Root Menu

John Fox

In conversation with Laura Evans

I’m sure it cuts your life short if you can’t say no, and I say no a little bit more now… but I think if I hadn’t said yes to most things in life I’d have missed out, missed out on so many people…

The presence of the past

I am Irish.  My Mother was born in a famine town in 1899, the town of Clonakilty, and she grew up with the survivors of the famine, who were terribly close.  If your parents are elderly in the first place, you grow up with a huge sense of history, and everything in your house has a story to it.  My mother was a young nurse during the Irish Revolution, and at the same time my father was a junior officer in the trenches, and in the desert, during the First World War, so in a sense they were on opposite sides, they were enemies before they met… I think they met on a ship going to America, trying to get out of the place altogether and something brought them back…

I got a sense of history, Irish history, world history, from my parents – their strong sense of being part of historical events, and the sense that wherever you are, under the soil are the remains of previous generations.  This may sound weird, and I hope it doesn’t, but wherever I go and live I have to exorcise that, and “do” local history.  I’ve done my local history at Wheatley now for 30 years.  It’s a feeling that other generations have lived in the same scenery, and you just want to get back in touch with them.  You’ve got to almost discover how they thought, the feeling that you’re not alone in this landscape.  That becomes very compulsive, it stops you sleeping, it is like exorcising a ghost.

I have lived in Lancashire. I was sent to boarding school at eleven, which was a very religious church boarding school.  There were one hundred boarders at a school of seven hundred.  We were known at school, and that was a good thing.  However, the emotional education was dire distinctly Jansenistic and quite odd.  There were kind Priests, good, good men, which is why you wanted to become a Priest yourself.  But in those days there was very little other way of serving God.  There were other ways of serving your fellow man, but they weren’t religious by name. The ethos of the time was that your service of God had to be explicitly that.  You washed feet but they had to be Catholic feet, and they had to be washed via Catholicism in a Catholic way.

I missed out by leaving home at eleven to go to boarding school.  We lost touch with our parents. In some ways the Church was afraid of family life. To go to my father’s village school as a child was an experience. His motto was the village will never, ever travel, so you bring the world to the village.  You couldn’t get away with it now – stuffed crocodiles hanging from the ceiling, stuffed tigers, cases full of shells… If someone was to travel he said ‘bring us something back’.  He had some lovely stuff.  Somebody brought him back from South America a quiver of poison darts.  There was a case with a German helmet, too… You couldn’t do that now, but it was an exciting place as a child, and packages would arrive at home… so when he came home from school, we always went for his briefcase, because you knew there’d be something interesting in there…  I hope I’m not projecting too much there, but that was the great joy of childhood, was that it was so exciting – discovery, stimulation.  I still can’t teach in school without taking things in to touch, feel and see, and I can’t do my history without collecting… it’s making the abstract concrete, because we’re all physical as well as made up of soul and intellect…

I feel enormously favoured by my background.  I gained a tremendous sense of the past, historical perspective, largely from parents and family, and a strong sense of tradition from the army background- my fathers father was a career soldier- but also a strong sense of when tradition should be stopped, when it stops being a living tradition and becomes fossilised.  I am tremendously privileged to have my health at sixty, and feel an obligation to use it for others if I can.  I think all the things that go wrong in life, they are with you for a time, but then, like knots in a tree, they make a tree individual, and you mustn’t go on complaining about them through life – you accept them.  The difference between a tree and a telegraph pole is that the tree zigzags, it’s never straight, which is what makes it a tree, and scarred, and attractive with the scars.  A telegraph pole is downright boring.  Have you ever noticed in soap adverts they always show these hands with no character? They’re beautiful hands but they tell no story.  I used to say to the kids [at school], go home and look at your Mom’s hands, and they’re not hands you see in a glossy magazine. They can be read.

Difficult decisions

In the early years, decisions are made for you.  At sixteen I finally gave in to the pressure to go on to the Priesthood at a religious boarding school where they were recruiting very strongly.  So the choice in a sense was a very limited choice put to you, but many people in life have a limited choice too.  I went on to the Priesthood at eighteen, and I was sent out to Rome and the Vatican University, and I came back… I worked as a Priest for seven years, and then thirty-one, thirty-two, I just said after twenty years, I have changed… a very difficult decision, but I came out… The decision to come out was made in a much more mature frame of mind, and evoked a great deal of harshness in the response of the institution. It was a serious ‘sin’ to break rank.  And yet I’d do it again because that was an adult decision, and right. 

My Church has been in turmoil over a number of years over the issue of married/unmarried priests, and over an awful lot of other issues probably linked with that. Anyway I made a break, and became a step-dad, and became a Dad, and became a teacher.  We needed money, so I also became a part-time soldier [laughs].  I was a Territorial Army medic for eight years, and the money was incredibly useful, because in the late seventies there was twenty percent inflation because of the Arab oil crisis, and teachers pay didn’t track with it… it was a hell of a time…. Looking back now it was an awful time to bring up a family. My wife was heroic.  And now people have had low inflation for so long, they’ve forgotten what it was like, to lose twenty percent of the value of what you earned and owned – quite frightening. 

The TA money was useful, and there were many stories came out of it.  It broadened my experience and gave me a skill that I was able to use in school.  I moved into health education from there.  For thirty years, I was teaching all the subjects that others generally don’t want to teach… I filled in the gaps, but also made a go of it, to the point where even OFSTED used to say this is really quite interesting.  I took on RE, health education, sex education, drug education (all in a peculiarly English way) and then I retired a year ago, and found myself chairing a drug education Trust called Energy and Vision... and I’m a trustee on an African AIDS trust as well.  They send me to Africa every year to monitor a couple of education programmes in Zambia.  In retirement there just aren’t enough hours in the day! [laughs].

I don’t like confrontation because I do not think it achieves a great deal, or that it is always necessary.  I don’t run from it, I just dislike it intensely.  Some people thrive on it and make it their only form of reaction. They demean good anger!  I think there are many other alternatives before resorting to confrontation.  I prefer to work quietly behind the scenes in various groups and bodies. I work on two trusts, the drug education Trust and the African AIDS Trust.  I prefer to work behind the scenes rather than go on political platforms.  I think an awful lot of time, hot air and energy is wasted on so-called public life and does not achieve what a great many other people achieve behind the scenes – but they do not make the history books.  I avoid too much public political work.  I’ve been on a Parish council for four years, but I do not rate highly that sort of constant public politicking.  I think it’s limited in what it can achieve.  If you look at the reality of life as opposed to the headlines I think you’ll find the great things of life are achieved by people working quietly…

I do run away from people who know everything.  One of the most powerful things you can say in life is ‘I don’t know’.  And I think Oxford taught me that. A degree is just that a degree of knowledge. Oxford taught us how much we do not know. I come back to the Church – the Church of England and the Church of Rome tearing themselves apart over the sexuality issue and I’m waiting for someone to have the honesty and courage to get up and say ‘we don’t know, we’re dealing with a mystery’.  Instead all I’m hearing is prelates getting up and making pronouncements as if they knew the mind of God and to me that’s a form almost of idolatry.  Control freaks who know everything bother me.  It’s a lack of humanity as well as humility. The churches need a long moratorium on pronouncing on sex. We’ve lost the value of silence and of listening to it in our church institutions. The constant ‘noise’ of the liturgy reflects this malaise.

Being courageous can be quite exhausting, and you have to save your courage for things that matter.  Sometimes in life when you look back you know when you’ve tried to show courage when it mattered.  The danger is you don’t speak out at other times because you think it’s not that important, it’s not worth dying for, and you end up not speaking out at all.  And I think if I have any regrets, it’s not speaking out at certain moments when I should have done because I’ve been too hesitant, or uncertain of my facts, or not wanting to lose relationships or whatever.  On the other hands, the world is full of people with the instinct to mouth off.  The instinct to land a punch is not necessarily the same as courage.  My father was very highly decorated in the First World War, and he used to say the definition of courage must include someone who is very afraid.  And I remember the most beautiful thing when people went on parade in our town centre, with all their medals… my father used to tell me that the bravest man on parade was the Town Clerk, who had no medals.  And this was because the Town Clerk was a Quaker who had refused to fight but had gone into battlefield conditions with the Quaker Ambulance Service, eligible for no medals, no pension, no job safeguard.  And my father used to say to me, it’s a tremendous paradox, but that is the bravest man on parade.  And as a small boy you don’t understand it, but you do later.  And you realise the definition of courage is not necessarily rushing in like a fool…

Teaching’s in the blood

I have always wanted to teach, that’s in the blood. When I joined the TA they made me an instructor, so I became a teacher in boots.  I love teaching; teaching to me is sharing the excitement of the world we live in.  Whether it’s doing an assembly when you get back from Africa with young children in a primary school, whether it’s doing adult educational evening classes and getting them excited about history, or whether it’s doing sex, drugs and rock and roll with sixteen year olds at school, and getting them to think and discuss… really you’re sharing the excitement of the world you’re living in.  So that was not a difficult choice. 

My big thing was chairing class discussions.  You come home and you’re like a wrung-out dishcloth because you’ve been through the emotional mill five or six times with thirteen year olds, or eighteen year olds.  I loved it, but lots of teachers do not find themselves ever ‘chairing classes’ because it’s not part of their training or factual subject requirements.  Once you’re retired, however, Sunday night is totally different, because there’s no more stage fright. 

Now, I run a mentoring scheme for Oxford undergraduates.  I also go out for the university to schools, to encourage wider access, to evaluate why pupils aren’t applying for Oxford, and to evaluate whether the offer of a bursary would be helpful.  I go and interview, talk to people, bring the results back, analyse them, and then pass them onto a research team.  But I’m going into schools because I know how to go into schools.  So I do those visits for the university, they take maybe a day or two a week.  Then I teach motor mechanics to sixteen year olds who get nothing out of school.  Last year I was teaching in a garage workshop, and I loved that, because I learnt so much [laughs]… Meanwhile I’m writing my local history, working in the Bodleian, keeping the balance between my hands and my brain … I enjoy car mechanics.  I would have liked to have been Brunel, I am really drawn to ships and bridges and machines.  Not bad for a theologian!

I’m glad to be out of timetabled school teaching, but I’m still networking with the youngsters they teach you a lot and keep you humble… I think in teaching you meet some terrific characters among teachers – they’re generous, they’re generally uncomplicated, generally quite idealistic, on the whole, and I was in a particularly good, good school in this city. I was proud to be a teacher.  Teaching gave me a niche, I gave back what I could, and I had a very, very exciting time, which may sound bizarre.  One of the last things I did was to go to the Brazilian jungle with twenty-three sixth formers – that was a memorable experience [laughs] … I’m not sure whether the alligators or the sixth formers were worse! The school wanted to encourage you to be out, do your thing rather than fit into a cut-out of some sort of cardboard teacher… I went to Germany, America, Brazil, Belgium, the Lakes, Wales on various school pretexts, and I had one and a half year’s secondment – that was all in the context of teaching.

Some of my sixth formers in the jungle, they were drawing and Victorian flower pressing.  There were all these wild flowers growing in the water, and I would stop for a break and share the flowers, and they were so appreciative.  I think if you’ve got students out on something like that, and they’re using these cut flowers and drawing, and they’re saying ‘that’s so beautiful, I’ve never seen that before’, then it’s all worthwhile.  It’s the other ones who worry me, who register no awe and wonder, and have a particularly elderly cynicism about everything new in their path… in their eyes, it’s so cool to be cool, or appear it.

I have been faced with pupils who are beyond my help, and I think early on you have to learn when someone’s beyond what you can offer them. You have to learn also that you are not indispensable, or everyone’s cup of tea.  You look back and you cringe sometimes and think ‘well I wouldn’t have done that now, but I was immature, stupid, gauche’.  And you go in terribly academic, then after thirty years you know that it is about relating, not dishing out facts.  Our teaching subjects are merely a pretext for the tribe’s elders being among the tribe’s cubs.

It is not so much frustrating, but saddening, when you want to help somebody or you know professionally that you can only do so much, and then you must retire, mustn’t intrude. The lad who can get up in class and tell me where to get off – that’s a character, we need to harness this, he could be really good at so many things, including leadership.  But then teachers don’t have time to deal with the individual – we are teaching crowds… I’ve just left a school of over a thousand, and with that number of pupils you’re beginning to lose the names.  You begin to lose the relationship and confidence when you can’t call someone by their name.  Some people use the anonymity to misbehave.  ‘You there!’ is not the same as ‘Joe! Come here!’… You need an ideal group of fifteen.  Try teaching classes of thirty. And then if the government turns round and says ‘oh just add a couple more’, thirty-three, that is literally the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the chemistry of the room is altered. Twenty-five in a room there’s space to move, but thirty, it’s getting claustrophobic and you see behaviour changing…

Education is about so much more than teaching. We have ‘schooled’ education and it still needs ‘deschooling’. Unfortunately one of the saddest things in teaching was when they insisted on a degree.  The moment they insisted on a degree it stopped the community, or the tribe bringing up its young.  The tribe was sent home and specialists with degrees were recruited to bring up the young.  Instead, what we need is people like ex-policemen, builders, soldiers; you need people from all walks of life to come in and contribute to education.  We’ve lost that and we’ve made it a bit of a secret garden, and those in the garden must have degrees… it’s one of the reasons, I think, for the increasing unrest and truancy in schools. It also means we do not seriously educate in the value of anything but white collar and academic work. Many pupils feel marginalized by the curriculum.

The Jews used to have a good rule for the Rabbi (their teacher) – the Jews said you may not be a Rabbi until you are thirty, and you may not be a Rabbi unless you have a trade with your hands, by which you earn your living.  Now whether that’s true or not today, possibly among the Orthodox, but it was certainly true of people like St. Paul, who was a tent maker, and of the famous Carpenter… because again, if you look at the whole education system, it’s all geared to white-collar academia, the cerebral and non-manual, and we really should be balancing the intellectual with the sort of thing that I was teaching, which I still do a bit of now, teaching youngsters motor mechanics.  Our A level students should be doing practical subjects as well as academic subjects, because at the moment we have a whole generation of A level students growing up whose minds have been educated and trained, but how many does it take to change a light bulb? Again, I exaggerate slightly, but I think the practical side has been totally neglected.  Education has been turned into a sorting filter process for white collar and blue collar jobs.  I feel really strongly about it… there is this great debate in education… I think you must have seen the number of students at sixth form going to university who are not going because they have a fire inside them to learn; they are going because the conveyor belt is going in that direction – that’s desperate.  If you’re not going to university because you have a thirst for knowledge, the idea ‘I’ll go and some knowledge will sit on me’ – it’s a waste, it should not happen.  Where is it taking us?  You cannot push people into University. The human race has not evolved to turn into academics!

Painting with words

I paint with words.  And that’s not just a metaphor… looking for the right shade of word, all the time, the right texture.  Writing is my hobby, because my teaching was a form of community work, almost, and I didn’t teach the academic subjects, so to come back home to do some creative writing, and to have been given breaks, research opportunities as a teacher which I was given, helped keep the balance really.  It is important to have your hands, your eyes, your brain, with a balanced amount of work; it keeps you sane.  Writing is a different way of using my brain, and a way of balancing myself.  I used to create and run another school project for youngsters who were turned off by school and that was very, very fulfilling.  At the same time you were very aware you needed to stretch your mind intellectually as well as emotionally.  So that was how it gradually came about.

I write historical narratives.  I’ll give you one example: I got a scholarship from the London Goldsmiths to go to California and spend three months in the mountains, with a tent, becoming a gold miner really.  I was pursuing the Irish gold miners from the Irish gold rushes of the early 1800s.  Then when I stumbled out of the mountains after three months the editor of a Californian magazine said, ‘have you ever heard of the story of MacNamara?’, and I said, ‘no!’.  He said, ‘well, no-one has ever dragged it out of the bush… we have this story of an Irish man who in 1846 brought the Royal Navy to try to claim almost the whole of California as a British-Irish colony’.  He said, ‘we’ve just got our side of it, but why did it happen?’  And so I came back, recognised a really good story, and I spent 5 years trawling archives right across the world.  Email and the Internet were just coming in, but I had to do some travelling as well – Ireland, Paris, the Vatican, Hawaii, as well as California two times again after that.  I produced a book in the year 2000, about the British attempt to take California, which is a really exciting James Bond story… no-one’s heard of it in this country.  It had lovely reviews in the USA, and even a generous review from the Oxford Professor of Irish History [laughs], so it’s come back full circle…

We have cousins in America, in Washington, and we have been in touch with them since they left Ireland in 1848… and it’s now 8 generations, we’ve just put the ninth generation in touch with each other.  I write for a Californian history magazine, and on anything to do with Irish Californian emigration, I’ve got it in my own family. I have one hundred and forty-one letters written by a great uncle from California to Ireland between 1870 and1938, some of them with the middle bit missing because the mice scooped a nest in the shoebox, and my cousin had to rescue them!...

My Wife and I, we try and travel as much as we can together.  One of the nice things when you’re doing historical research is that you can say to your partner, ‘Come on, let’s have a weekend away exploring’… Writing’s antisocial; you need to get out of yourself…

The weight of history

We have such a wealthy historical culture in England.  Now I love my history, I breathe my history.  But, I think it is a serious problem in this country, because we are sanitising it, the National Trust and all the rest of it.  Everything old we have to restore; the danger of this is we will not accept an evolution in which some things have to go.  This house, this wonderful house, it’s a ruin crumbling from the Civil War: let it crumble, otherwise, how do you accept death?  How do you accept the reality of change if you try and freeze everything? I mean the country is only a little island, if we go on freezing everything then we will all have to be tiptoeing on eggshells…

Certainly, one of the attractive things about this country is its historical culture.  The Public Record Office and the Bodleian are to me quarries, wonderful quarries, they haven’t hewn all the stone out yet … But you go to America, and you suddenly realise our history is a millstone around our necks.  ‘This is good because we’ve always done it this way – we have a Queen because we’ve always had a Queen’ – well in fact we didn’t, we had a Commonwealth for ten years, and it needs taking more seriously, because there was an awful lot of good happened.  The blackening of Cromwell means that schools did not teach our youngsters seriously about the English Revolution in Cromwell’s ten or twelve years… which wasn’t all Puritanism, some of it was very, very modernising good sense, and secularising good sense as well.  It was the first time in English history there was no longer a punishment for not going to Church.  Cromwell said nobody would be made to go to church.  When the King came back in 1660 people were once again forced to go to church.  We forget this.

In America they don’t turn round and say ‘how dare you call yourself a writer, what right do you have, have you got qualifications, have you any experience?… they say ‘gee, well done, get a visiting card printed, you’re a writer’… your aspirations are not as restricted as they are here.  Here you’ve got to go through hoops; in America they recognise the initiative that says ‘I just want to be there – cut the hoops’.  The Americans are not suffocated by tradition.  I think in our European churches an awful lot of tradition is strangling the churches.  You look at these wonderful Parish churches in England, which I value highly… they are stone books, depositories…but I would like to see the Government take over the upkeep of these churches, leaving the parishioners free to go into the community, allowing them to be Christians relieved of the historical accumulation.  God, whoever she is, is identified with old stone, rising damp and preservation.

Which period of history are you most drawn to, and why?

I think it’s the Reformation.  The Reformation went on really until our childhood, and there are repercussions still in Northern Ireland.  I think the Reformation because of its long lasting legacy; you can’t understand English history without it. And we still don’t understand the Reformation. It’s one of the reasons we’re against the Common market.  I think that the ramifications are much more than Henry’s six wives… I just found something that really amazed me, working on the Civil war in the seventeenth century.  In the Public Record Office, I just found a chap I’d been researching, and he said in 1682, that he is scared of Charles II, a Catholic monarch, he’s scared, because he says ‘my family owns nothing but monastery land’.  This English nobleman is still scared of Catholics coming back to retake the abbeys… understandable in Queen Mary’s reign, or shortly after that, but not one hundred and fifty years later and yet Prince Charles cannot marry a Catholic in 2004.  As children, we were not allowed to go to Guy Fawkes parties if they had a guy, because Guy Fawkes was burned as a Catholic.  Lots of English children would not understand that… so it shaped me, and it shaped the Irish, because of the Irish Wars.  I think the Reformation is very much a key to understanding; maybe it’s a key to the English growing up as well. In centuries to come we will see the rise and interaction of Islam with Europe in the same way as we now see the Reformation.

That and Russian history.  I used to be really interested in the Soviet Union.  I worked with the Communist party in the flood relief of Florence in 1966. We were told all Communists were bad… but if I’d had the vote in Italy as a young Priest I’d have voted Communist too, despite the Church veto.

Choosing a path

What mistakes have I made in my life? Not saying no enough, and maybe they are mistakes of immaturity.  We all make mistakes in life, and I don’t think there’s a single mistake in life that we don’t learn from or get something from.  And a bit like those knots in the tree, or scars on your skin, I think if we make a mistake then we dust ourselves off and think ‘gosh I made a cock up there’ and then you think ‘well, move on’.  Become wiser, but don’t walk around permanently regretting it. And sometimes our mistakes are our strengths. We judge them too harshly.

A mistake is like taking the wrong route.  Literally in Latin the word error means a wandering away from the path.  And if you look at a lot of human mistakes, what we call our mistakes, our sins, to me this is one of the biggest proofs in the existence of God – because we don’t understand ourselves and our mistakes, but I hope to God somebody does!  Somebody bigger than me, and much more generous than me.  The Latin word error – errare – to wander from the path, generally doesn’t mean wandering too far, it means wandering off, not in the wrong direction, maybe you’re in the same general direction but you didn’t really take the best path at the time.

One of the medieval theologians Thomas Aquinas has got this big thing about seeing all your mistakes in the context of your general life option, your general direction, and that stops you getting too discouraged.  And I hope that there is a Creator – there has to be something behind all this lot, it’s so bloody marvellous – the hope that behind all this lot there’s a creator who understands, because I don’t.  I don’t understand myself, I don’t understand others, but I do believe there is someone who does. One of Christianity’s wisest demands is that we refrain from judging others.

As a parent, what has been the most satisfying aspect of your family life?

I think three boys who’ve grown up, turned around and done me the honour of becoming friends, two of them my stepsons (one of the greatest things in my life has been becoming a step-dad).  Also, being loved despite all the mistakes that you make, being given free gifts of love by someone, by anyone, certainly by your own sons, and obviously by my wife.  I think when somebody loves you and you haven’t earned it or bought it, they just love you being yourself – I think that’s the greatest thing about being a parent.  And you try and pass it on, and you’re very conscious of when you haven’t done, and when you’ve not been loving enough, and then you feel very humble when other people turn around and just love you for being you, unconditionally.  That’s a great lesson in life.

Has there been anything missing in my life? Nothing comes to mind, and that sounds a bit too good to be true.  I just don’t think of it in terms of anything missing.  I think of it in terms of being so fortunate.  We’ve been married over thirty years, and we’ve had our ups and downs, usually because of me, but the two of us are enormous friends and we’ve got a family who can sometimes laugh together, sometimes cry together…

I think occasionally memories, like the survival game, and home sickness of boarding school bring out feeling of loneliness in me.  But you don’t dwell on those.  And I think early in life, because of the way my path took, I think you had to learn to be alone in a crowd.  Particularly with the celibacy attached to the Priesthood, there was a whole social side to life that you never took part in, and you genuinely did know real loneliness, but… I think I have recognised loneliness and acknowledged a long, long time ago that you can never solve loneliness.  I think a lot of married couples, inside their marriages, get terribly lonely.  And we’ve got this new phenomenon especially with our little box houses, of the lonely couple, who are actually isolating themselves from the community.  No one on the road speaks to them, they commute, they live in little box houses, there’s no green, there’s no church, there’s no pub, the shop is four miles away and you have to drive to it, and you’re in your little cocoon box. 

A long, long time ago I accepted that in life you will never ever solve your loneliness, the only thing you can do with your loneliness is share it.  And I’ve often thought that when couples get married, live together or have a relationship, if they’re trying to solve their loneliness and get rid of it, their inherent human loneliness, which is part of our condition, of being isolated in a body, they cannot.  If they try and get rid of it, they end up putting the most intolerable burden of expectation on their partner, which the poor partner can never, by the very nature of things, ever resolve, or meet.  Whereas if you go into marriage saying the two of us ‘we love each other’, we are two human beings feeling loneliness, and you share that loneliness, you don’t solve it, but you halve it.  Loneliness is part of our condition.  Where it becomes a problem is where that loneliness cannot be shared, for instance you can’t talk about your sexuality, nobody will listen to you about your hopelessness, the Samaritans are at the end of a telephone but you may not to talk to them, then the loneliness gets to the point where it becomes an illness.  It is no longer our human condition which we can smile at occasionally, but it becomes a serious exaggerated condition, and that leads to all sorts of mental problems. 

What have you learned about the different varieties of love in the course of your life?

[Looks me in the eye, totally shocked] You didn’t warn me about this one! I think the word love is so bandied around, I mean obviously that’s a truism.  In my part of the world, in Lancashire, you use the word ‘love’ (and the feminists don’t like it) between men and women, and adults to children, as a reassurance that you mean well.  It’s not a condescending, patronising thing.  If you use it down here, people don’t understand it, they don’t understand the deeper signs that it’s sending, it is saying ‘I mean well, I am not a threat’.  I say that because my grandson overheard me calling my wife ‘love’ and he comes from Wales, where they don’t use the phrase in the same way, and he thought that was so funny, he just rolled around and laughed, and keeps bringing it up now. 

Going back to the word love, I prefer to use the term ‘service’, foot washing from the New Testament.  The service we were brought up to acknowledge – the service in the Services, and service in public service – was something to be proud to do, and be part of.  You were serving the community.  To be in local politics before they started paying counsellors was a public service you did for free, and we were taught that you were here in this life to serve others.  Without getting mawkish about it, the word love covers service.  And you can love sometimes, a lot of the times, without the froth and the warmth, you love in the sense that you are here to put others first.  Having said that, those are wonderful words and I’m terribly conscious of my own failure to meet them a lot of the time, so I’m not talking from a lofty platform.  And then there are the wonderful feelings that go with warmth, and intimacy, and the fact that somebody loves you, people love you, your family and friends love you.  What I can never get over is that those people love you for being you, rather than something they can get out of you, or the fact that you may have bought their love.  That doesn’t come into it, the fact that someone takes you and says ‘I like you’ full stop.  And even when you don’t live up to their love, they still love you. Like a parent. I find that is a mind boggling gift.  And I’m not putting it very well, but I just believe that somewhere in the heart of life that’s what it’s about.  I didn’t earn the sunset, I don’t buy a sunset, I don’t buy the friendship and the love that I’ve known in my life, it’s all come as something like a free gift.  So who’s the Big Benefactor behind it all?

I think you get over one set of fears: for example, can I realise my ambitions at work?  Then your next fear is: what will I do in retirement? Will I still be useful? But I think these are surface fears, like surfing on the crests of waves.  I would say that deep down underneath the undertow the fear in life – overall nervousness, apprehension about life – is diminished enormously with age.  And that doesn’t mean overconfidence, I hope that means an increasing calmness with age, and I think that’s the way it should be.  But you have the anxiety, you know you have a limited span left, and you feel for all your mistakes, I think I’ve done a fair bit according to the right lights, but then you think of your mistakes again. We used to be urged to pray to ‘forget the good we may have done’. I’m not too sure of the wisdom of that asceticism.

I wouldn’t call it a fear.  If I go on an adventure, if I go on an expedition to Brazil, if I go to Africa working with my AIDS projects then I go on an adventure.  And I think the whole of life has been embarking on a whole set of adventures, some of them very small, like going away for a weekend, some of them very large, like getting married, or going into the jungle.  And I wonder, is it a healthy way of seeing a voyage into the next life as part of the journey, another expedition?  I’m just a bit sorry I won’t be able to take an exercise book in my trouser pocket to write some notes.  But I think my fear and anxiety in the sense of a deep angst, I think has diminished enormously.  Edith Piaf said I have no regrets, and I have no regrets, not serious regrets.  To go round life fearful is tragic, but then I’ve got to be careful, because that may be me, my temperament.  I am fairly optimistic by temperament, and reasonably buoyant.  Treating life as an adventure, that sounds like a small boy being almost flippant about life.  I would hate to come across as flippant, but I would also hate to come across as terribly sombre.  I think one of the sad things about church pronouncements is that they’re so bloody long-faced.  Where’s the humour? God gave us a sense of humour as well as every other sense, and it doesn’t come over in church documentation, and church speeches.  I do wish they would, as your generation says, ‘lighten up!’  What’s the other phrase? ‘Chill out!’ ‘Let go’. Let God be God, don’t usurp Him/Her.

I think your definition of success changes.  Success – ambition – I think it has got many different interpretations.  You can have a teacher whose ambition is to be a damn good teacher, and you can have a teacher whose ambition is to get to the top of the ladder.  But the top of the ladder doesn’t have room for everybody, and does that mean that everybody who doesn’t want to get to the top of the ladder is a failure?  It can’t do.  There’s the ambition of people who want to tap the world’s excitement; there’s the ambition of people who put their family, the creation of their family as it grows, as their number one priority.  I think your definition of success and ambition change.  I think if early in life you hear people say that they are here to serve, and through life you may reject that from time to time, and interestingly if you come back to it in later life, and you realise yes, that’s basically what life is about.  Your priorities can change in life, but they can also come back to your original ideals as a child and youngster.  There’s still an awful lot of the youngster in the older person, it’s just been modified by experience and has a few knots and scars. But the tree has still got the sapling inside it.

Your generation sets yourself targets and priorities, and my generation snorts, and says that leaves no room for life’s eventualities.  I think my generation is much more short term.  If I have a project this year, then I want to make sure I do that project really well.  I want much more to live for the day and the month than for years and years.  We used to have an old hymn, ghastly hymn it was, but the words always stick: ‘O Lord for tomorrow and its cares I do not pray, just for today’.  Living day by day makes me nervous about targets.  When you set yourself targets you always have to revise them anyway, so what’s left of the target once you’ve modified it?  However, there is something in forward planning.  I think what you’ll find with my generation is that a lot of the planning was done for us.  You will go here, you will do that, you will get a job and work forty years.  I think that’s changed, and I think that’s a good thing.  As to my future, I want to enjoy the friendship of our marriage; I want to enjoy our friends who’ve been built up over experience.  I want to be useful as long as I am able, I want to do a couple more books, and express myself, and share the excitement of this world, and I’d like to carry on teaching in one way or another until I can’t teach anymore.

The search for power? Not interested.  Might be subconsciously, I don’t know, but I don’t think I’m interested in it.  I find the word makes me very nervous.  Power and control – control freaks bug me.  Money – to have enough.  When I go to Africa I see people who live in desperate poverty, with the AIDS crisis, and they tell me that though they are materially poor, they have each other, and they mean that as a form of wealth.  Then I realise I’ve got an awful lot to learn still and the Zambians I talk to would be shocked by some of life in Oxford.  But money’s not a priority – to have enough, to be able to do more than just barely live, to be able to live, after all, in the western world, because I don’t live in Central Africa.  But at the same time not to lose sight of what really is worthwhile about life, and that is other people.  There are other forms of wealth that we all need. Respect? – I think one or two things in life you’ve had to do when you haven’t been understood and you’ve learnt that respect is alright but it shouldn’t be an end in itself.  It’s nice to have respect; on the other hand if you don’t get it because people don’t understand you that can’t be the end of the world.  And again I come back to a belief.  I do believe very strongly there’s got to be a presence bigger than this universe, in which we can trust, when all the other supports including ‘respect’, around us have failed us.

I don’t think life can ever be complete, by definition.  We come in and we elbow our way in to make room for us because we weren’t there before, and then we go out and the water closes over us, and there’s no longer a gap because someone else fills it.  Life is incomplete.  I cannot see life complete, to me life is striving, it’s aspirational, it’s not looking for completion.  I think you’re on a moonshine if you’re looking for completion.  The fundamental angst that we all have deep down, this incompleteness, which we can’t solve – I come back to the loneliness – we can share it.  When they teach you perspective at school, line drawing, it’s interesting that the perspective lines that they draw very often have a perspective point which is off the sheet.  Now I believe that life is incomplete because our perspective point is outside of life, before the beginning and after the end.  So, like a sheet of paper, we don’t bat an eyelid at saying ‘imagine this perspective point’.  It could be imaginary but for me, from my experience, it makes sense that that perspective point is where the lines converge, but not here, they never do.  I could walk out of here today and fall down dead in the street and you’ve just asked me, are you feeling complete?  I think it is chasing after a rainbow to look for completion.  Life is a pursuit, it is aspiration, it’s striving, it’s giving meaning, it’s enriching, but it’s never complete.