More reasons to love Scotland

We are having a couple of weeks away in the Scottish Borders, staying north of Dumfries. The cottage is remote and with no light pollution, it is properly dark at night. I had forgotten how much stars “pop” in a properly dark sky. They look amazing. The countryside around here is very beautiful. I have been doing a couple of sections of a long distance walk called the Southern Upland Way. January is such a quiet time here. Most people do not want to take time off work, so soon after Christmas, or if they do, they want to go somewhere hot or to go skiing. Over 30 miles walking I don’t think I met another rambler.

Crawick Multiverse – just off the Southern Upland Way

Being retired has many benefits but I think the best is that I have time to do things like this. When I was working I was lucky enough to have six weeks annual leave a year. But still, to take two weeks in January would have been a big chunk of that, and if I did take the time, I would feel I needed to maximise the time, by being busy every day. Now I am retired I have no rush to do anything. Yesterday I did a long walk and today I plan to relax. It is a crisp cold sunny morning, so maybe I will take the dogs out, then light the fire and watch a film or read a book.

My fire. Not my feet.

While I am excited to be planning to get back to our narrowboat for several months this year, I feel very grateful that we live in Scotland in the winter. It is such a beautiful country – about the same size as England but with a much smaller population. There are many new areas, like this, for me to discover, but also the familiarity of great cities such as Edinburgh. There are castles around every corner, mountains and hills, lochs and beaches.

Drumlanrig Castle, just up the road from where we are staying

Personally I do not support independence for Scotland – I also love England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and see the benefits of great countries being joined together. But I still love Scotland. Beautiful, proud and full of character.

Haggis for my tea tonight I think.

Is this the end of the pandemic?

It may seem an odd thing to say when in the UK we have had more people contracting Covid in recent weeks than ever before, but I think this week may mark the end of the pandemic. Numbers of cases are now reducing, and numbers of people in hospital have not reached anything like the peaks of last spring. When we look back in a year’s time I think Omicron may be seen as having been a good thing. It has given millions of people increased immunity, adding to the benefits of vaccines, without immobilising the NHS or killing vast numbers. Of course I know that every death is a tragedy, and I feel for everyone impacted, but at last can we now get back to normality?

UK cases by age group – source Zoe Study

I wonder if living more normally is one reason that the UK public have been so angry this week at the revelation that Boris Johnson attended a party in his garden, while we were in full lockdown back in 2020. Most of us have suffered materially in the past two years, whether through loss of friends and relatives, or damage to our own physical and mental health. Despite this we have got on with our lives. We have built up anger with nowhere to direct it. Now perhaps we can let that out a little. And when we find out that the likes of Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings have been ignoring or bending rules, then that anger overflows.

Personally this week I have felt a mixture of anger, fascination with the politics and some sympathy with those involved. The latter may seem a contradiction, but I do have sympathy with the civil servants who had been putting themselves at risk, working 12+ hours a day in close contact with each other to try to help this country through the pandemic. Back in May 2020 I was leading a large operational team, most of whom where working at home, but some who had to work in an office. Those people did not have alcohol or parties but sometimes they would let of steam in the grassy area outside the office. They would maintain social distance and I believe followed all rules, but to someone outside would it look as if they were taking things seriously enough? I don’t know.

In the UK we have a reputation that we can laugh at anything, smile in the most trying of circumstances, make fun of serious events. We all needed those safety valves in May 2020, as we do now. If this is truly the end of the pandemic, let’s adopt the ideas of the recently deceased Desmond Tutu, who led the Truth and Reconciliation reviews after apartheid was dismantled. Let’s try to find out the truth about what happened and how it could have been better, let’s apologise for things that were wrong. And then let’s move on.

Am I mad?

The problem I have with teachers

I have been reading a fascinating book this week by Ben Goldacre called “I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That”. It is a collection of his articles written in the early 2010s, arguing why we need more factual and evidence based decision making and media. One of these articles was a 2011 paper for the UK government about how education could and should be more evidence based. It really gave me pause for thought and made me consider the problem I have with teachers.

When you meet someone at a party and they tell you what they do, there are often stereotypical reactions. When I used to tell people I was a banker, I would gird my loins for being told that all the ills of the economy were due to my greed. When I told then I worked in IT, I would often see their eyes glaze over. Now, when I tell them I am retired, they look at me as if I am mad, and try to find the reason I “can’t” get a job. In return, when someone tells me they are a teacher, I can almost feel the atmosphere chill, as they prepare to defend themselves against jibes about their lengthy holidays or inability to do a real job. Personally I have huge admiration for teachers. Indeed, for many years I wanted to be one myself. Helping children grow to well rounded, well educated adults must be one of the best things a person can do. But…

The defensiveness I mentioned goes a lot further than responding to dinner party comments. I am not sure why, but I find teachers, possibly more than any other profession, are unwilling to accept criticism, or suggestion of how things could be done better. I am even nervous to write about it because I know teacher friends will already have their hackles rising. Ben Goldacre is a doctor and draws analogies from his own profession, where up to the 1970s, consultants would reject evidence as attacking their professionalism, judgement and brilliance.

Surely teachers, as with any other profession, should not choose teaching methods because “that is the way it has always worked”, or “that is how I like to do it and I am the expert” or “that is the latest fad I have heard about”. There should be proper systematic randomised controlled research which would tell us factually what works and what does not. I have spoken to teachers who reject this idea as something being done to them. But there is no reason for that. In medicine the research is owned by the profession, supported by statisticians. It could be the same for education.

The good news is that in the US, and more recently the UK, education policy does seem to be going in the right direction here. A 2017 £75m investment in the Teaching and Innovation Fund to support evidence based education may help. But teacher defensiveness along the lines of “But every child is different, every class is different” is common. As an example read the article “Education research is great but never forget teaching is a complex art form” by Thomas Rogers. These are just the kinds of arguments that used to be heard in medicine, or indeed in my old profession of IT, and have largely been debunked.

I admire teachers. I admire their professionalism, their work ethic, their talent. I sympathise with the way they are lectured by politicians, journalists and me. Now is the time for them to take ownership for evidence based education, even if it means slaying a few sacred cows.

What do you think?

Eight wishes for 2022

Happy New Year’s Eve!

When I was working, we used to write objectives for the coming year. So this year I have decided not to make resolutions about things I will stop or start doing. Instead I have identified eight outcomes to aim for by the end of 2022.

  1. I will have a happy family. For various reasons the past couple of years have not been easy for my sons, but things are on the up and this will be a good year. Mandy and I will continue to love our retired life.
  2. We will have had an amazing year on the narrowboat. Last year we were able to spend 4 months travelling the canals in the north of England. This year we will spend over 6 months in the south, meeting friends and family as we travel, seeing wonderful places, and enjoying the best of the countryside.
  3. I will have lost weight and will be fitter. I made pretty good progress on this when we were travelling last year, but the past couple of months have been more slovenly.
  4. We will have decided where we want our house for the next twenty years. This was also a goal for 2021 but we have struggled to choose between the many wonderful places in the UK.
  5. Covid will no longer dominate our lives. This is a hard goal for me to achieve by myself, but I have a good feeling that after the Omicron wave, we will be living with the disease as we do with flu or a cold.
  6. I will have been abroad again. I have really missed travelling. This year I want to go to at least one new place outside the UK.
  7. I will have experienced many perfect moments. I love those moments when you suddenly see an incredible view, or a sunrise, or you sit down with friends for a wonderful meal and you realise that it does not get any better than this.
  8. I will have continued to write this blog. There is something about writing each week that I find really satisfying and mindful, as I take the opportunity to reflect.

What about you? What are your goals for 2022? Whatever they are I wish you a very happy, healthy and prosperous year.

Love Pete

One Year Retired – 5 reasons I miss work, and 5 reasons I don’t

This week marks twelve months since I retired. Overall it has been a wonderful experience but I am not pretending there is nothing I miss.

Five things I really miss about work are:

  1. The people were great. I know it is corny but I do miss them. I worked with some really talented and really fun people. I try to keep in touch but I am rubbish at it.
  2. I miss weekends. The routine of work and the rhythm of a working week are something I have lived with for nearly 40 years and it feels strange that I can now do anything any day. Either every day is like a weekend, or no day is like a weekend.
  3. I miss chatting early in the morning. I used to wake before 6am and email, text or call with my fellow early risers. Sotimes I now have a lie in till 7am or occasionally 8am but more often I am up by myself these days. Nice to have my own space but I miss sharing.
  4. I miss having money coming in. This is a bit of a strange one because we worked out our finances before I retired and we can afford it. We even have our money set up so that a fixed amount goes into our account each 18th of the month, just like it used to. But there is something psychological for me when it is existing money I am spending, rather than new money coming in.
  5. One year in and I still don’t really understand what being retired means. I was warned it would take a long time and it has. To some extent this still feels like one long holiday, and I still rush at what I do.

Two things I though I would miss but I don’t:

  1. I thought I would miss making decisions that really mattered. I worked in the sharp end of banking and some of my decisions affected literally millions of people and very large sums of money. I remember ny friend Matt (who reads this blog) telling me that the biggest decisions I would make in future would be whether to buy brown or white bread. He was absolutely right but I really don’t mind. The decisions I make these days are about me and my family, and I am very happy with them.
  2. I thought I would miss the adrenaline of work, especially when things went wrong and needed fixing urgently. Looking back I think I was a little addicted to that adrenaline, but I don’t think it was healthy. I am much happier being more chilled now.

And there are many things I love about being retired:

  1. I am not tied down by anything. If I decide I want to cancel all my plans for tomorrow and do something different, I just can.
  2. I can take as long as I want. When we were on our narrowboat I did not have to think of where I needed to be by Saturday – we could go fast or slow.
  3. I get to meet new people, do new things. Orkney for a month for instance was a great opportunity I could never have had while working

Overall I have no doubt I made the right call to retire and I am really looking forward to whatever new adventures 2022 will bring. But as it is Christmas I will raise a glass to my time at work, and to all my friends from that time.

A wonderful Christmas to all.

Pete x

Why I am not panicking about Omicron

In the summer I wrote a blog about why I thought the UK government was pursuing a herd immunity strategy by deliberately letting people get ill with Covid. I said that there was nothing wrong with this strategy but they should be honest about it.

Six months later I am convinced I was right, and if Omicron had not arrived, we would be in a good position for this winter. Unfortunately we are now faced with yet more Christmas restrictions and in some ways it feels as if we are back to square one. However, I think there are at least four reasons we should be more optimistic this time:

  1. Vaccines do make a difference. I realise there are still some anti-vaxxers around who will call me a sheep, but I have had all three doses, and I am convinced they will help reduce the severity of any illness.
  2. Natural immunity makes a difference. Like vaccines it may not stop people catching Omicron, but it should help reduce the severity.
  3. We have free lateral flow tests widely available. If people are sensible and test themselves before meeting up, there is a good chance we can reduce the spread a little at least.
  4. I am optimistic that Omicron is less severe than Delta and Alpha. I realise the government and doctors are underplaying this because they want to encourage boosters, but it does appear to be the case in South Africa, and we have always been told by virologists that at some point there would be a fast spreading weak variant, just as there was at the end of Spanish flu, a hundred years ago.

There has to be at least a reasonable chance that by February we will be through this pandemic. Covid will be with us forever no doubt, just like flu and the common cold, but after two years we could all do with a break.

I realise this is not my normal blog about how great retirement is, but it does reflect what is on my mind this week. I have been looking after my Mum in Salisbury this week, after she had ten days in hospital with heart problems. So I am just very conscious about infections.

Back to the normal baloney next week!

Is it safe to go out now?

Musically I am definitely a child of the eighties. I was student in London, working in a radio station, and top 40 music gave a background to most everything I did. My favourite two bands were Madness and Squeeze, so you can imagine my delight when a few months ago I found out they were touring together, and I excitedly bought a ticket on the day they went on sale. The concert was last Friday at the big Arena in Glasgow and as the evening approached I began to feel more and more nervous.

Omicron was already beginning to spread and in Scotland, a group of those affected had been at a concert at the same venue a week before. This was the first time I had been out to any event like this. I had been to see a couple of films at the cinema, but this was a single room with thousands of singing fans. Should I go?

Well, in the end I decided I would go. I have had all three jabs and was feeling fighting fit. I wore a mask throughout (although most did not). I stayed on the outskirts of the crowd so that I could maintain some kind of social distance. And I left before the encores so that I could get ahead of the crowd.

Was it worth it? I really did love the songs and a great show was put on. And I did not catch Covid. It is now a week later, and tests show me still clear. It was a managed risk. If I had got ill, the chances are it would have been mild.

But I spent the evening on edge. After nearly two years of pandemic we are still nowhere near back to normal. Is it time to live with this disease or is it time to stay safe? What do you think?

What should you do when you can’t contact your Mum?

My Mum is 86 and had a fall this week. She was walking up the street outside her house and seems to have just collapsed. Fortunately an off-duty paramedic saw what happened and called an ambulance, so when my Mum regained consciousness she was in hospital. The good news is that she is now off the acute ward and on a cardiac ward. The bad news is that they haven’t yet worked out what is wrong.

With my Mum – not our house!

The odd thing is that I am not feeling too upset about what happened. She is a little older now and a little more fragile. Unlike my Dad, her brain is still sharp and she is reasonably fit, but we should expect issues. However, what was both frustrating and upsetting was my inability to contact her. Her mobile phone had almost no reception and she doesn’t do texts, there was no way of calling her in hospital, the ward wifi would not allow facetime, and even the ward phone number for enquiries was permanently engaged. She had called my brother when she could and he was with her, so I could talk to him, but he was only allowed to see her for an hour a day.

The irony is that I have spoken on this blog before about one of the benefits of retirement being that I am no longer “always on”. I sometimes take days to reply to emails or messages, so I should understand that hospitals are busy and their main job is not to allow communication with distant relatives. But it did bring to life for me how much I rely on electronic communication. And quite how far Scotland is from my parents in Salisbury.

I was doing some more family tree research, and found a newspaper article about the tragic death of my Mum’s uncle Gerald, who died while on a school swimming outing aged 17. His parents were notified by telegram. There was no WhatsApp a hundred years ago. Perhaps we are all too dependant on contact these days.

But I was worried about my Mum.

Good news. She is now on a side ward with a phone that works. I have let her know about Gerald. 😊

Why does deleting my contacts make me feel weird?

My wife Mandy has been writing Christmas cards this week. One of the ways she works out who to send to is to go through our shared contact list. She complained that there are hundreds of names to go through that are from my work, and I no longer need them anymore. I agreed.

So this week I have been going through the contacts name by name, deleting those that are no longer relevant. People that I once worked with very closely but who I will never see again. It has been a weird experience and one that has made me feel both sad and happy at the same time.

Some of the names were fine – perhaps someone that I didn’t really know, or one of many recruitment consultants that I will never need again. But often, a name will bring back vivid memories, Maybe an image of the person in my mind. Or a memory of something that happened at work together. Deleting the contact is such a definitive end. I have probably kept too many but it hurts.

However, it has also been a very happy experience. I have been so obsessed this year with loving retirement that I had forgotten how important work was to me for 35 years. And the thing about work that was so important to me was the people, not the work itself. It was probably what made me good at my job. I always cared so deeply about the people I was working with. And the memories of those people brought back those feelings. I have been very lucky to have known so many great people over the years.

I don’t miss working. I don’t regret. But it was so great to work with so many wonderful people over the years. I am lucky.

Why spending a month away is different

We have been in Orkney for a while now. The first couple of weeks were very like any other vacation. We had our sons with us and we went to see all the famous tourist attractions, such as the Ring of Brodgar (standing stone circle) and Skara Brae (neolithic village). It was a great break. But it was not really why we came here, and this week has felt different. It has been wet and windy all month, but this week particularly so. So there has been more hunkering down in front of a fire, and less tourist stuff. I have read a couple of books, and watched some new films. It is very chilled.

But I am not the kind of person to sit still for long, so I have been out discovering the less famous sites in Orkney. It is a quite incredible place, full of history. At low tide we walked across to the Brough of Birsay, where the vikings became Christians and started a monastery. Near Finstown, I climbed down through a roof hatch into Wideford Chambered Cairn, hidden on the side of a hill, where Neolithic people buried their families. We found the ruins of a rare circular church, at Earl’s Bu, next to a Viking drinking hall. Despite sideways hailstones in a gale, I found the Brock of Borthwick, an ancient tower on the edge of a cliff. It feels as if there is history around every corner here.

These are the kinds of places you never have time for in a short vacation, the kinds of places known by locals. And I have found that talking to local people has been another difference. Perhaps also because we are out of season, I feel that we are treated less as outsiders on this trip. I have met fascinating people. I had a personal history education session from a guide at Maeshowe visitor centre. I found out about Stromness in the Royal British Legion Club. The local butcher knows me by name.

I even heard about a place called “Happy Valley” which I have not seen in any of the tourist books, and has no signposts. Orkney has very few trees and has quite a bleak landscape. So 70 years ago, a man called Edwin Harrold bought a cottage on a hillside and over his lifetime, built a special garden around it, with trees, flowers, brooks and waterfalls. When he died, he passed the property on to the council and it is maintained free to visit. I am guessing that few tourists discover this special place, and when I went to see it, I felt there was no-one for miles around.

So it does feel different. Indeed, Mandy & I have been considering staying even longer. I suspect we will decide to come back to civilisation for December, but we do feel privileged to have shared these very wonderful islands for a little while.