Thoughts on Retiring

A Personal Essay published in Medieval and Early Modern English Studies Vol. 15 No.1  (2007)

             To be perfectly honest, I find that the fact of being on the verge of retirement does not give rise to any special thoughts or insights full of wisdom. In part that might be because the act of passing one’s 65th birthday is not in itself of any particular cosmic significance. Mandatory retirement is essentially an administrative convenience, designed to allow universities to get rid of expensive senior professors, whose salaries generally expand in inverse proportion to their usefulness, replacing them with cheaper young ones if the position cannot simply be abolished. In addition, it allows hopeful young scholars to get jobs while they are still fresh and eager, which is a good thing. For those retiring, the thought of no longer having to attend department meetings and perform administrative duties is a source of almost overwhelming delight, enough to make it quite easy to rejoice in the prospect, although I am assured that the idea that retirement brings ample free time is an illusion. It seems fairly clear that the most important thing is to ensure that one’s life continues to be meaningful; nothing is more destructive of human happiness than the feeling of being useless and discarded.

             One’s sense of the meaning of life is hardly likely to change overnight on retiring, that is, unless too much importance has been attached to things that do not last for ever. Even then, there is a space for wisdom, since one of the first things learned in the study of early literature is the phrase Ubi sunt? Mutabilty, loss, the transience and fragility of all mortal happiness are not themes that rank high in the lists of fashionable modern topics. Already the Old English Wanderer could only deal with such experience by turning toward the eternal Unchanging, while modern people are all the time being encouraged to expect instant, total gratification of all desires on the production of a credit card. Those of us who believe in the Wanderer’s alternative have not all undergone his trials, of course. Yet it remains very true that nothing is more challenging to meaning than the loss of those we love, whether by their death or by their rejection of a relationship we had hoped would endure. Betrayals of affection, rejections of offered love are still recognized as heart-breaking. The Romantic experience of loss tends to be less demanding, and mostly serves to provoke the delights of nostalgia.

             Koreans seem fond of nostalgia, in theory at least; I am often asked how I can stand being so far from my original home. I find I can stand it very well indeed, thank you, being perfectly aware that there can be no going back, in any case, and not needing a Hardy to teach me that. Because what once was is no longer there, despite the great efforts made in Britain to prevent radical transformations of picturesque landscapes. The change may be less in the outward appearance (Korea’s landscapes have changed utterly in recent decades) and more in the heart of the beholder. I am what I always was but I am not what I once was, for better or for worse. Memory allows me to review past locations; but on the whole, I have so much to be thankful for now, that the very thought of wishing myself back is laughable.

             Yet I can see that the past was always strongly present in my life. In part, that might be because I grew up within easy reach of both my parents’ origins. My  father’s parents both grew up in the small village of Grampound, a few miles from my own native Truro. As a child, I sometimes used to stay with my grandmother’s unmarried sister, who kept the village store, while her brother ran the filling-station a hundred yards down the hill and grew fantastic dahlias in his garden. On the other side of the street, in houses also about a hundred yards apart, lived two of my grandfather’s sisters, one also unmarried, who still lived in the farmhouse her parents and grandparents had occupied. My grandmother’s parents had lived in the village for several decades; her mother was Cornish, though her father was from Scotland. Their house that I stayed in in the 1950s had remained completely unchanged since the 1920s or even earlier. It consequently seemed to be full of ghosts, I would hear them walking up the stairs in the early hours, and the tales I heard from all those great-aunts made the dead seem vividly alive.

My great-grandfather, who only died a few months before my birth, had several times sailed to China as a sailor on the tea-clippers and there were a few souvenirs he had brought back. My grandfather and grandmother’s generation were the first to leave the village and rise in society, my grandfather working in the post office administration, my grandmother as a primary-school teacher. My grandfather’s brother, who had fought in the trenches during the First World War, was headmaster in my own primary-school days, and taught me; he served a year as Mayor of Truro. One of the great family mysteries was why their parents had given that brother the names Harold John Perdue, while my grandfather was baptized by the aggressively abbreviated name of “Fred.”

             We only had to drive a few miles along another road out of Truro to reach the even smaller village of Feock, by the River Fal, driving past the cottage where my mother had grown up on the way. In the late 1940s my mother’s parents were still living in the village of her father’s ancestors. There too I met other aged relatives who spoke of the old days, evoking the dead with familiarity. Only my mother’s mother was a foreigner, from England. She had grown up in the village of Cookham, on the Thames, and she recalled going to school with Stanley Spenser, a famous artist, though she could only remember, “He was always a naughty boy.” She had left home when she was fifteen to “enter service” as a nanny looking after rich people’s children. That had taken her as far as Germany, though she had few stories to tell. One day the family she was working for came to Cornwall to visit friends living in a large country house near Feock, where my future grandfather was a gardener. Like something out of The Remains of the Day, they came to a rapid understanding and she duly stayed in Cornwall for the rest of her life, whereas her more dynamic sister had emigrated to Australia. She came on a visit when I was ten, and I was impressed to note that, while they looked almost like twins, my great aunt from Australia was much kinder than her sister!

             Past landscapes revisited in the mind can certainly provide reminders of beauty and in that beauty I have ofen found intimations of essential meaning. One of the most beautiful places in the world, for me, is the tiny village of St. Clement a couple of miles outside Truro. It is first glimpsed briefly from the top of the hill, through a gateway in the hedge round a field: five or six small houses stand around a litle church at the edge of a branch of the river Fal. Most of the time, the tide is out and the river is a vast stretch of mud-flats. The road ends there, so there is no traffic, and the only sound is an oozing of water into mud, the screams of gulls, the mewing and calling of curlews and many other water-birds. Old trees line the hillsides, there is no sign of the outside world except that once, when the wind was in the right direction, I heard blowing from Truro the cathedral bells ringing in their weekly practice, an intrinsically English sound.

I was baptized in that church a few weeks after my birth, wheeled there in my pram by my mother for whom the 2-mile walk there was nothing, and it was wartime so no one had a car anyway. We used to go there sometimes in later years for Evensong, where a lesson might be read by the doctor who delivered me at birth; his ashes now rest in the churchyard.

             The bells of Truro cathedral evoke memories of wild, stormy afternoons with a great flock of rooks wheeling cawing round the towers (nowadays they have been replaced by screaming seagulls) while the little stream running past it threatened to overflow its channel, swollen by torrential Cornish rain. Other bells that play a powerful evocative role hang in the tower of Merton College chapel in Oxford; the first time I heard them, I had gone up to take the scholarship exam in Queen’s. It was typical Oxford December evening, thick with fog; term was over and the streets were deserted as I explored the place I had already read so much about. I wandered down cobbled Merton Street, lined by centuries-old houses, and there I heard for the first time the hour signaled by the slow, solemn chimes of Merton that later I often heard echo across Christchurch Meadows in better weather. In the chapel, behind the railings, someone was playing the organ. The street was dimly lit; I think there were still gas lamps at that time, and the fog was thick. I was firmly hooked, drawn without knowing into long continuities with the past. Someone else, walking there in the mid-19th century, said he had heard the voice of Newman praying aloud in another chapel, as he struggled with his conscience before becoming a Catholic.

             No memories I retain from later life have the intensity of those of childhood and adolescent experiences. It will already be clear that those early memories are not exactly joyful ones; melancholy is the main characteristic of the British romantic, who rarely goes over the edge into the raging folly of greater radicalism. On the whole, I shut the gates on that past-dominated world the day I walked out of Queen’s College in 1969, knowing that I was leaving for Taizé in a few days’ time. The last thing I did was play the organ in the chapel, not sure if I would be playing the organ in my future life. I left behind a certain kind of solitude there, and I do not regret it at all. Since then I have always lived in community, having to count in all things with my brothers, praying with them, eating with them, imposing on them and putting up with them. At Taizé I continued to play the organ, something my grandfather had done, and my uncle did, and my cousin still does. The organ playing stopped for me early in 1977. One cannot do everything in a single lifetime!

             Early in that year the Community invited me to leave rural France’s tranquil routines to go and live (still in community) in the largest slum of Davao City in the southern Philippines. 8 degrees north of the equator. Insofar as this was my introduction to Asia, it can be seen as the matrix in which I was refashioned, perhaps reborn. Rather unlike Cornwall or France, Davao taught me to live in the present, by showing me the violence and uncertainty to which the world’s poor people are subject. Violent death was a frequent occurence, next door, just down the road, or before one’s very eyes, by shooting, by stabbing, or by hand-grenades thrown into crowds. At the same time I learned something of what it meant to never have been alone. The people among whom we lived had never experienced solitude, in the sense that they had no separate, private space, no room of their own. Among the rich, it is different, but the world’s poor never sleep alone, never eat alone, never go anywhere alone.

As I went traveling round the rebel-infested island of Mindanao, often the only European people had ever seen, the commonest question addressed to me was not, ‘Where are you from?’ but, ‘Where’s your companion?’ I could not possibly be traveling alone; only the desperate did that. The nearest to real solitude I came was a woman with two small daughters whose husband had just died of tuberculosis. Their home was a platform of planks perched precariously under a bridge across an open sewer in the local market. She survived by selling to the vendors paper bags she made out of the multiple layers of paper in empty cement sacks she bought from building sites. She knew what it meant to have no one to turn to, though under her bridge there were others little better off than she was. With the youth from the local church we buried her husband, rented a hut they could live in, bought her a pig. I wonder what became of them.

In Davao I learned to live on a diet of rice and vegetables. Perhaps that was the main reason why I was destined to spend three years there before being summoned to Seoul. Arriving here on May 7, 1980 from the Philippines ruled by the Marcos clan, after three months in Hong Kong at a time when China was almost completely closed to the outside world, I began Korean life with a massacre and a coup d’état. From that point on, memories become recollections.

I have been extremely fortunate in so many ways it is quite bewildering to think of it. Surely, if I had been another person, I would have lived a different life. If I had been a better person, it might have been a better life, though really good people very often have a very hard time, it seems, and some die young. Excess of good fortune should be a cause of anxiety, Lady Philosophy reminds us! Mutability has not been an obvious characteristic of a life in which I have spent 27 years living in the same house, 21 years working in the same office. My parents only ever lived in one house, from their marriage until their deaths. In Taizé village there still lived a very elderly woman in the 1950s who had never, ever, spent a night outside the village; and she claimed she had only ever slept in two rooms, one in her home prior to her wedding day, the other in her husband’s home after it. That is continuity indeed, and a sign of great cultural poverty, of course, because there was no sign that she even realized what she had missed.

Never to have walked beside the Seine in Paris, watching Notre Dame and the Louvre change color in the sunset. Never to have walked through the alleys of Venice when the crowds of tourists are away. Never to have seen the sea! Never to have read medieval manuscripts in Duke Humfrey’s Library! Never to have gone to Taizé? Never to have seen the lands beyond the far horizons? Never to have drunk green tea in Jiri-san? Never to have met so many wonderful people? Never to have become a pilgrim? Unthinkable!

The name of the game is life, it’s a game of chance with very few rules laid down, and the prize is completely unspecified. But Ubi sunt? is only possible for those who have taken the risks that leave memories behind. The risk of pain, the risk of love. Memento mori is a rival game, little played and little loved today. That is for some people a pity, since they need some kind of shock to help them wake up, get up, and get out of their rut before it is too late to live at all. I rather like the modern expression roughly addressed to the mediocre: “Get yourself a life!” But I do hope that when the time draws near, I shall be one of those wise folk full of memories who always cheat at Memento mori. When Mortality shakes his death’s head and threatens them, “Oh, you silly thing,” they say, “of course you’re there, you always are; but why should I be afraid of you now? Look, isn’t life beautiful, right to the very end?”