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Margaret Booth

In conversation with Simon Beard

One of my favourite poems is Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’. Ulysses is writing after coming back from his adventures and, having come back to his wife and family, he finds his son is a terribly conscientious and dependable type but knows that this isn’t the world for him, he needs to fill every moment to the full.

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains…

He has this appetite for life, that even though he is ageing and his physical abilities are declining, he just wants to keep on going, to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield. I feel as though this has to be my motto for this stage of life. I will not rust unburnished; I want to shine in use.

***

When I was at university in Northern Ireland, I was really torn between English and History so I did them both as a dual degree. In one of my History tutorials my professor asked me ‘Have you ever thought of teaching?’ and I said I had given it some thought, but that this was my second year so I hadn’t really thought too much about it. He told me he thought I should really consider it, because he said I had a way of expressing myself which suggested to him that I would make a good teacher, as I was able to put things clearly and get points across. At that point I started to think about teaching and the more I thought about it the more I thought that yes this was an area that I would like to explore.

After I finished my degree I applied for a DipEd and in the course of that I began to feel more and more at home in a classroom, I came alive in a classroom! I decided to do English and my love for it just grew and grew, and the ability to share something that you love with somebody, and especially to show them the joy of reading, was really magical. This meant that I thoroughly enjoyed my teaching career. I think it was probably only blighted by marking which so often seamed to me to be totally unproductive. It is very difficult to see that the marking improves anybody’s writing or understanding and although I tried to make the marking a dialog between myself and the student, I don’t know how effective that really was. I used to feel I was writing all this stuff on their papers but didn’t know if they actually read it, or learned anything from it.

I also used to get frustrated sometimes because when you teach English literature you are teaching about life, about relationships and people, and I could never really understand why that didn’t interest some students, but there where those who just didn’t want to know. We’re all human beings and we are all here, so anything that can make life here richer and make us integrate better with other people should surely get people exited, but it didn’t, which made me very frustrated.

I think that I could have been satisfied in other careers, but that teaching was my niche. I don’t think everybody can teach, because I don’t think that everybody has the desire to communicate, or the enthusiasm about what they have learned and what they are exploring. Teachers aren’t necessarily experts or in any sense brilliantly intelligent. I think that absolutely fundamental to teaching is just sheer enthusiasm, sheer love of learning and a desire to communicate what you have learned and a desire to make other people enthusiastic about it to. However, although I think that the best teachers are born not made, even the born teachers can by honing their skills and disciplining themselves and exploring their gift improve it.

***

I think that I was always learning and growing, but sometimes I was just so tired, you have no idea how exhausting teaching can be. That was one of the reasons why my husband really encouraged me to do something different. He said that going part-time wouldn’t help because my work would just expand to fill the time available. I took early retirement in the end when my husband was going on sabbatical to New Zealand. This meant that when we went off on sabbatical I had plenty of time to do lots of interesting things, and also to reflect a bit, and to reflect when I came back, which has led to me moving on to a new dimension of life, and it’s very satisfying. I had been so tired, I hadn’t had time to do all the things that you need to do to be a well rounded individual, so the paid employment had to go, but the work remains.

Now I am being stimulated in different ways. For one thing I am no longer ruled by bells! I now have time to explore things, to be with people and to develop better relationships with them. I can give people time in a way I couldn’t have done before, which is a different sort of giving to that which you do when you teach, and when you are sharing your subject. I always felt that as an English teacher I was teaching about life and relationships as I don’t think you can teach English without talking about them, but now I have time just to develop friendships and relationships in my own life.

That does not mean that I am doing it all for myself however, and it’s not entirely leisure either. I am an elder at my church, which involves me in a fair bit of pastoral and teaching ministry that is very rewarding and demanding, though sometimes very painful. I never felt it was ever a question of me ‘doing teaching’ as it were, it’s simply what I am, being a teacher is part of my whole makeup. In a sense, I am a teacher, and a teacher just teaches. It’s not something I do, it’s an intrinsic part of who I am, and I think that is the way I think about it, it’s almost impossible not to teach.

Now I feel that wonderfully rich because I am able to make a meal and to relax over it and not to find it an intolerable burden because I’m not getting the marking done, or because I’ve got to get up early in the morning and all this stuff. It really is another dimension, and it’s good. One of the joys is that you go along and you think you’ve got all these acquaintances and at my age people tell you ‘Oh you’ve made your friends,’ but that’s nonsense. You keep making new friends, and one of the staggering things is that there are friendships that can develop remarkably quickly. There are some people it takes years and years and years to get to know, but there are other people who within a matter of weeks you feel as if you’ve known them all your life.

However, I have also kept hold of my old friends very well. Friendships in Northern Ireland (where I was born) go deep. I feel that with my friends in Northern Ireland, I simply pick up where I left off, and it’s as if there has been no gap. I’ve been very fortunate in that wherever we have lived friends tend to come. We lived in London for a while and people were always coming into or flying out of Heathrow going places, and they always detoured to us. I had a wonderful experience recently where I went to Brown’s with a girl who I was at school with, who married a guy who I was at Queen’s with, and their children both used to come to Oxford and when they were at Oxford would stay with us regularly. His kids, my kids and all of us all celebrated his sixtieth birthday together.

When I moved to London however I didn’t have many friends. I had left lots of friends in Northern Ireland, and I had a very, very close knit family. I was brought up with all my father’s brothers and sisters in the same street so all my cousins lived in the same road and we all played together and this created a very closely knit family, and also a community because all the neighbours got on very well. When you come from that into a street where people are all up at some ungodly hour in the morning travelling in and out of the city and you don’t ever see them, and when you do see them they are very reserved, south of England types and not quite sure when you arrived from the potato fields, it’s dreadful. This happened when I was in the very early stages of my marriage, so that we were in the process of adjusting to life with each other and there was no support network other than by phone. Sometimes the parents would come to stay, but that wasn’t much better. We worked out that in our first year in London we spent about half the year with people living with us, in our tiny terraced house. It was good in one sense, but there is all the difference in the world between having friends call in and having friends living with you. There is a lovely Italian proverb ‘A friend is like a fish: after three days he stinks!’

I don’t often feel lonely now, because I think there is a big difference between loneliness and solitude. I have periods of solitude, and those are wonderful, I have no problem with solitude at all. The times when I am lonely are the times when I have gone on my own to a place that is strange to me, and it is heightened if it is a country that I am not familiar with the language. Then I feel very lonely and very vulnerable because you know that beyond saying ‘Hello, how are you?’ and ‘How to I get to somewhere?’ you cannot speak to anybody.

I think that the antidote to loneliness is feeling that you belong and that there are people who care for you. As I have come to know God better I have found that I am never really lonely, because God is always there and my relationship with Him is always growing. The other side of this is that through knowing God I know the family of God. The friendships that I have with other Christians are like a family relationship; I know that their love for me is a love that I can depend on. One of the most amazing things, and one of the things that makes me realize the true reality of my Christian experience is that I have brothers and sisters in all corners of the earth and I have this bond with them, and yet their cultural background and their language and everything else are a world removed from mine.

I think that your relationship with God is like any other relationship in life and is shaped by the experiences that you share together. If God is my friend then I have at times been very angry with him for things that have happened, that I have bitterly resented. I sometimes ask him what on earth He thinks He is playing at putting me through something. There are other times when you face things that you have dreaded, and you realize that He is there for you in those dark times. When I had my first major bereavement when my father died, I felt God very much. As a young woman I used to fear the day I would have to face the death of my parents, and just thinking about that would make me dissolve in tears. Yet, when I actually went through the death of my father, God was just so real and the grace, strength and peace He gave to me and my family really enriched my relationship with Him. Then there are also times of great joy and God enriches those times too.

***

Like everyone else, I am a complex mixture of all sorts of things. I sometimes think that my friends have an awful lot to put up with. I am a volatile personality, I can be moody, I dish out criticism and am not nearly so good at taking it, I can appear aggressive. Although I want my friends to accept me for who I am, I don’t want them to leave me there. I need friends who will be brave enough to tell me when I am doing things wrong, to praise me when I am doing things well and to be concerned about the person who I am becoming. None of us are static, we’re always developing in one way or another and I hope my friends would be people who want the best for me, and who work with me to achieve that. I want to be relaxed enough to let them see my weaknesses and the evil that is in me, and I want just to know me, and to accept me, warts and all, but not to leave me that way and to try to help me improve. I also want loyalty, I want them to keep my confidence, when I tell somebody ‘This is for your ears only,’ I expect them never ever to divulge that to anybody else – that would be a betrayal. Obviously though, when I think about the sort of things that I want my friends to mean to me then the onus is on me to be that sort of friend to them.

The people who know most about us are our closest friends. However there are times when even the people who you know really well just surprise you, I think that is what gives us all the spark for our relationships. There is something terribly wrong if we are all static, and if we do not develop as people. All the time we develop, mature, change and grow so there will be something new to be discovered in us forever. That is why friendship is magical. Sometimes people do things which surprise you and delight you, whilst other times they do things which upset you because you realize that they are not what you thought they were. This is the danger of opening up to other people because it makes us more vulnerable. It may well be that in opening up to someone you will destroy the relationship that you have built up because you will reveal yourself to be something that they cannot handle.

Retirement made me realize how people classify you by what you do and not by what you are. I can remember one of my very oldest friends when she took (very) early retirement, writing to me and saying that ‘I’m now having time to be, and not just time to do.’ She said that it was a wonderful gift to have time to be. I wish that was more valued by society. We are so pressurised by society into feeling that we are only of value when we ‘do’. I find it very difficult to use the word ‘retired’; in school I just told people that I was leaving. I knew when I used the word people would think ‘Well what is she doing all day?’ and it’s very difficult to say ‘I’m not doing, I’m being.’

***

I always find it very difficult to identify specific moments in my past; I don’t think I am really into moments. For example, I think of my relationship with my parents as a package, which shouldn’t be divided up. When I think of that package, what makes me saddest is what I put them through when I was a teenager because I was one moody wee madam. I must have been just unbearable, and I am surprised that they had the patience to put up with me. I got so withdrawn, to the point of rudeness on some occasions. What I look back on that gives me a warm glow is the security, the laughter and the love, and those things that we did together that we loved to do. I was brought up in a town by the sea and we all loved to go and walk by the sea and to go to the shore, those times where happy family times.

What gives me most pleasure about my own family has been watching my children grow into mature, responsible and likeable adults. I think that whilst you love your children, there are times when you don’t like them at all, because they are just so annoying. I wasn’t a likeable child at all, because when children are in their terrible twos or moody teenagers and full of teenage angst they aren’t nice to be with, not a likeable person. My kids went through phases when they were not terribly likeable. It has been lovely to watch them grow into likable people, and to see how you can move from being a mother, a son and a daughter to being still a mother, a son and a daughter, but also friends. Then you move into a new dimension of exchanging opinions and all, and that’s great

What I regret is that I smacked the children. I didn’t use violence towards them but I would administer a sharp smack around the legs if they persisted in disobedience, or in doing something that would endanger them. Many times, you are detached and rational so you know you are doing it in the best interests of the child, as you perceive it at the time. Then it is controlled and it’s a smack that isn’t meant to hurt them or injure them, but just administers the rebuke in a very tangible form. However, we are all fallible human beings, so there where times when I just lost the head with them and then you’re not as in control and the smack would sting. When he was older, my grown-up son challenged me and asked me ‘Why did you do that, would you do it if you had to go through life again?’ We had a lengthy discussion on it and I felt that no, I wouldn’t do it if I had to go through life again.

In many ways I learned a huge amount from my parents’ parenting of me, little lessons like the fact that you must never show a divided front to the children, you must always be united in the values that you set before them, and in the way you discipline them. Otherwise, the children won’t really know where they are and will play one parent off against another. I admire the way that they would always endeavour to show equal love to both of us, they would never have favourites and they treated us with such fairness. However, parents and children belong to different generations and my parents belonged to a generation where there where certain things that you didn’t talk about, so there where things that I just never discussed with my parents. I think that my relationship with my children is a lot more open than that. I would like to think that there is not a lot that we cannot talk about, and they don’t feel embarrassed talking about life.

***

As I have grown older, I have found my tastes have developed, though I would hesitate to say that they have ‘changed’. For example with classical music, I started off with very catholic tastes in music, the first classical music I listened to was Romantic music and I couldn’t understand why people liked Mozart and Bach, but I now do know. I used to think that opera was just screeching, then recently I started to tune into opera too. I eat a much wider range of food now than I used to. That is partly because we have moved out of Northern Ireland to a much more cosmopolitan society and we have friends from all over the world, whilst when I was growing up the range of foods that you could get was severely limited. I’ve probably also mellowed out a lot in terms of clothes, the house I live in and the way that it’s decorated.

One of the most startling conversations I ever had was one I had with my husband. We where talking about pacifism. At that stage I was a pacifist but he wasn’t and I suppose because we were both Christians we kept on trying to think what does the Bible say about this and what would Jesus do? We were exploring the scenario of what Jesus would do if one of the occupying Roman soldiers attacked His mother. Would He attack the Roman soldier? When we explored it we decided that no He wouldn’t, He would get in between them, and He would die rather then let the blow fall on His mother, but when all is said and done, He loved not only His mother but also the Roman soldier. I can remember Paul being surprised by this, and from that point on he embraced pacifism and we explored it and built up the arguments. However, it stemmed from that very clearly visualised scenario. That was for him a life-changing conversation, and certainly confirmed me in my pacifism and pushed me forward in my thinking about it.

My mother used to, jokingly, tell me I was a witch because she thought that on occasions, I could almost read her mind, and I think that I was reading her mind by perception. Perception and insight into what people are thinking or feeling can be extremely disconcerting when you hit the nail exactly on the head, and they do not know how you knew it.

I have a very interesting grandmother who really did have a sixth sense. Her four brothers all went off to the First World War, and she had dreams of them coming back, and of course they all did. She was very distressed one day because she had a vision of one of her grandchildren one day being hurt in the playground, and being trampled by feet. It turned out that at about the same time the children had been playing a game where the grandchild had got knocked over, and the children who were playing could not stop, so that her grandchild was being trampled. That was her sixth sense and my mother used to think that I was like my granny.

Of my five senses, smell is the most evocative of all the senses, and smell is what stimulates the memory the most. I remember places by smell, you get a whiff and it will transport you back to childhood, to the nasturtiums on the railway path or to the smell of iodine in the sea in September. I am very sensitive to smell, both fragrant smell and unpleasant smell. I developed hayfever in the past few years, not badly, but enough to dull my sense of smell for a month of the year, and it’s horrible because it is a time of the year when there is just so much scent in the fields, and I cannot smell it as sharply as I could.

We moved ten years ago to Freeland, which is a village half-way between Oxford and Whitney, and we lived just on the edge of the fields. I have become acutely aware of sound, because it is so quiet and you hear so much in the silence. One of the most magical of sounds is the owl in flight because they are almost silent, but just almost. We have an owl who flies round our house and that is special. I think that being somewhere where it is so quiet that the sounds of nature come through has sharpened my hearing.

Touch shouldn’t be the taboo that it is, because although touch gives us such pleasure in the sexual relationships, where would a child be, and what security would it have if it wasn’t held. Both my children suffered from colic, which is a horrible thing for young children, and which can only be assuaged by touch. You have to hold them very close and just pat the back and that helps them to relax so that the spasms in the stomach became less. When I think of touch I think of putting my wrists under cold water on a hot day, and that just cools your whole body. When I lived in Northern Ireland we often used to take little boats out on the bay, and to dabble your fingers through the salt water is just so lovely, and that is where the taste comes in, because afterwards if you licked your finger it was salty like crisps. I love seaweed and popping the bubbles.

Most of the time we are just so bound up in ourselves, in a wee cocoon, and that is just so silly because we shrink, whereas if we open ourselves we just grow. Jesus says ‘Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone’. Keats said, in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’: ‘Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity’. Sometimes things that are very big, as you absorb them, you become lost in them. You start thinking deeply, but so deeply that you can’t articulate. Dear but I miss the sea, I always think it’s one of God’s little jokes that He plonks me down in the city that is furthest from the sea in England, though that is partly I think because He is saying ‘Marlene, you have to learn to appreciate other things too, like the trees and the fields.’

June 2005