Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday 14 January 2008

Five things

Claude says she's not a fan of memes. I know what she means - I've read a few and thought I couldn't possibly do them. Why would I tell complete strangers n things no-one knows about me (those would be either not worth knowing, or private) or n things to do before I die (I tend to be timid but impulsive rather than an ambitious planner)?

Of course, I could have started a blog in an entirely different personality - the lovechild of an oil sheikh and a filmstar, perhaps, who plans to tap-dance with the Dalai Lama and play the spoons at a Buckingham Palace banquet. But I could never keep it up. Fiction isn't me - I'd rather evade than invent.

Come to think of it, I have occasionally had a yen to learn to play the spoons (but then again, to paraphrase PG Wodehouse, a gentleman is one who knows how to play the spoons - but doesn't). That, and being the last person in Britain to talk about "listening to the wireless".

Strangely, the only memes I've tried have been those on Claude's blog, and now she's specifically challenged me to have a go at:

Five things in my life that I would never have imagined at the age of 25


25 - the mid-1970s, still finding my feet in my first job, not finding my feet socially or emotionally.. the whole idea of being nearly 60 was unimaginable, never mind trying to imagine what my life would be like.

1. Technology

This is so obvious - and diamondgeezer has written about it so well - that I thought to leave it out: but my memories go back so much further than his. We wrote letters and cheques; we queued at banks to pay money in and take cash out. Making phone calls away from home was a lottery: getting the door of the phone-box open could be a struggle, and what you might find in it a challenge - and that's assuming you had the small change to put in the slot. When I was 25, I didn't have (didn't expect to have) my own washing machine, and took the weekly visit to the launderette as a handy occasion to catch up on my reading; impossible to imagine the dishwasher I have loved but rejected as expensive and wasteful (well, that's love for you).

Most of all, of course, I couldn't have imagined I'd be working on the internet, without being one of those hidden acolytes of the humming roomful of card-readers and tape-drives known as The Computer and its arcane languages. (Let people have their own computer? On their own desks? Madness!). In one of my early jobs, I was in charge of the storage box full of the Gestetner stencils we used for form letters and updated every year till they fell apart: it's a wonder we weren't all high as kites on the fumes of correcting fluid. To think of working almost entirely without paper files, as I do, would have been fantastical.

2. Property

My parents always rented their home. I suppose I absorbed the general feeling of the 60s and 70s that all the financial advantage was in buying if you could, but at barely three years into my first job, somewhere I didn't really intend to stay, I really couldn't see where, let alone how, I was going to get a foot on the ladder. I did in the end, but in 1973, where I'm living now was a derelict factory, and the area would have been thought a slum.

That said, what would really have surprised me is that later generations would actually find all this a bit harder than ours did, notwithstanding the unstable inflation and interest rates of the 70s and 80s. On the one hand, getting some sorts of credit is far too easy now: but to think you would need to have saved more than a whole year's worth of more than the average salary as a deposit before you could get a mortgage!

3. Travel

I never expected to have a job that required international travel, but for some years, I did get to a range of places in Europe and Asia, and once to Buenos Aires. And before the Channel Tunnel and cheap flights, it was out of the question to think of nipping off to Paris for a weekend with as much ease as to Manchester. Even more striking would have been the idea that the Wall would be barely a memory, and all the capitals of central and Eastern Europe as easy to visit as, well, anywhere else. I saw the Wall from both sides. If there is one great moment in my life, it is that autumn of 1989.

4. Security without a career

I was raised to put a very high priority on financial security ("Never have more than two things on hire purchase at the same time" was one of my mother's sayings). Security lay in a permanent job with an organisation, though of course we were more conscientious than to "Sit on your arse for fifty years, and hang your hat on a pension.".

So I became a university administrator, with a secure (if not wildly generous) pay scale and a pension scheme that looks positively Utopian nowadays. And yet, at 50 I took a deep breath and left to do another degree and change my line of work. Not perhaps as dramatic a change as it sounds, since I'm now working on the website of a government department. But I'm a sort of permanent temp, a semi-detached fixture that might possibly become fully detached at a couple of weeks' notice. What makes that possible, of course, is having paid off the mortgage, and built up some savings. I may not sit at home caressing my bank books (it's a long time since I've seen one of them), but I'm a great fan of deferred gratification. Or at least, some careful evaluation of what might be really gratifying before parting with the bawbees.

5. Contentment

And this is the most surprising of all - and perhaps the most difficult to write about. I've always been relatively solitary. At 25, that seemed - felt - abnormal, and then and for some years afterwards I made myself quite unhappy about it; but through various ups and downs over the decades, I've arrived at a point where, actually, I'm comfortable with who and what I am. Smug, even.

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