Sometimes I feel the need simply to set down some scattered musings, lightly edited, and this piece has been inspired by events and commemorations this September.
The beginning of September 1978 marked a very significant day, the first day that I began work, full-time and permanently. 31 years later, I still cannot fall in with the view that “work” is some sort of panacea for personal concerns. I have never revised my opinion of paid employment, despite the official enthusiasm for “work” as the cure for all ills. Bluntly, paid employment can be hell, with its only virtue being payment, which the Americans rightly call “compensation”. Compensation is for time lost, time wasted, a life taken away by others, and often damaged health. Despite its wondrous qualities, so many people are physically ground down by the wondrous work, which forms a critical factor in the stark differentials in life expectancy between manual workers and those more privileged. That said, I have always found work to be a great source of satisfaction, but it is not paid work directed by others, but work which I carry out for its own sake, for my satisfaction.
Well, it is now two years since I opted to work part-time, and have been able to pursue my own sort of work with much less reliance on paid work. And it has been a lesser period since paid work became a small part of my life. One morning this month, for the first time ever, I woke up and, half-asleep, wondering what to do tomorrow – and then realised that I was to attend my workplace! It is good to have cut down the job to the stage when it is containable, and when a visit to the office is like a series of reunions. But I retain no illusions about the real nature of paid work.
September 8th 1895 was my grandfather’s birthday; he actually lived to the age of 84. The last British survivors of the 1914 war, Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, died very recently, and when I read this it felt odd that a man that I had known, into my own adulthood, would now be the oldest man in Britain if he was alive today. On the day I write, there are only 6 people who were born before Grandad, two from Japan and four from the US. All are women, the oldest man living being born after Grandad. Henry Allingham, born in June 1896, had been the oldest man in Britain until he died.
Grandad was always somewhat boyish about his birthday, and it was always a special celebration. I don’t recall specific birthdays, just his emotion, from an outwardly unemotional man. I often look back over what little I know of his life, separated by generations, and wonder what he really thought about the world. And what of the events in his life, and that of my grandmother – where have they gone? It is all now so inaccessible, and I have only the shadowy imprint of memory. And yet – I knew well a man, who linked to times that are irreversibly gone. There is an intimacy in that, but also a gulf. Maybe someone will say the same about me at some point.
September 1939 saw the outbreak of war, and it is again interesting to think that nobody under the age of 70 could possibly recall the interwar years, and really noone under the age of 75 could have much more than the vaguest memory. My father would now be 87, and he volunteered in 1940; it will not be too long before there are few left able to recall the 1939-45 war. And yet, I grew up with this as a background, with bombsites that remained locally until the early 1990s, and with stories from a mother who had been bombed out twice in the blitz. It is all getting further and further away, and with that a loss of immediacy, of everyday recall for so few people.
The start of September was always an unhappy time for me. School would have begun again in the first week, and the long summer, always so highly valued, had ended. I recall feeling depressed at the start of each school year, longing for the Christmas break, and this dread was transferred to the beginning of winter when I started paid work. It was good to see this pattern broken when I ended full-time work, and I organised a short break in a Travelodge – our first – because it was possible so to do. I shall always favour the Bangor Travelodge, where we spent a Sunday and Monday night, and the much lower price for those nights, reflecting the limited demand. In September 2007 I went there gingerly, wondering if we would get a much worse deal and treatment from those paying the full price, but was pleasantly surprised. It seemed like such a new start, an entry into a new world, but so much would be overshadowed within a year.
September 1986 marked another landmark in my life – I became temperance. Initially, I was spurred by the feeling that drinking was causing me to gain excessive weight, but I had also grown too used to seeing pleasure as residing in alcohol. On holiday in Greece that summer I had drunk too much retsina and ouzo. So I stopped, for a week, as an experiment. I went along to a party which I found frustrating at first, because I was not drinking. Eventually I acted as if I was consuming alcohol, and was then accused of being drunk by one angry older man (drunk himself) before he stormed out. I realised that it was better to be in control, and have never drunk alcohol since. But it took a long time to adjust to being able to socialize and enjoy events without the lubricant of drink, and I am not sure that this did not contribute to depression later on. One thing I am glad about is that I stopped alcohol just before my father died that October. He was extremely pleased abut this. A moderate drinker himself, he had seen the blight caused by alcohol in others.
Finally, September 1989 was a very significant time, as I was just about to begin teaching, at Birmingham Polytechnic. (And I had moved house, in a tearing hurry, a move greatly regretted). I had previously booked a holiday in Northern Italy, and so spent this with work books, preparing my first lectures on a hotel balcony overlooking Lake Garda. I had little idea what would happen once these lectures was delivered, in a large draughty hall in Birmingham.
My abiding memories of Garda were of the almost permanent shadow in which the mountains placed the west shore of the Lake, and the odd conjunction between the picturesque scenery and landscape, and the lack of interest, indeed lack of life, in these areas. But I was also struck by an older couple to whom we talked on one of the lake boats. The husband, who was perhaps then about 70, said that he would not be there in 10 years time. Naively, I asked him why not, only to be admonished by Brenda. I thought it was sad that someone would know that they were in their last decade, albeit that this was realistic. I can still see this man on the boat, wondering what he was thinking, how he seemed so reconciled to his eventual demise. No doubt he is now long gone, but my sense of sadness, something that I had not really thought about up to then, has persisted. Most of my career in teaching has involved brief encounters, with people who remain largely anonymous, and whose fate in unknown. It has been 20 years of meeting and forgetting.
Postscript 2-1-2010: as at 31-12-2009, only three people (one Japanese, two US) are alive who were born before Grandad.
Postscript 8-4-2010: Today, only one person (Japanese) born before Grandad is still alive
Postscript 10-7-2010: Checking, I realise that since May 2010, the oldest person in the world now, was born in 1896. Somehow Grandad seems to have taken a further step away.