I needed to blow some cobwebs away this week, after the funeral of my Dad. We had a thanksgiving service in Salisbury Cathedral, which was quite a joyous event, as lots of people celebrated his life. But it is still a stressful time and I was glad to get back to Scotland. My son, Tin, and I took the dogs for a walk up Arthur’s Seat. This is a famous hill right in the middle of Edinburgh.
It was a crisp, cold morning and the fresh breeze on top certainly helped clear the mind. If you read this blog regularly, you will know that walking is one of my things. There is something in the combination of physical exertion and the wonderful views that really energises me and gives me perspective.
It will no doubt take some time to grieve for my father, but life moves on, and next week I should be able to get back to our narrowboat. Within a few weeks, Mandy and I will be off on our next big retirement adventure – six months travelling through the canals in the South of England. Mandy says that in my head I am already there. I am certainly getting very excited by the thought.
I look forward to sharing the experience with you.
I have indigestion. Last night I had a delicious meal that my son cooked – spicy chicken and chorizo wraps. I really enjoyed the food, and devoured three filled wraps while watching an episode of “Lewis”, a British detective series. This morning I am feeling the after effects of so much chilli. Why is it that the best food and drink is not good for me?
I love spicy food, but my guts disagree. I love heavy red wines, but they give me a headache. I love bowls of rich ice cream and plates of cakes, but they make me fat.
Of course I have seen all those virtuous people on social media, extolling the benefits of living on fruit juice, celery and tofu. And I can enjoy a salad as much as the next man. But when it is a cold miserable evening in the middle of February, I want comforting food that makes me feel good in the moment.
I understand the science. Two things are working against me. The first is that thousands of years of evolution have taught us humans that fat, sugar and intoxicants are rare commodities to be enjoyed when you can find them. The second is that during 57 years of life I have been bombarded with messages from adverts, parents and friends, extolling how such food is a reward and makes you feel great.
I even understand how theoretically I can change my view. Because my mind has been programmed to like bad food, it can be reprogrammed to avoid them, and seek out the healthy.
But I guess the problem is the same as an addict coming off cigarettes or stronger drugs. It will never happen until they really want to make the change. And I really do love the bad stuff. So while I have a sore tummy this morning, I would very happily have a curry and a beer tonight.
It is all about choices. I choose to love my exercise. But I also choose to love eating bad stuff.
This week has seen the birthday of one of our sons – Tin (Martin). So we have been away for a few days in a lodge (fancy static caravan) near Newton Stewart, on the Scottish Borders. There is some fine walking around here which we have been enjoying with the dogs, but we have also been trying to dodge the big storms, bringing torrential rain and very strong winds.
Tin says I am lazy because I am not keen on walking in rain. I have also been told by innumerable hikers that “there is no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothing”. Personally I think this is hogwash. For me it is just not fun to be out in a hooley, with the rain lashing, or worse still, hail battering my face. When we were in Orkney before Christmas, there were at least three occasions when I came back from a walk utterly soaked. No fun.
There is however, something primitive and very satisfying about being inside in the warm during a storm. Perhaps it goes back to cave dwellers, huddled around an open fire, cooking whatever they had just hunted. I am hoping that in the next few days there will be snow, because I really love to see it falling when I am inside in the warm.
So that is what we are doing. Playing cards. Watching films. Cooking comfort food. Drinking whisky.
My father passed away this week. I have written before about him. He has had advanced Alzheimer’s for several years and in recent times has been a shell of what he was. He knew no-one, could not communicate, could not understand, was incontinent and immobile. It made me deeply sad and angry. I still expected however, that when he passed I would be upset. And yet this week I have been very matter of fact, getting on with the logistics. I am definitely more relieved than grieving. So am I kidding myself? Will this come and hit me later? Or did I do my grieving as he deteriorated and I lost the father and man he once was?
He was a traditional father. I don’t remember him ever hugging me. There were four of us children and as we grew up he was always there for us, but in a quite hands-off way. If we had an intellectual argument he became engaged and was fascinated. He was less good with emotions. This is a little odd because he was a parish priest, and empathy with people in tough situations was part of the job. I think it was just that underneath the image of the vicar, he was always a shy man. I think he was proud of me. I was certainly proud of him.
I do have very happy memories of him. We were lucky to have a stable and safe family environment. There was never much money around, but he kept us clothed and fed. I would add “warm” but we grew up in cold, draughty vicarages where you would wake up to ice patterns on the inside of the bedroom windows. But I am not complaining. That was normal in our generation and we were happy. And we were free. He and our Mum always encouraged our independence. I could leave the house first thing and not return till dusk. From an early age I would go to cub camps, or music weekends by myself. I learnt to be self reliant, in terms of my physical and emotional needs. It made me who I am.
This week I have loved reading the many “With Sympathy” cards that my Mum has received. Dad was involved in many clubs and activities and was held in great respect. What I have loved the most is that these memories are all of how he was before the awful disease took him away. It has helped me remember that man. I loved him.
This week I have been continuing to walk sections of the Southern Upland Way. This is a 212 mile long distance walk from coast to coast across Scotland. It has been a somewhat nostalgic experience for me because I used to do a lot of long distance walks in the UK, and I had forgotten how different they are.
I have walked the Pennine Way, the Cleveland Way, the Ridgeway, the Wainwright Coast to Coast, the Cotswold Way, Offa’s Dyke, Hadrian’s Wall and bits of the Thames Path, South West Coast Path and the West Highland Way. Each of these has a different character but one thing connects them all – they are largely remote. Because I have dogs I am lucky enough to walk most days, but often the routes are well known to me, quite busy with other walkers, and certainly close to civilisation. The long distance trails on the other hand go through some of the quietest parts of the UK. During this trip I have walked maybe 50 miles and I think I have met single figures of fellow ramblers.
Now OK I accept that January is an unusual time to be walking. The weather has been a bit grey, the hours of daylight are relatively short, the ground in places is very wet, and non-retired people are at work. If I was walking in the summer no doubt I would meet many more. However, the principle of remoteness still applies. I am lucky enough to be met at either end of each section by my wife with a car, so I do not carry a tent. But I still need safety provisions in case of emergency – a good compass and map, food, drink, one of those foil blankets to keep me warm. If I did need to stop somewhere, I would be miles from contact, quite possibly without phone coverage.
But I think that is what I like most about the long distance walks. There is just me, the dogs and my iPhone for podcasts or music. I am walking where I have never been before and seeing views I have never seen before. This week, red kites have flown just a couple of metres above me on the top of a hill. I have come across a huge “striding arch” art installation miles from civilisation, I have searched for a secret “cist” of coins that I had heard had been hidden near the path (sadly I missed it). From a mental health perspective there are few things better I think. Exercise, peace and revelation.
You should try it.
I know I have readers outside the UK. Do you have equivalent long distance walks?
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?
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.
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:
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.
Natural immunity makes a difference. Like vaccines it may not stop people catching Omicron, but it should help reduce the severity.
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.
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.
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.
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. 😊
I was listening to Frank Sinatra’s ”Very Good Year” this week, and it made me consider which has been my best year. Frank talks about meeting girls at 17 on the village green, 21 in the city and at 35 in their limousines. He then talks about being in the autumn of his years and feeling like a vintage wine. The song became an enormous hit and is still amongst the ones he is most famous for.
When I was 19 I had left home for university and was living in London. I was loving the independence and the freedom to make my own choices. I was doing some studying but also spending a great deal of time at the student radio station. My future was open with so many options. It was a very good year.
When I was 22 I left Uni, started a career in IT and married Mandy. We were just kids and knew so little of the world. Many people told us we were far too young but we were so in love and so excited about the future. It was a very good year.
When I was 26 we moved to the Netherlands. We had two very young children and spoke no Dutch. But instead of being scared, we were excited. Everything felt new. I loved my job. I had remote access to the computers with a 2400 baud modem – 27,000 time slower than the speed I have in this remote cottage in Orkney. It was a very good year.
When I was 37 I joined the Halifax Bank. I had spent many years as a consultant and working for a “real” company felt fresh. Our boys were 11 and 12 – old enough to do almost anything, but before they turned into surly teenagers. We lived in Yorkshire, such a great county for countryside and straight talking people. I learnt to ski, to fly, to dive. It was a very good year.
When I was 48 we bought a house called Monkroyd, in Todmorden, on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border. It was the house I had dreamt of as a child, a Victorian mill owner’s mansion. It had secret rooms, open fires, two large cellars. Mandy was back close to her family in Burnley. I was commuting to the great city of Manchester. The boys had left home and we were enjoying our space. It was a very good year.
When I was 55 I was leading a very large team running payment operations for Nat West. It was my perfect job and a great way to end my working career. Fascinating challenges and a leadership team that could meet any challenge with energy and positivity. We were living in Scotland near Edinburgh, my favourite city in the world. I also got a chance to spend a lot of time in India, my favourite country in the world. It was a very good year.
I am now 57 and Sinatra’s “autumn of years” is probably appropriate. Despite a stuttering start in lockdown, retirement has been amazing. After many years of making choices that narrowed future options, suddenly we can do anything we want, whenever we want. Mandy & I have spent so much time together and remarkably we have found we still enjoy each other’s company.
I am writing this at dawn, sitting in my lounge overlooking the entrance to Scapa Flow in Stromness. Stromness is the second town in Orkney and for the next month we are staying in a cottage that once who have been owned by a fisherman, with its own pier and tiny beach to launch the boats. Dawn here is currently a very civilised 07:40 so I have not had to get up early to see the sun rise. And boy is it beautiful. Here are a couple of pictures from a few days ago:
Since we arrived last Saturday, we have already fallen in love with this wonderful set of islands. It is true that you can have every season here in thirty minutes, and some of the landscape can be bleak. Very few trees grow here for instance. But because it is an archipelago, around every bend in the road, over every brow of a hill, you come across the most stunning views.
Out of season it feels as if we have the islands to ourselves. For instance the Ring of Brodgar is a Neolithic set of standing stones, as impressive as Stonehenge. But in Stonehenge you would be surrounded by coachloads of tourists, and kept a long way from the stones on fixed visiting paths. At Brodgar it was just us.
Quite a few restaurants are now closed for the season, but that has not stopped us finding the most wonderful food, including what we have cooked for ourselves. Sorry vegetarians, but picking our own lobsters straight off the fishing boat was wonderful. My son Tin is trained as a chef, and they tasted sooooo good.
I have to go now. A ferry awaits to take us to the island of Hoy, for another stunning walk, and my other son, Rob, is arriving for a few days. This is going to be some month.