My wife and I went for a walk yesterday (Thursday) afternoon like you do when you’re retired and there they all were. Stood in a queue that snaked round the corner on to the main road, maybe 200 yards long. 200 / 300 maybe of them, all there together en masse. In a cinema queue (we didn’t even know our local cinema showed films on a Thursday afternoon) to see Philomena (Judy Dench and Steve Coogan I believe). I have never seen so much grey hair in one spot anywhere in the world. Maybe I need to get out more. These were our people. I shuddered and hurried on.
The only place that comes close for collective greyness is sitting on the 9.30 bus into town, surrounded by the grey ones I wonder – is this the tribe I’ve searched for all my life? Relax, I say this is who you are now. Fuck that, as Dylan said, I will not go quietly into the grey zone. I look so much younger than them (I have no hair to go grey).
All of my life, to this point, I have been afflicted, or possibly blessed, by a sense of not belonging to any particular sociological (would that be the word?) group – no professional group, no geographical area, country, race, religion. I don’t even speak to my neighbours. I don’t avoid them, just don’t go out of my way to make contact. No sense of identity beyond what I am as an individual. Is this just me or do most / all people feel this way? I’ve never been a joiner you see.
Now I’m retired or if I use the group name, a retiree, and I look around me in supermarkets, at service stations on the motorway, in pubs, garden centres, I look at my grey haired peer group and I ask myself – is this who I am? Have I found my group at last?
As I say this goes back a long way, it’s not a recent feeling. I can remember at school – I went to a grammar school – not feeling I belonged, a feeling of not good enough even though I’d passed the 11 plus to get there. We were streamed of course, I was solid B stream material.
I must admit my feeling of isolation was aided and abetted by a number of factors – most memorable, I had a cardboard suitcase instead of the leather satchel every other child had (an economic decision I believe), I wore a grey shirt all year round even though we were supposed, although not required, to wear a white one in the summer. My maths teacher a madman called, appropriately, Mr Dickie threw my cardboard suitcase out of a third floor window in a fit of anger when he tripped over it. It exploded into a thousand paper pieces as it hit the surface of the car park. Teachers could do things like that in those days. I was ecstatic, now I’ll get a new one I thought. I did, I got a satchel – it was also made of cardboard. Ho hum.
I never liked my home town and left as soon as was feasible. It wasn’t a great place at the best of times and, when I made the decision to become the only mod in a town of rockers, my fate was, as they say, sealed. I had to get out of town before I was crushed under the wheels of Triumph (theirs not mine), BSA, Harley etc. I suppose the fact my father died when I was five and I was brought up by my grandma didn’t help either. I was a one parent child before it was fashionable.
Further distancing occurred after, having done well at O level, I decided I was a genius and didn’t need to revise so, 5 failed A levels later, I did not get to go to university with my peers. Instead I got out of town by going to art college where you didn’t then need A levels. And yet even here, in the company of some talented artists, I felt not good enough.
I, perhaps against the odds, became a teacher and, theoretically at least, a member of the middle classes. Yet on a ferry to some Scottish isle I remember vividly looking at the other middle class passengers with their, Barbours, Hunters wellies, Volvo estates and their dogs and thinking, fuck me, I don’t want anything to do with this lot either. I got the same feeling at Guardian courses incidentally even though I’ve read the (Saturday) Guardian for 30 or 40 years. No, not my people here either. Sorry.
I retrained and became a psychologist but my old habits came with me. I had to be different. I eschewed all the ‘trappings’ of my new profession. I misused my elite status which, it seemed to me, depended on a baffling and unnecessary collection of labels and diagnoses. I was an anti psychologist. Tricky sometimes. At conferences I would look around me and think, nope, these not my people. For thirty plus years I felt this way. And then I retired.
And now here I am, a retiree – hate that word. Defined by the label? Well no, because, as I said at the beginning, once again I don’t feel I belong. So the search for my people goes on. Maybe I’ll be a part of the community of bloggers. More likely not. I’m running out of options. Maybe I was just born to be free.
For some strange reason, writing this, I was reminded of a book of my daughter’s as a child, a favourite book of hers, and I managed to find it on the children’s shelf, called Are you my mother (see below). It’s about a baby bird looking for its mother. I don’t want to spoil the ending but the baby bird finds her mother when a mechanical excavator (yes, it’s true) puts it back in the nest and there’s mum. Highly relevant, in that I am neither a bird nor am I looking for my mother, as you may have read earlier in this blog. That apart it seems like a wholly appropriate metaphor for my search for belonging in retirement. All I need is a mechanical excavator to put me in the right place.
PS. I put this last bit in because my wife said this blog was a bit negative and needed to end on a more positive note so my readers wouldn’t be depressed. If you are can I suggest you read last week’s blog on depression.
Key image : a search for identity