Image: Burns Night Supper by mnem. Creative Commons CC0 2.0
Apple Tree Cottage
25 January 1980
Not so cheerful, this letter. Well, that happens sometimes, but it was Annie’s fault, not mine. Skip it if you want to. ‘TGIF’. That’s what Annie wrote at the end of her last letter. She’s an accountant in Bridgestowe now, but she grew up in Berringford and she comes back for weekends when she can. Annie phoned last night and told me she was feeling down. She was tired of work and longing for a break. TGIF. Thank God it’s Friday.
By the way, tonight is Burns Night so prepare the haggis for supper even if you don’t have a piper to announce its arrival at the table. “Great chieftain o the pudding-race!” No poet wrote more rhymes that were natural and unforced than Burns, except perhaps Coleridge. They all fit. Just read ‘To a mouse’ once more. Why not read it tonight? There is not one forced rhyme in the whole poem. And prepare the whisky too. On a cold and wet January night, it comes in handy!
Back to TGIF. I am sorry that Annie feels that way. At least she has the weekend, and on Friday mornings that’s what we all think of. Unless we have to work on Saturday, or even Sunday. But Saturday work is different anyway. It’s only half work, and you feel virtuous for being there at all when so many others are playing football or walking the hills. You feel even more virtuous and self-sacrificing on Sunday when so few people are working at all. TGIF. That’s how we wish away our lives. Waiting for weekends. And weekends can be disappointing, often better in expectation than when they arrive. The weekend is attractive for the absence of work. That is sad, and sad too is realizing on Monday morning that the only thing worse than being at work is being unemployed.
And Sunday evenings? Feeling down on Sunday evening is worse than facing Monday morning itself. Someone defined anxiety as the mind getting ahead of the body, and that is what happens on Sunday evenings. Monday mornings never live up to their bad reputation. When we face up to Monday morning and get on with the job, it soon loses its terror. Starting is the hard part! “Aller Anfang ist schwer,” said Goethe.
So, we pass our days looking forward to Friday and dreading Monday, and if there is any time left over, we start regretting the past. Then when we retire, put out like pot plants to bloom a few seasons more in some corner of the garden, we realize that the best times, the moments we remember with a smile, were at work. Precisely where we thought we didn’t want to be, though now we would give anything to be back there again. Retired people have lost the joy of Friday evenings. They have lost the release and the expectation. All their evenings are the same, and that is sad. Enough of this! But I know how Annie feels.
I once worked in Saudi Arabia. It was only for a year. That is all I could take! The weekend there was Friday. ‘What’s in a name?’ asked Juliet. ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ And so it would, but now, after centuries of use, the very word ‘rose’ smells sweet too. But back to Riyadh. There Friday did not have the savour or smack of a weekend. Finishing on Thursday evening seemed odd, and it seemed odder still to start the week on Saturday morning. But then, that is a strange land. We were paid by the moon. The money came on the day when we could see the thin white sliver of the new moon, and I have never been so interested in the moon before. We had a lunar cycle of full moon, half-moon and money moon. One advantage of the system is that lunar months are shorter than calendar months, and so pay day came round more often.
Working abroad is, and always was, a way of wishing away one’s life. The ‘tour’ abroad is something temporary, but for many it becomes permanently temporary. At least until retirement when they face the decision of whether to stay away or go back home. The thing is that when we are abroad, we miss the ways of home, the garden, and the lanes and hills round the village, and when we are back home we miss the friendships made abroad and the people we worked with and the challenges we rose to. We are never the same again after working overseas.
So it was for the men who went out to India, the young men you see in those sepia-coloured photos, studied groups on the veranda of the bungalow, surrounded by pots of plants, looking nostalgically out of the 19th century. England was home. They went ‘out’ to India to do their stint of so many years, all the time looking forward to ‘going home’. What they did there was temporary, it only half mattered. They would really start living when they returned home again. At first, they counted the days, weeks and months since they left home. Then they started counting the months, the weeks, the days, and the astronomical number of seconds until they would go home again, like they used to do in an earlier exile at boarding school. At school and at work they were always ‘away’.Then finally and quicker than they ever thought possible, came the packing, the goodbyes and embarking on the boat. And then home again. And what then? At home they were regarded as different. They had no work to go to, and they had no house to invite anyone else to. They were outsiders at home just as they were outsiders when away.
There was the first flush of reunions.
“This is ‘Uncle Jack, home from India.”
“My goodness, you are brown. It must be awfully hot there.”
“Well, yes, it is. Very hot.”
In his heart of hearts Uncle Jack was waiting for the boat back, to somewhere where he at least had a routine, and had people dependent on him.
And the sepia photos caught them in their happy moments, because we are all happy for the photographer, and in this way, they spent their lives.
How we hoodwink ourselves!
‘Ah, when I really start to live (it used to be ‘Ah, when I grow up…’), then I’ll show them! I’ll be Prime Minister, at least!’
We have grown up, and we have grown older but we have not changed much. We are all so many Walter Mittys.
However, oddly enough, as long as we give things a go, what we do dedicate ourselves to becomes worthwhile. We don’t need to be prime ministers.
TGIF. We wish away our weeks, which are more important than any Friday nights. Think of all the time you spend at work, and make sure you enjoy it, even Monday mornings. And it’s probably worth doing something about those weekends too.
But that’s enough of this! It’s already getting dark. I’ll stroll down the hill to the post office to send this off. The dog could do with a walk too