Tag Archives: Old age

Ditching the Comfy Blanket.

6 Nov

I am just about to leave the safety of my own home, to fly halfway across the world to an unknown, unpredictable destination. OK, I know I’m going to Costa Rica, followed by southern Mexico and Guatemala, but I’ve never been to Central America before, so I truly don’t know what to expect. Am I going to be walking into danger? Is there a robber out there just waiting to relieve a naïve, innocent tourist of his money and valuables? I’m travelling with my wife, Chris, so I won’t be completely alone. But it’s interesting that when we tell people of our forthcoming adventure, for every person who expresses excitement, there will be another who points out potential dangers or problems. “Mexico. isn’t that where you can catch the zika virus?” “Mexico. isn’t that where there are violent drug wars?” I’ve tried to shrug these worries aside and let the excitement of exploring 3 new, exotic countries, take over. However, my initial thrill at being able to visit such far-away destinations, to immerse myself in cultures very different from my own, has often been tempered by fears. It’s funny how the negative often seems to outweigh the positive in our lives.

Maybe its our advanced age. Chris and I are both in the second half of our sixties. It’s the age when travel insurance companies get nervous and charge higher premiums. It’s the age when we are not as strong as we used to be. We don’t have as much energy as we used to and thoughts of rest and sleep are more to the fore than in the past. Our long experience of life has informed us of the potential problems that could arise from any situation. The recklessness and bravado of youth has gone. I normally look forward to a foreign holiday and relish the new experiences I may undergo. However, this holiday build- up has been tinged by worry and by careful perusal of the insurance policy small print. The phrase “What if?” had often been on our lips. What if we fall ill? What if we get bitten by a mosquito or a rabid dog? What if we get lost or get robbed of all our money? Unbelievably, we’ve even discussed death and the repatriation of bodies! It’s been ridiculous at times. We’re supposed to be embarking on a fascinating and stimulating adventure, yet, at times, we have been beset by fears. Yes, maybe it is our age.

We are going on two organised tours. One is to see the wildlife and tropical landscapes of Costa Rica. The other is to explore the legacy of the Mayan civilisation in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and in neighbouring Guatemala. It should be great. But these are not luxury tours, travelling by air-conditioned coaches and staying in 5 star hotels. ( We couldn’t afford that anyway.) We will be lodging in clean but basic hotels and travelling around on public transport and mini-buses. What’s more, horror of horrors, we will be expected to carry our own luggage! In the strong tropical sun, will be able to manage? The tours are not high-octane, adrenaline pumping, outdoor-activity affairs, but are mainly sightseeing with the occasional small nature hike. However, when the company found out our great age, we had to answer a comprehensive health and fitness questionnaire before we were allowed to book. I suddenly realised that I’m getting old. Soon I’ll be getting to the stage where my body can’t keep up with my mind.

Another exciting but also worrying aspect of the trip is that we have to make our own way out there, changing planes in big, busy American airports, and will also make out own way back. This is very different to some tours that I know of, where a taxi picks you up from your own doorstep and drops you back there at the end. Such companies pride themselves on organising absolutely everything for their clients so that they don’t have to worry about a thing. The holiday makers are completely spoon-fed. The reasoning is that a holiday’s purpose is primarily to relax and enjoy. All anxiety must be taken away. Tour reps guide you through the complexities of air-travel and meet you when you arrive. The transfer from airport to hotel is taken care of as is everything else. The whole experience is, in theory, free from worry. Chris and I are not going to have this comfort. But, despite the anxiety, I am also very excited about organising my own journey and will get a great sense of satisfaction that “I did it my way.” The other way is reassuring and comforting, but is also a bit like being treated as a school child. I still like to think for myself, instead of letting other people, or technical appliances, do my thinking for me. Thinking, I believe, is becoming an endangered activity. How else can one explain the inexorable rise of the sat-nav and the smart-phone, contraptions that do our thinking for us. In the middle of our double holiday, we have to transfer ourselves from Costa Rica to Mexico. An early flight from an airport I’ve never departed from, where everyone speaks Spanish. ( which I don’t.) There’s plenty of scope for worry and confusion there. What if the bus or taxi doesn’t turn up? What if we cannot find our check-in desk? What if we lose out tickets or passports. What if we cannot find our way to the departure gate? Airports are busy places — what about pick-pockets? Oh, shut up Stuart! It’s going to be great! It’s not everyday you fly from Costa Rica to southern Mexico with a stop-over in El Salvador! It beats catching the local bus into Middlesbrough. Yes, despite the nagging worries. and despite my age, I’m actually really looking forward to it!

I visited my 90 year old mother yesterday, in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. At her age my mum loves and thrives on the predictability of routine. Church on Sunday, hairdresser on Friday, coffee morning on Saturday, cleaner on Monday and Thursday, carers 4 times a day. Her short=term memory is slipping away, but mum’s regular routine helps her to cope and make sense of her existence. Routine is her comfy blanket. Can you remember what a panic it was when, if you were a parent, you mislaid your 2 year old’s comfy blanket? How will he or she get to sleep without that comforting, familiar object to cling on to? It’s funny how the beginning and end stages of one’s life can be so similar. Both the very old and the very young like the comforts of routine and familiar surroundings. In between these two age extremes however, many people, including myself, crave and seek out the excitement of adventure which inevitably involves leaving the familiarities of home and striking off into the unknown. This is why I find travel so intoxicating. I may experience confusion and culture shock, I may be beset by niggling worries, but the sheer adrenaline-producing excitement of visiting new, strange places and discovering new things often makes for an unforgettable experience. Foreign travel, I have had to remind myself, is stepping out of one’s comfort-zone and entering the unpredictable unknown. I still experience the spine-tingling thrill of expectation. I’m not going to be completely in control of my own destiny. ( Sometimes I think we are too hung-up about “control.”) Surprises lay in wait to ambush me on my journey and not all of them may be pleasant. However, I still want to go. The potential thrill of the new still outweighs  the comfort and predictability of the old.

I’m going to abandon my comfy blanket and set out into the unknown. In a way, I know how Tolkein’s “Hobbit” felt at the beginning of his great quest,  except I hope my adventure will not be quite so exciting as his!

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NEW YEAR MUSINGS, 2015.

8 Jan

It’s another New Year- 2015. It seems incredible to think that we are now a full fifteen years since the momentous millennium when the world as we know it was supposed to come to an end.
The frenzy of Christmas shopping is now just a memory. Many are facing the cold reality of credit card bills and accumulating debt. The Christmas trees have been de-baubled and discarded. Millions of recently sent Christmas cards have now disappeared from mantle-pieces, shelves and window sills. It’s the time of year when I always think — what was all the fuss about?
I used to be a teacher and so can reliably guess that the theme of school assemblies up and down the country has been New Year resolutions. It’s a hoary chestnut. It is time to turn over a new leaf, students will be told, as if a new number at the top of the calendar, magically generates a fresh start for everyone. More erudite teachers may mention Janus to their pupils, the 2-faced Roman god which gives its name to the first month of the year. One face of Janus looks forwards into the future, while the other looks back into the past. This encourages reflection on what has happened as well as making resolutions for the year ahead. I think this is a sound way of handling New Year. The lessons of the past have to be learnt if progress is to be made in the future. It’s not just a case of wiping the slate clean and starting again, regardless of what has happened.
Many of my own reflections are centred on the family. Christmas is supposed to be the special occasion when families gather to spent quality time together. However, I believe that family interactions and commitments should be a whole year thing. Families, along with pet dogs are not just for Christmas! At the start of this particular New Year, my thoughts focus on two very important male members of the family: one nearing the end of his life and the other yet to begin his. My son and daughter in law are expecting their first child, a boy, in early March. I hope all goes smoothly and I am looking forward to being a Granddad again. I already have 3 lovely grand-daughters but this little one will be my first grandson. It will be a special moment in my life. I was lucky to spend some time with the unborn bump when he visited me over new year along with his parents. It’s an awesome thing, thinking about this precious new life about to commence, the newest member of the family. He will carry the Bates name forward into future generations.( if the present sexist system of selecting surnames, persists.)
Perversely, the birth of a new family member makes me think about my own advancing years and of my own mortality. When a baby is born, everyone shuffles up a place. I remember when my first grandchild, Esme, was born, I took my first look at her and thought — ” Blimey– I’ve moved up a generation!” I am now near the top of the family tree, with just my parents ahead of me.
Yes I am very lucky to still have both my mum and dad. Sadly, last year saw a decline in their health and fitness such that they both need regular care, especially my increasingly frail dad. However, even this cloud has a silver lining. The positive result of the situation is that my siblings and I have come much closer together in order to help and support our parents. Increased family harmony and unity has been the happy result.
Just like the birth of the baby, mum and dad’s need for more care in their old age, focusses my thoughts. It’s strange how the 2 very different developments are linked. Both remind one of the continuity and longevity of the family and also the unconditional love that binds us all together, from the youngest to the oldest. Once the baby has been born, the living members of my family will span over 91 years and 4 generations. Will my father ever meet and talk to my grandson? I certainly hope so.
So, as this latest year gets into its stride, I am thinking both backwards and forwards. I think back on the many happy times I spent with my dad, who is now in hospital. awaiting a place in a nursing home. I remember the toy garage he built for me, the holidays to the seaside he organised for us all, the second-hand bike he did up so that I could have a crack at my cycling proficiency test. I recall the unflagging support and encouragement he has given to me over my entire life. I also think forward to the times I hope to spend with my new grandson — playing with toys, reading books, trips to the park and those first simple but magical conversations. What will his first words be? I already spend precious times with my 3 delightful grand-daughters.
The future balanced with the past. That’s what life is all about, particularly in late December and early January, in the reflective time when the year turns. A friend recently told me of a lovely saying he had read in a shop or restaurant–” The past is history. The future is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called “the present.” Happy New Year!

My Dad is 90! ( Story of an Ordinary man in the 20th/21st centuries.)

25 Nov

Last weekend, my father, Maurice Reuben B—-, hit the milestone of his 90th birthday. Family members from far and near gathered at a hotel on the edge of Chatsworth Park, in the Derbyshire Peak District to celebrate this achievement over a grand “afternoon tea.” With all his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren arranged around the table before him, plus their respective partners, his youngest son, my brother Gr—-, delivered a short tribute to Maurice , recounting all he had done in his 9 decades. Unfortunately I don’t think dad registered much of it as he was totally engrossed in munching his egg and cress sandwich!
It is amazing to think that my dad was born only 5 years after the end of the First World War. He was the youngest of 6 children born to George Arthur and Ada B—- in Barrow Hill near Chesterfield, Derbyshire. He had 2 brothers and 3 sisters. I think Maurice was very close to his father and still speaks of him fondly. George Arthur worked down the pit and then later in the great iron and steel works that dominated the town. He also had a big garden, an allotment and like many people in those days, a small holding on which he kept pigs and chickens. When he was not at school, Maurice helped his dad with the animals. In fact, at school he was given the unflattering nickname of “Piggy B—-.” One day my granddad went off to the livestock auction. Grandma gave him strict instructions not to spend any more of their limited income on yet another “porker.”. He did as he was told, but instead came back with a pony which he said he had saved from the “gypsies”.
Maurice helped to care for all these animals and birds and was particularly attached to the pony. He and his father used to harness it up to a little cart and go out selling firewood around the streets. But pigs were their speciality. Farmers came from all over the area if they had sick pigs because George Arthur, helped by Maurice, had the knack of diagnosing them, treating them and making them better. A whole selection of mysterious potions was stored in the outhouse alongside the sacks of pig and chicken feed. I recently talked to someone whose grandma was a neighbour of theirs. She remembers George Arthur and Maurice walking round with a wooden yoke on their shoulders. It was specially shaped to go round their necks. Dangling on the end of chains were 2 pails. I asked my dad what was in the buckets, and he replied “pig swill.” The lady I spoke to also remembers the father and son next door slaughtering pigs out in the street and the sticky blood trickling down the public drain. It’s almost unbelievable to me that my own father was involved in such medieval scenes! No wonder he always opts for gammon, bacon, sausages, ham or pork when he is perusing the menu at a restaurant or café. He is still “Piggy B—-” at heart. His upbringing has determined his diet. That same upbringing has also determined my life-long diet. I was so shocked and repelled by the whole thing that I became a vegetarian, something my dad has never understood.
I think of Maurice walking around with that wooden yoke across his shoulders and then think of my own children engrossed in their laptops and smartphones. What a gulf has appeared in just 2 generations! When I mention computers to my parents, their eyes immediately glaze over and I can tell that my words are not registering. Computers are alien contraptions to them like something out of Doctor Who. They will never own them and never understand them. The internet is something beyond their imagination. Similarly I know that Maurice’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will probably never be faced with the task of skinning a pig or disembowelling a chicken. Even for me it’s an impossibility to imagine living that sort of life. My dad can just about remember it, his distant childhood in another world, but for the rest of us, that lifestyle is lost forever in the mists of time.
Dad lived his childhood in the “Roaring Twenties” but I don’t think he met any flappers or danced the Charleston. He lived through the 1926 General Strike and the 1929 Wall Street Crash without being aware of them as he was a child. However the failure, in 1926, of the miner’s campaign to get better conditions and a living wage did impinge on the family as it was this that persuaded George Arthur to leave the mines as he was unwilling to accept the insultingly lower pay deal that was on offer. That was when he entered the steelworks. My dad does have vague recollections of the poverty of those days and tells the story of his father taking a wheel barrow and a pick axe to the spoil heaps near the mine in order to scavenge for pieces of coal for the fire. ( this was well before the days of central heating.) Apparently, one day he found a very big man on his patch who told him to get lost. Granddad pretended to retreat but then rushed at the intruder with his pick-axe handle and gave him such a hefty whack that he ran away and never returned!
My father left school when he was only 13. He received only a very basic education. He has never been a very good writer or speller but has always been keen on reading, voraciously devouring anything in print that comes within his range. He has always been very curious about the world around him, and never misses the news. Thrown on to the depleted job market at the height of the Great Depression, dad managed to get employment by delivering shoe repairs for the local Coop on his bike. One day he delivered some shoes to an uncle who he had never seen before because of a quarrel over a will between George Arthur and his brother. It was a bit of a shock for Maurice to see his long estranged relative. After the delivery job, dad got work in a light bulb factory. It was either too cold or, if he was near to the glass furnace, too hot. He told me that he worked there for 13 months and caught 13 colds! Then, on the eve of the Second World War, dad landed his dream job on the railways. It was prized employment because it was a job for life with a proper career structure. Maurice started by cleaning the dirty, oily locomotives in the shed at Barrow Hill. He then became a fireman or stoker for many years. This was the tough, back-breaking job of feeding the furnace of the steam locomotive. He came home exhausted and looking as black as a coalman. Dad worked as a railway fireman for many years, at least 12. Then he got promoted to driver status. Later on he retrained so he could drive the diesel locomotives that took over from the steamers.
Maurice drove coal trains linking the pits with the power stations in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. He worked unsociable hours in a constant rotation of shifts. The worst shifts were nights and early mornings. They played havoc with his sleep patterns and may explain his quick temper with my sister, G—–, and I when our playing and squabbling disturbed the peace of the house. In the war, Maurice fancied going into the navy but his work on the railways was deemed an essential service for the war effort. So he fought Hitler on the Home Front. He and his mate had to cover the hatch into the fire with a tarpaulin so its glow did not give their position away to the German bombers droning in the sky above. One night, he told me, his coal train was diverted on to a siding as a fast passenger train was due on the mainline. As they waited in the pitch black the mainline ahead of them was suddenly lit up by a line of vividly exploding German incendiary bombs. It was a close call!
Well dad ( and the rest of the country) saw off Hitler and he celebrated by meeting my mum, Jessie, on a blind date and getting engaged. They married a couple of days after Jessie’s 21st birthday in July, 1947. In those days, one wasn’t deemed to be an adult until one hit 21. It was a traditional white wedding in a Methodist Church in Chesterfield. That was very appropriate, for dad was immediately sucked into the life of staunch Methodism that dominated my mum’s family. Maurice stopped swearing and drinking ( as I’m sure he did as a lad) and took the “pledge”. He joined the church choir led by his father-in-law ( my maternal Granddad), attended the service every Sunday, became a Sunday School teacher and later, he even became a lay-preacher.
By now the Welfare State and the National Health Service had been introduced by Atlee’s Labour government, just in time to benefit dad and his family. I arrived in 1949 and Gl—-, a couple of years later. Times were tough though as strict rationing was still in force and it was the age of austerity. In the 1950s Maurice worked hard to keep the family afloat. In that decade it was a matter of honour that a man should be able to support his family. As soon as she married, my mother gave up her job in a grocery shop. It was dad’s duty to bring in the wage. He got a weekly pay-packet, a small wad of cash in a see-through envelope, and he handed it straight over to his wife, every Friday. She was in charge of the family budget. She would give a bit back to her husband to serve as his spending money. This was the age of “make do and mend” and of “looking after the pennies so the pounds will look after themselves.” The age of austerity lasted well into the 1950s. I think my dad did really well in supporting his family in such difficult times. As well as working, he also, like his father, developed a large produce garden. I remember it being full of vegetables and avenues of fruit trees. He was very handy around the house, making and mending things himself rather than calling in tradesmen. When I was young, he made me a toy garage and bought an old bike for me and did it up.
At first my mum and dad lived with mum’s parents in their 2 bedroomed terrace house. It must have been a squash and thus quite stressful. It was not the best of circumstances to begin married life in especially after I arrived. By the time my sister joined the family we were living in our own place which must have been a matter of great pride to my father. It was a rented railway house with just cold water, no bathroom and an outside toilet, just like most ordinary houses in the 50’s. It was in an “idyllic” location next to a disused canal, a railway and the large iron, steel and chemical works. Sometimes a bad egg smell swept over our estate. Then in 1959 came a big improvement in our quality of life. Maurice and Jessie were finally allocated a council house after being on the waiting list for 12 years. My dad must have been so proud when we moved into a property that had hot and cold running water, an indoor toilet and, wait for it …. a bathroom! The tin bath which Maurice and Jessie had to fill up every Sunday night ( me at one end and my sister at the other) was now consigned to history. We were still renting but it was a big step up in the world. By the end of the 50’s Britain was experiencing a significant increase in the standard of living for many people. Even Maurice with his moderate income, could afford to buy a washing machine, an early vacuum cleaner, and most importantly a telly! It was only a 12 inch black and white but it was an exciting development for us. Before, we had spent our evenings doing jigsaws and making “proggy” mats with the wireless ( radio) on in the background. By the end of the 50’s we even had the new commercial channel: ITV. So Maurice in his 40’s was at the head of a mostly happy and prospering little family. Every year we had a seaside holiday using his free rail passes and we always had a magical Christmas with presents, lights and tree, as well as the carol service at chapel.
By the early 1960’s my dad had stopped walking to work and had acquired a motor scooter. Then in the mid 60’s his family was completed by the late arrival of my younger brother Gr—-. It was a bit of a surprise but a very pleasant one. Unfortunately this happy event was quickly followed by a very unfortunate one. Maurice and Jessie were travelling on the Lambretta to the local shops when a car sped out of a side street and smashed right into them. They broke 3 legs between them. Maurice was worse off as he broke 2 and one was a bad break. He was in hospital for many weeks. It was a traumatic event for the family but we all closed ranks and got through it. It was stressful as my little brother was only a few months old at the time. Social services had to step in to help. The only good thing to come out of all this was the compensation which my dad used to buy his first car. It was a blue 1965 Ford Cortina. It felt as if the family had really come up in the world and I think my dad must have felt very proud as he parked it outside the house.
Maurice’s next big challenge was dealing with my teenage rebellion. As the 60’s progressed and I got deep into adolescence, I began to question and then reject much of my parent’s lifestyle, opinions and values. This was now the “swinging 60’s” but my mum and dad stayed stuck in a world of popular classics, light opera and brass bands. I now confronted and affronted them with loud pop and rock music. Used to taking their children to Sunday worship every week, they were now disappointed to find that their offspring no longer wanted to go.( my sister was with me on this one.) Used to carving the Sunday roast, meat he had proudly put on the table to feed his family, my father was now faced with a son who had become a vegetarian. Hair, clothes, choice of friends and girls were other areas of conflict. My dad at first tried to deal with my rebellion by being the stern Victorian patriarch.( as his father had probably been before him.) He ordered mum to keep giving me the same piece of meat that I had refused to eat and not give me any more food in the meantime. His strong stance was doomed to failure as it made me even more determined and my mum fed me as soon as he went to work, somewhat undermining his position. There were many altercations. Dad still had a bad temper at times and was not against slapping us to press home his point. In this he was nothing unusual as corporal punishment was still regarded as acceptable in homes and schools in the 1960’s. One day when I was about 15, dad lost his temper with my sister and advanced towards her with his hand raised. I quickly stood between them and told him to back off. He backed away defeated. I think it was a turning point in our relationship. Maurice was now losing total control over his children.
To be fair, the 1960’s must have been very tough for my dad. Both his parents died in their early 70s within a few months of each other. His parents in law, my maternal grandparents, who he was very close to, also passed away in that decade. He was working full time on a job with anti-social hours and did as much overtime as he could. He also worked as a voluntary caretaker at the Methodist chapel. Maurice now had a young child to care for and simultaneously had to deal with a simmering teenage rebellion from his eldest son. Of course he also broke his legs and, in the same decade he suffered from a slipped disc and had a lot of back pain!
The 1970’s brought about an improvement in his lot to a certain extent. My sister and I had both disappeared to college in Manchester so home life must have been a lot quieter with just my young brother Gr—- left in the nest. At the start of that decade, Maurice and Jessie also reached a very significant landmark. They bought their own house, a 3 bedroomed bungalow on a new estate. It had been a long-term dream. Again I imagine how proud my dad must have been as he took possession of the keys to his own place. Now he could see the fruits of his labour in bricks and mortar. At almost exactly the same time as Neil Armstrong was becoming the first man to step on to the moon, my dad was stepping into his very own house
Maurice was now in his later forties and early fifties. Things calmed down between us such that he came to my wedding in 1970 and was an affectionate and enthusiastic grandfather when the next generation arrived. He was very supportive and we managed to develop a more civilised and less volatile relationship. Problems still arrived in Maurice’s life though. My sister’s marriage broke up in unpleasant and upsetting circumstances. Then my parents’ dream home developed alarming cracks because of mining subsidence. They had to move out into temporary accommodation and eventually, at the start of the 80’s, they bought a new bungalow down the road using the compensation money from the National Coal Board. They took a chance though as the new place was still in a subsidence area. Luckily it has now passed the test of time as mum and dad are still living in it.
In the 1980’s Maurice was nearing the end of his long career on the railways. He went all the way through to 65 and finally retired in November, 1988. He could have gone earlier as his bosses were willing to give him an early retirement package as they were looking to prune the workforce at the shed. However these plans were constantly blocked by the rail drivers’ union ASLEF. Dad had become bitterly anti-union and had had numerous clashes with ASLEF’s local officials. He had to be in the union as it was a closed shop, something my dad vehemently disagreed with as it denied him his freedom of choice. I tend to agree with him on this. He had become a regular reader of the Daily Mail, since the demise of the News Chronicle, and had swallowed many of its more right wing views. I remember having an argument with him about comprehensive schools which he was against despite me having failed the 11 plus. In 1984 during the big Miner’s Strike my dad made himself very unpopular by driving coal trains from Nottinghamshire where the miners were working on and betraying their fellow workers in the rest of the country. While dad has never voted Tory ( it was not in his working class DNA), in this case he was assisting Mrs Thatcher’s smashing of the miners by being a strike breaker. He did this for personal reasons I think because he hated the unions. They got their revenge on him by blocking his early retirement and making him slog on to the bitter end. The ASLEF officials also used their influence with the managers to make sure he was messed around as much as possible.( according to my dad’s account that is.) His shifts were constantly changed at short notice so that he didn’t know whether he was coming or coming. Retirement finally came as a huge blessing. Maurice was worn out. His 65th birthday was on a Monday and his manager kindly told him to empty his locker on the previous Friday, so he was given one day’s pay for free.
I think retirement was a big relief to Maurice. He calmed down a lot and had a more relaxed attitude to life. His temper disappeared. Although my relationship with him had improved a bit he was still much closer to my sister. Everytime I spoke to him ( and mum) they were full of stories about what Gl—- and her new husband Andy, had been doing. They owned a hotel in Skegness and my dad helped Andy modernise the place, converting the bedrooms to en-suite accommodation. Andy,unlike my brother and I, was a very handy person. He had lots of practical skills. I think dad saw Andy as the son he never had. He could relate to him a lot better than his two “namby pamby”, middle-class, vegetarian sons. ( Graham too had given up on eating animals.) Dad was still quietly supportive of me though and helped move a van load of furniture into my post- divorce flat, coming up from Derbyshire to Tyneside to do so.
And so life went on. Maurice’s new routines were nearly all centred around the chapel. He was caretaker, chief steward, a Sunday School teacher and member of the choir. When my mum hit health and mobility problems in her 70’s Dad became her official carer, even though he was 3 years her senior. He had been as fit as a fiddle for most of his life. I made more regular visits but he never really talked to me about anything personal. He was more comfortable with chit chat and kept his emotions to himself. When he did talk, he often talked at you, relating endless stories about how he, personally, solved all the problems of the railways. He has never been a very good listener or conversationalist. My parents survived another difficult period when my brother had to come back and live at home with them after his job fell through. Neither party liked this arrangement I feel and they constantly rubbed each other up the wrong way. In the 90’s mum became very ill and dad thought she was possibly going to die. He went to pieces when she was in hospital. They had had a very long, loving marriage and had grown dependent on each other. Luckily mum pulled through and they plodded on with their quiet life in Chesterfield. Mum and dad have never moved out of the town. They now live just a couple of miles from where they were born. They have also never travelled overseas except to the Isle of Wight. They have been content to have their annual holiday at a traditional English seaside resort. To me it is if they were still living in the 1950’s. Foreign package holidays and budget airlines have never figured on their restricted radar.
In his 80’s Maurice gradually got frailer. He has become more and more forgetful. ( haven’t we all?) In the second half of his 80’s his mobility started to decline. He now shuffles slowly with the aid of a stick. He has experienced various health problems mostly controlled by his daily tablets. He has warned me about getting old and told me that he doesn’t recommend it! He has developed a tremor such that his hands shake uncontrollably when he is trying to eat or drink. Drinking a hot cup of tea has become a perilous occupation! Despite all this he still manages to give his beloved wife, breakfast in bed every morning. When he got to 83 he told me that he had now lived longer than every other member of his large family. Now he has made it to 90!
As he ate his sandwiches and cakes and the whole family sang happy birthday to him he looked very pleased with himself but seemed to be only vaguely aware of what was happening. I don’t think he looks back over his long life very much, if at all. He mainly lives in the present, going from day to day. He tells me he wants to get to 102 because one of the ladies at chapel made it that grand old age. I know he gets very tired and is fed up with health and mobility problems. He still lives mostly in his own world and never reveals his private thoughts or emotions. I know if I phoned him up today and told him that I loved him his answer would almost certainly be : ” Here’s your mum.”

Slipping Slowly Out Of The Mainstream.

5 Mar

DON’T GET OLD SON. —-  My father Maurice recently gave me a piece of advice. “Don’t get old son,” he said. Mum and dad are now in their later 80’s and in most definitions of the word, are now “old”. They are still quite happy and retain some degree of independence, although they now have a small band of people who come in to help. My mum, Jessie, sleeps with a stick by the bed because she has a bad leg that she “could do without.” My dad finds it difficult to serve up a cup of tea because his hands shake. He is reluctantly having to give up driving soon because he no longer has total command of the foot- pedals. They both take an array of tablets to counteract various problems. Their short term memories are slowly declining although long term recollection still seems to be intact. Yet they remain contented and happy despite the extra visits to the doctor. Their life is quiet and comfortable. They have their family, their friends and their faith. Most of all they have each other and their enduring love.

But I know what dad means when he implores me not to get old. The advancing years have seen the whittling away of their health , fitness and mobility. They have seen a slow erosion of their independence. Their life has gradually shrunk. This year they finally gave up the idea of having an annual holiday because they didn’t want to have to cope with the effort of travel. Their life has in effect been marooned in a quiet backwater, well away from the hectic, hurley-burley of the mainstream. They have changed from looking after their 3 children, which they did very well, to having to be looked after to a certain extent. It’s a delicate business — judging how much help an older person needs and how much independence they can safely retain. It’s a question of treating them with respect and dignity. Looking out for someone includes looking out for their feelings as well. I am well over 20 years younger than my parents, but even now, in my early 60’s, I am starting to experience some of the consequences of age and the feelings they induce.

60 IS THE NEW 40 ISN’T IT?  —-  Some people may already regard me as an “old” person or at least getting that way. I am 62. To a young child I must appear ancient with my grey hair and the wrinkles fanning out from my eyes. I have acquired a bit of a beer belly despite hardly drinking any beer ( life’s so unfair) and I am so dependent on  my reading glasses that I go into a panic if I lose them ( which I frequently do!). I have decided not to be bo-toxed or have plastic surgery, even if I could afford it. I have also decided not to die my hair or disguise myself behind make-up. As a friend of mine used to say:” What you see is what you get.” However, with life-expectancy rising and retirement/pension ages being constantly pushed up, I don’t really think of myself as old. Didn’t somebody say that 60 is the new 40? ( or maybe 50.) Either way, I think they have a point. I feel fairly fit and healthy, don’t get out of breath when climbing up the stairs, have an active mind and numerous things I still want to do . Thus I’m not ready to be written- off just yet.

A YOUNG PERSON’S WORLD.  —-  Despite all of the above, I still sense the clock ticking. I’m also aware of a subtle change in attitude to me, especially from younger generations. I don’t like it and in my unkinder moments I dub it “the arrogance of youth.” Let’s face it — it’s a mostly young peoples’ world or so it seems. One only notices that as one gets older. To judge from our TV screens and especially the adverts, a visitor from Mars might think that the World consists of exclusively 20 and 30 somethings. We see young people: eating, drinking, cooking, joking, wearing the latest fashions, driving the latest cars, putting on make-up, styling their hair, partying, travelling and so on. Just every now and then an ageing Michael Parkinson appears, advertising insurance or a funeral down-payment scheme. but mostly it’s the young who dominate. Not many from my generation appear in this “glamerous” media world or on the air-brushed covers of glossy magazines. Apart from the odd distinguished actor like Maggie Smith or Anthony Hopkins, or “evergreen” rock stars like Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart, we “oldies” have largely disappeared from the mainstream of public consciousness.

ON THE SCRAPHEAP?  —-  The perceived change in attitude to me probably started when I retired. I was lucky enough to attain slightly early retirement at the age of nearly 57. I was ready for it after the stresses and strains of nearly 35 years in the front-line. I don’t know how my dad carried on in full-time work until the day before his 65th birthday. He did extremely well, as did many others, and I admire him, and them, greatly.

At first people congratulated me and wished me well. But then, as I have written before, I experienced a subtle change of attitude. Some felt sorry for me because I had “nothing to do”. Two friends suggested I might like to do a part-time job or take up charity work. The attitude was (is) that one is only doing something worthwhile if one is doing a job.( preferably paid.) Reading, writing, blogging, listening to music, singing, walking, travelling, photographing, meeting friends, going to the theatre or cinema, playing and watching sport, visiting museums and galleries, researching family history etc – didn’t seem to be good enough. One aquaintance even described retired people as being on “the scrapheap” and thus kindly gave me my blogging title. It was as if I had changed from a figure of envy to a figure of pity.

My income dropped considerably once I retired but so did my status in society and possibly my level of respect from others. How many times have you been asked at a party : “What do you do?” It usually comes straight after: “What is your name?” The person in question is probably not interested in your recreational pursuits or voluntary activities. He or she is primarily interested in your paid employment. Your answer to that question goes a long to deciding someone’s opinion of you.

THE PENSION PROBLEM  —-  Just as respect for the unemployed is probably quite low as shown by the benefit “scroungers” campaigns in certain newspapers, so I suspect ( in my current hyper-sensitive state) that respect for retirees also dips after they leave work. I have been quizzed by people who genuinely cannot understand how I fill my time. I have also been the butt of the occasional “joke” about them having to work even harder to pay my pension. The big increase in the pensioner population has become a massive issue for the government. Where is the money going to come from? Thus I cannot fully enjoy my retirement because I’m aware that some regard me as a financial burden on society and a contributer to one of the country’s biggest problems. I don’t like this feeling of being regarded as being a bit of a “parasite”, although nobody has actually said this to my face. Maybe it’s all a figment of my over-active imagination? In answer to my imagined accusers I say that I’ve always paid my taxes in full and still do, as an occupational pension is far from tax free. However the feeling still persisits that some respect me a little less because I am no longer fully “contributing”.

WHEN THE CHILDREN FLEE THE NEST.  —-  I feel as though I live a full and stimulating life which I enjoy. However, along with paid employment, another of my major life functions, that of being a full time parent, has now slid away into the past. My 3 children have all grown up into adulthood and lead their own independent lives. One of them, my daughter Joanna, now has her own two daughters with her partner Allan. So I am not completely redundant as I have an important part-time job as grandad. Obviously I have not entirely given up my role as a dad. Once a parent, always a parent. For instance I was recently called upon to make one of the speeches at my son’s wedding and I was also enlisted to help cut the cake. If Joanna, Catherine or Ian need help, I am always there. However, I am no longer required on a day-to-day basis. I no longer have to work hard to support them financially as they now support themselves. It’s inevitable , but once your children leave, you experience that uncomfortable feeling of redundancy and of being inched a little further away from life’s centre stage.

BECOMING OLD FASHIONED.  —-  It is futile to try to remain in employment indefinitely or to try to stop your children from leading their own lives. Both retirement and children leaving home are inevitable and highly desirable developments once the right time arrives. However, other developments as one gets older are not so easy to swallow. For instance one gets slightly mocked for being old-fashioned. There I go — being super-sensitive again! I feel this is happening to me even though I have tried hard to keep-up with ever-changing trends and technological changes. Change is a permanent feature of our society. Being resistant to change opens one up to the accusation of being “out of touch”. Popular music is a case in point. I rejected my parents’ “boring” brass bands and light classics in favour of pop, blues and rock music. Mum and dad hated all that and I categorised them as “old-fashioned” — ie unwilling to change with the times. I lined up with Bob Dylan when he sang:” The Times They Are a Changin'” However, now it’s my turn. I refuse to give up my rock music in favour of: House, disco, rap, hip-hop, boy bands or X factor winners. To me they are all pretty “rubbish”, the same term used by my parents in the ’60’s. Despite trying to move with the times, and I am getting into new artists all the time, my tastes have diverged from the mainstream of popular music and I have ended up in a minority taste, “alternative” world. Some might say I now exist in a sort of musical time-warp although I try not to wallow too much in nostalgia.

CHANGE FOR CHANGE SAKE?  —-  As I get older, I find myself getting more and more resistant to change. I used to criticise  other people  for this very thing, but now it has crept up and happened to me. Sometimes, particularly in the fast moving world of technology and communications, I suspect it is change for change sake. Actually, I know the real motivation — it’s to make money by generating constant demand for the new. Back in the 1950’s it used to be about buying the latest washing machine or vacuum cleaner. Now we are constantly being enticed by the next generation of cell-phone. I’m waiting for the one that can do scrambled eggs! A slick marketing campaign probably featuring David Beckham, persuades us that something we had never even thought of before is now absolutely essential to our lives. I laughed out loud when they came up with the idea of the camera phone. Surely it’s better to use a specialised camera to take a picture rather than something tagged on to a mobile? It doesn’t even have a zoom! But I was wrong. It caught on big time, partly because people desperately wanted to keep up with the Jones’s but also because the technology improved so swiftly that the pictures were ( are) actually pretty good. So the laugh is on me. You cannot even buy a mobile these days that doesn’t have a camera. It’s now thought of an integral component of every mobile along with: a clock, a radio, the Internet and a sat-nav, things that until recently we would have imagined to be “essential” componants of our phones.

My resistance to these so-called new necessities of life has pushed me further into a side stream and out of the main current. There I wallow around in an ever-shrinking pool of people who don’t want to, or cannot stay in the hectic mainstream. I suspect that I am sometimes derided as being out of touch or being a sort of modern Canute. However I think there is more to life than scrabbling around trying to acquire the latest gadget.  I still don’t use a mobile very much and agree with the comedian who said that ” mobile phones are for people who are frightened of being alone.” What’s wrong with a bit of peace and solitude? Until recently I thought  blackberries and apples were tasty fruits that  made delicious pies, but now I find they are actually smart-phones and laptops. I somehow struggle through each day without using the now ubiquitous I-Phone, but if I proudly announce this to yonger people I am greeted with cries of disbelief and derision. I think they think I am joking. Another example of how old-fashioned I am is that I refuse to have a machine telling me where I am and where I have to go . I would rather use my brain and something called a map.

THE GENERATION GAP  —-  By the time one gets to a certain age, one has enough experience of life to work out quite a bit about it. I have worked out a set of values which form the foundation of my life. In fact I think my well thought out values are worth sharing with others in order to give them the benefit of my experience. Therefore it is a bit galling to be criticised for repeating what I sincerely and passionately believe. Repitition is seen as boring even if one believes that what one is saying is valuable. It’s a case of knowing looks which interpreted mean: “There he goes again. We’ve heard it all before!” This is very frustrating. Even if I have genuinely discovered that the meaning of life is a lot more than 42 ( as in the Hitch-hiker’s Guide), I am only allowed to say it once and then have to move on to different topics in order to avoid being a social embarrassment. It’s also a bit irritating trying to impart knowledge and “wisdom” to people 2 or 3 generations younger than me but finding that they think they already know it all.

What I’m saying in my grumpy old man way is that experience is not valued enough in our society in my opinion. Once a person is regarded as “past it” or “over the hill”, then his or her opinion doesn’t count so much. Older peoples’ views are more frequently dismissed and as people get older they are more and more likely to be patronised.  Maybe I’m getting a bit too sensitive here but I feel it has started to occasionally happen to me. My wife feels the same. It’s very frustrating — this feeling that I am gradually being marginalised. The irony is that I am guilty of the same behaviour with regards to my parents. I quite often claim that I know better than them or decide not to discuss certain issues with them because they “wouldn’t understand.”

RESPECT AND DIGNITY.  —-  My conclusion to this rambling piece is that I don’t enjoy some aspects of getting older, even though I’m still only in my early sixties. I don’t like being eased out of the mainstrean and into a back-water by some of the attitudes of society. However, to be fair, if I want more respect from others who follow in my footsteps, then I must confer confer more respect on those who have gone before. Now that I have shed some of my major life roles I am very sensitive about being categorised as a : “has-been.” I also a bit touchy about being labelled as “old-fashioned” or ” a stick in the mud.”. I know I also have to moderate my behaviour to an even older generation in order not be seen as a hypocrite. In my wisdom of 62 years I believe that “respect” and “dignity” are two of the most vital ingredients of a happy life. That includes self respect as well as respect for others. I agree totally with what one of my former teaching colleagues put up on his classroom door: “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.” I must phone up my mum and dad for a chat!