Friday, 27 February 2015

Last day at work

“Where does all the time go?”
This is a regular mantra of sixty-plus year olds and one which, I strongly suspect, annoys people who are in their twenties, thirties, forties and even fifties.

Nostalgia might well be a thing of the past, but let’s flash back – ever so briefly - to the start of 2009.  
Last month as I launched eagerly into year seven of independent bliss I spent a few moments reflecting on my final full day in the workplace.

Despite not having bought any houses (or hotels) in the intervening period, metaphors fly round my head as I feel as though I’ve now passed Go six times on the monopoly board.  Pardon me, but where does the time go?

My thoughts on that day of transition went something like this.  I even put a title on it.

The start of an era

At my desk, as normal, waiting for my computer to boot up.  It’s the first working day of the New Year.  It is also my own very last full day in work.   
The thought that I will work just this one day in 2009 should breeze me through today.  Tomorrow will be Saturday - as will every day after that.

Even at 8 30 in the morning the office that houses our team of less than 20 people is quieter than normal.  Staff are in no rush back from the festivities of yuletide and new year.   
The groups of desk pods arranged into little groups of four are mostly empty.  
Almost perversely, the only other person here at the start of the working day is the one who travels furthest.

Like a reflection of these paradoxes, I have mixed emotions.  How exhilarating is the feeling of having the prospect of freedom to do as I please when I please.  
Yet behind the glee lurks the quiescent thought of how I will manage the unknown, a new lifestyle without the routine of a job which has occupied me in a variety of guises for over a third of a century.  
Will I, for instance, be able to afford to do all that I want?  Negativity, however, is not a convenient feeling at present.

For now, such musings must wait, for I have work to complete.  I need to finish off a task that I have been working on in the days between Christmas and the New Year.   
There is too much to do to prevent the danger of being distracted by any feeling of demob happiness.  Anyway, wartime metaphors do not one appeal to the pacifist in me.

Completing my career in the public sector while being occupied productively right through to the very end.  I do not intend to let my guard drop and be subject to criticism for slacking.  
In the same way, leaving on a day when most people are away from here and off work is an ideal way to depart.  There will be no embarrassing speeches.  Pomp can wait for another day.   
I would not have wanted it any other way.  I can open the door later and go home without ceremony.  It could not have worked out any better.

But then I am a planner.  The profession of town and country planning, which was invented legislatively just over a year before I was born, has enabled me to live and support my family since graduation two generations ago.  
I take quiet pride in the quality and variety of the work I have done, and in the experience of life that I have been fortunate enough to gain.

At a time when public sector staff are criticised for above average sickness levels, I have kept quiet about having taken no days off sick in my last three decades at work.  Maybe due to a combination of sex, athletics and rock’n’roll.  More likely just good luck.   

The important thing is that I have been fortunate to have had responsibility for many exciting planning and regeneration projects in a range of roles and locations over that time.

In retrospect, I can take a little satisfaction in being one of the first planners to staff the newly established planning office in my home town of Omagh in 1973.  A subsequent change to running the Enniskillen office for over five years and working on different projects prompted by the needs of tourism in the most scenic of counties was my first big challenge.

Latterly I was transferred to Belfast to help pioneer the new planning role in regenerating deprived communities.  I am very happy that this work occupied almost half of my career. Those are projects which have benefitted small towns and villages here.
Now today I am finishing after three years doing the type of planning that won me the professional institute’s book prize awarded for university planning schools – regional planning.  
In that sense, I have come full circle.

However fortunate the past seems, after today it will be time to think about the future with the goal of getting the most out of life, feeling fulfilled.  Away from the environment of the office, I have already started thinking ahead.   
I do not retire officially until the end of the month.   A backlog of annual leave means that I can afford to take all of January – apart from today and my later day of farewells – as annual leave.  The rest of the month will be a rehearsal for what’s to come from February onwards.

Retirement will be time to try new things.  In a few days time I am booked to go snowshoeing for the first time.  This will be in Italy with my youngest daughter and friends. Soon after that trip, I have to go to Cambridge to meet a close friend and plan our bike trip on the Camino de Santiago di Compostela in the late spring.

A major task, and one that will consume much energy during the first year, is that I have to work on my recently launched fund-raising project for the charity Mencap. This is as I prepare to enter for the charity’s bike ride to Argentina and Chile next year.   
Taking part in that event will be the ultimate goal to achieve in my first year as a free man.

A bonus of retirement is that no more will we be limited to school holidays for trips abroad.  My wife retires in about six month’s time.  
When I travel to foreign places in the future, I do not want to be a package tourist.  I prefer to be more like an adventurer, an explorer even.  Another commitment is a holiday at Easter in Spain where a friend owns a house on the south coast, not far from Gibraltar.

I also have to finalise arrangements for a visit to Scotland in February when Ireland play against the Scots in the 6 Nations.  Ireland last won the big prize, the Grand Slam, the year before I was born.  Will that ever change?    
Visiting Scotland gives me another opportunity to visit family - my son who is expecting to be a father in about six months time; as well as fitting in a visit to my eldest daughter and grandsons.

Apart from these journeys, there will also be an office farewell party to attend within the next few weeks.   
To ensure that I acquit myself properly, I want to prepare two documents as I bid my employers and colleagues a final farewell.   
One will be a written narrative of my life as a professional planner.  If I can record my career accurately, that account will allow me to provide my employer with a thorough and factual account of my time in the Northern Ireland planning system.   
Just as importantly, by doing this, it will free me to make a valedictory speech which contains only fleeting but subtle references to my record.  Instead, the speech should be entertaining, concentrating on bonhomie and some humour, like stand-up if possible.

One early thought to include in the farewell remarks is the need to say why I am retiring at the age of 60.   
In essence, I have three reasons.  One is because I can. 
Another is that I need to go now before the retirement age is raised, as inevitably it will after the collapse of the financial sector beginning with Lehman Brothers in the autumn just past. The other reason is that I want to depart before economic imperatives lead to pensions being reduced, or even abolished, as surely they might will be at some stage.

I want to use the benefits of the new-found freedom to have a fulfilling life.   
Apart from travelling and keeping the body in a healthy state, I can think about doing my bit behind the scenes for the voluntary and charitable sectors.  Perhaps roll up the sleeves and help some environmental organisation; perhaps get back into an activity that I put on hold when I transferred to Belfast almost 20 years ago, namely working on the arts.

I can also think about the ethos which the Junior Chamber ingrained into us – “self-improvement.”   
One way of doing this is by enrolling for night classes at Queens University.  
I want to experiment and test my creative writing skills.  To do this I will delve into my imagination to see if any inspiration flows.

I want to read more.  Discover new authors and styles of writing.  Perhaps set a target – one novel per month to start with.   
There is a vast amount of music to explore.  Photography is another interest.  I have plenty of slides and negatives to scan into my computer; and need to reorganise my more recent digital pictures.

Am I day-dreaming or is this the beginning of my retreat into the imagination?  Not really is the answer, as in the coming weeks I have to attend to day-to-day issues chief of which is the little matter of organising my finances.   
Gym and yoga school memberships are due for renewal.   
There is also the all-important social life, as we have to go to a friend’s 50th birthday party at the end of the month.  To think that I used to consider 50 as old.  Then the day after her party, our oldest grandchild celebrates his 8th birthday.

Fortunately, about an hour early, those of us who remain in the office on this first Friday afternoon of a new year are allowed to go home.  I shake my colleague Jim’s hand and leave, unobtrusively – just as I would have wanted, on my own terms.  No fuss.
It’s the opposite application of T S Elliot’s sentiment “not with a bang but a whimper.”   

The final day of work may have been quiet, but far from being the end of the world it marks the start of something new and unbearably exciting. I can't wait another minute.

In modern parlance, it’s time to live a little.

©Michael McSorley 2015