My best years have been from the age of sixty to seventy. I really grew, because when I was sixty-two I went on a life assessment course and suddenly realized I didn’t know who I was. I had been the obedient child, worker, wife, teacher, mother, and I didn’t know who I was. I was always my roles. It was a real shock. I did three trainings for myself and then I assisted on 23 altogether, as recently as last September. It’s very strenuous, long hours and you don’t get much sleep but I love being part of a group where you know everybody is as committed to what you’re doing as you are. It’s a great feeling. We really believe in the trainings and we work ourselves into the ground but nobody’s making us do it. I finish it absolutely exhausted but exhilarated. I’ve helped in Spain, Ireland, and London mostly, and in Wales. The last is a combined retreat/physical challenge training which I did myself when I was sixty-six! One of the activities is to abseil down a very steep cliff, several hundred feet, climb up it again, cross a ravine on a Tyrolean rope, jump in the sea from about thirty feet, and the week culminates in the fire-walk across twenty metres of burning coals. I’ve done the fire-walk seven times, and the last time I made up my mind at the last minute, completely forgetting that I had a circulation problem. Somebody said I looked like I was strolling in the supermarket and I ended up burning my feet very badly. I had enormous blisters and I wasn’t able to walk properly for a month; so now, when I go to assist, I do not do the fire-walk!
I try to get below the surface of people to the shared humanity of everybody. People look so different, come from every different race and age, and underneath they’re all the same, all struggling to make the best of their lives, longing to be loved, basically good people, but some of them have had rotten deals. For me, moving from one country to another seemed like a dreadful shock, but I realized, listening to other people’s stories, that moving from the north of England to the south was equally traumatic for them.
I was brought up to believe that only what was written in a book was worthwhile. I didn’t learn through experience, I didn’t believe my ideas were valuable at all, unless somebody else first thought of it. Before I spoke in public I would work out the right words to say so that I didn’t appear foolish, but through doing the trainings I’ve become more confident. Of course being a school teacher I had to learn to appear confident. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I was. My husband Roy could have become an officer in the RAF but he also didn’t have the background that enables confidence. Even somebody from a privileged background, if deprived of their status and put in a different social situation, would lose confidence. We get it from our families; my mother wasn’t at all confident. She was brought up in an orphanage and she had no background. When you’re a child you absorb that as part of your persona, and you have to fight against it. Our children have achieved a great deal, but they still undervalue themselves. My daughter is head teacher at West Oxford Primary School, an Oxford graduate, but she still doesn’t appreciate how brilliant she is.
I’m passionate about making other people realize their worth. That’s why I love doing these trainings – the feedback I give people is always aimed at making them appreciate that we’re all different and we’ve all got differing gifts. The best times I’ve had are on these courses. Everybody’s on a high at the end, they’ve been through the training, and the sharing – the fifty-gallon sharing,– you’ve shortcut years of interaction on these intense courses – it may be only an evening and two days, but people dare to share what they really feel. They take off their masks. When we meet up again, we have a special bond, we relate to each other at a different level than if we were strangers. When I came away from my first training, I wept because I could see that was how society could work if we were all open and we could meet at that level. But that’s only possible in a very protected space; you couldn’t do it in the real world. You have to put on your armour!
I’ve thought a lot about death lately because I belong to the Befriending Network, where we befriend people on a one-to-one basis who are terminally ill or have life-threatening illnesses. If you are told you have a terminal illness, I think we all would follow the same pattern: tremendous shock, anger and depression – it may be in very short periods – but eventually there’s acceptance, and a period of letting go.
I saw the most inspiring video, produced by the BBC – it was made in Holland by a young woman, a Humanist, who was involved in counselling the bereaved or the dying. She was only twenty-three when she discovered she had a terminal illness. The video is of the last six months of her life – that’s all she had. It’s filmed right from the early stages to her death – she wanted it to be used as a training film. There was a time when she had totally accepted that she was going to die, and her mother and her sisters couldn’t cope with it. The family was being interviewed by the specialist; the mother was all anguished and really upset but the daughter was sat at one side as if to say, this doesn’t concern me any more; not in a negative way, you just knew she’d accepted her coming death. It’s easier in a way for the person who knows they’re going to die – they get all the attention. She was a very loving and happy person. You saw her at the start of the illness when she was swimming and enjoying it, and she was talking about death being a voyage to another unknown territory. We have, as part of our training with the Befrienders, to go through an exercise where we imagine that we’re going to die, right from the beginning to the way we’d organize our funeral and the final scene. The more I read about death and the more I talk about it, the less strange it becomes. It’s inevitable, and I think our society is starting to address the topic. There are far more TV programmes about death and dying.
A lot of people talk about a bright light at the end of a tunnel – I think it’s to do with your organs, they don’t all shut down at the same time. Your brain could still be capable of input. There’s a wish that many have for a heaven and maybe there is – I’m not an atheist, I think I’m an agnostic, and I just don’t believe that people like Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed were anything other than extremely brilliant prophets and teachers, and the Ten Commandments, if you follow them in their true spirit, and not in the letter of the law, is good for mental wellbeing: not concentrating too much on yourself but thinking of other people. I brought this quotation from George Bernard Shaw because it summarizes my philosophy for life:
This is the true joy in life,
the being used for a purpose
Recognized by yourself as a mighty one.
The being thoroughly worn out
before you are thrown on the scrap heap.
The being a force of Nature
instead of a feverish selfish little clod
of ailments and grievances,
Complaining that the world
will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life
belongs to the whole community and
for as long as I live, it is my privilege
to do whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die
for the harder I work, the more I live.
I rejoice in life for its own sake.
Life is no “brief candle” to me.
It is a sort of splendid torch
which I have got hold of for the moment.
I want to make it burn as brightly as possible
before handing it over to future generations.
However, I have recently realized that I need to do things just for myself, so I’ve been following my own interests: watercolour painting, writing stories and a bit of poetry as well. You’ve got to love and look after yourself before you can love your fellow man. The nuns in my convent never emphasized the “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” rule.
My mother was a single parent and lived her life through me – it was a terrible responsibility, because even from the age of eight or nine, I realized my mother found coping with life difficult, so in fact I became Mum, and she became the child. When I got older I was resentful of this but I came to accept that it had been my choice. As a child I could have acted less responsibly and my mother might have grown, so I learnt to forgive her and forgive myself. That’s the beginning of wisdom when you realize that your parents do the best they can in their particular circumstances.
For most of my life, I thought my background was terribly limiting and very disadvantaged, mainly because my mother was Anglo-Indian, and my father was English, but they divorced before I was born, and I never ever met my father, although he started to communicate when he was in his eighties. His wife had died and he suddenly wanted me to go out and look after him in his old age. He promised me a flat and a car; he lived in Cape Town, and I kept wishing he’d say, “Well, come out to visit me,” but I think he was a very vain man, he didn’t want me to know he was old because all the photographs he kept sending me were him as a young man!
We came to England in 1945 and I didn’t know where I belonged because it was a different culture as far as I was concerned. I was doing a shorthand typing course in Nottingham and I was saying things like “Where’s me bus?” and “Y’nesh,” and, “Mash us a cup o’ tea,” trying to be like the Nottingham people I was with. So I didn’t know where I belonged and I spoke with a very strong Indian accent. I always thought it was terrible because I didn’t know where I fitted in, but I’ve realized that these experiences have been one of the foundation blocks of the tolerance that I feel for all cultures and all races, knowing how hurtful it is to have someone say, “Go back to your own country,” when you didn’t have a country. It’s made me a real fighter for all disadvantaged people and especially people from other races. That saying, “Never judge a man until you have walked in his moccasins for a whole moon,” is one of my favourites, and that extends not just to differences of nationality, but also class.
It’s been an advantage mixing with different classes. When we were out in India I suppose we lived a privileged life: we had servants and my mother worked for the Admiral and her friends were all officers and well connected people, and when we came to England, my first boyfriend was a bus driver. I came to realize that these superficial things that we judge people by are just that, because the real person underneath can be just as genuine and intelligent despite doing a menial job.
I was brought up in India till I was fifteen, when I left school, and we came over to England. I was supposed to go to Edinburgh University. I had a scholarship, but my mother had one of her many nervous breakdowns. In those days, if you were depressed you didn’t go to the doctor. I had no one to advise me. She was extremely suicidal and nothing was done. Fortunately she didn’t kill herself because she didn’t have any medication anyway. I couldn’t go on with my further studies and I became a shorthand typist for about seven years, and then we moved to London and I worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. in Trafalgar Square. Then I decided I had to get away from my mother so I joined the Wrens as a wireless telegraphist. I was stationed in Malta when I met Roy. He was quite a dish in those days – he was six foot one, blonde, rugby player – totally opposite to me: I was five foot, dark and not sporty in the least – we don’t share many interests but we’ve been married fifty-one years.
I think you subconsciously try to complement yourself when you’re looking for a partner. But you don’t really know the real person until you’ve lived together for quite a while. If you share common values, that’s more important than your interests because Roy can always find someone who’s a fellow rugby enthusiast and I enjoy my book club – but we shared the common values of loyalty and truth and commitment to our family. We’ve totally trusted each other. We’ve never played around. Maybe that’s old-fashioned, but in my mind, if you’ve committed to one person, I cannot see how you can possibly justify going out with somebody else. At some point you’ve got to make your relationship work and you’ve got to make allowances for one another. We were both not very good at recognizing our own feelings, let alone each other’s. I wanted to talk about problems and he didn’t want to talk! However, whenever I ventured into new territory, he always supported me 100% and has always been totally loyal. I would not be the person I am without his support. He’s more the warrior type and I’m the philosopher. I like to think about what makes people behave the way they do. I find it easy to put myself in another’s shoes and be empathic, not judgemental. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and even though I have had to reassess my good opinions sometimes, it’s still the way I want to operate.
When we returned from Malta, I was a housewife for ten years, bringing up three children, born in four and a half years! Then circumstances meant that I needed to have a job. I decided to become a teacher and did a three year course. It was a difficult time coping with the family at the same time and our youngest son contracted rheumatoid arthritis, so there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to hospitals for many years.
I think teaching is a two-way process. I always used to tell the children I was teaching, “I learn from you as well as you learn from me,” and they learned from each other. I was very passionate about them appreciating the differences between them, and not being children who scored off one another. I always encouraged them to compete with themselves rather than against each other. I was concerned about the children who really haven’t got anything going for them. And life is so unfair, isn’t it? I’ve had children who’ve been lovely to teach, they’ve had brilliant personalities, been good academics and athletes, they’ve got everything going for them; and then there are others at the bottom and you struggle to find something they can do and some of them are really nice and deserving.
In my last year I had thirty-five in the class – mixed age, ability and race and two-thirds were boys – and I thought, how can I teach them as a class? It’s just impossible. So I did a lot of individual teaching, but I also used the children in my class to help one another. I would ask one child to explain subtraction to another but of course I then had to listen out because you couldn’t just give the job over to the child; and also listening to the child explaining would let me know whether they really understood what they were doing. I was totally out of step with the rest of the school, because the new head was very formal. She didn’t believe in my style of teaching (making the kids responsible for their own work).
On Friday afternoons, I used to give them free choice and I had a terrapin hut outside the school in Birmingham – and on this Friday I left my class to go into the main building and there were three first-year classes, we’re talking seven-year-olds, quiet as mice, heads down, writing. I went along to the top class, and they all had their heads down, writing. I went back to my terrapin hut – I opened the door – and there was the War of the Worlds music on the stereo because one of the lads was absolutely mad about it; a group doing craft work; two children were washing the guinea pigs in the sink; and a couple of them were doing maths, believe it or not, because I had two fabulous prototype machines from Texas Instruments (embryonic computers). You could programme the level of difficulty and the different rules and when you got ten right in a row, it would play a tune so everyone would know, and they used to fight over them – they were doing sums all the time. I thought, “I don’t belong in this school.” I realized in three years as head, she’d changed the whole slant from child-centred education. I knew I couldn’t teach in the same way in which I had been taught: most of the time being bored.
But I was vindicated one day. I had told her I was going to the dentist in the morning and I had prepared work, and would she make sure my class was covered. I came back at about half past ten, down the corridor in the main school, and two of my boys were coming down the corridor. I said, “Where are you going?” and they said, “We’re going to see if there’s anybody coming to teach us!” They had gone into the classroom, done the work set, taken themselves off to assembly and back, and nobody knew that I wasn’t in school and it was half past ten, and they were supposed to be the worst class in the school! That was the year that I decided to take early retirement at the age of fifty-three.
We moved to Devon because I thought it would be nice to retire there. I did bed and breakfast during the summers and we moved house twice – I was doing up the houses and reselling them, so it was a job for me if you like. My husband was finding the travelling and work very stressful and we thought it would be best for him to retire at sixty. After a couple of years, it was my decision to move from Devon, because we were so far from family and one of us was going to be left on their own. My mother never planned, she always expected somebody would take care of her, and the last few months of her life were horrendous, mainly because she never planned anything in her life, she would just up and go and do it, even when she was in her sixties and seventies leaving us to pick up the pieces. And so I thought, I’m not going to be like that for my children, I’m going to plan what happens. We wanted to be near where the services are, so we moved into a village outside Bicester, and we were there for ten years. At first we didn’t have much money because he wasn’t due for his old age pension for another five years and we weren’t getting much from our other pensions and so we found it very difficult.
Then three years ago I thought, what’s going to happen when we can’t drive the car any more? I think you have to adapt as circumstances change in your life. And so we moved into the centre of the city near to rail and coach links. We don’t have a car but we can borrow our daughter’s car for occasional use. As soon as we moved, our son moved to Granada in Spain to live with his family.
Since I retired, I’ve always been involved with schools. In Devon I was on the school governors’ panel and helped in the classroom. Now I go to my daughter’s school two morning a week, hearing readers and reorganizing their library. I’ve always done some sort of voluntary work. We were involved in giving a group of thirty-six Bosnian teenagers a holiday in Bosnia for a week, and then we brought them over to England for a week. We helped two Bosnian lads who were very badly injured by a mortar attack. That was quite a challenge because we had Ilio staying with us for a week, he spoke no English. He was a country lad and he’d brought a little bag with one change of clothes in it – and he had his leg in a lengthening brace. Trying to get him out and about was quite a job. Then I worked for Home-Start, a charity which supports families under stress, who’ve got a child under five. I did that for about seven years and I was on the committee. I found I was getting too old to lift toddlers into swings and cars, so I joined the Samaritans for the next three and a half years. I found the long night watches difficult and for other reasons I decided to leave. Now I’m with the Befriending Network, so I’m quite busy with meetings, etc., and also visit my befriending partner. On Saturday we’re going to visit her ninety-six-year-old mother in a home, who has Alzheimer’s! – that’s a real experience in itself, talking to somebody like that.
There are so many opportunities to do different things in Oxford. I went to Ruskin College, where I did my educational certificate in literature. They’re based in Walton Street and the other half is at Headington on a beautiful campus. They provide higher education for anybody who’s missed out on conventional schoolwork, so we had a real mix of people: people with dreadlocks and people from Africa. It was a brilliant experience. I’ve done a lot of courses there and the two years I was doing this certificate, I really enjoyed every minute of it. I started a course at Brookes as a second year student but found the contrast with Ruskin dreadful and I abandoned it.
I’m pleased with what good parents our children are. Our failing was that we were too strict and didn’t spend enough time listening and finding what made them tick. There’s so much written about child-rearing now that wasn’t there when I was bringing up my children. Dr Spock was all I had and he was a terrible role model – I mean, a man who’s never looked after a child in his life writes a volume about how to bring up children! I used to follow it letter by letter and make my poor child’s a life of misery, tried to make it clean and conform to all the rules – every four hours it must be fed, and not between. My daughter fed hers on demand. There’s much greater knowledge now about the needs of children. I’m much more aware of my grandchildren’s needs and I react to them in quite a different way. Somebody said, “If I’d known how much fun it was, I’d rather have been a grandparent first rather than a parent,” because when you’re a parent you’re struggling with your own life problems; but as a grandparent you can indulge them more. I never had any grandparents. I had a cousin and an aunt, but they were left back in India, so when we came to England I had no relatives of any kind.
I’m starting to write my life story because I sometimes wonder about my past but I’ve got nobody to ask. You don’t really sit down and talk to your parents about their lives unless you make a special effort. Parents should write down their life experiences, not just dates. I’ve done it for my own benefit and enjoyment, but it’ll also tell them about incidents that have happened in my life, because of course the time of the British Raj in India is historic. As I get older I tend to think more about my past life. One story I’ve written is called “Tiled Floors over Quicksand”. I’m having to rethink the implications of certain situations and the relationships I had. I used to believe I’d had a great upbringing; and the reality was the opposite. There was a lot of hurt and fear underneath everything. Not all my memories are bad, some of them are quite fun to recall.
I don’t know whether my mother was manic-depressive or not, but I remember she was deeply depressed when I was about eight. You’d only have to look at photographs of her from that time to know she had got a serious problem. I never knew when I went home for the holidays where we were going to be living. We always lived with other people but when I left school, we had a one-room apartment. In a way, that has shaped my ambitions in life, which was to have a home and family of my own, because I never had those things.
I came to realize that if you don’t enjoy the way you live, you ought to change it straight away, which is why I retired from teaching. Although I knew I’d miss the children, the pressures were so great, and there wasn’t that sense of fulfillment that I was hoping for. I don’t think I could teach very well in the present climate, because I see formal class teaching and think, “Oh my gosh, that was what I endured as child, bored out of my head because it didn’t challenge me.” I was always trying to challenge the children I taught. We used to get enthusiastic about things and get carried away and do something all day long: on the Egyptians for instance, or photography – taking pictures with a camera made from a tin and developing film in a little room adjoining the classroom. I was enthusiastic about doing all these things because I was learning alongside them. I loved doing a new field that I didn’t know anything about so we could discover things together. But now everything’s laid down. Where’s the children’s enthusiasm going? How can you spark them?
I’m engaged in an art and reminiscences project at the Botanical Gardens all summer: I wrote a poem called “The Healing Arch” and I ended up with the last lines, “Drink in the summer to ease long winter’s night. / A perfect day. Hold it tight.” That’s what we should try to do. That’s the Buddhist philosophy – be in the moment, enjoy the moment. You can’t make it last, but you can remember it. I believe that everyone should be engaged in some creative activity. It’s what keeps one alive even when many options are closed due to ill health or age. Ageing catches you unawares. It takes you twice as long to do anything when you get older, so the day seems much shorter. But the other side is that you can’t see the point of rushing any more and you take your time.
I enjoy silence more now. I could never understand how my sons, when they were teenagers, could have the music blaring and do their homework at the same time, but I didn’t appreciate their type of music, and so I’d say, “Oh, do turn that noise off!” I found that the music they loved like Pink Floyd and Crosby, Stills and Nash became my favourites because when they left home for universities, I used to play their music to remind me of them. If you listen to the words of “Time” on The Dark Side of the Moon they’re very profound: “No one told you when to run / You missed the starting gun.” You can just see how some young people get the balance wrong, not realizing that they should make the most of their precious years. You should enjoy your life but at the same time you need some vision of what you want from your life. I feel I have a mission to make other people see that they should grab every opportunity there is, that life goes by so quickly.
Like many people, I’ve got the old monitor in my head watching and criticizing what I’m doing! I still put duty before pleasure but I am comfortable with my own company. I was a very solitary child. I don’t remember any special friends. I read an awful lot, and of course I always had an ayah (nursemaid) – my mother had to go to work when I was six months old. So I couldn’t relate to an ayah, other than playing cards with her – when we had a new ayah they had to learn how to play card games, and I had to win, of course! I went to boarding school at the age of seven, but up till then I don’t think I had many friends. However, I enjoyed being with others at school and in the Wrens. Now that we’ve both been retired for quite a while and are often together, it’s a real pleasure at times to be on my own. If my husband goes away for a couple of days, I relish my own company to begin with, but soon wish he was back. So I enjoy my own company, and silence, for short periods of time.
I wrote a letter to the Guardian once on the subject of dying, which they published. Somebody had written in complaining about the inheritance tax and how they were worried that when they died there would be no money left. They’d spent their whole lives working for their assets and I knew where these people were coming from because we felt the same. Everything we’ve got, we built up with our own efforts. I would hate to feel that it was dissipated in nursing home costs. I wrote in and said that although I would like my children to inherit what we’ve got, I think the better inheritance I would like to leave for them is as a role model for how I handle the ending of my life because they’re going to reach this point themselves and I want them to see that I will handle it with courage, accepting what help is necessary without being a burden. I want that to be more important than the possessions that we may or may not have. I suppose we’re lucky not to have too much. I always say that if the burglars came, they’d just find lots of fossils, shells and plants! Possessions can become millstones: “If I own a cow, a cow owns me.”
I saw a film featuring Leo McKern, I think. It’s about him coping with a terminal illness. He goes to live in a marvellous place right by the sea, where he just listens to music, probably Mozart, and it seems like such a wonderful ending of one’s life. You know, just to be by the sea, in a hut, with friends and family around. That would be marvellous.