Second Childhood

Commuting days until retirement: 0

     Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything.

Shakespeare’s seventh and final age of man is maybe responsible for the notion of a second childhood as something negative – a feared disintegration of the faculties. I’ve noticed that the word ‘childishness’ in this passage is sometimes rendered as ‘innocence’. Which is good, because that’s where I want to place my emphasis. Second childhood for me is not so much about senility – indeed, I’m lucky that, so far, my eyes, teeth and taste are largely undiminished. Whether or not I have ‘everything’, I’ve got those; although I suppose at my age, in Shakespeare’s time, I would more than likely have been losing them. And as for ‘mere oblivion’ – no sign of that yet, thankfully.

The Seven Ages of Man

The Seven Ages of Man: William Mulready (1786-1863)

Perhaps I’m on the sixth stage, ‘the lean and slippered pantaloon’. Aside from the fact that I’m not quite as lean as I ought to be, it’s not such a bad description of me in retirement. And the innocence part? Well, when you get to my age, the future may not be something you want to think about too much; or to put it another way, it is something there is rather less of than there was previously. All the more reason, then, to concentrate thoughts on the present.

And it’s the present that I associate with innocence – think of the first childhood. No past, little notion of the future, but a welter of here-and-now, immediate sensory experiences to be lost in. These are what philosophers call ‘qualia’ – those very basic sensory elements of which our conscious life is built. In recent posts I’ve been arguing against a contemporary trend in science and philosophy to believe that these are somehow illusory, not real. I hope that posts to come will, by way of describing some of my own experiences, help to lay bare the implausibility of that position.

And more importantly, I want to take the chance to regain some of that childhood innocence, with the renewed opportunity to live in the present. Working life is more often than not about deadlines, career worries, and dealing with colleagues or clients who may not always be cooperative. Timetables and schedules drown out the immediacy of the present moment, and much time is spent squinting at images and characters on screens, rather than contemplating real, solid things. Perhaps this increasing abstraction and virtualisation of our working lives has somehow influenced attitudes in scientific thought towards the status of our sensory experiences.

And while I’m aware that my retirement is ultimately financed by that seething corporate world, I have no misgivings about leaving it behind in my own life. Instead of stressing my brain in front of a computer, I’ll be stretching my limbs as I dig in the garden; instead of straining to follow the jargon-filled chatter of a conference call, enjoying the sounds of wind and birdsong.

Innocence and Experience

Songs of InnocenceSongs of ExperienceIt’s conventional to see these two as polar opposites. But however it might have seemed to William Blake, I would suggest that it’s possible to combine them in a fruitful way. Everything was of course very different when I took in the sounds and sights of a summer suburban garden when sent out to play by my mother all that time ago. But now, taking up my garden fork after sixty intervening years, an important part of the experience will be the same, even if embedded in the context of a lifetime’s acquisition of new ideas and perspectives, after long experience.

I deliberately used the word ‘experience’ twice in that last sentence, with two entirely different meanings. The instance at the end is what could be called the Blakean one – lessons learnt, maybe pleasures undreamt of in innocence, but with the concomitant hard knocks suffered and come to terms with. My earlier use of ‘experience’ denotes what we might call ‘pure experience’ – the immediate stream of sensory events before our minds; in other words, what I hold in common with my childhood self. You could argue – and I certainly would – that if we can rekindle an appreciation of the latter sort within the context of the former, there is much to be gained. As Blake himself observed, ‘Without contraries is no progression.’

The constraints of the working life that I have described are perhaps, if in a rather less sinister way, the modern equivalent of Blake’s ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ which appear, appropriately, in his poem London – my own place of work. It’s in casting them off that I hope to reacquaint myself with that kind of experience which is almost synonymous with innocence.

That’s the potential that I feel a second childhood has for me, as I stand on the verge of it. The dilapidated railway buffers in my new title image signify only an end to daily work and commuting, not any other sort of conclusion. Beyond them there’s a whole new field to explore.

Jam Tomorrow

Commuting days until retirement: 255

George Osborne

The saintly Mr Osborne

My unlikely hero of the hour – well, of last week, anyway – is the gentleman whose title derives from a medieval tablecloth bearing a chessboard pattern: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Right Honourable George Gideon Oliver Osborne M.P. I’m as cynical about politicians as most people, but just occasionally one of them does something that seems so aligned with my own selfsh interests that I develop something that looks fearfully like a soft spot for them.

In this case, of course, it was the recent budget. Before the budget, the number of commuting days you see at the top of this post was in danger of being at least doubled. It works like this: as you might not know if you’re very much younger than me, the money you are putting aside as a pension throughout your working life (or not as the case may be) is not taxed by the government; but the downside of this has always been that you were not allowed to do whatever you liked with it when you retired, however sensible your plans might be. Your only option was to use it to buy an annuity, which would supply you with an income in retirement. You could shop around for the best deal, but once you had signed up for one, that was it; you were in it for life.

With all the recent economic shenanigans, and the record low interest rates, annuity rates have been flatlining. I was increasingly aware that if I had retired in May 2015 at the age of 67,as I had planned, the income I’d be stuck with wouldn’t be what I had once expected. My best option was to hang on grimly for another year or two in the reasonable hope that annuity rates would look up a bit.

But since last week Mr. Osborne has unexpectedly changed all the rules. Now when people retire they will be able to grab it all and run – or perhaps set off in a Lamborghini or on a world cruise, as the media have not been slow to point out. I’m fairly hopeless with money, but not that hopeless; and at least there’s no need to wait around for things to look up before retiring. I can choose whatever investment option looks best for my income, and then update it as often as I want.

It still means halving my income – this is the time if life when you wish you had thought more about boring things like pensions when you were younger. But of course they were only relevant to old people, that curious species that had nothing to do with you. I was only guided into saving what I did by various advisers whose wisdom I belatedly recognise; otherwise I would probably have left it until it was much too late.

But for me, it’s worth it to sacrifice a comfortable income for the incalculable improvement in quality of life that consists in having the time and freedom to develop my own thoughts, rather than being harnessed much of the time in the traces of my employer’s narrow aspirations. (Necessarily so, but narrow nonetheless: you see why this blog is anonymous.) And so the figure at the top of this post is safe for now, and I’m starting to salivate at the prospect of jam tomorrow; maybe not today, but definitely sooner than the day after tomorrow. The jam in question may be rather abstract – not the sort of item to appear on an accountant’s balance sheet – but it’ll taste good to me. Mr. Osborne has obliged me by giving the top of the jar its first vigorous opening twist.