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Posts Tagged ‘retirement’

If you spilled your entire mug of morning coffee all over the bed, if your boiler broke down, if you’d forgotten to put the bins out, and then a gazillion-to-one meteorite wrote off your car, all in the same day, you could justifiably claim to be having a bad one. The rest of the time, it’s more often a question of attitude, in which case a moment’s mindful awareness can draw the sun from behind what only seems to be the gloomiest of clouds.

Take this afternoon, for example. It had such a pleasant vibe to it, whilst being nothing out of the ordinary, so I presume it was more a matter of catching myself in a positive frame of mind, and seeing the treasure in the pleasure of small, familiar things. I drove out to Southport, to the Eco-centre Park and Ride, then took the bus to Lord Street. Times are hard, the bus was empty, and we could dwell at length on that, but not today.

I treated myself to coffee and cake at Cranberries in the Cambridge Arcade. Then I took a leisurely browse in Broadhursts bookshop. There, I picked up used copies of Naoimi Clien’s “Shock Therapy”, and J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”. I should have read the latter when I was a teenager, I suppose, but better late than never. The former is a nightmare vision of the world, one I’m not sure I’m ready to admit into conscious awareness, even now. It’s an important book, but we’ll set that to one side for a rainy day. Then an impromptu rummage in a charity shop turns up Somerset Maugham’s “Razor’s Edge”. I don’t know Maugham at all, but his opening paragraph grabs me, and he moves himself to the top of my reading pile, no doubt much to the chagrin of others who have been waiting patiently for ages. Sorry ladies and gentlemen.

Of the rest of the old town, only Boots and M+S, are hanging on gracefully. Of the new emporia, there is a sense of cheapness and impermanence about them. I have always enjoyed a walk through Boots, just for that divine fragrance – and especially in recent years after a return from the grey decades of anosmia. I’m also under instruction from my good lady to look out for Cerruti 1881 aftershave, but I don’t see it. I’ll have to order it online, and therein lies the tale of every town’s decline, and our complicity, even as we lament it. But what else can one do? We could dwell at length on all of that, but not today.

And then I recall one could usually always rely upon Boots for the presence of beautiful, well-dressed young women in heels and makeup, and it seems one still can. It’s old-fashioned of me, I know, and perhaps even daring these days to say so but, as with the beauty of a sunset, and an autumn woodland, I’m glad of it for the way it delights the senses. The rest of the town looks tired, so we catch the bus back to the Eco-Centre, and the car park.

There’s a Mk 3 Capri, from 1985, parked next to us, and it moves away with that deliciously distinctive V6 purr. We always had an eye for a Capri, but never owned one. In its day, of course, it was the most stolen car in the UK. There’s an old Roller, too, a mid-70’s Silver Shadow. There’s something still nostalgically classy about an old Roller – a weddings and funerals thing, I suppose. I find the new ones are aggressively vulgar. Again, we could dwell at length on that, but not today. Instead, let’s wind back to coffee.

Coming up on two years of retirement now, and as I settle over coffee, in the Cambridge Arcade, I am thinking about what, if anything, I miss about the working life, and I have to say not much. When others ask about this, I usually tell them I miss “the people”, which, I imagine, is the correct, indeed the psychologically mature, thing to say. But speaking as an introvert, it’s never strictly true, since the forced company of others, whilst I admit is probably good for us, tends also to be mentally draining. We need to recharge by spending periods alone. My dreams are still peopled by former colleagues, whose names I find, on waking, I no longer remember. Familiar faces, but without names? I don’t know what the dreams mean by that, but they raise no particular emotional tone in me, other than perhaps vague worries about creeping senility, so I don’t give them much thought.

The only thing I really miss, is that Friday feeling, this being, as I recall, an almost child like excited anticipation of the weekend, and of all the joys you were going to cram into it before that flat tire of a Sunday night. It’s just in the way of things, we don’t fully appreciate our freedoms without the limitation imposed on us by the structure and the rhythm of a working week. In retirement then, it’s important to observe one’s mood, correct the temptations of negativity, and, since not every day can be made a white-knuckle ride of screaming pleasure, we look more closely for the pleasures hiding in the small things, which are everywhere and every day to be had. Otherwise, I suspect our contentment, and the value of our retirement risks dissipating, as the days take on a galloping similitude.

Of the small things this afternoon, we count the smile of the waitress who brings our coffee, we count the scent of a second hand bookshop, we count the beautiful women amid the exotic scent of the Boots fragrance department, and we count that gorgeous gurgling sound of an old V6. Then the sacrifice of the Friday feeling is a small price to pay and, which, in retirement, with a certain subtle vigilance, can be enjoyed any day of the week.

Header photo – Sunset, the pier at Southport, by me.

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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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I have been an amateur novelist since I was a teenager. The stories had to be fitted in around the day-job. Sometimes I enjoyed the day-job, sometimes I didn’t. What I reliably disliked about it, was the sacrifice of freedom to live as I chose, in exchange for the means to live as I had to. It is a source of suffering common to many of us, and nothing unusual in it. But the question is: were the novels an escape from those aspects of life that caused me to suffer? Or, was having to suffer, in fact, the fuel that powered the novels? And now I am retired, and therefore free to live as I choose, where does that leave the writing?

The writing began as a search for self-validation. I wanted to know if my thoughts, my feelings, indeed my very being, were valid in the world. It’s a risky gambit to do this through writing, and I do not recommend it, since rejection by publishers can be problematic for one’s self-esteem. In this sense, I was indeed roundly rejected. But, through writing, I also discovered the psyche, and was able to grasp the idea that the value of writing as a mostly unpublished amateur, lies in its potential to transform the writer, and if necessary, to heal them. As for the validity of one’s being, the simple fact of our very existence vouches for that. This is something else the writing teaches us.

Now I’m retired, and there is no real stress I can think of, other than what I invent for myself. Decades of angst are dissolving out of me. I no longer suffer the working life, and I bask in my freedoms, living, mostly, as I please. It’s a blessed feeling, but can one still be a writer, without the fuel of at least some suffering to power it?

I once believed anger could help drive the work, since anger is a form of suffering. In this respect, I tried the partisanship of politics. But through the writing, I came to understand politics better. As such, it no longer angers me. Observing political polarities at work, one realises how slick a trap it is, this ready anger we possess, that the world does not come in the shape of our own liking, that others do not see things the way we do. But anger, whilst granting the illusion of impetus, only holds us fast in a trap of meaninglessness. To escape to a more meaningful life, we must let it go. Using suffering, as a way to power writing, is like running on dirty diesel. To take it further, you have to go green.

I am still writing in retirement, the blog, obviously, but also the fiction. In the fiction, I create imaginary worlds, but these were never escape-pods from petty suffering. They have always been settings for exploring what one’s current reality does not readily facilitate. They were, and are, experiments in thought. They were and are dialogues exploring the feasibility of ideas.

The will to explore the world through writing is still very much present, but the gearing has changed. I am no longer screwing the nuts off the engine. I have engaged cruise control. The energy is coming from somewhere, but I have to be careful with it. It’s like the wind. I have to read the weather and accept that, on occasion, I will be becalmed.

So that’s fine, we’re still moving. But what’s our general direction? What is the destination?

As well as discovering the psyche, the writing has uncovered a secret. I mean this in the intellectual sense, like one discovers a map of buried treasure. Intellectually, the secret makes sense, at least to me, but I can’t simply tell it for it to be of any use to anyone else. You have to discover the map for yourselves, and there is a path to be walked.

It starts from the first question, and goes on until you get the answer. I have walked the path through the writing of a dozen novels. I understand the symbols, and I can read the map. X marks the spot. But what’s lacking is the belief anything is truly buried there. This might sound strange, but I think it’s a necessary part of the journey. It prevents us from believing in every shiny thing that comes our way. The rational senses hold sway, and will not permit me to believe, except in moments too few to build an overwhelming and possibly megalomaniacal momentum, but sufficient to keep the idea alive. Thus, we still approach whatever it is, but gently.

Rationality then holds us to the values of the world, as we have constructed them, but not to the way the world is in itself. And I suppose what I’m writing towards now is the trigger that will have me believe in the world as it really is, in spite of all the dazzling distractions of the material life. Such a thing is probably beyond my skill, and my powers of insight, I mean without retreating to a cave for twenty years under the tutelage of a Zen monk, and likely not even then. But the search itself is purposeful, and grants its own kind of meaning. Anyway, the journey is more beautiful than being boxed in by the dreary, graffitied red-brick that is the endgame of diesel-chugging materialism.

I’ll tell you a part of my secret: it’s not a secret, but I’ll tell it anyway: that the sense of self you feel, looking out from behind your eyes, I think, it’s the same sense of self looking out from behind mine. We are the same in that respect. The only difference between us is our life-story, our memory, our history. These are significant differences, you might say, and fair enough, but we have to reckon with the likelihood they are transient and therefore individually meaningless. I may be wrong in this, I don’t know. At root, however, we are each of us an aspect of the Universe awakening and becoming aware of itself, through the perspective of our personal senses and our unique situation in time and space. This tells us there is less value in our differences than we like to think. We are all different, but we are also, more fundamentally, and much more importantly, all of us, versions of the One same thing.

Now, if we could believe in that, the world would already be moving towards a much better place. But the world is a mess of suffering and, worse, attempts to address any aspect of it have proven futile. Cure mankind of his immediate ills, and he will at once invent others to suffer from. He does not do this to spite the goodness in others, nor the tireless efforts of the saintly and the beneficent, but only to satisfy his own need to suffer, for only through the lens of a man’s suffering does the otherwise sterile, material life make sense to him.

Without the stress of the working life, I invent other things, trivial things to fret about. Is the boiler going to break down? My fences are looking like another winter will blow them away. There is an unfamiliar noise coming from the car’s transmission, and the mechanic cannot diagnose it. What if it breaks down and leaves me stranded? These are small matters, but rapidly inflated to calamitous proportion, if I do not spot them before they have gathered sufficient steam to sink my mood. Their energy is dirty, they have the potential to foul the atmosphere, to cloud the mind.

The world, as we have built it, is high on diesel fumes, and the lesson appears to be it’s a mistake to think any one of us can make a difference to it, other than by first addressing the suffering in ourselves. We must each of us consult the story of our lives, and, by whatever means comes to hand – in my case, by writing – learn the lessons of it. We must find a way of ditching the anger, of addressing the causes of our own suffering, down to the finest of detail, and we must learn to be vigilant as they morph and shift their angles of attack upon the serenity of one’s mood.

We do it, as best we can, by going green.

Thanks for listening.

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Anglezarke Moor

Rivington, in the West Pennines, a popular spot at the best of times, it became a Mecca for urban escapees during the COVID-19 restrictions. But now the nation’s shops and pubs have re-opened, things have become a little quieter, at least mid-week. So it is, this morning, we park with casual impunity and unexpected ease along the Rivington Hall avenue. This would have been impossible a few months ago. Our plan this morning is to head up onto the moor via the terraced gardens, take in Noon Hill, then investigate a lonely old ruin called Coomb.

Rivington is famous for many things, not least among them being the first Viscount Leverhulme’s terraced gardens. They fared poorly after his death in 1925, falling quickly to ruin amid a profusion of rampant ornamental forest. Walking here was always like rediscovering the remains of a lost citadel. There have been several attempts to revive them. The most recent work, undertaken by the Rivington Heritage Trust began in 2016. This has been a most ambitious, well-funded undertaking, and the results are impressive. Previously dangerous structures are now repaired and returned to use. Lawned areas, long overtaken by nature, have been cleared of scrub, and re-seeded. Lakes have been drained, repaired and refilled. Still a work in progress, and a hive of enthusiastic volunteer activity – restrictions permitting – it has been a joy to see it returning to life. I just hope the trolls, or what the gamer community call NPC’s, don’t ruin it.

The kitchen gardener’s hut – Terraced Gardens, Rivington

The gardens occupy a vast area, and include many listed structures. There are also miles and miles of pathways to explore, with spectacular views out over the plain. No wonder it’s a popular venue. But today there’s a relaxed silence about the place, granting us the rare impression we have it all to ourselves.

The beech trees overhanging the terraces are in leaf now, and provide gorgeous cascades of fresh spring green. The oaks look to be about a week behind them, an orangey-redness to their leaves as they begin to swell.

I’m reading a book called “Entangled life” at the moment, basically about fungi. Fungi are one of the most mysterious and ancient forms of life on earth. Amongst many other things, they form vast networks that connect trees, through their root systems – a kind of Wood Wide Web, allowing trees to share information. The fungi trade nutrients with favoured species, in return for carbon. It’s an area of study that suggests we still know very little about the ecology of the earth, what holds it together, and how easily we can make disastrous interventions, destroying whole swathes of life upon which we ultimately depend ourselves. The book has made me look at trees differently.

The lower Summer House – Terraced Gardens, Rivington

Anyway, zig-zagging up the terraces we gradually rise some five hundred feet to the iconic Pigeon tower. From here pilgrims usually turn right, and head on up to the Pike. But today we’re heading left, along the Belmont Road, and onto the moor. This is the old stage-coach route from Bolton. A broad, rough track of uneven stone sets, it’s navigable only by rogue 4x4s, and the occasional fire-engine during the outdoor barbecue season. After a half mile or so there’s an access point to Catter Nab, which allows us to pick our way across the moor, towards Noon Hill.

This area was the scene of ferocious heath fires some years back, with a terrible loss of habitat. Some estimates suggest it will take centuries to recover. The moor is healing of a fashion now, the bare earth being re-colonised, but in ways that appear alien. The grasses are a shorter, greener variety. And there are bright orange mosses growing up and over the scattered grit-stones. The cotton-grass has come back, but with little competition it paints the moors now in prolific waves of bobbing white hares’ tails.

After being without company thus far, we discover to our chagrin the summit of Noon Hill is occupied, by unfriendly men in camo. They have a large, aggressive hound, a bull-lurcher, that takes umbrage at our approach. We’re better giving this dubious party a wide berth, so we head instead towards Winter Hill where we encounter the infamous bog coming off the saddle. I’m looking for a familiar track, down to the Belmont Road, but coming to it from the wrong direction I’m confused by what turns out to be an impromptu beeline cut by bikers under the influence of gravity. Water has found its way into the grooves and is fast eroding the peat, giving the impression of a well walked way.

At the bottom we are separated from the track by a barbed wire fence which has the appearance of being smashed open, then hastily re-jigged with a mad tangle of barbed wire. Its crossing looks tempting, though messy, to say nothing of hazardous in the trouser department, so we take the prudent option and follow the fence north a little, to where the more familiar path grants proper access.

Here we cross the track and venture into a little area of moorland between the Belmont Road and Sheephouse Lane. This is where we find the farm marked on the oldest maps as “Coomb”. Historian and local author, John Rawlinson* tells us the local pronunciation was “Comp”. By the later Victorian period, it was a vacated and unnamed ruin. Very little remains now, and its outlines are difficult to decipher.

Winter Hill, from the ruins of Coomb

The word Comp itself was likely a dialect corruption of “camp”, legend being there was a military camp here in Roman times. Mr Rawlinson also writes of an archaeological dig that yielded artefacts. These were retained by Viscount Levehulme, but the finds were not documented, and were lost on his passing. Time has long erased Coomb or Comp or Camp, certainly from living memory, and pretty much from the written record as well, but this morning at least, it provides us with a decent, if somewhat forlorn, foreground interest for a shot of Winter Hill. Unusually for the lost farms hereabouts, it is without trees, and looks all the more lonely on account of it.

We turn south of west now, along the line of the deep, narrow valley which gives birth to Dean Brook and opens out to Flag Delph, at the corner of Sheephouse Lane. Here we pick up the path to Lower House, above Rivington, and finally return to the car, refreshed in spirit and feeling philosophical, wondering what rich trove of stories was also lost with the demise of these upland farms, and what a shame no one thought it important, at the time, to write them down. Mixed weather and cold today – some hail, appropriately enough, on Winter Hill. Just four-and-a bit-miles, up to the twelve hundred foot contour, but apparently there is still plenty of puff left in the old geezer. What am I, nowadays, I wonder? let loose across the moors to muse on trees and fungi, and lost farms? Am I walker? Writer? Blogger? Photographer? Or just a plain old retiree? It matters not how we label it. All I know is, it beats working.

* Mr John Rawlinson was the president and Chairman of the Chorley and District Archaeological Society, also a good, and generous friend to my father, encouraging him in his own researches into the prehistoric remains of the Anglezarke area. His book, About Rivington (1969) is the definitive guide to this area, meticulously researched and containing a wealth of local lore, gleaned from conversation with its then living inhabitants. I remember him as a very kindly old gentleman, when my father and I would visit him at his home on Crown Lane in Horwich in the late 1960’s. He passed away in 1972. His book is sadly out of print now, though still oft-quoted in secondary sources, both on and offline. My father’s copy, padded out with correspondence from Mr Rawlinson is much treasured, and much thumbed.

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It was a Friday much like any other, the day I retired. Such a strange year, though. Most of the office have been working from home, the rest split into long shifts, so those still on site could maintain social distancing. It just meant each shift squeezing the working week into three days. It had worked, as far as I know, and none of my colleagues had caught Covid, though we were all looking pretty knackered as we approached the year’s end.

As I counted down my last hours, after forty-odd years of work, it felt unreal that I would soon be walking out for ever. There was just this final tick-sheet of tasks to make sure I left behind a tidy ship. The last one was the handing over of my pass to the security guy at eleven forty-five. The sparsely populated office was absorbed in their separate Skype calls and video-cons, eyes glued to screens, headphones to block out the world around. At the appointed time, I rose from my desk, put on my jacket and walked down to the security desk, unnoticed by anyone. I didn’t want a fuss.

The guy on duty didn’t know me, but he wished me well when I said I was retiring, that I wouldn’t be coming back. His sentiment was genuine. I’ve noticed an uncharacteristic tenderness amongst my male colleagues in these last weeks. It’s as if the fact they won’t be seeing me again has given them the opportunity to speak from closer to their hearts than they would normally do. But I think it’s also Covid. We’re all trying to make the best of it, to put a brave face on it, but we also need to speak of the feelings we have for one another. So don’t wait until that old guy is retiring. Tell him now. Tell your mates, tell your colleagues how much you respect them, how much they mean to you, hell just tell them you think they’re doing a great job. And okay, maybe I’ve been lucky with my work-mates, but if you think your colleagues are a set of lazy, incompetent, bullying, bastard psychopaths, you should tell them that too. This, like no other, is a time for truth.

It had rained all day, rained like the devil on the drive in, this being my last commute, thank God, pitch dark at half seven down the M61. It was all rain and spray off the heavies, the usual tit-mobiles brightly lit and speeding blind. The rain hammered down all morning, but as I stepped out though the sliding doors that lunchtime, a thin, watery sun came out, like it was doing its best to mark the moment. I appreciated the effort.

How best to deal with this period, I’d asked. Disentangling, was the reply, with various intricate caveats. Bowing out with honour was one such caveat, but otherwise I should be ruthlessly determined in slipping free, of clean-breaking from the past. I’d asked this of the yijing, an oracle of considerable vintage, and with which I have a tempestuous relationship. Sometimes we’re on, sometimes we’re off, but for the early years of the millennium we were very close indeed. This was the result of a chance meeting under pressed circumstances, when we first established trust in one another. So, disentangling, yes. Good answer, that.

It’s not a good time to be changing tack, but is it ever? I’m not sure if I’ve caught the wind right on this one, and BREXIT is a worry. The markets had been recovering well from Covid, but they’ve been jittery again all week, scared of another dip, while the lorries are queued for miles either side of the channel, and the supply chains lie broken in a million places. But I’ve been planning this for a long time, and there’s no going back now.

Stepping more into the soul-life is what I’m aiming at. I’ve twenty years until I’m eighty. Anything more than that is a bonus, but I want a good crack at the time I’ve got before then. What for? Well, if you’re young you might think a guy of my age, approaching sixty, is pretty much spent, and better off dead, but I think this last few decades of life is as important as the first few, and I’m looking forward to them:

“A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning”

So said Carl Jung, and I’m not going to argue with him.

Sure, my early and middle-stage work is done, but I still have important connections to make. Indeed, this latter stage of life is potentially where the way becomes most interesting, providing we can let go of the idea we are still young, when clearly we are not.

The nature of work has changed and, in truth, I was no longer of a mind to be charitable towards it. I had a hands-on job, one I enjoyed, a technical specialist, lab based. But like all workplaces increasing amounts of useful time were spent simply answering emails. Take any time off, and there might be easily hundreds of emails waiting for you on your return, so much so one hesitates before taking any leave at all. Sure, most of them are junk, but each has to be eyeballed for the one that’s going to ruin your day, and I was unable to develop a strategy for dealing with any of that without increasing amounts of anxiety.

My impression is we’re approaching a self referencing loop, when simply answering emails about emails becomes the point of our days, our months, our years. Our communication tools are more advanced than we are, and we lack sufficient relevant information to be usefully communicated by them, so we simply make up the rest to pad out the void, and copy all.

I wondered about casting round for a fresh identity, now I’m no longer a fully functioning, commuting, salaried C Eng MIET. I didn’t like the idea of becoming just another grey old man pushing a trolley round Tescos. But of course, I’m still the same as I’ve always been, just this guy who writes and walks, and takes pictures, only now I have more time to do it. Sure, I feel blessed to have escaped that email inbox, which I imagine filling up even now in my absence. Nor will I miss the snarling deathtrap of a twenty-mile commute on pitch black roads, lit by dazzling headlights on hateful winter mornings.

If I can close in on the meaning of my life, if I can correctly judge my journey in this time of “spirit”, is yet to be seen. But whatever, success or failure, the adventure continues. Many of my well-wishers wished me a long and happy retirement, which I translate as meaning: “Don’t drop dead too soon, mate.” And fair enough, I know what they mean. So to those well-wishers, to whom I wish an equal share of wellness and more, I say also this: I’ll do my best.

Thanks for listening.

Graeme out.

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The Retiring Kind

waltham 3I am fifty four years old in December. I have worked at the same company since I was seventeen. I don’t dislike my dayjob, though I’d be lying if I said I did not find it, at times, stressful and difficult. It’s certainly the source of most of the neuroses I’ve battled over the years, mainly on account of my insisting I need to be one person when I’m at work, and another, more myself, when I’m at home. And the mask, the persona, has never sat comfortably with me. That said, with a straight head, I can see my job is easy. I sit in an air conditioned office all day and do stuff on a PC. It’s hardly like working down the pit, so there’s no reason why I can’t be doing it in my eighties.

I’m not trapped in this job either. I have a pension accumulating, but I’ll have to wait until I’m 65 to get all of that, and that just seems too far away right now. I can retire early, from the age of 55, make room for a youngster to take my place, but the pension will be reduced by 4% for every year of freedom I gain. At the moment I’m thinking 58 or 59 will be a more sensible time to go. Realistically then I’m four or five years away. The pension still takes a 25% hit, but I have savings that will compensate for that a little. I’ve done the calcs and reckon I can manage, but only if I live modestly, and don’t live much longer than 90.

My income would be much reduced, but the mortgage is paid this year, and my outgoings aren’t what they used to be. In return I’ll gain freedom from the daily commute, which is an hour and half of dead-time and rising with each passing year. I’ll gain freedom too from the eight hours a day I presently owe to someone else. Some say I’ll be bored at home, but that’s because they don’t know me. I’ve already had my invite to join a weekly walking group, a bunch of hardy crumblies who venture all over the North West, rain or shine, and I look forward to that. I’ll carry on training weekly in Kung Fu, maybe slowing this down to Tai Chi, once I hit sixty. And of course there’ll be the writing. There’s probably another few million words in me yet, though I’ve no intentions of returning to the treadwheel of speculative submissions for paid publication. I’ll continue to write purely for pleasure, to explore my life and my psyche through my novels, and I’ll continue to blog, because it allows me to speak as an edited version of myself, and to decide what it is I actually think and feel about things. Like retirement.

Having observed other retirees, I know the life is not without its frustrations. They start out with great plans for world travel, and weekends away, maybe buying an old camper and touring Scotland like they always wanted to do, only to wind up running around after other folks, or nurse-maiding older relatives for years, until they need nurse-maiding themselves and have still not achieved anything they said they wanted to do. One retiree told me he didn’t know how he ever found the time to go to work because his days were so overtaken now with errands, and none of them for himself. It’s a fact of life, he says, that life will always find you something to do that stops you from doing what you want to do.

Of course there’s no obligation to retire nowadays; that legal full stop of 65 has been abolished in the UK and we can go on as long as we like. I know people nudging seventy now, still working full time in full tilt professional occupations, and with no intentions of retiring at all. It’s a personal choice, and it’s up to them, but the thought horrifies me. Personally, I’ve been waiting to escape this yolk of daily obligation since I was five.

Or so I tell myself.

At the moment I’m in pretty good shape, but that’s no guarantee I won’t start to fall apart over the next decade, and I have to bear in mind the fact that most of the guys in my family don’t even make it to sixty. There’s a theory the earlier you go, the longer you enjoy good health. I don’t know if that’s true. People are living longer, aided by large bags of pills, but my observation is that their quality of life is often much degraded. There’s no sense in eking out an extra ten years of life if you’re in pain, unable to get out of the house and you’re relying on someone else to wipe your bottom. Realistically you have to expect the hospital visits to increase as you get older, and chronic conditions begin to settle in on you. Better to be kind to your body then and let it rest up, ease off the stress of the commute, and other day-job frustrations, let your most strenuous exertion be a walk in the hills, or making love.

Do more of what you really want to do!

Get your life back before it’s too late.

Or have I reached that stage where I’ve become institutionalised, and fear doing something outside of the cage? Do I fear jumping the rails, of sitting down with the boss and telling him I intend to retire? It’s unlike me to be so direct about anything; a lifelong fence-sitter, that’s me. There’ll be no problem, if that’s what I decide to do. There’s a system; it’ll kick in, and at an agreed date, my office door pass will no longer work. It will be as if I had never existed. Is that what I really want? Am I not better belonging to something greater than myself, than belonging nowhere, and becoming nothing more significant than a housefly and a slave to my lawnmower?

Yes, there’s always the garden. There’s nothing finer of an evening than sitting out with a glass of chilled wine, with the lawn neatly striped, the borders weeded, the little twinkle-lights coming on and the sun setting over the darkening meadow. I can also catch up on that pile of unread books, or simply get some early nights at last, instead of stretching out the days in order to delay tomorrow’s coming, tomorrow’s commute, tomorrow’s nine to five. No, finally, in the morning, when I wake and cast that habitual, anxious glance at the alarm clock, I shall say to myself: it doesn’t matter, Michael; you have nothing pressing to get up for, ever again. Then I fancy I shall breathe deeply, and feel myself born again. It’s a way off yet, but the years are passing more quickly now.

And I am thinking about it.

Thanks for listening.

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