Right Time, Right Place?

It was Valencia, summer 1972: my first time in Spain (it now seems odd that I had already sat my Spanish A Level). I was on a three-week language course organised by Liverpool Poly, as it then was, and there were school students from all across the UK. One was at Eton, another was from Ilford; they were both equally exotic to me. Spain was a very different country back in the day: patrolled by armed police and rather poor and backward in my eyes. Despite Valencia being a major city you had the impression you were the first foreigner they’d ever come across. Exciting but scary.

I’d been there all of two days before I fell for a Northern Irish girl. I noticed a pretty blonde during our morning breaks at the university, but couldn’t think up an excuse to start a conservation. One night at a fiesta, I and the other lads I was with ran into a bevy of girls we recognised as fellow students on the course and, under the pressure of the moment, I came out with “Would you like to join our group?” It was excruciating, even at the time, but I had learned from experience that if you didn’t ask, you didn’t get. The Irish girls came over to say hello, and I started talking to Jan before anyone else could get in.

Audentes fortuna iuvat

A couple of days later we invited them over to the university residence we boys were billeted in. Jan and I saw each other every day (since we were in the same class) and in the evenings we talked about our different lives, which made me realise that I probably knew more about what was going on in Spain than in Ireland.

All too soon we were on the plane back to Blighty. When we arrived at Heathrow her boyfriend Ronnie (who had long hair and a moustache, and was obviously older than me) was waiting to collect her, and off they went on holiday. I knew I would never go to see her. I couldn’t afford it, and in any case my parents would not have let me. Belfast was on the news every night, and what was happening was invariably frightening.

Jan and I corresponded for about 18 months. I went to Oxford and she went to Trinity College Dublin to study French and English. Her letters were very articulate and entertaining, and she was mature for her age – unlike me. She struck me as being tough and resilient; above all, she was a realist. She was from a Catholic family – in the course of writing one letter she heard that an acquaintance had been shot dead: “There will certainly be reprisals. It’s obviously not safe to go out any more.” What a thing for a 17-year-old girl to put in a letter. Yet for many young people all over the world (including parts of our own country even today) that is reality. Sadly, I now think, we lost touch… because I stopped writing. I can’t even remember her surname or address, apart from the fact that she lived in Holywood, Co. Down. I have one very bad photo of her, taken at Valencia Airport. Stylish, but note the stubbed out fag-end.

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As a middle-aged Cambodian gentleman said to Anne and me exactly a year ago, “You were born at the right time in the right place, but for me it was just the opposite”. That he survived the Khmer Rouge is almost miraculous. Jan was unlucky to grow up at the height of the Troubles, but on the plus side she attended a good school and had two loving parents who were obviously well off. I had it much easier; as long as you avoided being beaten senseless by a gang of skinheads from the Woodchurch Estate, nothing terrible was going to happen to you in Birkenhead. Almost everybody from my school went on to university, and that was in the early 70s when less than 6% of school-leavers did! Life was set out before me on a plate.

With all the teen stabbings going on in London and elsewhere, I’ve been thinking about how fortunate I was as child. It’s easy to congratulate yourself on your achievements or – even worse – look down on those who haven’t done so well in life, as if it were all their fault. A little bit of humility is no bad thing but here, as so often, I rarely practise what I preach.

Enjoy Yourself, it’s Later Than You Think

Jools Holland’s Hootenanny closed, as ever, with this simple ditty. (As regards the show itself, I didn’t enjoy myself 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 people 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 the same way about it. There was no-one I worked with whom I disliked, and many colleagues had become friends. I’d 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, once the mortgage was paid off. But I had stopped enjoying going to work – the feeling crept up on me. Of course I could have gone out and got myself another job, or at least made an effort. 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 magic. I wanted to take back control.

The previous year I’d been ill myself.  I went to see the doc because my urine was the colour of tea. 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 so later I was 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 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 for exercise, but also because lying in bed with no TV or internet is extremely boring. But sooner or later you have to go back to your ward. If you 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. In the afternoon the visitors arrive: 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. Could we possibly talk about something else? But thanks for coming.” Hug.

Every night some fellow inmate was off his head on (prescription?) drugs and shouting the odds, while another was phoning his cousin in Jamaica. You can’t concentrate on your book for long. Without earplugs you are done for. It is a miracle anyone gets better and goes home. There’s all this racket and disruption but also – let’s face it – you’re scared because you might be dying. They may put a screen round the bed but there is zero privacy. Worse than your own condition being broadcast is having to hear about someone else’s – especially when it’s bad news. Stay there 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 still get queasy seeing King’s from the 68 bus.

Anyway, I digress.

Not going to work won’t stop you from dying, or even getting ill. But you might come to admit to yourself how frustrated you were getting. How you were getting less opportunity to use your skills, intelligence or initiative than you would have liked. I saw myself becoming ever more restless and grumpy. Time to go then.

Some of you who retired early may agree with me. Others may have felt pushed out, and would rather have carried on a bit longer. Or of course you may be thinking, “Well, bully for you. 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 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.

Armistice Centenary

There will never be another Armistice Centenary. On Sunday 11 November 2018 at 11am – exactly 100 years after the guns fell silent and the slaughter stopped – local people and visitors gathered for a brief commemoration at our Sunday market.

For more than 12 months I’ve been leading a Heritage Lottery-funded project to identify all of Herne Hill’s First World War fatalities. It has been hard work and pretty depressing. How could it fail to be?

Remembering Herne Hill 1914-18 – station exhibition

I’d taken it upon myself to organise a two-minute silence – as far as anyone knew, it had never been done here before – and I had been worrying about it for days. Despite Pat Roberts and I pestering local shopkeepers to take and display our flyers, would anyone come? Would it pour with rain? Would the market traders and station staff stop serving customers and respect the silence? Would our teenage musician even show up? And what about the crucial timing? If we were holding a two-minute silence at precisely 11am, and if it were to be preceded by The Last Post, how long was it going to take Walter the Trumpeter to play it…  and so, counting back, when should I start to address the growing crowd? Our Town Crier, James Castle, rang his bell. I began to say a few words at 10:56 into my borrowed megaphone… with one eye on the clock display on my iPhone. I am no orator, nor have any desire to be one, so I would not be tempted to overrun…

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It must have been beginner’s luck because it went according to plan. In fact it was much better than that. It was genuinely emotional – perhaps because Walter (who played so well) is no older than so many of Herne Hill’s hundreds of First World War casualties.

“That was lovely…”

This community event was politically and religiously secular and relatively spontaneous. No speeches from mayors or MPs or generals or priests, “exhortations” or all-too-familiar – and almost compulsory, it seems – lines of poetry. It was a simple coming-together to show respect for the sacrifice of others, and it was essentially a democratic and unstaged occasion. I overheard a well-known local figure say to his wife, “that was lovely”. I could feel the emotion in the crowd. It was an authentic and moving experience. Some people, myself included, were close to tears.

Read Antonia Senior’s blog about the Herne Hill commemoration

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I was honoured to receive an invitation to the Armistice Centenary service in Westminster Abbey that same evening. We Brits really know how to put on a show: The Queen, The Prince of Wales, the PM, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with the glamorous young Royals also in attendance.

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Maybe I was just a little tired and overwrought but, if truth be told, I was not greatly uplifted. The music and the staging were superb, but I’m not too sure about the readings: Beatrice Webb, and Winston Churchill of all people? It was, of course, designed by a distinguished committee and immaculately executed. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that earlier on the same day I’d had a deeper personal connection with the Centenary event.