Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Party time

A couple of weeks before my “leaving do” with work colleagues, my wife had organised a party to mark my 60th birthday.

This was a fairly extravagant evening.  It included a wine reception, a two-course meal for about 75 people, a beautiful cake, and after-dinner speeches.  It also involved the hiring of a jazz singer whose voice sounded very like old blue eyes, Frank Sinatra. The venue was Belfast Boat Club.

The last time I did anything like this was when I was 21.  On that occasion, my godfather had sent me a special birthday present - £10.  A tidy sum in 1970.  It was enough to rent a ballroom in a salubrious hotel close to the university, one of the few safe places of entertainment in those early days of the “troubles.”

That decision turned out to be a wise investment.  Contrary to my expectations and the impecuniosity of students, I received loads of presents such as Parker pens and bottles of alcohol.  As far as I can recall, it was a memorable occasion, despite the fact that I provided no meal or music.

Thirty-nine years on, this party was an opportunity to road-test my thoughts about being a pensioner and retirement to a largely non-work audience.  And perhaps use a line or two at the subsequent work do.

The italicised words that follow cover the gist of what I think I said.  Some details may have differed.  That’s what happens when you stand up, look your audience in the eyes, and extemporize rehearsed ad libs.  

I began by attempting mimic the then (2009) new President of the USA.

Fellow citizens

This week the world became a better place.
Strangely enough, I’m not referring to the date of my birthday earlier this week, or even to the events in Washington DC a couple of days ago.

It might even seem ironic for me to make such a claim when a new recession bites and my bank makes the biggest loss in UK corporate history.  I do, however, know that they are really looking forward to getting their hands on my pension even though it will not suffice to bail them out.

The reason the world is now better is that at long last January 19 has now been declared a public holiday.
The bad news is that so far only Americans have been able to celebrate my birthday (Martin Luther King Day).   I too have a dream.
Tonight however is a unique once in a lifetime opportunity.
Reaching 60 is not so much a milestone, more of a big deal.
So I am excited – delirious even – that it coincides with my retirement.
The question is – why should one so talented, so energetic, so youthful, so modest (false deleted) retire now.

I remember Woody Allen once describing his brain as his second favourite organ.
Since my two favourite organs seem to be doing just fine, the time has come for me to hang up Her Majesty’s Treasury Green Book.
I may be retiring from work, but I do not intend to retire from anything else.

It’s time to live a little.  Time to delete work from the phrase work-life balance.

I know that there is a lot of sex, drugs and rock’n roll out there waiting to be discovered; there are so many places for me to visit, symphonies to hear, books to read and maybe to write.
It’s time to live in my creative imagination – today I think that is the safest place to be.
Anyway, I am not a retiring sort of person.

I’m retiring from work because I can – before they raise the retirement age and definitely before they scrap pensions altogether.

I am one of the lucky generation.  While I have vague memories of seeing ration books and farthings, we baby boomers missed out on post-war austerity and on national service.
We grew up in the golden era of modern music – and that’s what paid our family’s bills in Omagh.
My parents’ business was record sales, not to mention bicycles, fireworks, TVs and radios, wet batteries, guns and ammunition, guitars – you name it my grandfather & father sold it.

On third level education, our generation received grants as Government regarded education as a good investment, and there were no fees.  Student debt was a thing of the future.
When I last had a party like this, my godfather sent me a £10 note, which was enough for me to rent the grand ballroom of the Wellington Park Hotel.  The occasion being my 21st birthday.

The only thing I envy about students’ lifestyle today is that now they take a gap year.
I realise that it’s time/overdue/obligatory for me to take a nice long one.

As a dress rehearsal for my new role, I have been on holiday for a week or two.  As a result, I am now in a strong position to reveal exclusive first impressions of what retirement is really like.
How I have managed to fit in full-time work into my hectic schedule non-stop since 20 August 1973 escapes me completely.

My typical day - if there is such a thing - (that is when I am not on the sun-baked snowy summits of the Sella Ronda in the Dolomites) begins with a leisurely breakfast with time to read the paper and to check share prices (then throw the paper away), next saunter down to the gym using my free bus pass, later go to a music gig in the Black Box.

If there is anybody here whose parents told them that life’s not a bed of roses, do not believe this.
I remember O-level French and the line from the great poet (Pierre de Ronsard) – «Cueillez des aujourd’hui, les roses de la vie» translated into Latin means carpe diem.
I wake up and smell the roses every morning.

Time for the reality check, however.
Now that I am 60 (not an OAP more a new Age Pensioner), it is time to stop wishing my life away.
No more living for the weekend; no more wishing that the summer holidays would come quicker.

I have to say that being in the present is impossible when you’re a town planner. You are either looking back to learn from the past or looking ahead to make the world a better place for tennis players.
Now for the first time I can try to apply my yoga teacher’s mantra which is to live in the moment, now, in the present.

This year 2009 is full of important anniversaries.
There are so many, that I have selected some that are relevant to this occasion.
It is the 200th anniversary of the births of Mendelssohn and of Charles Darwin; the 150th of the publication of the Origin of the Species;
It is the 80th anniversary of the very first North West 200 (the winner in 1935 being meus pater);
It is the 60th anniversary of Ireland becoming a Republic. 
And by the way, Ireland won the Triple Crown that year, having won the grand slam the year before (1948) – which means that not once in my lifetime have we won the grand slam;
2009 is the 30th anniversary of my Presidency of Omagh Junior Chamber of Commerce;
In addition, it is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.
My connection is that along with four friends, we ran the 1990 Berlin Marathon which took place the same weekend as the political reunification of Germany and the race route entered the east for the first time ever.

I also share my birth date (not year) with Paul Cézanne, Edgar Allen Poe, Simon Rattle, Janis Joplin and Dolly Parton, Richard Dunwoody and Denis Taylor – there can’t be a single person in this room who is not insanely jealous that these famous people are in such illustrious company.

To conclude, in 20 years time when my grandchildren ask me what did I say at my 60th birthday party, I’ll be able to tell them that

  • I set out a history of the world for the last 200 years;
  • I paid homage to the Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King;
  • I outlined a perspicacious analysis of the collapse of supply-side economics and the theory of monetarism;
  • I paid tribute to the my father;
  • I spoke in many tongues; and best of all
  • I can tell them that I spelled out the philosophy for a happy life and peace to make the world a better place.

Because apart from this (if anybody really does bother to ask), I didn’t really say anything other than
  • to thank you for supporting my charity bike ride and
  • to thank my beautiful wife for arranging this great party.


At this stage I presented Marie with a well-earned bunch of 24 red roses.  Happily, our guests showed their warm appreciation for her wonderful hospitality.

The roses do indeed smell sweeter.

©Michael McSorley 2015

Monday, 29 June 2015

Time of Our Lives

The BBC has recently added a new programme for retired people to its radio schedule.  Entitled “Time of Our Lives,” this weekly show includes studio interviews with retired people as well as features from external locations about all kinds of activities and pastimes.

The broadcaster’s own description of the programme is that it is about “life stories, experiences, and ambitions of older people in Northern Ireland.”
It occupies a prime slot on Sunday afternoons and lasts for one hour.  
Being broadcast on Radio Ulster, it is accessible globally live on-line.  In addition, programmes from each of the last four weeks can be listened to again on the station’s i-player.

The programme includes a four-minute section when a retired person is invited to chat about what retired life has to offer.   
A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to be asked to contribute my tuppence worth. [1]  The following is a copy of my script.

The joys of retirement

What is there not to like about being retired?

Our pensions may never make us as well-off as modern sports-stars or as rich as bankers with their bonuses.  What we can do, however, is to celebrate the important things that make life beautiful.

Everybody loves free stuff.  
I used my bus pass in March to go by train from Belfast to Dublin and back for free.  This was to watch Ireland play France in the 6 Nations.  I used it previously to travel from Belfast to attend magnificent free events (the Turner Prize, the Fleadh Cheoil and the Lumière) in the UK City of Culture.

One of the first things I did after retiring was to buy a shiny new road bicycle.  Expensive?  Certainly.  Fortunately, my bus pass compensates when I take the scenic route down the Ards peninsula and my pass gets me across from Strangford to Portaferry free on the car ferry.  
Bonus points are rewarded to the over 60’s for reduced carbon footprint.

When I do have to pay, I rarely have to fork out the full price.  Being retired, I get discounts in cinemas and likewise to attend orchestral concerts in the Ulster Hall.  On such occasions, I tolerate (reluctantly) the otherwise pejorative term OAP.

Pensioners can attend night-classes at discount rates in Queens University’s school of open learning, at Stranmillis College and at the Crescent Arts Centre.   
Since retiring, I have attended classes on a wondrous variety of entrancing topics from languages, art, the history of jazz, creative writing, the celtic nations, yoga – and there is a huge chunk that I haven’t even tried yet.

A world of new interests has been opened up thanks to the knowledge and patience of academics.
·         I have been taught to appreciate the skill of Matisse and what he could do with a pair of scissors and rolls of coloured paper making cut-outs;
·         I have learned how to make Cornish pasties;
·         I was able to pick up sufficient Italian to bluff a few sentences at my daughter’s wedding in Sicily.
·         As a spin-off, I can enjoy the TV detective series Montelbano far more.
Key life skills for retirement.

Emboldened by renewed linguistic confidence, I studied a Russian language book and CD set that my wife bought before our recent trip to Moscow and St Petersburg.   
After greeting our guide with a cheery Hello (Zdrastvoite in Russian – a difficult tongue twister), I surprised her later when she asked our group if we had any questions about Red Square.

Up went my hand.
Sez I: - “Kak oo vas deela.”
“Spaseba karasho” replied Olga.  (How are you; reply - very well, thank you).
After which she wryly added – "Impressive fluency, Michael, but if you keep speaking to me in Russian I will lose my job."

The greatest boon of retirement is the twin blessing of independence and time.   
We are free to do what we want whenever we want – within the normal constraints of the law, of course.
When I was a working man, my job (as a town planner) meant that we were either looking back to conserve the best of the built heritage; or else looking forward to devise blueprints for regeneration and a better tomorrow.  
In retirement, that perspective changes.  There is no rush.  

It’s time to live in the present.
·         Time for travelling, visiting family (most of ours live in Scotland and England), staying healthy,
·         doing occasional voluntary work, and - as important as anything –
·         having the time to read the weekend newspapers’ supplements with their extensive features about unmissable holidays, wine, film and book reviews.
·         These can be read languorously over leisurely breakfasts right through the entire course of the following week.  Bliss.

A couple of years ago, I visited the UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath.
One thing I learned there was that the Roman governor was collected each morning and transported from his villa 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 and (in the absence of slaves) transporting myself by bike - before retiring later, re-energised, to other less strenuous activities.

©Michael McSorley 2015

[1] BBC NI Radio Ulster 14 June 2015 Time of Our Lives