In spite of the rain, or perhaps because of it, the campus looks glorious today. I walk from my office to get a coffee and pass wisteria coming into bloom, cherry blossom, spring flowers and green everywhere. The light changes as the sun emerges – only for a brief time – but enough to illuminate the glass and metalwork on the newer buildings against a darkened sky. I count myself lucky to work in a place like this. But then I count myself lucky to be at work at all.
It’s been almost two years to the day since I discovered that my cancer had returned. The news of its return – and the consequences – have changed things forever. Will it return again? The fear never really goes away. It’s manageable, under control; but some days, as if for no real reason, I just get the willies. Other times I’m overwhelmed by the sense of being alive.
Like today; I’ve bought my coffee ‘2GO’ intending to take it back to my office. But I’m struck by the view as I leave the refectory and so stop and sit for a moment, taking it all in. I realize that architects are clever people. There’s a new building across the lawn from where I’m sitting. At first it looks nothing more than a large glass and metal brick. But the sides are broken up with panels of coloured glass, separated by dark lines, much like a Mondrian painting. The design is all about shapes and patterns. It houses the Maths Faculty. No coincidence I suspect.
I’m retiring. Not as in ‘shy and ….’ but properly, in a few months time, from paid employment. It’s going to be a big change. But then big changes in my life are not really something new.
I’ve worked continuously since the age of 16, apart from a three year break in my late 20s when I went to university. I’ve been a telephone engineer, a producer of educational TV programmes and a university manager/administrator (twice).
I continued to study part-time long after after I left university and have a BA, a BSc and an MBA hanging on my study wall to show for it. It would be a mistake to assume all my education has been formal. The workplace ensured that I got a good grounding in that old cliché, the ‘University of Life’ long before I ever set foot in a real one.
Over the course of the past 49 years I’ve had some incredible times – I’ve been to some amazing places and met some remarkable people. Each trip and encounter has been a privilege and something I’ve never taken for granted.
Places that stand out:
Iceland; fieldwork on the Vatnajokull Glacier. India; training educational TV producers. America; developing multimedia science teaching. China; developing multimedia teacher training. And visiting the Archives at Kew Gardens to see Darwin’s original specimens – including his finches.
A couple of reminders:
People who stand out:
James Dyson (before the big time) to film his early attempts at a cyclonic vacuum cleaner. He made over 2,000 models of a vortex in brass before he perfected the shape.
Betty Boothroyd, (first female Speaker of the House of Commons) for a tea-party in the Speaker’s private apartment¹ in the Palace of Westminster, when she became Chancellor of the Open University.
There is one brief encounter that I had in 2005 that encapsulates the notion of ‘people and places’. It is an exquisite mix of the commonplace and the exotic and I cannot imagine anything will surpass it: I’m climbing the steps of the Great Wall of China and pause halfway to catch my breath. Three men are coming down and they stop beside me. We acknowledge each other with a brief nod. “You are English?” I confirm that I am; “We are from Mongolia. Do you support Charlton Athletic?” I shake my head. “OK – goodbye”. And that’s it.
I can’t work out which is the more bizarre. That I should meet descendants of the very people that the Wall was originally designed to keep out, or that Charlton Athletic’s fan base should extend to the edge of the Gobi Desert.
An observation about work; when you first start, you’re the newbie and you don’t know anyone. After a few years, you’ve settled in and you seem to know everybody. Then when you’ve been there a long time, you find you don’t really know anyone again. That’s when it’s time to go.
Life after work presents a real dilemma; how to describe myself. As anyone who watches Mastermind will know, retired contestants usually call themselves ‘ex-teacher’ for example, or ‘ex-banker’. It’s usually an ‘ex -’ something.
I have a problem with this. It implies that our lives are defined by the past rather than the present – or even the future. It’s all about who (or what) we used to be, rather than who we are now. Perhaps I’m a little unfair. I know that Annie would describe herself as an ex-teacher because she’s proud of having spent her life teaching. For many people, the past is a source of pride, particularly if it’s closely coupled with achievement.
I’m proud of my achievements – and the one I’m most proud of is surviving: Still being here as I approach 65. I’m also blessed with family and friends, though that’s as much about luck as anything I did.
Regrets? – I’ve had a few …but then again, too few to mention. Well ... had the surgeon’s knife not messed with the vagus nerve I would probably still spend much of my time standing in front of a microphone. And if the radiotherapy had been a little kinder I might still be rushing around on my bike. There – got that off my chest. Much like the tumour.
On a couple of occasions when people have asked the inevitable “and what do you do..?” I’ve answered “full-time cancer survivor”. I say this not to shock – although that tends to be the reaction. I say it because that’s how I define my life now – and for the future. You can’t think of a future if you don’t think of yourself as a survivor.
I don’t respond in this way all the time, because it makes some people uncomfortable. So I have to judge the moment. I guess in a few months time I’ll resort to the old standby “I used to be …..” That said, having had a number of previous occupations does give a variety of stories to fall back on; from digging holes in the road, to standing behind Jenny Agutter in the tea queue at a BBC canteen. (Canteen lady; “That was Jenny Agutter!!” Me: “I know!!!”) The more I think about it, these two anecdotes neatly sum up the changes I went through during my working life.
My very first job on leaving school, before I was allowed to dig holes, was to make the tea for the men who did. Made with condensed milk and tons of sugar, it had to be just right. (I clearly had aptitude because after a while I was allowed to boil the eggs for the foreman’s lunch²). Years later, in the tea queue at the BBC, I was buying the tea. So there you have it – from making the tea to buying the tea. If that’s not a measure of social mobility I don’t know what is.
With the passing years, even the grim bits – like digging holes in the cold and wet, or massaging the egos of voice-over artists – can take on a rosy glow. The reality is quite different, though. Work has taken up ¾ of my life, to date. Some of it has been wonderful, some of it has been awful but most of it has been OK. That’s OK in a good sense rather than ‘only just’ OK. And certainly better than I might have expected, given where I started from. Like many people, I’ve had my share of criticism – usually from incompetent senior managers. And I’ve had my share of compliments – usually from incompetent senior managers. The important thing, though – I’ve survived Work – and with my sanity and self-respect intact. I count that as an achievement.
People keep telling me I’m lucky to be retiring. Luck has nothing to do with it. It is simply a function of age. I’ve come to the end of Work-Life. Now I begin Retirement-Life. I can’t help thinking that this is going to be the best bit.