Jools Holland’s Hootenanny closed, as ever, with the simple ditty that gives this piece its title. (As regards the show itself, I didn’t enjoy it very much. Very few plums among the duff. George Ezra? Please explain his popularity because I don’t get it. Who buys this stuff? Even the Teletubbies’ songs were more interesting.) The “enjoy yourself” bit is important, but it’s the memento mori that we should ponder… very medieval.
One of the reasons I retired three and a half years ago is that after a couple of close friends of mine died I realised that it could just as easily happen to me. In fact it was going to happen to me, no question about it.
I’d been at the same place of work for over 25 years. To many people it must have seemed like a very good job, and I used to feel that way about it. There was no-one I worked with whom I disliked, and many colleagues had become friends. I met my wife there. I seemed to be popular and respected for my knowledge and skills. I wasn’t paid a fortune but it was more than enough to get by, especially once the mortgage was paid off. But I had stopped enjoying being at work. The feeling crept up on me. Of course I could have gone and got myself another job, or at least made an effort to look around for something new. But I was getting on for 60 and I had done my pension calculations. It wasn’t my job as such, but working for other people that was losing its appeal. I wanted to “take back control”.
The previous year I’d been very ill. I went to see the doc because my urine was the colour of whisky. She looked lovingly into my eyes and said I had jaundice. No alcohol, go immediately to King’s for an X-ray and blood tests. A week or later I was back in King’s, in a liver ward being tested for everything that has ever given anybody hepatitis. I spent nine days and nights there. It wasn’t cancer, which of course is nice, but my liver was collapsing.
King’s College Hospital is a fascinating place, if you’re in the mood to appreciate it. Every day I would walk briskly up and down the corridors over and over again for exercise – but also because lying in bed all day with no TV or internet is exceptionally boring. But sooner or later you have to go back to your ward. If you do manage to nod off, day or night, it won’t be for long. A constant stream of nurses and auxiliaries make you get up and wash, stick needles in your arm, take blood pressure tests, clean the bed and mop the floor, change your sheets.
What do you want for breakfast? Would you like a cup of tea? What do you want for lunch? What do you want for dinner? Would you like another cup of tea?
Then the medical students arrive for a chat and a prod. Actually, that is the only good bit – you get to meet young, healthy people and at least you are making yourself useful for a few minutes. In the afternoon the visitors roll up: Job’s comforters, bored teenagers, cute twins, snivelling wives… What do you say to your own visitors? “Tomorrow I’m having a biopsy, with a wire pushed down my jugular vein. Do you mind if we talk about something else? But thanks for coming.” Hug. Then you are on your own again, with just the other three invalids for company.
Every night one fellow inmate was off his head on (prescription?) drugs and shouting the odds, while another was phoning his family in Jamaica. You can’t concentrate on your book for long. Without earplugs you are done for. It is a miracle that anyone gets better and goes home. There’s all this racket and disruption but also – let’s face it – you’re terrified because you might be about to die. They may put a screen round the bed but there is no privacy. Worse than your own condition being discussed out loud is having to hear about someone else’s – especially when it’s bad news. Stay for a week and you’d easily have enough material for three episodes of Casualty.
Eventually, and without any medication, I started to get better and was able to walk the mile and a half home. It remains a mystery. If it really was a virus, I’ll have it named after me. I never want to go back there again – lovely though the staff are. I get queasy still seeing King’s from the 68 bus.
Anyway, I digress.
Not going to work won’t stop you from dying, or even from getting ill. But you might come to admit to yourself how frustrated you were getting. How you had less opportunity to use your skills, intelligence or initiative than you would have liked. I saw myself becoming ever more restless and grumpy. Maybe others saw it too. Time to say farewell.
Some friends who retired early may have felt the same as me. Others may have felt pushed out, and would rather have carried on a bit longer. Or you may be thinking, “Well, bully for you mate. I wish I could afford to retire at 60”. I understand that going to work is a necessity for most people. To be paid (and even respected) for what you do at your place of work is great… but it is not the whole story and you should not be regarded as useless, lazy or selfish if you are not out there adding to the GNP for your entire adult life.
As it is, I am working almost as hard as I did before, but I haven’t earned a penny. I pretty well do what I want to do, when I want to do it. I’ve been able to become a publisher, manage a research project, give talks and write this blog. I see my friends and my parents more often. I play the guitar, read more books, go to more museums and do more thinking. If the weather is good I can go on a day trip, or just walk round the park. And there’s still not nearly enough time to do all the things I’d like to do. If I don’t do these things now, when am I going to do them? I am nearly 64; how many good years do I have left?
Even so, I would have been prepared to work fewer hours for another couple of years – if that option had been offered to me. Maybe you, and your employers, can make do with just four days a week of your valuable time. But if not, enjoy your life, make more of an effort to get out and see old friends, pick up that guitar or watercolours or whatever it is you’ve pushed to one side, and don’t leave it too long to find your voice. It’s 2019 – and probably later than you think.