The 65th birthday is something of a marker by society, it means you are officially old. You can, of course, kid yourself it is the new forty, you are in late middle age, but you are not. You have the biblical three score years and ten with perhaps a little interest. Ten years to go then with a following breeze. After a health scare or two it is natural therefore not morbid to take stock. The mind is particularly focussed for the military historian like myself who has
seen more headstones in memoriam to boys in their twenties than enough. As I deadhead the roses and mow the lawn, and get about my charity business it is easy to fall into the trap that you might not have made much of a fist of it. This feeling can be quite strong if you are self critical, most of us are maybe with the exception of professional politicians of whom thankfully I never was.
I am often asked to speak at schools and universities, usually on classical liberalism or Austrian School economics, but the questions afterwards usually reflect anxiety amongst the young about how to be successful. Well, I suppose it is how you judge success and as Kipling rightly pointed out how to judge those two imposters.
I would argue the criterion for judging success is experience. As a baby boomer I was lucky not to have to fight in a world war as did my father and grandfather. Indeed I had a very soft and cosy ride liberally laced with opportunity. Did I blow it? My immediate answer to myself at 65 was yes Bloom and blew it big time. But on reflection not so, certainly I missed opportunities, but much of that can be put down to the folly of youth. I suppose there is nobody on the planet who has not missed opportunities and we can’t always blame youth. There is always a natural tendency to anchor on the failures, which are often simply easier to spot.
A ramble through the good things here because the ‘what ifs’ of failure are of no interest to anyone and can’t even be accurately assessed, they simply give us the conundrum as Frederick Bastiat pinpointed of ‘the unseen’.
Let me hasten to add these observations are not made in any boastful way most of them were dictated by fate, or luck if you prefer. So youngsters may take a view on how to judge the imposter and those of my age might like to reflect on the positive aspects of their lives.
I was born into a middle class home in 1949, the son of an RAF pilot and WAAF mother. A stable happy marriage which is always a sound base camp for any youngster. My father and his father were public school educated, but in the 1950’s there simply was no money. I was extremely lucky to win a scholarship to one of the old Elizabethan Grammar Schools an opportunity I certainly blew, if it wasn’t rugby, cricket or tennis I took no part, save the school history society giving me an interest I have never lost. I drifted into the City, took my professional exams, joined the County of London Yeomanry and played rugger for the old boys. I was in London in the swinging sixties, drove a mini and the girls wore them, life was good and I bought a London flat with a mortgage easily affordable for a young professional man, very young actually, 21.
Now the details are in a short autobiography, A Guinea a Minute, but that is not the point of this article at all. I was dealt by fate a very good hand which I didn’t play very well but did I blow it? Here is where you can make a subjective judgment, old or young.
My experiences are in no chronological order or even importance. Some I suspect will seem of little value. I have ridden with over a dozen hunts from the Vale of the White Horse to the Isle of Wight and as far north as the Percy in Northumberland, I make mention of this only because I have therefore seen a very large part of one of the world’s most beautiful countries on horse back. Only equalled by river or canal. In my youth I climbed the three peaks, Ben Nevis and nearly all the Lake District fells. I have walked the coastal paths from Dorset to Pembrokeshire and most of Yorkshire. My wife and I have ridden in Wyoming, Virginia and the South American Pampas, seen the storms in the Drackensburg mountains in January gin and tonic in hand, chartered a yacht off Cape Town cruised up the North West passage to Alaska and from Hong Kong to Japan, bathed on Waikiki Beach and seen both Niagara Falls and Milford Sound, even been shown the Golden Temple by the leading figures of the Sikh religion.
Other experiences include joining the best club in the world, the British Army and passing out at RMA Sandhurst, admittedly bottom of the class. I was in Germany with my regiment when the wall came down and more recently rode shot gun from Kandahar to Camp Bastion in a Chinook.
Away from travel and to sport, I have been deeply involved with both junior rugby and ladies’ rugby mostly but not exclusively at Cambridge University. A brief foray into politics as with most backbenchers achieved nothing very much save perhaps a small but not insignificant part in persuading this government to hold a referendum on self government. It could have been worse some politicians cause active harm. I have also been honoured with invitations to speak at many of the most prestigious universities in the world, something always valued very highly and many of the undergraduates I have met I remain in contact with many years on.
People as well as places often inspire, I have had some memorable meetings with a very eclectic range of people, lunch with actors, musicians and sportsmen, a particular favourite with Fred Truman, still unbelievably full of bounce only a few months before he died. A long lunch a deux with a totally un luvvy like Edward Fox and a pub crawl with an irrepressible genius pianist John Lill. Yet some of the most inspiring individuals were not the famous, or the great and the good but tireless workers at local level for the common good, standing up to fight against school bullying, crime families and local environment matters. Although I mention some of the great vistas of international renown many are on our own doorstep. The beach walk from Bamburgh Castle to Seahouses, or the views of the Farne Islands from the Cheviot, or my favourite the sight and sounds of Hawes from the northern fell on a summer’s Sunday morning, mists and church bells, as good an experience as any I have had in my life. So we can all make our own luck without great cost because opportunities are everywhere if we know where to look.
On a personal note I have been happily married for 30 years, I see too many families wrecked because couples cannot be bothered to work a bit harder at it, give a little here and there.
You will note I have made no mention of money. I am long enough in the tooth to know money is important, the oil that smooths the engine of life. But make no mistake it is well down the list of life’s priorities. You can only drink one pint, drive one car, eat one meal at a time, you need enough but no more than enough although if I won millions on the lottery I would be pleased, indeed amazed as I don’t buy any tickets. I have never changed jobs, moved house or compromised my lifestyle or principles for money, neither have I inherited any. It may be you are fortunate enough to have a vocation, not given to many of us, I have always envied those in perhaps medicine or teaching where they can be found. A vocation is wonderfully self contained, it travels with you permanently through life, it takes away much of the angst in life, every morning you know what you have to do, albeit you may not be quite sure how to set about it. So if you are starting out think about what you want, if you are entering the autumn of your years have a think about all those things that have worked out for you, probably more than you think.