DAVID O’CARROLL worked at the heart of British government for 34 years. He was in the Privy Council office with Michael Foot in the 1970s, as an Assistant Private Secretary to the Government minister in charge of devolution. In 1993 he moved to Leeds with the Department of Health, where his responsibilities included taking through Parliament a Bill dealing with doctors whose capabilities were in question. He retired in 2008 and now lives on the Gower peninsula near Swansea. We met at his 18th Century cottage in the village of Landimore.
Why did you retire when you did?
Things in the Department were constantly changing. It was the third time I had been asked to apply for my own job. I was still enjoying working, but the regular commuting to London, the late nights in Parliament, the adrenaline rush of having to quickly provide your Minister with a response to unexpected developments, well, that’s all fabulous when you’re young but, as you get older, it gets more difficult. It was a good time to retire. So I asked for early retirement.
Were you prepared for retirement?
After I put in my request, I went wobbly for a while. I could not think logically, and felt tearful. Typical stress symptoms. I gave myself a kick in the pants, but if the process had gone on longer, I don’t know if I would have been able to have done that. I had seen colleagues have mental breakdowns; I did not want to go there. Then, when my request was accepted, I only had weeks to prepare before I left.
Did you spend those weeks in anticipation, or trepidation?
I had a few bits of work to finish, then took leave owing to me. The cut-off point is when you have to hand in your pass to the place where you have worked for years. But during that holiday, I started thinking and acting like a retired person.
And how did being retired affect you?
Liz (David’s wife) was still working. I took her to work some days. She worked in the same building where I used to work. Was that a bridge for me between work and retirement? Perhaps. Certain things stayed the same, of course. I was a member of an archery club, so I was seeing the same people. And then we decided to move to Wales.
Moving away from friends when you retire is a big step. Why did you decide to do it?
Liz is from Morriston (near Swansea), and we had regularly come back to see her family. We met when I was studying Politics in Swansea University, and when we married, we had always intended to stay in Wales. There was always an underlying thought that we would come back. We had always fancied living on Gower, and quickly decided that, if we were going to go back to Wales, we should do it straight away.
How did you adjust to retired life?
My fear was that I could become very lazy and do absolutely nothing. I have to make sure that I have things to do. I formed a plan: I said I would start keeping bees, do voluntary work, and learn Welsh.
How did these new experiences work out?
I read a couple of books on bee keeping, and took a training course run by the Swansea and District Bee Keeping Society. I set up a couple of hives. I was then involved in setting up a co-operative to sell Gower honey to health food shops. I was able to use my expertise from working in Government to look at the regulations involved, and to secure a Welsh Government grant for rural development. We now have twelve members in the co-operative, which has been going for four years.
Learning Welsh wasn’t as successful! There were about ten of us, mostly retired, in our group. It was very friendly, but I didn’t learn a lot. The biggest mistake I made was to agree to sit an exam. I really struggled, and when I failed the exam, I felt very down about it. I had a year’s break and tried again. I could understand what was being said, but I did not have the vocabulary to join in. I thought that I had given it a good chance, and nobody could say I didn’t try.
I had known a retired mineworker back in Yorkshire who was a volunteer at his local Citizens Advice. I thought that I could do that, and use my Civil Service skills to help people fill out forms and handle legal issues. Being a volunteer with CA gives me a tremendous amount in keeping the brain ticking over. It is challenging work, but very rewarding when you know you have made a positive difference to somebody’s life.
How do you feel about retirement now?
I would make exactly the same decisions again. I did not want to be called ‘retired’, but there’s not another word for it. I am just as active as when I worked; the only thing that has changed is I have not got a day job.