Monday, 27 May 2013

Putting Zest into Retirement

Zest for life

As part of the valedictory (and jocose) remarks in my retirement speech four years ago, I mentioned two key themes.

To illustrate the pre-requisites for a contented and active retirement and reasons why I was happy to retire, my first was a quotation from the Roman poet Juvenal:

mens sana in corpore sano” (a sound mind in a healthy body).

My second theme was the opportunity that retirement offers for a change of philosophy.  
Like many other professions, town and country planning requires its practitioners to look back, learning from the past, and also to look forward trying to make places better.  
Living in the moment can, therefore, be difficult when you are working (and rearing a family).

Now, happily, all of that can be filed away under yesterday’s agenda.  No longer is it necessary to wish my life away, waiting patiently for the weekend, or longing for the arrival of hard-earned summer holidays.  
New phrases and attitudes apply in retirement such as - it’s time to live a little, spend precious time with our children and our grand-children, now I can really explore hobbies and part-time interests and enjoy them more, time to get a life.

The great luxury to be savoured in retirement and what makes retired people so fortunate is the twin blessing of independence and time.  This, in essence, means that we are free to do what we want whenever we want – within the normal constraints.

Travelling, exploring, visiting family and friends, staying healthy, learning new skills, doing some voluntary work, having the time to read the weekend newspapers’ supplements about holidays film and book reviews over leisurely breakfasts in the course of the following week,– all of these are among the broad categories of activity that are available to us all as retired people.


In recent years my wife and I have made conscious efforts to visit parts of Ireland, England Wales and Scotland that we haven’t been to before.
I recall, for instance, learning on a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath that the Roman governor was collected each morning and transported on a hand-drawn carrier to the Roman baths for his daily pre-work exercise.   
So inspiring is this practice that I have adapted his habit by visiting the gym most mornings, transporting myself (by bike if the weather suits) before switching later on, energised, to other less strenuous activities.

Last weekend we travelled to rural Suffolk in East Anglia, staying with a friend from our student days in Bury St Edmunds.  This town is known for its gigantic Abbey ruins and renovated Cathedral together with links to the Magna Carta.  
Our visit coincided, deliberately, with the town’s annual Arts Festival.  After two evenings of music events, the next day we went to see the best preserved medieval villages in England (such as the sixteenth century wool town of Lavenham).  
It was a particular pleasure to meet one or two Bury locals in the smallest pub in Britain, the Nutshell.

Just after Easter, we went to Berlin for a week to watch my daughter and her husband running in the city’s half-marathon.  
To return to the place where I ran my best time in the full marathon distance twenty-two and a half years previously (and three days before the reunification of Germany) was a veritable return trip to a proverbial and historic memory lane.


Not all of retired life, fortunately, necessitates spending sprees.  
Living on a pension, I appreciate free stuff and discounts more than ever.  I suspect that all of us cherish our bus passes.  

It is distressing to listen to the almost manic argument of people like the historian David Starkey arguing that bus passes should be scrapped at a time of growing national debt.  Advocates of cost-cutting too often forget to acknowledge the serendipitous benefits and the unintended savings gained for other support organisations such as, in this case, the National Health Service, as active pensioners travel, enjoying life to the full, and supporting local endeavours and businesses.

I intend to use my bus pass to avail of the impressive programme of events being staged in the UK City of Culture.  Even the journey there (lauded by people including Michael Palin) can be eagerly anticipated, now that the train-line and service between Belfast and Derry-Londonderry (as everybody seems to be calling the maiden city now) have been transformed.

Other free activities which I like include the occasional concerts and interviews which BBC Northern Ireland records.   
These include musical recitals and concerts by the Ulster Orchestra for Radio 3, as well as interviews with leading journalists conducted by Malachi O’Doherty.  

Many other events are offered to retired people at concession rates, such as the concerts of the Ulster Orchestra.

Day and evening classes

Pensioners can also avail of discounts on many other activities.   

Since retirement, for example, I have begun attending classes at Queen’s University’s School of Open Learning.  The variety of classes is almost endless.   

So far I have been to classes on subjects ranging from Travel Writing to Holiday Italian, from Jazz through the Ages to The Gaelic Heritage of Ulster Protestants, from Exploring Trees Woods and Landscapes around Belfast to Ulster Place-names and Surnames.

And those are only a sample of what’s on offer.  The special price for retired people is a real boon, a stimulus to take advantage of academia’s unrivalled expertise.

Stranmillis College and the Crescent Arts Centre, among others, also offer a great range of classes.  I have been to yoga classes in one and my wife and I have been to learn how to dance the lindy hop in another.
It may sound like a cliché, but it is hard to contest the case that we are spoiled for choice.


The luxury of time provides opportunities to take part as a volunteer in all kinds of activities.  

My wife and I are eagerly looking forward to the World Police and Fire Games taking place in August this year in various venues across Northern Ireland.  Following the example of the 2012 London Olympics, the organisers have recruited hundreds of volunteers to help in the organisation.  
My wife and I have both been selected, she as a Games maker and my duties involving logistics.

We both volunteered with the recent Belfast City Marathon which, incidentally, has the accolade of being the only UK marathon outside London to have taken place every year since its inception without a break since the start of the marathon boom in the early 1980’s.

We have also marshalled at other athletics events in recent years including the Irish National Indoor Athletics Championships in the Odyssey Arena.

My wife volunteers once a week working in a primary school with children with special needs.  Her job prior to retirement was as a special needs teacher.

I have a weekly appointment also as a volunteer.  I meet a friend and we carry out a wildlife survey for Lagan Valley Regional Park.  There is something rewarding about being involved in environmental volunteering, particularly at a time when there are concerns about the impacts of climate on our wildlife (see the RSPB's  State of Nature report published on 22 May 2013).   
More recently I have become a director of the Regional Park’s management company.

Retirement has also provided me with the uninterrupted time to read novels and, in the process, to be transported away from the sometimes unpleasant realities of daily life.  
There is one activity which combines this pastime with the spirit of volunteerism, and that is World Book Night.  
I am lucky to have been selected to participate as a volunteer handing out free books each year since the project began about four years ago.

In April this year, for example, 20,000 volunteers across the UK were picked with each one selecting one of 20 titles of well-known books (selected by an expert panel) to give away gratis to members of the public.  The main purpose is to promote reading and to encourage people to pass on the book to friends after they read it.

On this occasion I handed out my books to commuters at a park and ride facility in south Belfast.  In a previous year my location was the foyer of my gym in the city centre.   
The book I distributed in April this year was Sebastian Barry’s magnificent and moving “The Secret Scripture.”

Lest I present a picture of retirement that might seem divorced from the real world, let me refer to another voluntary activity that I have engaged in on a couple of occasions since retiring.  When Government issues important reports, it invites interested bodies to comment.  This includes you and me, the general public.

I recall about three years ago reading an article in the Belfast Telegraph berating the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers for their draft policy on community relations.  Thinking that a Government strategy could not be this poor, I requested a copy and, to my horror, found that it was at least as woeful as the journalist had described.  I submitted a detailed response, analysing the consultation report’s flaws, making suggestions for improvement and emphasising why community relations is a policy imperative which needs to be treated much more seriously.  
I have also published a blog about the issue.

Retired people have a voice which needs to be heard.  
There is absolutely nothing compulsory in responding to Government, it is entirely voluntary.
Given the crucial importance of community relations, however, I regarded it as my civic duty to speak up, an opportunity to partake in the democratic process in a constitutional manner, an example of peaceful and active citizenship.


There is one feature which is common to all of these activities, and that is social contact.  Taking exercise in and outside the gym is good for the body, but it’s also great fun involving banter and happy exchanges with other friends as well as friendly gym staff.

The same applies to the further education classes and to volunteering.  When my friend and I meet at dawn for our 90 minute survey, we rationalise and eventually solve Northern Ireland’s interminable problems.  For light relief, we also resolve many of the issues of the global economy that escape the attention of the regional administration.

Apart from the intrinsic value of the further education classes, the aspect of sociability is invaluable.  They also provide the chance to pursue new interests and to brush up on dormant skill-sets.  Occasionally a course can open a new horizon leading pleasantly forward to another subject that one might not have considered.


And so, now that work is an activity from the past and with the children having left home, the question is what to do next.

Because my first retirement project was to take part in a charity bike ride in the Middle East, one of the first things I did was to buy two bikes, a mountain bike for shorter distances and a road bike for longer training and non-competitive events known as sportives.   
The 2-day Maracycle (Belfast-Dublin-Belfast) and the Lap the Lough (circuit of Lough Neagh) are examples.

One of the next things I did was to make an impulsive trip, my first ever to Cardiff.  I had always wanted to visit the Millennium Stadium.  I didn't even have a ticket for the big game.
Ireland had last won the Grand Slam the year before I was born.  
How long do you have to wait?  

About 60 seconds before kick-off a generous Welsh lady gave me her ticket and would not accept any money for it. That's another story.
In 2009, I was able to retire, do my patriotic duty, and celebrate the occasion in style.

I do not ever want to lose my curiosity for discovering new cities, people and countries, nor the joy at discovering places which I have only read about in books and travel supplements.  That includes British and Irish as well as exotic locations abroad.
That same purpose applies to time spent at home.  This is because there are so many things to savour living in Belfast.

Our city has wonderful assets like the Lagan Valley Regional Park and the Giants Ring; fantastic arts provision including the Ulster Museum, The Queens Film Theatre, the Ulster Orchestra, venues like the MAC (metropolitan arts centre), the Grand Opera House, the Waterfront Hall, the Lyric Theatre, the cosy Black Box, and fantastic libraries.
Belfast showcases all kinds of artists and entertainers at well-organised events such as the Arts Festivals at Queens University and the Cathedral Quarter.   
We have international sport, as represented by the Ulster Rugby team and it’s a pleasant train ride to Dublin (free for 65+ year olds) to watch Ireland in the 6 Nations.   
And Belfast has easy accessibility to ports and airports and to beautiful countryside.

We can have a great time at home as well exploring places further away.  
This is a way of not just enjoying the facilities on our doorstep, but of supporting those courageous enough to have provided venues and promoted events - and a small gesture of local patriotism.

Finally, while I am slightly hesitant to mention the unthinkable and ultimate motivator for making the most of retirement, this quotation from the great American film-maker and humorist, Woody Allen, expresses the point discreetly.  The line is:

“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Putting this unmentionable thought another way, staying active in mind and body seems to me to offer a good route to putting off the inevitable for as long as possible.   
You should now dismiss the ultimate motivator to a place deep within your subconscious.

I began this essay with a quotation from the Roman poet, Juvenal.  
I’ll finish with one from another poetic Roman, Horace.  It is:

“Carpe diem.”

©Michael McSorley 2013