On trying to make sense of my past forty years.
Because next year I hit the big four zero.
The manner in which many of us who left the civil service in 2010/11 in the early years of austerity is something that will stick with me for a very long time. Having politicians tearing your profession to bits while being constitutionally barred from speaking out wasn’t fun. The creation of Puffles the Dragon Fairy on Twitter was one way of dealing with this.
When I joined the civil service in 2004 I remember having a sense of relief from the stability that a full time job in the field I thought I’d spend the rest of my working life in. In December 2006 I remember feeling an incredible sense of pride and relief having been informed of my passing of the Fast Stream Assessment Centre. The only other time I felt anywhere near that sense of pride/relief was with my GCSE results some ten years previous.
But there was no continuity
As a light reader of political and historical biographies, one common theme with many of them is the cohort of people who surround them from a relatively early age all the way through into retirement. Even now, studying the women who made modern Cambridge, Clara Rackham and Florence Ada Keynes had a partnership that effectively lasted half a century. Yet I never experienced that.
I remember post-GCSEs being told that I had gotten into one of the best state sixth form colleges in the country. In the early days there I wondered who would be the people who would go onto be stupendously successful with their names in the bright lights and in the newspaper headlines. It was only later on that I found out that ‘success’ did not mean what I thought it did, and that as teenagers in South Cambridge, too many of the things we were told by the generation above us were the result of group think and peer pressure.
Life on a piece of paper
It goes something like this:
“Born – nursery – good school – great college – top university – graduate job – marry – children – retire – die.”
…even though I knew I wanted something far more – something that could nourish my soul in a way that going to church every Sunday was doing the exact opposite of.
I could have done something far more productive and beneficial than going to church every Sunday
Paraphrasing what comedian Ed Byrne said with his experience of having to go to church as a child, I take the same view. Yet even in the 1980s churches still had a strong hold – far stronger than today. It’s only looking back now that I can see just how divisive as institutions they were to us as a group of children trying to grow up together.
When I was finally able to break away from religion during my first year at university, no one realised just how difficult a move that was. They still don’t now. Institutionally we have nothing to support people who choose to break away from religion – one that may well have been embedded in the school that they went to. (Hence my opposition in principle to faith-based schools). It’s not simply a case of no longer having a routine of doing the same thing every Sunday morning, but making a substantive break away from a group of people many of whom you’ve know for a large portion of your life. It’s the equivalent perhaps of leaving a political party having been an active volunteer for a long time, or leaving a charitable group or campaigning organisation – a group of people with similar beliefs (or so you assumed) who you spent time with on a regular basis over a long period of time.
Not knowing I was suffering from a medical condition
It was my college years that, looking back, I really could have done with someone stepping in and ensuring I got proper medical treatment for the depression and anxiety I was suffering from. It’s straight-forward for me now to identify particular incidents where I can say ‘Yep – that was my anxiety talking’ or ‘Oh – that was my depression in action there.’ But even as recently as the late 1990s the impact of the failings of a number of institutions and individuals (myself included) is still striking. The direct impact was no longer staying in contact with people who I had known from childhood.
Anxiety makes you needy and intense…and the more friends pull away from you the worse that intensity and neediness becomes…and so the cycle gets worse and worse. And this has been the story of my life for as long as I can remember. And because this wasn’t nipped in the bud when it could and should have been (or – made even worse, in particularly by the rules of some of the institutions), the negative impact has been huge.
Not settling at University
One of the biggest negative impacts on my health at university was instability of housing. It never got anything out of me being there because as an institution we were just numbers. As with many universities in the 1990s, it had expanded its student numbers without building the necessary student accommodation to house them. They also had not put in place the services to ensure all students could find accommodation in the private sector with the minimal of stress. Had I had the courage I probably would have dropped out of university at the end of the first time/start of the second, saying it wasn’t working for me. But I didn’t have the courage. Lack of courage is my biggest moral failing and will remain so for the rest of my life. All the bad decisions I’ve made in life can be reduced down to that point.
The really sad thing with my time at university – especially when compared to that big institution that dominates my home town – is that I never met or made any friends for life. In fact I can only think of three people who I would later meet up with again at a future point. But they are all long gone now.
Trying too hard in the civil service
In the old Government Office for the East of England, the institution had a habit of filling its then annual intake of new civil servants at junior admin level with large numbers of young, talented and restless graduates. For jobs that required 5 GCSEs, about half would be taken by people with degrees. This meant that there was an imbalance between the senior management who started in the civil service of typing pools with a group of people who were familiar with using the internet in an academic, if not a working environment. To give you an example, one senior director insisted his PA printed out all of the emails he received for him to deal with them. (He retired less than a year later following a restructure).
The organisational restructure that decimated the ranks of young junior officers (while increasing the corps of senior managers that would ultimately be scrapped by Pickles and all) did away with what I thought could have become that relatively stable if not particularly exciting work place. I had spent the previous two years having thrown myself into a host of extra-curricular work-based things (because essentially I was under-employed in my comms role that I was paid for, and didn’t want to bum around being useless during the day). Yet in my heart of hearts I knew I wasn’t ‘connecting’ with the people I worked with at the level I really wanted to.
The same happened when I moved to London – trying too hard. I wanted to get to a stage where the people who I worked with were the people who I socialised with. Yet despite the positive disposition and volunteering for stuff, with hindsight I tried too hard. And burnt out.
Trying too hard as a symptom of anxiety and insecurities
One of the things I’ve struggled with for ages is getting to and from places. The only time at a local level it wasn’t really a problem was during my civil service days in Cambridge because I cycled everywhere at a time when I was physically fit – being able to get from the town centre back home nearly three miles away in the late evening in fifteen minutes. Flying through the darkness in the highest gear on my bike with a sense of effortlessness after 3-4 hours of dance classes in the evening following a day at work was normal at that time. I couldn’t do it now.
No long lasting friends despite the years of volunteering and helping out – in Cambridge, Brighton, London & beyond.
That’s one of the things that, with all things taken into account, leaves me feeling empty inside. Other people have come in and found their tribes and settled in whichever group, collective or organisation I happened to be in…but I never did. Why not? Why were they successful where I was not?
It’s too late now to change things or go back
This is sort of where I am now in my mind – a social creature living a solitary life involuntarily. I was people-watching at an event not so long ago, observing who knew whom, conscious in my mind that I didn’t really know anyone there. I was pondering on what the life and career paths of all of these people were, and on what kept them in touch with each other, and how this compared to decades and centuries gone by of their predecessors in this town of ours (Cambridge).
Hitting the big four-zero next year also means being in a cohort that I’m assuming for the many involves settling down and having children. But not for me. I’ve taken a conscious decision on the basis of my health that I could never cope with being a parent. My suspected heart attack of 10 months ago hit me like a ton of bricks, and made me realise that actually I have much less time left than I perhaps had assumed I had. That plus never being able to afford my own place in Cambridge in the short-medium term, and not being able to work full time anymore…you have to make a huge number of adjustments both physical and in terms of mindset.
Hence taking risks (including financial ones) with Lost Cambridge
I’m investing some of the proceeds of the sale of my share in an inherited property into my work on the history of Cambridge – https://lostcambridge.wordpress.com/ not least because if I don’t do it now, I never will. And if I don’t, who else will? Those of in the field all have our different approaches. Alan Brigham has his tours, while Fonz has his radio show, while Mike Petty is undertaking a huge digitisation program, and Honor Rideout runs the Cambs Association for Local History. To give a few examples. And that’s before mentioning the Museum of Cambridge, and the Cambridgeshire Collection. They have all been around in this field for a lot longer than I have, and have done far more. I’m a relative newcomer.
But what we’re not is this well-supported, well-resourced dynamic team of historians sharing the story of this small but great city of ours, based in a place or building that when people enter into it go ***Wow!***.
It’s somewhere I’d like Cambridge to get to – and maybe one day it will. Just not within my lifetime.