Going to Work

September is nearly here. The new school year is starting and this year’s batch of graduates are looking for jobs and inspiration. But how many, I wonder, will end up doing something that they really love?

Sometimes it feels like we’re all in the wrong boxes. I know a dentist who longs to be an astrologer, a lawyer who would prefer to be an architect, and a computer scientist who thinks it would have been fun to be a historian. And even though I’m on my fifth career I’m still not sure which box I should be in.

find job

A recent job that I did, involved writing profiles of over 800 jobs. Fish farmers, crane drivers, Macmillan nurses, dog groomers, ergonomists, orthoptists, orthotists, transport planners, legal executives, mastic asphalters, animators and astronauts were all there. And with such wide exposure to the world of work I used to wonder about what else I could have done. Long-distance lorry driving has a certain appeal. I like the idea of being out and about with plenty of time to think and listen to the radio. But on the other hand, all that sitting down and those unsocial hours might make it less than perfect.

Or perhaps I’d like to have been a lexicologist wading through words and definitions. That might have suited me just fine. Typical work involves identifying words that have recently come into common use and deciding which ones are significant and likely to stay the test of time. But then I read something this week that made me reconsider. The Oxford English Dictionary has just approved its latest batch of 1,000 new words. I don’t like to be reactionary but adding words like awesomesauce, mkay, bitch face and manspreading would be painful. You can read their definitions at the end.

word cloud

When you’re young then anything seems possible. One of the youngest children ever to join Mensa was 3 years 9 months when she was accepted and said that she would like to be “a ballet dancer, a lady doctor or a mermaid”. Changes of direction get harder with age and I was feeling that perhaps it’s too late for me to become a lorry driver or lexicologist when I read about Mary Hobson. At the age of 56, which is exactly what I am now, she had to spend some time lying on her back in hospital after an operation. Her daughter gave her a copy of War and Peace and she decided that she wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate it until she could read it in the original language. So she went to university to study Russian and graduated in her 60s. She got her PhD when she was 74 and went on to win the Pushkin Gold Medal for Translation.


If you’re in a job where you’re happy then you’re lucky, and this week I met a man who really loves his work. He told me the story of how a specialist interest led to a whole new life on another continent and a type of work that he could never have envisaged when he was growing up. You can read my interview with David Tucker here.


Awesomesauce: Excellent

Mkay: Non-standard spelling of OK, typically used at the end of a sentence

Bitch face: Typically used for women whose natural expression is scowling

Manspreading: When a man on public transport sits with his legs apart in such a way as to encroach on neighbouring seats

Find out how new words are added to the OED by clicking here.


The Old Man and the Pea


I was supposed to be doing my art treat with artist, Claire Jackson, this week but I’ve had to postpone it. Hopefully this delay won’t be for more than a few weeks as it’s something I’m keen to do. But the reason for the change is that life has intervened in an unexpected way and suddenly I have new responsibilities to navigate. An elderly gentleman named Frank has come to live with me.

There is plenty of disagreement about the age at which someone becomes old and even more so about when they become elderly. In order to be eligible to be treated by a geriatrician you need to be at least 65. But whether someone is ‘elderly’ or not is largely dependent on whether they have health problems. However, in the case of my new housemate, Frank, there is no room for doubt. He is 95 and that is pretty old. When he was born in 1920 only half of male babies could expect to live beyond the age of 64.

Frank grew up in Walsall in the Midlands but in 1948 he emigrated to South Africa with his wife, and together they raised their family there. Eventually he was widowed and for the past few years he’s been living in a care home in Johannesburg. Although he didn’t complain, it was clear that he would love to end his days in England so that is why he has come to live in my house. And he’s not just any old 95-year old gentleman. He is soon to become my father-in-law.

Macular degeneration has rendered him almost blind and he has significant hearing loss. However, his memory is good and he is witty and wry. Inevitably there have been adjustments for all of us involved. We have to do things more slowly and our diaries are padded with medical appointments. Finding things to entertain him is a challenge as he can’t see a television and he hasn’t expressed much interest in music or the radio. But I’m determined that he’s not going to go the way of my old boyfriend’s granny who was nearly blind and lived in a care home. Every day she would sit knitting dishcloths. As soon as she’d finished one, the staff would unravel it and they’d return the wool so she could start all over again.

granny knitting

People are quick to mention the hard work involved in caring for older people and that is undeniable but they rarely mention the positive aspects. A friend who is in a similar situation said that whilst it curtails spontaneous trips for him and his wife, there is an enormous pleasure in seeing his mother-in-law enjoy good food, laugh at jokes, read poetry, and watch the garden. And most of all to know that she feels loved and safe. We are very lucky that Frank is polite, funny and appreciative. He gets frustrated with his limitations and given all he has to contend with he has every right to be grumpy. But he’s rarely that. He’s a gentleman.


© Tomasz Sienick 2005

As a child I was fascinated by Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Princess and the Pea. A young woman turns up at a castle and begs a bed for the night. She claims to be a princess but her hostess is unsure whether to believe her. So she puts a hard pea on the base of the bed with twenty mattresses and twenty eiderdowns on top. The guest climbs to the top of her unusual bedding arrangement and in the morning complains that the bed was lumpy. This is all the proof that is needed that she is a true princess. Now, is there an equivalent test for a true gentleman, I ask myself?

I think I found the answer to this a few weeks ago when my partner and I took Frank out for lunch in a cafe. It’s a popular place so I was pleased to find a table just inside with three empty seats. Perfect. We got Frank settled and ordered our drinks. But as we were ordering the food we realised that it was cold by the window. So we asked the waitress if we could move to another table. She gathered up our cutlery and drinks and we all trooped off with Frank holding onto his walking stick and my arm. We settled down again. My food arrived and it looked delicious. A roasted butternut, pumpkin seed and feta salad.

butternut squash salad

But as we sat there waiting for the rest of the food we gradually became aware of a terrible stench. It drifted across and whereas most awful smells pass, this one didn’t. It was musty and grew increasingly difficult to ignore. Four rather trendy young men were sitting laughing a couple of tables away. They may all have been cheerful but one of them had clearly not aired his clothes. So, we asked the waitress to find us another table, making the excuse that the background noise was a bit loud for Frank. We trooped off to uncharted regions whilst the waitress followed with our drinks, cutlery and food. We settled down again, and all enjoyed our meal. But the respite was short. When we were waiting for our coffee, my partner shouted “I don’t believe it” and darted off to the one corner of the café that we hadn’t yet explored. After a couple of minutes I was curious so I took his coffee over to him, complete with nice little whirly shortbread biscuit on the side. I found him chatting animatedly with an old university friend that he hadn’t seen for forty years. “Come and join us” he said, “and bring Dad”. We shuffled over.

Later when I apologised to Frank for the lunch in which he had sat at four different tables he said graciously that he “hadn’t noticed”. I decided there and then that like the princess and the pea, this is the equivalent test for a true gentleman.


Colliding Treats


Recently I spent a contented day walking a stretch of the North Downs Way in Kent. This 156 mile walk runs from Farnham to Dover and I’ve been doing it in stages for the past couple of years, sometimes with friends or family, but often on my own. This time I’d had a break of nearly a year and it was a treat to resume it and to walk through cornfields, along wooded ridges and down deserted dusty lanes, all alone. It was a rare bit of peace and a chance to appreciate the capriciousness of English weather. The sun seared my face and then shortly afterwards a smattering of drizzle chilled me.

I’ve got two long distance walks on my list of sixty treats. This one and the South West Coastal Footpath. On these kind of walks you can keep putting one foot in front of the other and for a while you’re relieved of having to think about life’s usual worries. You know roughly what’s going to happen next, but there’s always the pleasure of wondering what precisely is round that bend that you can see in the distance.

north downs way 1

On this occasion as I walked through deepest Kent, I pondered what to write for my next blog post and settled on the unexpected benefits of treats. Some of those I’ve done so far have required me to try new activities or to tackle unfamiliar subjects and there’s plenty of research which suggests that mental activity can help to stave off forgetfulness.

This is becoming increasingly relevant. When I was young I could easily remember names, addresses, dates and all manner of other bits and pieces. I couldn’t imagine what it was like not to be able to retrieve them but this is one of those things that it’s hard to understand unless you’ve experienced it. Like gout, labour pains and carpal tunnel syndrome. Now I know about forgetfulness only too well. It’s getting on for a year since I moved house and I still can’t remember the names of any of the roads around me. And yet in my head I can easily walk around the streets where I lived thirty years ago.

One of my other current treats is to watch all of Hitchcock’s films and this is certainly giving me some mental stimulation. He’s often cited as the most influential director of all time and was noteworthy for the way he played with his audience and for the detailed control he exerted over all aspects of his films. There are over fifty to enjoy and so far I’ve watched six. The most recent of these, Stage Fright was interesting because it starts with one of the main characters telling a story in flashback. It’s only at the end that the audience discovers he was lying. This kind of manipulation would be thought clever now, but in 1950 viewers felt cheated and Hitchcock considered it to be one of the major errors in his long career.


In the warm Kentish sunshine my mind wandered to these films that I’ve seen recently and to other Hitchcocks that I’ve seen in the past and will revisit as part of this treat. As I reflected and walked down a track, I noticed a tractor going up and down in the distance. Up and down. Up and down. There was a light breeze and everything felt very still. Very quiet and rather sinister. A small plane circled in the sky above. Round and round. Dipping and diving. Apparently aimless. Or was it? Was I imagining it or were there more birds around than usual?


This was no good. An enjoyable walk-treat was being sabotaged by an equally pleasurable film-treat so I distracted myself by trying to remember what I wanted to write about in this next blog. But there was just an empty gap in my head.

north downs way sign

Fortunately I eventually remembered that this current blog was meant to be about forgetfulness. And I also remembered this entertaining video which sums up age-activated attention deficit disorder. It makes me laugh and I hope you enjoy it too. It’s well worth spending three minutes on, but I suggest you watch it straightaway or you might forget.