"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

14 Mar 2012

Retirement – another autobiographical digression

A rare (Beckettian) moment of tranquility between the hard labour on my father's farm

This week I decided to stop working – for other people at least. Ever since 1963, when I reached my fifteenth year, right up until this week in my sixty fourth year, I have always either been in work or travelling. I left school with no qualifications and no regrets; even though teachers told me I would regret leaving school. But I never did. I hated school, the narrow provincialism, boring facts and figures – about Britain in particular, and an obsession with sport that I never got. I wanted to see the world, that I suspected offered much more than I had seen so far. I knew what hard work was though long before I left school. For as long as I can remember there was always work to do on my father’s smallholding: cleaning out the piggeries–how many tons of manure I must have shifted in my youth–cleaning eggs, weeding endless rows of plants by hand or harvesting lettuce and strawberries from 5am until it was time for school. And then, more work in the evening and at weekends, milling corn and barley for animal feed, feeding and watering the animals, whitewashing or creosoting farm buildings–I still hate painting today. But there was a side of hard physical work that I took pleasure in and still do, particularly when it is appreciated by others or you are working as part of a team and having a laugh along the way. Haymaking was one of those special times of the year because it was a community effort and the best of the summer weather, cooled down with beer or cider.
I still dream of dung: a metaphore for all the other crap in my life, but will learn to live with it rather than try to irradicate it. As Peter Sloterdijk tells us, 'Those who do not want to admit that they produce refuse . . . risk suffocating one day in their own shit.'  
See Raymond Federman's 'Return to Manure' for more scatological introspections.

But in the heady days of the 1960s (just how irritated are younger people hearing about how cool it was being a teenager in the sixties – actually there were some shit things about the sixties too) it was dead easy just walking into a job, quitting when you wanted, doing some traveling around, and then just walking back into another job when you needed money again. I did actually go back to college for a year when I reached eighteen, an agricultural college which gave me the papers I needed to get a job for two years as a volunteer agricultural research assistant in Northern Zambia. And so I realised my dream of travelling to far off places before I was even out of my teens, witnessing the last two years of the sixties from a distance.
     If I experienced a culture shock at all, it was returning to Britain after two years of total immersion in African food, music, people, language and the land itself – spending 3 weeks out of every month camping in remote parts of Northern Zambia, trudging through miles of forests and plains, over hills, across rivers and lakes, to collect samples of soil and rock; then back to town and a week off with my monthly subsistence allowance, spent mainly in the township beer halls, after which I was happy to sober up and get back to another 3 weeks of nature. So imagine getting off the plane at Heathrow early one very cold and grey British winter day, boarding a bus with my single suitcase, and looking out of the bus window at streams of shivering workers walking or cycling to local factories, their canvas lunch bags across their shoulders containing cheese or ham sandwiches, probably in white sliced bread, accompanied no doubt by a packet of crisps, and thinking just what the fuck am I doing here.
Kasama Airport, gateway to the Northern Province of Zambia
 It would be a further four or five years before I’d saved up enough money to go back to Africa, but only weeks later was arrested for an act of terrorism (blowing up the Chinese built TAZARA railway line from Dar es Salaam to Lusaka); a case of mistaken identity as I was the only white guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the white Rhodesian mercenaries who were responsible had long since fled. And so, after a couple of weeks of house arrest (fortunately for me in the house of the local mayor’s daughter where I’d been staying) I managed to sneak back to the capital on a night bus, get myself on a plane and home again. This time arriving back relieved that I had not been tortured or worse, and for the first time appreciating that Britain did indeed have something going for it – security and anonymity.
Great work prospects in the seventies, but bad haircuts
     But banality has a way of giving way again to a lust for difference and adventure, and after moving to London and working for a year as a road sweeper in North Finchley (one of the most satisfying work experiences I’ve ever had), and then training and qualifying, first as a mental health nurse and then a general trained nurse – because sweeping the streets around a large Victorian mental asylum, and being fascinated by the richness of human life coming and going from within its walls, had led to me enrolling to work there – I set off once again for more exotic surroundings. This time it was to work as a primary care nurse in the Honduran rain forest in Latin America, a heady experience that included witnessing (fatal) Wild West type shoot outs in local bars, a stay in the Bay Islands (Morgan the Pirate’s hang out) eating freshly caught crab in a hammock on the beach, and bathing in rock pools at night surrounded by fire flies. I did also polish up on my Spanish. But once again, circumstances intervened. Firstly, the NGO who had employed me had not researched the project properly, which opened my eyes to the dangers of amateurish and well meaning charitable organisations: the Paya Indians had given up a sustainable way of life which had served them well for centuries to grow cash crops to buy Western medicines that they did not need in the first place, which in turn destroyed their natural immunity and created a dependence on Western aid workers – workers who refused to engage with the local Honduran health authorities and so, as Western intervention has proved time and again since the first missionaries went abroad to save lives and souls, left a trail of chaos from good intentions. The other unfortunate coincidence during my sojourn in Honduras was the Falklands war and the inevitable wave of anti-British sentiment within Latin America that ensued. 

Catacamas, gateway to the Honduran Rain Forest
And so another failed mission (not without some fantastic fun and adventure) and return to the UK, this time followed by my first marriage –  another failure, apart from a delightful son now in his late 20s – and some 3 years later a second, very happy and successful marriage, 2 more sons, and a 25 year career in local government which terminated on a high last year when I had the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy, pay off my mortgage, and access my pension. Thinking that I would still need some work to help support my two younger sons who are still in university and living at home – the price of having a family in your mid forties – I carried on working full time in what I thought would be, but turned out not to be, a less stressful job, only to finally come to the decision this week (not without the support and encouragement of my best friend and partner of 27 years) that I don’t actually need to work ever again!
     But I do want to carry on travelling; not the enjoyable though frustrating (because you know they have to end all too abruptly) 2 and 3 week ‘holidays’, of which we have had many over the last 27 years together, but long leisurely sojourns combining writing with doing nothing in particular, just contemplating everyday life. What I cannot know right now, as I sit writing this post, is do I have what it takes to enjoy doing nothing? How easy will it be to get a lifetime of work out of my system, the expectations of others to produce, and my own work ethic that I should be productive? Well I’m happy to give it a try, as are some of our friends who are also contemplating retirement. I hope that by writing about the art of tramping – as in vagabondage not hiking – which I have discussed in previous posts, that I will learn something about living a more contemplative life, albeit without the privations that comes with real tramping. The starting point will be jettisoning some of the more unnecessary expenditure that compensates for working hard, such as expensive foreign trips and restaurant meals. We have even discussed the possibility of doing without a car and taking advantage of my free bus pass. But one step to retirement at a time. This is a new adventure that I am very much looking forward to, and, providing that I continue to enjoy good health, I hope will deliver a more gentle and sustainable lifestyle that my earlier adventures did – because I was hurtling too quickly towards an uncertain future. That particular future is now behind me, I have found my lifetime partner, my children are now adults and we own the home we live in even if we decide to change it for another. I just hope when I reach real old age twenty or more years from now, that I have no regrets and that nursing homes, if I need one, are a bloody sight more stimulating than they are today – or maybe I should say less stimulating given some of the awful entertainment some older folk are forced to endure . . .

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