I swim at an indoor pool every Sunday morning, except when I am away from home or have another reasonable excuse, such as I can’t be bothered. Apart from walking, it is the only regular exercise I take. As I plough up and down, which I find extremely boring, I have to have something to occupy my mind. There are plenty of things to ponder. Even though I am comparatively well off for a pensioner, there’s the steeply rising cost of living, with inflation now in double figures. There’s the sad decline of my newly-widowed mother in her care home. The international situation is even more depressing, with the prospect of World War Three closer than it has been for decades and major environmental disasters now commonplace.
But on the last occasion I was just thinking about how slow a swimmer I’ve become; everyone, male and female, young and old, was moving faster than me. Not that I was ever much good at swimming, or at anything sporty.
I remember being taught to swim when I was 11 or 12. I was one of just two in my class who could not already swim. I was sure that I would never learn, just as I was sure I would struggle to learn to ride a bike. I wonder where this lack of confidence came from? Maybe it was a product of my rather isolated upbringing: no siblings or cousins in whose footsteps to follow, plus being brought up in the Far East (for example, I did not know even the basic rules of cricket or football until I was 11).
Of course – like nearly everyone else – I did learn to swim, and to ride a bike and to drive a car. I did all these things quite easily. I passed my 11+ and got a free place to the best school for miles around. I passed my four A levels at 17, and was accepted by Queen’s College Oxford. In due course I met a pretty, clever and talented girl to love, who loved me in return. I obtained a good degree, and found a job. After a year I went back to Oxford and, despite a few setbacks, got a second degree. Eventually I left and got another job (at 29!), and eventually found a beautiful woman who was prepared to marry me. We are still together, 32 years on, with a house in a fairly desirable part of London and another home in France. Bully for me!
Where am I going with this?
What I am saying is that I’ve lived a fairly successful life and there’s not a lot to be ashamed of. But something my father said a year ago hit the spot: “You did OK… but if you’d stuck with it I reckon you could have been a prof”. As I had spent a month waiting on my parents hand and foot, I found his off-the-cuff, rather blunt remark quite annoying. The expression “damned with faint praise” comes to mind. I might have replied, “Perhaps I could have been a professor, but I didn’t want to carry on with it. It was making me miserable – and it wasn’t just me”. In fact, I did say something to that effect. I could have reminded him that he always thought my academic career, such as it was, was a waste of time and (to some extent, his) money, and that he had always wanted me to go into a commercial environment, which I eventually did (sort of).
He could never get over me studying Ancient Greek
I was put on the defensive, because he was right to say that I could have done better. Considered on a bad day, my life story is one of mediocrity. I passed all my O and A Levels but my grades weren’t nearly as good as they should have been. I got to Oxford but I wasn’t awarded a scholarship, unlike most of my friends. I got a very good Second, but a very good Second is not the same as a First.
When I went back to Oxford as a post-grad student, I was handed some great opportunities. I translated a few poems for BBC Radio 3 and many of Goya’s letters for a book, and I got to know several emerging Spanish novelists and poets. But translating more than the odd piece here and there was hard work, and I wasn’t that good at it. I was part of Queen’s University Challenge team – but we lost, though we were in the lead at half time. I eventually managed to finish my thesis but it remained unpublished. And I did not “become a prof”. If I hadn’t been such a dilettante I might have done better. But is that just the way I am?
In the mid 80s I entered academic publishing at a modest level, after many unsuccessful job applications, and then I joined the British Library at 31 years of age. I was happy there, so I stayed until I retired at 60. I can’t think of any task I was asked to take on that I did not do well, or well enough. But I did not rise particularly high in the organisation, despite my intelligence, education, hard work and experience – principally, perhaps, because I did not really care about being promoted. I am not driven in that sort of way. I chose the jobs I wanted to do. I did win University Challenge the second time around, which was fun and got me a pat on the back, but I was in a very strong team, and I certainly wasn’t the star of the show. We had a very good reserve player and they would have won without me.
I have been retired for seven and a half years. I have not been entirely idle. I wrote a comic short novel and self-published it on Amazon. Despite a few mildly amusing set pieces, it’s not very good. My name is credited on two CDs, but make no mistake, there are some very strong musicians in our (amateur) band and I am not one of them. In any case, we aren’t famous and haven’t made any money. So, he said with a hint of bitterness, it’s another “waste to time” in my late father’s terms.
One thing I am proud of is the First World War project that I really did lead, and which took up so much of my time. It achieved all its objectives and resulted in a war memorial at Herne Hill station, amongst other things. But again, I couldn’t have achieved it without the help of others.
All small-scale stuff
Enjoyable, but not particularly impressive. A fair to middling sort of life.
This self-proclaimed mediocrity raises a number of obvious questions such as:
- Whose ambitions are you trying to satisfy? Your own or someone else’s?
- Have you set the bar too high or too low?
- Who are the so-called high-achievers and would you want to swap lives with them?
- Is it about status or genuine growth as a human being?
- What’s wrong with just being happy?
- Or with trying to make other people happy?
Although I’ve mentioned my father a couple of times, we had a pretty good relationship. (I know he was proud of me, because other people tell me so. He just struggled to say it to me.) It would be hard to convince anybody that I’m in any way a victim. There are lots of real victims out there; one only has to think of Ukraine or Somalia, and the UK has plenty of its own.
But, however fortunate some people may appear to be, they may not feel that way themselves. As we grow older most of us learn to take the rough with the smooth, and we usually have no choice. Growing up should be about getting things in perspective and being true to yourself. Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem called “If”. That English stiff upper lip cliché about “being a man” is easy to deride. But I wonder if people really consider the words.
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same
Don’t get above yourself, don’t panic, don’t expect everything to turn out just as you’d like it to. But who can treat those two imposters just the same? It’s a hard ask.
All this rambling came out of my ponderous progress up and down a swimming pool. I’ve got man-flu this weekend, so I’ve got an excuse not to go.