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.

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 far back does your family tree go?

This week I have been a genealogist. Several years ago I built up my family tree with the aid of the Genes Reunited website, stories from older relatives and lots of censuses, birth, wedding and death certificates, together with visits to graveyards and old houses.

A small section of my tree

I have not kept the tree up to date and decided to transfer it to the Ancestry.co.uk website, so there was quite a lot of work to do. I also recently received a number of old photographs – one pile from an old tin chest in my Mum’s loft, that turned out to contain all the papers left to my Dad when his parents died; one pile from my Mum’s cousin, who’s own mother recently passed away; and one pile from my wife’s aunt, who’s husband died last year.

It has been time consuming and a little bit obsessive. At one point my wife instructed me in no uncertain terms that I needed to come down for dinner, because I had been sitting in my study for over 12 hours without a break. But it has also been both rewarding and a little sad. Rewarding because I really find it exciting to find our new things and to connect with the past. If you have watched “Who Do You Think You Are?” You will know the experience. But what has been sad is finding quite a few photographs where I can’t identify the people. I have pictures that have been kept carefully for over a hundred years, but where everyone who could have identify them has now gone. Here are a few examples:

Some of my relatives – but who are they?

So this week, I have one request. If you have pictures or papers from the past, please annotate them on the back with the names of people involved. Please use real names, not things like “Grannie and my Uncle”. By doing so, future genealogists like me will be able to connect faces to names, and keep them alive in memories. Do it this weekend.

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?

Why can’t I choose a car?

I have spent much of the past week looking at cars. Buying a car was meant to be one of my first jobs after coming back from the narrowboat. We currently have a Nissan Qashqai SUV and a bright yellow little Fiat 500. While we were away we decided we could live with just one car, and that should be a slightly larger SUV. So this week I have been trawling both Internet and car showrooms, looking at options. We came close with a Mazda CX-5 but I just seem to be unable to make the decision. That is unlike me, so I thought I would do a bit of self-help in my blog, to examine why, and then decide on next steps.

Mazda CX-5
  1. We have always loved the cars we have bought and while the cars we have seen have been perfectly logical and sensible, I just haven’t felt the passion.
  2. At the moment we can’t downsize to one car because our son, Tin, needs a car to get to work, on the other side of Edinburgh. Public transport would take several hours.
  3. The car we need to replace is the Fiat, because after its last MOT, it looks like it could have issues in the future. But we have been looking at SUVs, and with the Qashqai would end up with two SUVs.
  4. Given climate change I really don’t want to own two SUVs.
  5. I feel we ought to be looking at electric, but with a fair few long journeys, the range is not quite there yet in second hand cars.
  6. We have spent a lot of money on the Qashqai in the past 12 months and that will be lost if we sell it.
  7. It is a bad time to buy a second hand car. Because of part shortages, there are not enough new cars coming off production lines, so customers are looking at second hand instead, and that has made the market really hot.
  8. If we have to have two cars, what I really want is a toy car for me – preferably a small convertible. But I know that will just annoy Mandy, who wants the bigger SUV. So I am prevaricating.
  9. Right now we have lots of options, and as soon as we make a decision we have no options.
  10. But I don’t feel happy not making a decision, so need to do something.

What next steps? I have some long car journeys around the UK over the next few days, as I go to visit family members that I have not seen since the first lockdown. That will give me time to consider what I really want. I also need to talk more to Mandy. Or perhaps I’ll just wait till she reads this blog…

What should I do?

Married for 35 years

Monday was our 35th wedding anniversary. Thirty five years is an awfully long time. When we first got married I was just 22 and knew very little about the world. In the 35 years since then, Mandy and I have both changed so much. Many people tell you that to make a marriage successful you need to work at it. Of course that is true, but I think there is also a huge element of luck. We are fortunate that we have tended to change together rather than change away from each other. I know many couples who were perfectly suited when they married but over the years have simply grown apart.

Incredible hair!

This year was always going to be critical for the two of us. After many years when work dominated my life and I was often away from home during the week, suddenly we would be together all day every day – this summer in the confined space of a narrowboat. And on top of that, retirement brings a lot of time to reflect on what you want from life.

So you can imagine how delighted I am that we seem to be rubbing along pretty well. We are both really enjoying the contrast of peaceful miles of country canals with the bustle of industrial city centres. We are both enjoying both meeting old friends and family we have not seen for years, and also the solitude of time to ourselves. So different from who we were 35 years ago, but still in love.

Sorry for soppy post. Back to normal grumbling next week.