Being seventy five
I was seventy five two days ago. What does that event signify ? When I googled the number [except that I don’t use Google, I use Duck Duck Go Go], it told me that seventy five was the number one above seventy four. Which is certainly true, if not very helpful. And it also told me that seventy five was the departmental number for Paris, where we lived when we were first married back in the 1970s and I was working for OUP. Our daughter was born in Paris, and may occasionally think of herself as ‘une vraie titie Parisienne’, but in truth we left before her first birthday. The A75 is a trunk road in south west Scotland which leaves the A74 (M) near Gretna, and runs south-west past Dumfries, Castle Douglas, and Gatehouse of Fleet before ending at Stranraer. One stretch of it is said to be haunted. If blustering Boris’s lunatic scheme to build a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland were ever to happen, then the road would presumably be upgraded to motorway standard. In France the A75 is the dramatic motorway that runs south from near Clermont-Ferrand across the Massif Central to near Beziers. It includes the extraordinary, terrifying to me, Millau Viaduct. Incidentally construction of that motorway began in 1975, but I think the number is just a coincidence.
In the Bible Psalm 90 tells us [in the Authorised Version],
“The days of our years [are] threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength [they be] fourscore years,
yet [is] their strength labour and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away”.
Generally I’m not a huge admirer of The Message, but I do like Eugene Peterson’s version:
“We live for seventy years or so
[with luck we might make it to eighty]
And what do we have to show for it ? Trouble.
Toil and trouble and a marker in the graveyard …
Oh! Teach us to live well !
Teach us to live wisely and well “
So, seventy is taken to be our allotted span in this life, an idea picked up [retweeted one might say] by Shakespeare in Macbeth.
Susie thinks that blogging is just a way of trying to put your life into order. As dreams do when you are asleep. Bruce Chatwin wrote a book called ‘What am I doing here ?’ Perhaps the more appropriate, birthday related question is How did I come to be where I am ? So what follows is an unashamedly self-centred retrospect on how the decades have gone over the past seventy years. Maybe the only justification for writing it down is that I know the story better than anyone else.
To be honest I don’t remember a lot about 1950. I was living with my parents and my older brother in a big, unheated house in Southfields, an anonymous suburb of south-west London. My mother thought [rightly] that the house, which spread over three floors, was ‘very inconvenient’. I was about to start school at St Michael’s, a local Church of England primary school. Happily I could already read quite well, and one of my pre-school activities was to sit under the dining table declaiming stuff from Poems for Patriots, and to pretend that I was on the BBC. My first primary school teacher was Miss Kavanagh, who wore a fluffy pink bolero. She is the only person I have ever met who came from Hobart, Tasmania. For writing we used a small wooden-surround blackboard and a squeaky slate pencil. A bit like Bill the Lizard in Alice in Wonderland.
My father was a teacher and we spent all our school holidays with my grandparents, my mother’s parents. My grandfather, known to us as Fa, was station master on the GWR [God’s Wonderful Railway], at Minety, a small station between Swindon and Cheltenham. So during the school holidays we lived in a world that was very similar to that of Thomas the Tank Engine.
In the wider world the newly independent former Belgian Congo was about to explode into violence and anarchy. And a young boy was the first person to survive being swept over the Niagara Falls. It seems that I wasn’t aware of that. I was four years into a single sex, boy’s boarding school in Sussex, Christ’s Hospital, and I was doing GCE O levels. [As I recall, I passed in seven subjects, doing best in classical Greek and worst in Elementary Maths.] My 1960 diary, which I found in a shoe box the other day, meticulously records my marks in Latin grammar tests and French unseens. And also my scores in various house games [cricket]. The entry for my birthday records, laconically: “My birthday. Seven cards. Physics and Chemistry, Chemistry Theory. Catalytic oxidation of ammonia.” Clearly a man of few words. And none of them very interesting.
What I think the diary demonstrates is that, as Philip Larkin and others have already observed, ‘the Sixties’ didn’t really begin for another few years, round about 1963. Certainly for me, medieval history and modern jazz, and hitchhiking, and France, and involvement with the Putney Young Socialists, and talking to girls, were all in the future. Like the Beatles first LP.
School was half a decade past. My aspirations [pretensions] as a historian had disappeared after three unprofitable years at Oxford. Now I was working for Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press. [Photos of Ghislaine Maxwell following her recent arrest show how very much like her father she is.] Maxwell is now largely derided as the bouncing Czech and an overweight crook. But in the day he was the great [white] hope of British scientific and technical publishing; decorated during the war, married to a wealthy French woman, and Labour MP for part of Buckinghamshire, After eighteen dull months as a college rep, I was now Editor of the Commonwealth and International Library, a one-thousand volume series of books on science, technology, engineering, and liberal studies. A very Maxwellian concept ! In practice I was the in-house editor for several series of textbooks, all of which were assessed by outside academics. I worked in an enormous open plan office with very few windows, which had formerly been the Pergamon warehouse, and the indoor plants and the carpet were watered every night by the cleaners.
The content of most of the books I handled was beyond me. But I got to learn something about print runs and production costs and profitability. I also took a lot of authors out to lunch. On one memorable occasion I took three Professors of Spanish out to lunch at Schmidt’s, a German restaurant in Charlotte Street. It was said to have the rudest waiters in London, and was like something left over from The Music of Time. One of the academics, an irascible Northern Irishman, ordered Steak Tartare and insisted to the incredulous waiter that he wanted it “well done”. It was my job to smooth things over..
Susie and I had been married for five years. After a couple of years in Paris, I had come home to work for OUP in the ELT [English Language Teaching] department. And then I moved on to the smaller English Language Teaching Development Unit [ELTDU]. We couldn’t afford a house that we liked in Oxford, so we bought a house up the road in Woodstock. Thankfully it wasn’t as expensive then as it has now become. We had a great view over the Glyme valley from our bedroom windows. And our two small children both learned to walk in Blenheim Great Park. There was an excellent bridge for playing Pooh-Sticks. But you had to stay away from the swans.
ELTDU was a very small business, with great potential but a running cash-flow problem. Much like our domestic finances. The election of Margaret Thatcher the previous year had driven me to get involved with the nascent SDP, for whom I campaigned in the West Oxfordshire constituency. Douglas Hurd was the sitting MP. Later replaced by David Cameron. More significantly in the longer term, we had found our way to St Andrew’s church, Linton Road, North Oxford. And the course of my life was being substantially changed by Colin Bennetts, the newly-arrived vicar, who became both a mentor and a good friend. And, subsequently, Bishop of Coventry
After my training for ordination at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, Susie and I had moved to Edinburgh two years earlier; and from summer 1988 I had been Curate at St Thomas’s church, Corstorphine, on the west side of Edinburgh. It was a good church in which to begin ministry. We lived next to the church on the busy Glasgow Road. My training rector, Dennis Lennon, a former OMF missionary in Malaya and Thailand, was the best preacher week-in, week-out that I ever heard. [Though some of the congregation were bit confused when Dennis preached three Sundays running on the Parable of the Unjust Steward.] Dennis taught me a lot about preaching, but failed to encourage me to share his enthusiasm for the Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.
It was Dennis’s view that in church ministry you should move on every seven years, and he was leaving St Thomas’s that summer to become Diocesan Missioner in the Diocese of Sheffield.. We were on the move too. Bishop Richard Holloway asked us to ‘look at’ Christ Church, Duns, down in the Borders, a church with an evangelical tradition which was struggling with some internal schisms. I was very respectful of bishops then, and we went down to Duns to meet the Vestry, and they invited us to go there. The 19th century rectory, with too many rooms and too little heating, was put on the market. So we moved that month into a farm cottage at Duns Mill surrounded by fields. Both the children started at Berwickshire High School. For our daughter Joanna it was her fourth school in four consecutive school years.
A decade later we were about to move again. Christ Church, Duns, had been a very positive experience. We had some hereditary Episcopalians; the families who had planted the church 150 years earlier were buried in the churchyard, and some of those families were still in the congregation. . But there was also a swathe of the congregation who had worked on Christian mission in Africa. And we benefited from links with two local Bible colleges, the Northumberland Bible College in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and the more recent King’s Bible College, up the road at Whitchester.
A decade can seem a long time in a small town of 2,000 people. Our children had completed schooling in Duns, and then first degree courses in Edinburgh. Joanna was about to go and teach in a mission school in Nepal. Where her then boy-friend [and now husband] was doing a medical elective, in a hospital in Katmandu. And Jeremy was about to fly out to Australia and explore that vast country with two mates from uni. No less adventurously, or so it seemed to us, Susie and I were returning to France. I had been offered the job as Chaplain of the Lyon Anglican Church, part of the Diocese in Europe, and linked to the Intercontinental Church Society. In July we were busy making lists and getting quotes from removal firms. And doing a holiday chaplaincy in Brittany.
Under the misapprehension that I would be asked to leave Lyon, and church ministry, punctually on my 65th birthday, I applied for a post-retirement job back in Scotland. Which would have brought us much nearer to my [then] nonagenarian mother-in-law. Applying for the job for all the wrong reasons was clearly a big mistake. A bit chastened we went back to Lyon and stayed another three years.
One of the highlights of the year was going to visit Joanna and Craig, our daughter and her husband, in South Africa. A country that I never thought I would visit when I was younger. We were based with them in Pretoria in a gated community. We had two nights in a luxurious hut at Sabi Sands game reserve, on the edge of the Kruger National Park. Open vehicle game drives brought us close to an amazing variety of animals, including the Big Five. Back in Pretoria an afternoon at Loftus Versveld watching the Blue Bulls showed us an equally wild bunch. Then the train down to Cape Town: the cable-car up Table Mountain [not for me], a drive out to Boulders Bay to see the penguins, a night in a Hout Bay hideaway, and on our last night a Cliff Richard and the Shadows Golden Anniversary tour concert in Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens. It was all wonderful.
So here we are in [I think] the 17th week of lock-down. For the time being summer has gone away from Edinburgh, replaced by grey days and wind and rain. The garden looks glorious, thanks to a gardening wife. My role is to dig holes as directed. And to cut the grass occasionally, but not too often. It is better ecologically to let it grow, and the bees love the clover. Birthday celebrations were Zoom calls over breakfast with the children and grand-children. And lunch, not in the garden, with two good friends; Mary Berry’s cold salmon and raspberry pavlova. . We hope to get away, up north, in September, provided that there is no second wave of COVID cases..
Meanwhile the same old questions remain. Why am I unable to sing in tune ? What is the real relationship between the synoptic gospels ? Why do we have as prime minister a Balliol man who is patently inadequate, seemingly xenophobe, and a serial liar ? Why do/did so many American Christians vote for Donald Trump as president ? Will I live long enough to read Thomas Piketti’s Capital ? And, less challengingly, The Maisky Diaries ? If you think you know the answers to these questions, feel free to tell me. Otherwise I’ll get round to them one of these days.