is to rest on your laurels and think, well, I have been the warden of Keble College so I don’t need to anything more. “If you do that, you die very quickly and therefore it is a survival mechanism to say ‘hang on, what are you going to do next?’.”

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