Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Humility and Magic

We spent the other afternoon at Lough Boora, less than an hour's drive from home. I would always be a bit cynical about any place that advertises itself as "where art and nature meet", but, as the saying goes, Lough Boora (Say: Lock Boor-a) is something else. First there's the intrinsic beauty of the place; turf, trees, water, shifting shades of browns, greens, purples, under a huge wide-open sky. You could walk for miles here, the silence broken only by your footsteps, the breeze in the trees, the cries of unseen birds.

Then there's the sculpture which, paradoxically, is at once part of the landscape, yet utterly alien to it. Except for one large construction which reminded us of a feeding trough for cattle (nothing wrong with that, mind you, but unlike all the others, this 'trough' did not transcend its literal state) , we were both struck by the imagination behind the pieces and the different responses they evoked. My wife was particularly taken by the little grey room, while I couldn't believe that three triangles could be so eloquent. We were both knocked out by the train. Go there and you'll see what I mean.

Sitting on a trunk of bog oak on this most glorious of summer days, I found my mind straying into the dark... All the wonderful sculptures, the magic conjured by the minds and hands of gifted men and women, would, one day, just like everything else that humankind has dreamed up, crumble into dust.... disappear into the bog which, for now, they appear to dominate. In the grip of such clichés, I thought of how ephemeral we are and, not for the first time, I felt humbled by the benign tyranny of nature.

Enough of this second-hand philosophy. Boora is the ideal place for a lovely, memorable day out. You don't have to have any interest in art at all: the bog itself will stir something deep inside you. If your travels ever bring you near the town of Tullamore in central Ireland; go the extra miles. You won't regret it, but please, to coin another cliché, take nothing but your memories, leave nothing but your footprints.

Abandoning the Past

Over the last year or so, I've been quite shocked to learn just how easy it is to leave your past behind. When I retired, I let it be known in local teaching circles that I'd be available for substitute work. I was hardly out of the school when the phone started hopping. To my surprise, I heard myself declining every request. In retrospect, I now realize that announcing my availability was a mere psychological safety net: If early retirement didn't suit, I had a way back into the classroom. Without losing face. But so far, I have felt no need for any such 'insurance policy' and, for the moment at least, I can never see myself in front of a classroom again. On reflection, I know I should never say never: Sometime in the future, bored with my new life, I might well end up clawing the door of the local Teachers' Centre.

In the meantime, I am quite amazed at how easy it has been to walk away from my entire working life and not miss it at all. On my last day, I left with no more than an armful of stuff (Again, I was surprised by how little I wanted to keep): I have never been back to the school (though I did drive by a few times, so maybe, deep down, I really am as nostalgic as the next man): I don't miss the pupils at all, and I have had but brief contact with one ex-colleague.

So, as the song says, how does it feel? Since leaving, I have never felt any sense of relief, trepidation, elation, regret, sadness; none, indeed, of any of the emotions that people had kindly warned me about. My dominant feeling is of enthusiasm for what I want to do over the years I have left. A great blessing I do have - and one which many other pensioners are not fortunate enough to share - is that my wife is still alive and much more youthful than I like to think I am myself. One of life's cruelest tricks must surely be to deprive any recently-retired person of his or her beloved partner. That, and the loss of health of either of us and our children are the only real fears I have.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Dylan's Imminent Album

For me, the cultural highlight of any year is the arrival of a new Bob Dylan album. Modern Times is set for release at the end of August and, from the snippets I've heard, I think I'm going to be disappointed. Dylan's voice is as expressive as ever (I believe that he is one of the very best singers in any genre) but nothing leaps out from the lyrics, the musical forms are overly familiar (Soft blues, country, a few forays into crooning a la "Love and Theft") but, to my ears, the biggest problem lies with his band. I have seen them live on numerous occasions and have always been less than impressed by the two guitarists in particular. And so it seems again. From what I've heard, Modern Times exudes a grey, run-of-the-mill aura which doesn't bode well for repeated listening. I hope I'm wrong.

Monday, July 24, 2006

You're Not Touching That Carpet!

On my retirement, my colleagues, well aware of my disdain for Waterford Glass or - God forbid - a picture of the school done in oils by some local artist, presented me with a top-of-the-range MP3 player....

I bought my very first lp in the early 1960's and, full of purist notions that music should be listened to with reverence, preferably in a darkened room with eyes closed, I had always been a stickler for perfect sound quality. I have been known to spend hours making minuscule adjustments to speaker positions and, in one memorable fit of sonic insanity, I even contemplated getting rid of the carpet because it muffled the sound. My mother, God bless her, told me to get lost.

I have never owned a Walkman or a Discman: To be honest, I've always maintained a fairly supercilious view of those reduced to having their music squeak into their ears. Now, my colleagues' thoughtfulness has completely changed how I obtain and listen to my music, but that's something for another day.....

Charles Lamb

In 1825, after thirty-six years of hard work - one more than yours truly- the English writer Charles Lamb wrote a brilliant essay entitled The Superannuated Man. For me, the most striking line and the one that epitomizes the freedom my retirement has given me is: I walk about; not to and from. On my daily ramblings throughout our town and surrounding countryside, I am the embodiment of Lamb's observation and, like him, I can't help but take - especially when I pass a school - a certain pleasure at hearing my ex-colleagues still embroiled in the prolixity of long division; the proper usage of there, their and they're

First Words

On August 30th 2005, I took early retirement from teaching: Thirty-five years of standing, acting (all teachers are essentially actors; the better the performance, the more successful your teaching) in front of children, the vast majority of whom were an absolute pleasure to be with. I loved almost every day of it, so the inevitable question is Why did you leave early? And the answer is simple: Thirty-five years is long enough doing things for other people; it is now time to please myself. The fact that I still liked the job so much after all those years, was another reason I got out. I had seen too many teachers leaving the classroom at 65, their health precarious, their attitude embittered because they hadn't quit when they were ahead.

So why have I decided to venture into the Kingdom of the Blog? Firstly, I suppose it's vanity. Vanity pure and simple. We all like to think that whatever we have to say is of some significance. Secondly, I just like writing about the things that mean most to me. And that's why at, hopefully, regular intervals, I'm going to inflict on you my thoughts on music (from Bach to Zappa, in a pantheon presided over by Bob Dylan), literature (Just finished the amazing We Need To Talk About Kevin), the family, the dog, anything that comes into my head in this small town in the middle of Ireland....