Category Archives: Work-Life Balance

Leaving it all behind

I never thought I’d do it, but here I am, writing my first blog from Devon.

Leaving London after living there for more than 50 years was a wrench.

Having said that, I don’t miss the dirt, the crowds or the noise (all of which have increased over the years). Of course, I miss having galleries on my doorstep (or being able to go to one on a whim) and being able to go to the cinema without making it a planned activity based on bus timetables and what’s on. I miss living at the centre of national and international politics and debate. Big BenAnd I miss being able to shop for anything I’ve forgotten when I feel like it. I also miss some of the individuals I got to know (although many of them live, or lived, far from the centre of the action).

But, much more than generally speaking, life down here in Devon is far better than life up there in London. For one thing, the air is cleaner and it’s a great deal better to be woken by the squawk of seagulls – even though they still look bad-tempered and sound as if they’re laughing at me – or by the trilling of other birds than it is by the wail of sirens. I could do without the sound of the sea washing the pebbles clean each time it rushes out, instead of the swoosh of tyres on one of London’s wet main roads. But I can’t say I’d swap one for the other.

If I were many years younger, I would no doubt think differently. I would want  something going on all the time; clubs or discos to go to nearby, more young people my age around and willing to do much the same things. But, as an older person, the quieter life down here is just what I want. Goodness me, I can even shop in peace and buy The Guardian!

Doing what they said

Of course, I’m not the only one leaving things behind.

Donald Trump promised much in his campaign, pedalling a brand of patriotic rhetoric that got him elected to the highest office in the so-called free world. But he’s dealing in international pragmatism nowadays. Hell (as they say over there), he’s even stopped talking about building a wall.

Theresa May sat so firmly on the fence during 2016’s European referendum debate, refusing to say which side she was on, she must’ve hurt herself. It must be the reason why, today, she wears an expression of permanent pain whenever she extols what’s become known as ‘a hard Brexit’. She even has to peddle the same line as those she was supposedly against.

No, I don’t miss any of what I left behind. I can pick and choose what I want to pay attention to. I can even follow the fortunes of my favourite top-of-the-pile football club! And I will, eventually, be able to live the life I want to, once all the material things to do with moving have been sorted out.

It was a good move. Maybe even one I should’ve made some time ago. But, ‘there is a tide in the affairs of men’.

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He’s at it again

It’s hard to believe, but last week he put his foot in his mouth again.

For one who supposedly wants to be leader of his party, George Osborne is making a pretty poor go of it. And it gets worse and worse.

His Budget last week was, in itself, a bit of a mishmash of old ideas muddled with new thinking. He had trailed some of it already. Not much of it came as a surprise. He continued to favour the better-off in British society and failed to help those less able to help themselves.

As result, the present Cabinet has lost one member – Ian Duncan-Smith, for whatever reason – and may lose more before his Master, it’s chair, David Cameron, decides enough is enough and retreats to whatever ‘retirement’ he choses.

Meanwhile, George seems to think that all he has to do is grin and we’ll like him.

Personally, I’ve always been a little circumspect about people who grin too much. They seem to be hiding something else behind the façade of friendliness.

Sometimes it’s no more than politesse. At others it’s malice; it could be idiocy.

In George’s case, it seems to be a combination of the last two. He looks like a malicious idiot.

And he did it it again last week.

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The chips that flew the Atlantic

We had exchanged emails and knew something about each other, but nothing had prepared me for the welcome I got in Bloomfield, Prince Edward County in September.

Wood turner Paul Ross and his wife, Lynne, are both small people. But their hearts are huge, their smiles wide, her soups delicious and his handshake as firm as the grip you’d expect from a man who spends his days steadying his chisels as they cut into the fast-turning pieces of maple chucked onto his lathe.

Drawn together by 26 Atlantic Crossings, the three of us spent several hours over the weekend of the Prince Edward County Studio Tour, swapping notes on everything from how to learn a craft skill and make a living from it, to the life and wines of this very pretty Ontarian county.

On more than one occasion, our animated conversations were lubricated by some of the product under discussion.

Beauty in wood

The piece Paul had made for what turned out to be our shared Atlantic Crossing was as delightful to see in life as it was unexpectedly beautiful to touch.Star Bound

It had taken days, weeks and even months of drying, hollowing, turning and decorating to create this very special, smooth-as-silk Star Bound urn, which I had been asked to write about.

As I visited other artists taking part in the Tour, I learned of other endeavours that had stimulated creativity and, in some cases, tested patience and challenged confidence.

The astonishing blue bridge-like item, made by Kirei Samuel of Lalaland Glass Studio from fused glass fragments, involved ideas and techniques that, Kirei told me, had no precedent.

“I went out of my mind trying to figure out how to make it”, she said. “And I was well and truly out of my mind by the time I’d finished it.”

I wasn’t out of my mind when I left Prince Edward County, but there’s no doubt that my sensibilities, like Paul’s maple, had been turned.

My few days in Ontario showed me that, with a little endeavour and a lot of skill, anyone can chip away at life’s obstacles and turn their ideas into tangible objects worth crossing the Atlantic to see.

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Over-working the hard-working

“If I hear that expression once more, I’ll scream”.

So said my partner, a few weeks ago.

Thank goodness she was speaking figuratively, otherwise I’d be deaf by now.

The phrase she hates with such passion, and which I’ve come to loath in equal measure, is “hard working people”.

We hear it all the time these days.

Politicians from every party constantly talk about “hard working people”, as if they’ve identified a special group in society – the hard workers – that they want to identify with.

How many times have you heard David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg, David Milliband, Ed Balls and a host of others say they’re “on the side of hard working people”?

Britain’s Tories quite clearly are. The phrase is splashed all over their current party conference.

Even President Obama used the phrase in a recent discussion about the value of Obamacare. Apparently, it’s for America’s hard working people everywhere.

What I want to know is this?

What’s the difference between hard working people and people who just work? Even people who just work hard?

Do we all have to be grafters employed on production lines to fit into the group and get the benefits? How dehumanising could that become?

Do we all have to have fingers worn to the bone by hard work? How painful would that be?

Must we spend endless hours slaving at work we’d rather not do? How much stress must one person bear?

Are our noses to be worn smooth by constant contact with the daily grind? Where’s the fun in that?

Can’t we have just a little bit of fun, even at work?

Must we always be working so hard?

A joyless life

It seems to me that, if we’re all expected to be so “hard-working” in order to reap the rewards offered by the politicians – the tax breaks, the mortgage deals and so on – we’re likely to lose something along the way.

We’ll all be so exhausted we’ll have nothing left to give to our lives outside work. No time. No energy. Nothing.

Creativity will wither, unless someone’s paying for it. Why would anyone create anything just for it’s own sake?

Family life may suffer, unless one works hard to find a sane balance. How much energy will be left for that?

Joy may become just a woman’s name.

Because everything in life will be governed by whether or not it – or the person who’s done or made it – qualifies as “hard-working”.

I’m sorry, but I don’t subscribe.

I’ve never been afraid of hard work; not ever in 50+ years of near-continous employment.

But I hate being expected to join the ranks of the “hard-working” just to remain part of the government’s thinking.

And I suspect the government’s thinking centres on how much tax it can harvest from “hard working” people rather than how much joy it can sow in the hearts of the country’s careworn population.

What a miserable, over-worked “hard working” lot we may become!

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For PM read PR

“What is it about George Osborne?”, I asked a few weeks ago.

Now I’m minded to ask: “What is it about David Cameron?”

He seems to be everywhere, sounding off about everything.

Fracking: he thinks we ought to encourage it.

The Human Rights Act: he reckons it should go.

Jesus Christ: he’s in favour of Him.

The internet: it’s full of vile sites that parents – and the rest of us – ought to avoid like the plague.

Sunday mornings: he likes them because they give him time to cook pancakes with his kids.

Bruce Springsteen: he gets off on him when his wife’s not around.

Wayne Rooney: he wants us to know that his mum sat next to the great sulk at Wimbledon.

Badgers: they’ll have to culled, even though it’ll make the government unpopular.

Politics: he seems to have given that a miss.

Government: what’s that?

I know this is the silly season and that, over the years, we’ve learned to expect the media’s usual crop of daft stories in August.

The excuse might be that parliament’s on holiday and the PM and his senior ministers are supposed to be on vacation.

So, each year, we’re subjected to pictures of the Prime Minster of the day either lounging in a seaside deckchair/sunbathing on someone’s private yacht /wandering through a Tuscan village/hanging out with Silvio Berlusconi/eating ice cream on a pier or – in Cameron’s case this year – pointing meaninglessly at fish in a Portuguese market.

And so we foolishly think we can take a break from the great affairs if state and, instead, quietly attend to our own affairs or those of soap stars and celebrities.

Cameron, you’d think, might also want to have a period of similarly private domesticity.

But no. It seems he has to be to constantly in the news and – if not in the papers – trying to make the headlines.

Willing to say almost anything, he has to be noticed.

He’s like an over zealous PR man trying too hard to get his client in the news. Except that – in Cameron’s case – he’s his own client.

When will he learn that “PM” stands for “Prime Minister” and not the daily news and current affairs programme on Radio 4?

And when will he learn that, in his case, “PR” should stand for Public Responsibility not public relations.

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What happens after work?

Years ago, when I last worked full-time as a copywriter in an advertising agency, what happened after work was simple.

I either went for a drink in a pub with a work-mate or two, or I went home.

In 1989, when I left the agency world to go freelance, the framework of my life changed.

I no longer got on my bike and cycled the five miles from Earls Court to Fleet Street, did a day’s work (and a little drinking) and cycled home.

I started working at home.

Change on every front

The first thing I noticed was that I had nowhere to ride my bike to.

Pedalling up and down the corridor in my flat seemed a pretty fruitless exercise. Given the confines, there was no way I could rack up ten miles a day.

The second thing I noticed was the way my work changed.

Instead of being asked to beaver away on projects for clients brought into the agency by the account handlers, I had to find some work myself.

For a while – and to my surprise – I felt like a man set free.

It was almost liberating to discover I no longer had to do what someone else had elected I should do, but could choose my own projects.

I felt a bit like a man released from prison who could decide what to have for lunch instead of having to eat what was put in front of him.

Of course, I soon discovered there’s no such thing as a free lunch!

Nevertheless, as the years went by, I did find my freelance diet was frequently more nourishing than any dish I’d been expected to sup from at the agency’s table.

Aside from anything else, I started working as a part-time photographer for Chelsea Football Club.

I was even stationed pitch-side when the club won the FA Cup for the first time in 26 years and the English league title for the first time in 50 years.

They weren’t just lunch breaks. They were cigar days.

More recently, as the economic conditions have faltered and the demand for copywriting skills like mine has diminished, I’ve found myself at the fag-end of my working life.

And I’ve discovered it’s a curious place to be.

On the one hand, I believe I still have all the skills I used to have.

On the other, I have to recognise that I may not be quite so adept at deploying them. What used to take a little while now sometimes takes a little while longer.

I think it’s what they call “slowing down”.

As a result, like so many other people my age, I’m having to find new things to do after work; new ways of staying connected with the warp and weft of daily life that will preserve the fabric of my own being as a working man.

This – as many will know – isn’t easy.

An idiotic suggestion

It certainly isn’t as easy as suggested by David Willetts, Britain’s Minister of State for Universities and Science, who recently floated the idea that people over the age of 60 should return to college to re-train for the world of work.

As so many others have said: the man’s an idiot.

First off, he doesn’t seem to have taken into account the cost of college courses in the UK.

They’re not cheap. And especially not cheap if you’re on a fixed income, with no prospect of it increasing.

Second, he seems to think the world of work is a place where there’s an endless supply of interesting jobs for people who – by the time they’ve finished whatever course they might have chosen – will probably be 65 or thereabouts.

He’s like a wide-eyed child who thinks the tuck shop will be forever full of sweets.

In truth, with Britain’s high streets struggling to survive the worst economic downturn in living memory, almost every tuck shop in the land is fearful for its very existence.

The bitter pill is, the jobs don’t exist.

Third, he seems to have based his thinking on what he’s described as getting retrained and upskilled.

If, by this, he’s referring to readying oneself for the world of computers and twenty-first century technologies, he’s possibly even more idiotic than I thought.

How can anyone over the age of 60 – no matter what they may have learned about computers and modern communications platforms – compete with young people who’ve been playing with keyboards and mice since they could crawl towards a screen?

It’s simply not possible.

Another approach needed

Nevertheless, for all his lunacy, Willetts is in tune with a real need.

Many of the older members of our society – and there are more and more of us as the years slip by – do need to feel as if we’re still able to make a contribution.

And some of us, for economic reasons, still have to work. For money.

But re-education is not necessarily the answer.

Perhaps a better solution would be to abandon the notion of retirement; to develop a collective mind-set that pays no heed to age only to ability; that allows anyone to work for as long as they want – whether it be until they’re 45 or until the day they slip off the dish.

With a fresh approach in this new employment utopia, the question of what happens after work need never arise.

Instead, work would be a continuum defined only by desire.

Do you want to work or not?

Of course, many will say that such a society simply encourages the feckless.

Is there anything wrong with that? Wouldn’t it be better if the feckless were allowed to feck their way through life without any guilt?

And what of those who want to work, perhaps throughout their lives?

Surely it would be for the best if they could do that, knowing that the feckless didn’t want their work, their jobs or their livelihoods?

In this fanciful new world there’d be no insecurity, only the certainty that those who enjoy work could have their fill of it and those who prefer to do nothing could revel in the barren emptiness of their alternative.

There would be no question marks over work and – by extension – none over what happens after it.

I guess we’d all just go to the pub for a drink.

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