Posts Tagged ‘pensions’

From Peewit Hall, Anglezarke Moor

Exploring meaning, purpose, and our freedom to choose.

After a couple of cold, squally days, the weather clears, and we venture outdoors. There is no plan so, as is usual under such circumstances, the car delivers us seemingly of its own accord to Anglezarke’s Yarrow Reservoir, where we find ourselves parking along the Parson’s Bullough road. The trees here are showing their first signs of turning, and the waters of the Yarrow are a cobalt blue, sunbeams sparkling between crisping foliage. There is speculation this year’s drought will gift us, by way of apology and compensation, some spectacular autumn colours. I’m looking forward to it.

It’s been an eventful week. My nest-egg investments dropped five percent overnight. Meanwhile, company pension schemes find themselves a heartbeat from implosion, as the long term bond market collapses. All this following last Fridays’ inoffensively titled “Fiscal Event”. It’s had me considering what kind of employment I would be fit for now, after enjoying barely two years of retirement. Will I have to go grovelling back, after quitting the day job in such a fit of giddy joy?

By the Yarrow on the Parson’s Bullough Road

Paul Donovan, chief economist of UBS Global Wealth Management, likens present UK governance as resembling a Doomsday Cult. I find it hard to disagree. The PM and Chancellor meanwhile hold to the line that it’s all part of a cunning plan, one no one else has thought to try. We can only hope they are right.

Anyway, I’m glad I took the plunge and finally bought those new walking boots I’ve been banging on about, and a fresh walking jacket as well – just for the hell of it – as I might not have felt like it later on when I was browsing the job adverts. Today, though, we leave the new boots behind, having decided to walk our old ones to destruction. But we pack the jacket, because it’s half the weight of my other, and weight is everything to the walker approaching his autumn years.

We have a mostly clear sky, but with some isolated, dramatic clouds, and a bank of something more solidly changeable, coming up from the south. The latter needs keeping an eye on, but we should be fine for a couple of hours.

We take the path, still in warm sunshine, towards Jepsons, and across Twitch Hills Clough. The levelled ruin of Peewit Hall is always the first stop. The view from here is too good to rush, not only the whole of west Lancashire laid out from hill to sea, but the broader arc from Wales to Cumbria. After feasting on it through binoculars, we plod on, still with no objective in mind, meeting a few other walkers, mostly old timers, who all seem buoyed by the day, and cheerful in their greetings. Such pleasantness is infectious. The legs carry us up Lead Mine’s Clough, past the falls, and the site of James Yates’ Well. We seem to be heading for the moor, then, more specifically the Round Loaf, a remote Bronze Age burial mound.

The Round Loaf, Anglezarke Moor

The moor is heavy underfoot, splashing wet, and bog-shaky in the usual places. The heather is in abundance, but of a washed-out mauve, like last year’s colours left too long in the rain. I’d thought it was done for after the drought, but there are isolated patches showing the more vivid purple, so perhaps another few weeks will see the moors carpeted in glory as usual. We’ll be back to check. Expect a moorland scene with heather, all in unashamedly overcooked HDR, enough to make your eyes ache!

Sometimes there’s a cairn on the Round Loaf, sometimes not, and if there is, it varies in size from one visit to the next. The biggest I ever saw it, it was topped off by a sheep’s skull, and a sobering reminder that some neo-pagans embrace the diabolical. No skull today, though, but there are the usual dizzying views of moor and plain, and a choice of paths radiating at all points of the compass: Black Brook, Great Hill, Black Hill, Devil’s Ditch, Lead Mine’s Clough, Hurst Hill; take your pick,….

We choose Hurst Hill on a whim, just 1038 ft, but high enough to be several degrees cooler than when we started out. It’s a cold day up here, then, all the more noticeable after such a perpetually hot summer. Then the banked cloud swallows the sun, and the nature of the day changes. It’s another splashy path, but the boots are holding out, and the socks are still miraculously dry. There’s a more substantial cairn on top of Hurst Hill, and a persistently chill wind. A zippered fleece is of a sudden insufficient, so we delve in the bag for the new jacket. It cuts the wind in its tracks, allows us to settle, oblivious to the elements, and enjoy our soup.

On Hurst Hill

Serious though they are, I’m sure I’m over-thinking Albion’s woes when I imagine even my pension cheques drying up, and investments tanking, like they did in 1929. Still, an interest rate hike would see both my kids at risk of losing their newly acquired footing on the housing market, just so millionaires can pay less tax, and that would vex me enormously. But for the sake of argument, how does a man face his future when the future he imagined no longer exists?

It’s no coincidence I’m reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s search for meaning” at the moment. His thesis is that a sense of meaning and purpose is essential to our well-being. This runs counter to prevailing existentialist, post-modern teachings which tell us there is no meaning, that we suffer, and we do so pointlessly. But once we subscribe to such a view we lose sight of the future, relinquish all sense of meaning, become dehumanised, suffer all the more and without respite. This is the malaise of the western world, and it’s killing us.

Frankl’s views were formed during his time in the Nazi concentration camps. In such hellish places, a man was stripped of everything, until all he had left to lose was his fragile hold on life. Frankl’s observations of his fellow captives, condemned to being literally worked to death, led him to conclude those who retained a sense of personal meaning, in spite of everything, tended to survive longer, even though they might have appeared physically less able than their friends.

Meaning may well be denied both its existence and its validity in the life of a modern man, but the experience of such extremes of suffering teaches us it remains essential for well-being, even survival. It has often struck me how many of my former colleagues were so deeply invested in the working life, they cultivated no hobbies, no interests beyond the office, then fared poorly in retirement. No longer the “big man” but just another grey old fart, pushing a trolley around Tescos, they longed to be taken back.

Do we define ourselves, our purpose, by our means of earning a living? By the badge we wear? It’s possible, even productive to do so, for a time, but there also comes a time when there has to be a transition to something new. Purpose and meaning must evolve as our circumstances change. This is easier for creative types, for they shall always have their art, unless they become too invested in the idea of making a success of it, in which case, they’re sunk.

The problem facing many of us in these strange times, times in which a permanent sense of crisis seems to hold sway, is the inability to live for the future, or even to aim at a specific goal, since the future is rendered opaque. Frankl called this living a provisional existence, a loss of faith in one’s future. To live well, one must live with some sense of purpose, be it big or small, and to transition as needs must from one to the next like stepping stones to lead us on through life. But the sense of purpose, of meaning is not a thing bestowed upon us, more it is a thing we are invited to cultivate internally, in order to animate and enliven our world.

Manor House Farm, Anglezarke

For now my purpose is to find my way off this hill, follow the line of the old lead mines, touch base with a few familiar points along the way, and then, over the coming evenings, weave the whole of it, the financial crisis, Victor Frankl’s book, and this walk over Anglezarke moor, into a coherent narrative – hopefully without the stretch marks showing too much. The way leads us past the Manor House farm, where chestnuts litter the wayside. We pick one up, savour the smooth oiled sheen of it, and pocket it for good luck. Always something magical, I think, about freshly fallen chestnuts.

By Jepsons Farm, Anglezarke

One of my familiar waypoints is the stone that overlooks Jepson’s farm. I have this idea that many megalithic features were hidden in the construction of the dry stone walls, some of these latter dating from medieval times. The walls are tumbling now, and the calling cards from an earlier age are revealing themselves. Sometimes, if you have a sharp eye, you can spot them, still buried in the walls. They bear the marks of millennia of weathering, rather than mere centuries. I may be wrong in this, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t intend making a theory of it in order to convince others. It’s the interest alone, the observation, the connection, the speculation that, in this moment, is purpose in itself.

A stone in the wall, near Jepson’s Farm, Anglezarke

Another thing Frankl wrote that deeply impressed me was to the effect that a man could be deprived of every freedom, and every thing in his life, including his loved ones, and even his name. Yet he would still retain the choice of what attitude to bring to the shouldering of his burden. I hesitate to paraphrase such a powerful idea, born as it was in such a terrible darkness of suffering, but it reminds us we are all free to choose at least our inner path, no matter the nature of the constraints imposed upon us by the external world.

It’s late afternoon when we come back to the Yarrow, and the car. We’re still hours before sunset, but already seem to be losing the light. By the time we make it home, it’s raining.

Thanks for listening

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blake-newtonI wanted to get a pension forecast from the Government. It used to be that you stuck in your National Insurance number and out the forecast popped. But now you have to verify your identity, online. This was an interesting, though ultimately fruitless waste of a few hours with neither the Government nor the Post Office happy I was who I said I was.
I’d offered my driving licence, recent P60, debit card details, and national insurance number. I’d offered my address, email, mobile phone number, and mug-shot. Still, they would not oblige. Did I have a passport? No, mine expired years ago. No matter, what will really do the trick are those records of credit history held on file by the mysterious credit ratings agencies.
Well, that’s fine, except I’ve never had a credit card, or a mobile phone contract. I’ve never paid HP for my car, television, fridge etc. But without that credit history, one is only part way towards a verifiable identity.  I’ve always suspected my credit history was a problem – I mean the fact I don’t have one. So far as I know, it’s not against the law not to have one, not against the law not to have a credit card. It’s a personal choice, but it also makes you something of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
The use of credit exploded in the nineties as a result of wage stagnation. It enabled us to maintain the illusion of a shiny consumer lifestyle in the face of a chronic economic downturn that was not and will never be fixed. Can’t afford that nice car? No problem, £300 a month and it’s yours.  I appreciate the world’s entire economy is based on debt, that indeed debt is how money is created in the first place. I don’t understand how that works so, to whatever extent it is possible, I prefer not to partake of it for fear of accidents.
My approach is called Granny Economics, at least according to one smarmy economics lecturer I encountered, around the time of that credit explosion.  But I’ve stuck with Granny Economics. One of the lessons of the depression of the 1920’s, that my grandma lived through, is there’s always a risk your debts will drag you under. Plus, when you work it out, you’re paying twice the price for something on tick than if you paid for it up front. Sure I can see the advantage for the guy who collects on that debt, but I am not that guy. I’m just trying to manage my finances as best I can within the bounds of my means, and my competence.
So the question is, who am I? Do I even exist? Well, it depends on who you ask.
A while ago, the cameras on the Dartford bridge decided I’d driven over it and not paid the toll. They were sure they knew who I was from a computer’s scan of a car registration plate. The same computer posted out the fine. The fact I live three hundred miles away, that the photograph of the miscreant vehicle was clearly not my car, that the computer could not tell the difference between a “V” and a “Y” on a number plate, cut no mustard. Indeed, the help-line guy was rude, and perfectly assured he (or rather his computer) knew who I was.
“It was clearly you, sir.”
Thus, we have a sense of the world forming itself into the image of a machine. It’s not a particularly smart machine either, and lacks the discrimination of a human being who can easily tell the difference between a “Y” and a “V”, and if not, they can be persuaded to admit to the possibility of a mistake. But if you don’t fit the narrow mechanistic parameters defining “identity”, you’re going to have a hard job accessing any of the services afforded by your membership of this increasingly Kafkaesque society, whose foundation is a system that admits to no error, yet makes errors all the time.
I’ll manage without my pension forecast for now, thanks, Mr Gov.uk. I won’t be drawing it for some years yet, and can guestimate it pretty well for my present purposes. I suppose I could try to renew my passport and thereby try to convince you of my identity that way – though I would rather spare myself the expense, since it’s unlikely I will be needing it for travel any time soon. Plus already I am imagining the bureaucracy it might involve. Will you, for example, want details of the passport I have not got? As for obtaining a credit card, I mean, so I can start racking up an identifiable trail of serviceable debt to verify my existence that way, well, without any credit history to begin with, I can forget that, can’t I?
The conclusion I draw from all of this is, while I clearly exist to myself, the machinery of the state remains unconvinced.  Is that a bad thing? We’ll find out in due course, I suppose, like when I come to apply for that state-pension. In the meantime, it’s given me something to write about, and to further ponder the meaning of my existence, when my existence has apparently acquired itself, as yet, no verifiable details.

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