Miscellaneous writings

Most of these are unpublished.

Family History – a third kind – April 2014

Few subjects excite as much interest but lead to the rapid glazing over of eyes than family history. I think that there is a role for genealogy, which can indicate details of social mobility and other insights for statistical analysis. Much family history is about this, tracing the names and details of people that you have never known. Why this should lead to you knowing “who you are” is a mystery to me, but it makes good television.

Personally, I am more interested in a different form of family history – details of lives of family members that I knew; even my own memoirs. I have created a site to reflect on memories of my own father. I imagine the interest in this is only to those who knew the people involved, but perhaps their story – mostly of a middle-class family in my family’s case – may interest someone else.

But it has occurred to me that there is a third kind of family history – that very personal process, often informed by family politics, that re-creates events and experiences that may never have existed, or at least are related with extreme distortion. Stories and myths abound in such “history”, sometimes amusing and harmless, sometimes entirely fallacious, misleading and malicious. Each account by each family member varies so greatly, that it must require a form of psychoanalysis to establish what might be the reality of events. Postmodernist doubt might have been invented by students of such family history, wherein maybe there really is no truth apart from what varied parties believe. Oral history, once seen as the way to an “authentic” history, may suffer from a surfeit of imagined events and experiences; what people wish had happened, a truth they wish applied to them. In attempting an account of my own history and that of my father and his family, I am conscious of these sources of distortion. Perhaps for that reason, memories and stories need to be labelled as such, and documentary evidence, such as it is, interpreted with care.

I have not explored the literature of this third kind of family history, although I have read much about oral history. The former is something that I will try to explore; the results should be revealing.

The remains of my day – “just butlers” and service – March 2013

I recall the Merchant-Ivory film The Remains of the Day (1993) from the 1990s. At that time, I found it profoundly irritating – somehow celebrating the great country house and (slightly), its pro-Nazi interwar owner, with the ever-attendance of Mr Stevens, the obedient butler. Drawn back to the novel via, oddly, an article in Keywords, the journal of the Raymond Williams Society, I have pondering the meaning of the butler-figure for my own life.

The novel is very different from the film, and although the film is slow, the novel allows the reader a much closer reflection on the life the butler. The setting is 1956 – the year of Suez and the year of my birth (one event momentous, one an irrelevance to the world), with Stevens taking a journey and reflecting on his life in the 1920s – but within his own self-deluding world in which the maintenance of his persona seems to him to be more important than to admit to feelings which fall outside his notions of work and service.

Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day, chose a butler as a figure because “that’s what I think I am, and I think most of us are: we’re just butlers”. Ironically, very few workers ever had the title of butler, and Ishiguro did not carry out much research into country houses and butlers; it may be through their portrayal in films and novels that future generations will come to view country houses. It is the figure of the butler that counts: one whose life is devoted to those who serve higher interests.

While this may seem far distant from the world of a university lecturer, there are close analogies, perhaps with the way in which the butler/lecturer is viewed, but more significantly in the way that the lecturer/butler views their task. Mr Stevens is keen on the butler’s vocation, on what makes a great butler. Maybe lecturers too see their job as a vocation, or are expected to do so (especially when it comes to worsening pay and conditions!). Some more sensible people see beyond the ideology and considered themselves as a hired hand/brain, which is what the job actually entails. You are hired to fulfil various tasks, paid for it, and, if you have any sense, forget about it.

That is the reality of paid employment, but…I wonder why I haven’t followed this myself? I have become involved, on and off, in activities that feel like academic work – taking seminars, delivering lectures/talks. And much more significantly, doing research and publishing. The latter, not for the greater glory of some institution, but out of personal satisfaction and, just possibly, to encourage others who might go on to produce a lifetime of research and writing. Reading that last clause, that reads like a vocation – the elderly monk encouraging the novices, perhaps.

To satirise the attitudes of Mr Stevens the butler is not the main purpose of Ishiguro’s novel. It is indeed about “the remains of the day” (a phrase seemingly coined by Ishiguro, but now becoming common currency). It is what remains after work (paid employment, or maybe other forms of work?) is completed. Mr Stevens breaks down just once, when he realises that all that work for Lord Darlington was really for nothing, and there is very little left – except work. He holds on to future work – for his new American employer who regards him with gentle amusement – as what will give his life meaning.

Well, what a poor deluded fool he was. And yet, many of us are not unlike him. We are defined by our jobs – if someone asks me now what I do, I either say “full-time writer” or “retired teacher”. It’s a convenient shorthand, but for so many people their paid work is what provides meaning to their world, so that retirement seems like an affront – indeed, it seems to mock their former devotion to their work. Maybe we are all Mr Stevens – reluctant to admit the devastating truth that much of our paid employment, and the huge ideological burden with which we surrounded it, was simply so many wasted hours, months, years.

And, like Mr Stevens could have confessed, I have to say that I fell for the whole idea of service. “We” meant the university, some sort of greater good, and I saw teaching as a vocation, one I should fulfil well. I felt guilty when I didn’t do the job as well as I thought, and countless of “my” hours went in marking, preparation, admin, all done from the same home from which I write now. To what did it amount? A reasonable salary, a redundancy payment and a pension (when it comes). I was not paid to regard the job as a vocation, although I worked with people who saw it as that, and more fool me.

I can understand how it feels not only to lose a sense of vocation, but to have the meanings of a past based on that vocation wiped out. I would never be unsympathetic with someone who loses their job, and the sense of failure that attends it, but, much more significantly for most, the loss of money. One of the ideologies of our age is the worship of work – “hard-working families”, “getting off welfare and back into work”, work being where you most firmly belong. The idea that devotion to work may be pathological, might kill some and damage the health of others, is never conceded.

Maybe I have the last laugh, but it is laughter I would love to share with others – all others if possible. I am no longer anything like Mr Stevens, no longer under the self-imposed yoke of service. I seem at last to have shaken off that sense that I am a servant. In the remains of my day, I pursue what interests me, not what my masters order. I would wish this for everyone – a reward for the proverbial lifetime of service. Service to something that matters may be laudable, but its effect may be to promote willing slavery – the curse of the service middle class. And yet, I am involved in work, albeit not paid work. I have neglected these entries because of that, not because of apathy. In what remains, it would be good to carry out something fulfilling, that could enrich the lives of others and provide personal satisfaction as well. I am not sure whether or not the “day job” (with myself as “employer”) is always doing that. But I do know that, for many years, I too worshipped the same false god served by Mr Stevens and his ilk. No more, no longer.

Life Expectancy – the Missing Factor? – March 2013

I began this article over a year ago, and then got diverted onto other interests – always the busy early retiree!! I decided to finish it today.

On 1st March 2012, following a discussion about life expectancy – one of those cheerful conversations you sometimes have when in your late 50s – I entered my data online on various online life expectancy calculators. The vaguest of these, very generalised, was produced by the BBC, and suggested a life expectancy of 85.7 years. The highest suggested 101 years, which is the same age as my great-grandmother, born in 1872, was when she died. These genetic factors are, perhaps, important. Another suggested 88.9 years, and yet another, 96 years. A lot depends on what is entered in the calculators. Some do not ask, specifically, about relatives who lived beyond 80 – I had several. One asked repeatedly, question after question, about driving habits – very significant, it seems, in the USA. Despite all we are told about exercise, it seems that to walk for at least 30 minutes a day for 4 days a week – I must average one hour every day – is seen as good exercise.

I wonder about some of the bases for these statistics, and maybe Disraeli (“lies, damned lies, and statistics”) had a point. For the BBC, Professor Danny Dorling explained that if you are temperance, as I am, it may reduce your life expectancy because a lot of temperance people have been alcoholics in the past. So I lose a year! But, if one never was an alcoholic, then 2 years go on, so up I go to 87.7 years. I saw once a calculator that suggested that if you ate barbecued meat, it would lower your life expectancy by 7 years, even more than if you smoked. Part of me wonders at this, because smoking is now very much a preserve of working-class people, who have all manner of other life-denying and life-reducing circumstances, while barbecues would tend to be associated with middle-class lifestyles. Dorling is a sensitive and thoughtful (and left-wing) geographer, but I wonder about his assertions concerning manual work and status. He correctly identifies that to be a manual worker is to be considered of lower status, not only by “higher” social classes but also by people from manual backgrounds. There was a suggestion that people feel worse about themselves, and that this lowers life expectancy, but I wonder whether it is lower expectations, greater poverty and insecurity, and worse living conditions generally that reduces the length of life. I read somewhere a study of the impact of work dangers on life expectancy, affecting people in manual jobs far more than those in non-manual jobs. When I read or hear about “**** health and safety”, I think of the number of people whose lives have been reduced or terminated by avoidable working conditions, like falling off scaffolding, getting trapped in machinery, breathing carcinogens, being hit by falling objects – the sort of things that rarely happen to university lecturers or indeed most professionals. Try telling people maimed or bereaved as a result of avoidable industrial injuries about “***health and safety”. A further statistic that I unearthed recently was about the rate of death and injury to pedestrians – often children – which runs at FIVE times the rate in deprived areas over affluent areas. Those US questions about driving, pertinent to the impact of dangerous driving on car drivers and passengers, do not refer to the risks caused to pedestrians at all.

This seems to be turning into an essay about life expectancy, which is not my intention, so I’ll turn my attention to something that is missing from every calculator that I have seen. It is simply, this. Noone seems to ask about the age of someone on retirement, whether they have retired already in their mid-50s, and the circumstances of early retirement. Asked about my occupation, I recorded what it was, but when asked simply am I retired, I recorded that I was. So I would seem to be counted with retired people and their life expectancy; but “retired people” covers a wide range of people and circumstances.

It would seem that the calculators make no distinction between people who are still working at 60 or 65, or who intend to work to their ages or older, and people who have retired, or ceased to work, before 60. This seems to be to be an odd omission. Can it really be true that there is no relationship between age of retirement and life expectancy?

More bluntly, is earlier retirement good for you and likely to lengthen your life, or not?
The evidence, from studies elsewhere, is surprisingly inconclusive. There seems to be no clear correlation, and the suggestion can be made that to move retirement ages upwards is not to lower life expectancy. This is a very convenient view for those who seek to reduce the eligibility of the state retirement pension and public pension provision. My gut feeling is that this is simply incorrect, and a more fine graining of the category of “early retirement” would produce different results. It remains my conviction that early retirement prolongs the life expectancy of most retirees, and improves their quality of life.

There are some obvious categories of “early retirement” that do not mean a longer life. For a start, whilst formal ill-health retirement has been drastically reduced (one of the many “advances” of our “civilised” society), it remains the case that many people retire early because of poor health, and, by definition, may well die earlier than healthier colleagues who continue on employment. Two former colleagues died within a year of early retirement, but both retired because they had terminal cancer. Early retirement might well prolong the lives of those who retire due to illness, but this never seems to be considered. This government does not even seem to think that terminal cancer is necessarily a ground for the payment of the measliest of benefits; absolute disgust is my only response to that. Physical ill-health may be one reason for early retirement, but another might be deemed mental ill-health. Anecdotes abound of those who “escaped” for the sake of their sanity; I think that I am one! But, for many, depression and worse may make it impossible to work. Depression seems to be closely associated with cancer, although the aetiology is uncertain, and it is certainly associated with suicide, and with deteriorating general health. Maybe people who are depressed take less interest in their health, or maybe declining health, and the prospect of worse conditions, leads to a quite rational depression.

Involuntary early retirement, in reality losing one’s job through unanticipated redundancy, followed by a failure to get further employment, could well accelerate death through two factors. One is simply the lack of money, of descending into the same position as those who were always poor, along perhaps with the lack of the resilience that characterises many of the poor, and the stress of knowing that a better lifestyle was once available and taken for granted. One can imagine suicide, or suicidal behaviour, taking place more often as a result of redundancy. The other, which is related, is social isolation. Many employments provide workers with a sense of belonging, and sometimes a social life of sorts, or at least a rhythm to life that accompanies regular work. Take this away, and many people feel isolated, and despairing. The association between social isolation and early death is demonstrable even if its aetiology is unclear.

Physical ailments that work their way through the body, perhaps like cancer, that develop whether or not lifestyles change, might cause death at the same time for an early retired person as the same person if they had retired “normally”, or had continued to work after retirement.

But an “early retirement” that is chosen or gladly accepted, would surely lead to a longer life than that of the non-retiree. Physical ailments associated with work clearly can be left behind. To me, though, the key point is the loss of mental stress. Mental stress can be worse when one is ageing, losing some faculties, becoming more tired and expected to take on new forms of work and procedures. Again, the aetiology linking stress directly to such problems as heart disease or cancer is uncertain.

One thing is sure – once freed of the yoke of employment, many early retirees, if healthy and reasonably-resourced, with time to spend on those about whom they care, live longer post-retirement lives, and in greater fulfilment, than those who stay under the whip. Maybe there is no difference in length of life, but length of life in contentment is probably much longer. Even the most fervent advocates of the joys of work would not suggest that discontented non-retirees live longer lives than those who retire early in contentment. Or would they? The advocates of “work is wonderful” would argue almost anything. Because, if enough people realise the benefits of early retirement, it will become an aspiration for them, and with the demolition of pensions, less and less attainable for most people, and thus the source of major discontent. If we all realised just how rubbish and pointless most paid work is, more of us would be less and less inclined to conform to the ideology and work hard for nothing. In short, we might challenge the whole system and take control. I hope that I live to see that day!

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