When was your very good year?

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 have had so many very good years.

Which was your best year? Let me know.

I love Orkney

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.

One of my sons, Tin, near Kitchener’s Monument after a torrential shower
The beach at Scapa, after a whisky tasting at the distillery

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.

Ring of Brodgar

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.

Yum

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.

How am I supposed to feel about a father with advanced Alzheimer’s?

For the first time since the pandemic started I was free to go and see some of my relatives this week. I had a great time, driving around the UK and visiting my sister, one of my brothers & his wife, my mum and one of my aunts. I am feeling a little guilty about others I did not see, but it was still a really good week. I also managed to get a number of “jobs” done including sorting out my mum’s loft, helping her buy a car, and getting my aunt to sign sixty sheets of paper for her powers of attorney. In many ways I feel very satisfied. But one visit has left me sad. For the first time in two years, I was allowed to see my dad face to face in the nursing home where he lives and is looked after. He has advanced Alzheimer’s.

Let me tell you about my dad. He was a Cambridge graduate in the Classics, who then went on to study Theology and became a vicar in the Church of England. He led churches in Derby, Salisbury, Matlock, Frimley and Guildford. He was involved in amateur dramatics. He collected old newspapers. He became fascinated by the Lutheran church in Germany and learnt German so that he could visit and find out more. He was introverted but pushed himself out of his comfort zone to stand up in a pulpit every Sunday. I love and admire my dad.

He started getting confused about eight years ago, and he deteriorated relatively quickly, By four years ago he was in a home, and when I saw him last time, he did not know who anyone was and was fully reliant on care. But there was still something there – just a spark in his eyes when he listened to music, or looked through pictures in a book. He had to be hoisted and he spent the days with others in the lounge, and in his room at night. Just occasionally when I spoke to him, there was the glimpse of a smile and I could imagine some kind of connection.

When I saw my dad this week that spark had gone. He is now in his room the whole time. He seems to be just a shell.

Of course I realise that no-one knows what is going on in my dad’s head. Perhaps there is still something there. And I am glad that I went to see him. But I feel such a sense of loss. He is gone but he is alive. I can’t say goodbye but nor can I connect. I just feel sad. And I feel guilty for feeling sad while he is alive.

Have you had a similar experience? How did you manage how you felt?

Does the UK have the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets?

There is something about sunrises and sunsets that I love. And this time of year is the best. I don’t know if that is just because the nights are getting longer so that dawn and dusk are closer together, or because the sun is lower in the sky, so the sunlight is filtered by dust in the air, or because I am noticing it more on the canal. But we have had the most stunning mornings and evenings this week.

I have visited many countries and seen beautiful sunsets and sunrises all over the world. But there is something about the UK in September that I really love. This week has seen days as warm as the peak of summer, rain as torrential as at any point this year. The old crudgies (like me) are out on the canals, as the children have gone back to school. And everything is feeling that little bit less rushed.

I am so lucky to have the life I do, where my biggest worry this week is what kind of blacking to use to paint the boat hull at the end of the season. And my biggest gratitude is to hear that my wonderful niece Lucy has got engaged to the equally wonderful Dan.

And everything is well as the sun rises and as the sun sets.

Why is no-one talking about herd immunity?

At the start of the pandemic, it is generally accepted that Boris Johnson wanted to let the virus spread and form some kind of herd immunity amongst the population. It was only when it became apparent that this approach would overwhelm the hospitals and kill over a million that he made a sudden u-turn and introduced the first lock down. Ever since then, the phrase “herd immunity” seems to have been banished from the language of both politicians and scientists.

And yet, in the UK, herd immunity appears to be exactly what we are looking for. All restrictions have been removed and the virus numbers are really high. But because of vaccination, relatively few are getting really ill and dying. So long as this remains the case, politicians and epidemiologists seem happy to let Covid-19 spread. By doing so we are increasing immunity across the population, whether in children, where maybe 60% have now had Covid, or amongst vaccinated adults. In either case, every time someone gets ill, their immunity increases, and their chance of getting seriously ill decreases.

I think what we are really aiming towards is a situation where we all live with Covid. Children will be expected to catch it when young and it is a mild disease (think of chickenpox as an analogy). People will then catch it again a couple of times during their life but each time, natural immunity will mean it is not generally serious. If necessary vaccinations will top us up. Herd immunity will have been reached.

Personally I see only two problems with this approach. The first is that the rest of the world is not following it. Instead, tight lockdowns continue to be used. So will the UK become a plague state that everyone else is scared to visit? The second is that leaders are not being honest that this is our approach. They are terrified that when someone dies, they will be blamed for letting it happen. But if this is what they are doing they should be honest about it.

What do you think? Is herd immunity a goal worth aiming for, or should we go back to locking down the disease?