Bosnia mission led to retirement degree

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THE old woman dressed all in black sat on the steps in front of her hut. She had gathered wild garlic that morning, and she was trying to sell it to anyone passing her gate. A van drove down the road and stopped near her hut. Some men got out, and the old woman hobbled towards them, offering them the garlic. They shook their heads to indicate they did not want to buy any. One of the men opened the back doors of the van and took out a small parcel. He handed it to the woman, who opened it cautiously. There were tins and parcels of food inside. The woman looked at the men, and smiled. One of the men lifted a camera and started taking photos of the scene.

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This was Bosnia, in the aftermath of the Balkan wars that had shattered the region following the collapse of Yugoslavia. The man behind the camera was Dave Coffey, a manager with a pharmaceutical company in Swansea. He was part of a humanitarian mission organised by churches in the city.

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Dave was already a serious, if amateur, photographer. What he saw on that visit, and on other trips to the war-torn country over six years, ignited a passion that would result in him spending three years of his retirement obtaining a degree in photo-journalism.

Dave’s path into retirement has a familiar theme. After 36 years service in the pharmaceutical industry, changes to his role had left him feeling “like a puppet.” When he asked if he would consider early retirement, he was ready to consider it.

“My only concern was, could I survive financially,” he says. We are in the room at the top of his house where he spends much of his time editing the 45,000 images he has stored on his computer. Once he would have spent hours in the dark room he built at the bottom of his garden. Technology has made some things much easier for the dedicated photographer.

“At 62, it would be another three years before I started getting my state pension. But when I worked it all out, it seemed fine. When I actually retired (in December 2006) I accepted it for what it was. I didn’t have any problems adapting to a life without a paid job. I’m a busy person.”

Retirement gave this former grammar schoolboy from Liverpool the opportunity to pursue his photographic passion, and achieve a lifetime ambition to obtain a university degree.

“My family could not even have thought about being able to afford to send me to university when I left school in 1961.”

It wasn’t just his interest in photography that guided his choice of subject. “The photojournalism course at Swansea Metropolitan University was a modular degree. I didn’t want to be writing essays under pressure.”

He started the degree course in 2007, and gained a 2:1 honours degree three years later.  The work he did for his degree resulted in two books of his photographs, retracing his childhood around Romer Road.

Along the way, the knowledge he had gained in 25 years as a member of Swansea Camera Club meant he was able to help many of his younger and less experienced fellow students.

One of them is now a lecturer at the same university. He and Dave meet up regularly to exchange ideas. “There are always new software systems being launched. You never stop learning,” he says.

It is not only alumni that Dave remains in contact with. During one of his visits to Bosnia, he befriended a ten-year-old boy called Daniel. “Thirty years later, we are still in touch with each other. I want to go back soon and photograph the rebuilding of his town.”

Meanwhile, Dave is keeping busy, despite recent operation to remove cataracts from both eyes. A regular swimmer, he also walks daily and works out with weights in his garage three times a week (“They’re not heavy weights,” he points out.)

His next target is to be awarded a Fellowship by the Photographic Association of Great Britain. “I need to select a project, but I’m looking forward to getting on and taking my photographs.”

This is a retired bloke who remains in focus.

Murder Stone inspires retired teacher to become local history author

imgp6990GEOFF BROOKES spent 41 years working in the education sector. He taught English and drama at a sixth form college (1973-81), was appointed Head of English at  a comprehensive school (1981-91), and then spent 20 years as the deputy head teacher at another comprehensive school up to his retirement from teaching in 2011. He worked part-time as a Curriculum Quality Champion until 2014. He has spent his retirement researching and publishing books about Swansea’s history.

THE beginning: Geoff's first published local history book
THE beginning: Geoff’s first published local history book

Why did you retire when you did?

“I wanted to retire whilst I was still doing the job properly – I didn’t want to hang on too long. I started to think that all the bright new ideas teachers were expected to embrace were just ridiculous. As a manager I had to be positive about the changes but I am afraid I couldn’t. I thought so much of it was pants. I was in danger of not being a manager but a moan-ager.”

You’re not the first retired person I’ve spoken to who has said this. Is it the ideas that are wrong – or is it us?

“It’s largely to do with us. As you get older, you become more resistant to change, and the rate of change seems greater and faster. You’ve made yourself comfortable in what you do, and change seems to be driven by people with less experience than you. But they are building their own careers, and their own image of themselves, just as you did when you were their age.”

How did you prepare for retirement?

“I was able to work part-time for four years. My last year working in school was in fact split 50/50 with working for the local authority in an advisory capacity. When I finished in school, the work for the authority continued until 2014.

“I became aware that the balance was wrong – I needed to work less and write more.

“I handled personnel issues as part of my role; I arranged, talked about and advised about retirement, but I did find it hard when it happened to me. I think that you can prepare for it intellectually but nothing can prepare you for the emotional impact.”

So, did you approach your retirement with anticipation or trepidation?

“Trepidation. It’s a leap into the unknown; the end of the normal structure of your life. I was apprehensive about the idea of not being involved, of becoming just another grumpy old man wandering around shopping centres on wet Tuesday afternoons in February.

“Retirement represents, by its very definition, the end of something – your work – but there is no need to make it the end of your youth or your usefulness. I think it is important that you move on from the idea of an end and turn it into a beginning.

“I have deliberately stayed away from school. I haven’t been back even though it was once so important to me. It belongs to someone else now. For me, the idea of a clean break is important.”

What effect did retiring from full-time employment have on you?

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LOCAL History Man: Geoff with some of the books he has written in retirement.

“I enjoyed my job. It wasn’t as if I retired from a job I hated. There are still things I miss – the relationships I had with the people I worked with, and I especially miss the contact with young people. The future belongs to them, and I feel separated from that to some extent. I don’t know what they are thinking.

“But it also set me free to think and write and research things, and see where they lead. We are also free to travel to visit our children and grandchildren.”

How did you adjust or respond to your changed circumstances?

“I made a very important decision. I can’t stop getting old but I was not going to become an old man – one of the most dangerous of all sub-species. Bitter, bored and bewildered by a changing world, imaging simple assertive solutions to a world which is suddenly far too complicated but which has given them money and a vote.

“I was determined to keep my mind agile and to continue to question things to avoid becoming the manipulated victim of predators.”

You described retirement as the end of the normal structure of life. Have you replaced it with a new structure?

“We have routine, of course. We have breakfast in the morning, and open a bottle of wine in the evening; it’s important you don’t mix them up! But while  I still live with routine, now I can also respond to opportunities.”

What new opportunities did retirement create for you?

“Indulgence, I suppose. Suddenly retirement makes you time-rich. I now have a full-time hobby and the space inside my head to pursue it. I like to uncover old stories and bring them back to life – an act of respect in my mind for all those who came before us and lived their lives as best they could, dealing with many of the same issues, especially emotional, that face us, and so many other issues from which we are protected – like grinding poverty, for example, or illness.”

You’ve talked about the need to write; tell me more about this impulse.

“I spent my professional life analysing and criticising the writing of other people. But did I have the right to make comments about them, if I wasn’t writing myself? I felt the need to prove to myself that I could do it.

“I started writing articles for educational supplements, then I was asked to write guides for authors being studied in schools.”

How did your interest in local history begin?

“Somebody told me about the Murder Stone in Cadoxton graveyard. I went to see it, and wanted to find out more. There are at least six of these Murder Stones in Wales. I sent an article to Welsh Country Magazine. I now have a

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MURDER Stones were intended to attract one man – the ‘murderer’ who had escaped detection. They are aimed at the murderer, in the hope that he will be struck by conscience. They also serve as a warning to others.

imagesThe inscription on the Murder Stone at Cadoxton reads: “1823/To Record/ MURDER/This stone was erected/over the body/of/MARGARET WILLIAMS/aged 26/A native of Carmarthenshire/Living in service in this Parish/Who was found dead/With marks of violence on her person/In a ditch on the marsh/Below the Churchyard/On the morning/Of Sunday the Fourteenth of July/1822/Although/THE SAVAGE MURDERER/escaped for a season the detection of/man/Yet/God hath set his mark upon him/Either for time or eternity/and/THE CRY OF BLOOD/Will assuredly pursue him/To certain and terrible but righteous/JUDGMENT”

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series in the magazine; I write about different graves in Wales, and the stories behind them.

“These articles were put together into a book. That was my first local history book.

“Writing is a hobby, not a profession. There are other things in my life that are more important. I do what I do because I enjoy it, and I will stop when I don’t enjoy it any more.”

How do you feel now about retirement?

“I think retirement is a gift. So many other people across the world – and certainly our ancestors – do not have the opportunities and possibilities it presents to us.

“When you go to work you sell your freedom for money. And then when you retire they give you money to be free. Not a bad arrangement.”

Visit http://www.geoffbrookes.co.uk for more information on all his books.

Be an idiot in 2017

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ED Whitlock ran October’s Toronto marathon in three hours 56 minutes. Should any regular runners among you think that isn’t a time to get excited about, let me point out that Mr Whitlock was 85 years old at the time.

A decade earlier, he broke the three-hour barrier, and remains the only person in their 70s to have run a marathon in less than three hours.

Nature has blessed him with some in-built advantages. Physiological tests found that his capacity to take in and use oxygen was the same as that of a fit 20-year-old. And his muscles have preserved the strength and suppleness of a far younger man.

But his personal explanation for his athletic prowess should offer encouragement for all retired blokes, whatever they are resolved to attempt in 2017.

“I believe people can do far more then they think they can,” he told The New York Times.

“You have to be idiot enough to try it.”

Still winging it at 81

imagesDICKIE Borthwick was reasonably pleased with his debut performance for his new football club, despite the team losing the match 4-2.

Dickie, who scored a consolation late penalty for Portland Town, told The Times: “I did all right. Obviously I was a little bit slower than the rest of the lads but give me a few more games and I’ll get back up to speed again.”

Dickie is 81, and is surely Britain’s oldest footballer. When many a younger man has hung up his boots, or has joined the growing ranks of over-50s playing ‘walking football’, Dickie played for 70 minutes on the left wing for Portland Town’s senior team against a team of youngsters.

A retired engineer who had prostate cancer three years ago, Dickie has played parks football every season since 1948 – the year when Matt Busby’s Manchester United beat Blackpool Town at Wembley to win the FA Cup (pictured above).

Dickie puts his fitness down to quitting smoking, drinking tea, and eating a bowl of porridge before every game.

Retired Lives: the pianist

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JOHN FRANCIS qualified as an electrical engineer. He worked for British Steel before returning to full-time education to do a Master’s Degree in micro processors. He went back into industry with a local firm making instruments to measure temperature and pressure. A project on marine engine simulation resulted in him specialising in that area, first for Welsh and then for American companies.

Why did you retire when you did?

I was in my 50s, travelling a lot to the States, spending two to three months at a time there. And I was gradually getting disillusioned with the situation. The company decided to close the UK office and make us all redundant. I finished almost ten years to the day from when I had joined the company.

How did you prepare for retirement?

I had been thinking about it for two years. The redundancy coming when it did was perfect timing.

Did you approach retirement with anticipation or trepidation?

Friends were retiring and having a great time, so I had no worries. I had had two years to prepare myself mentally. You do think, will it work out, financially? But the prospect of retiring was never in doubt. I had many interests, so I knew I would have no problem filling up my time.

What affect did retiring have on you?

When I retired, it was pretty much what I expected. There is a wonderful feeling of freedom. Waking up in the morning, knowing I can do whatever I want that day, is joyous.

What opportunities did retirement open for you?

At first, it was the opportunity to do more of the things I enjoyed; playing golf (I intended to play more often, but that has not happened), spending time on my vegetable patch and in the greenhouse, walking the dog on the Gower peninsula.

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One month before I retired, I took up the piano. I had played off and on throughout my life. I fell in love with classical music in my twenties, and started lessons when I was a university student – but I did not have my own piano, and the other people in my hall of residence complained about the noise of my practising! We bought a second-hand piano when our children were young: they were not interested in learning to play, but I took it up again, until I became too busy with work. I bought myself a decent keyboard when I retired, and have regular lessons now that I am able to make the commitment and put in the hours. We choose a piece I like, and work on it. It is purely for pleasure, not with a view to passing any grade exams.

I started French lessons a year ago. We were at a dinner party, and I got talking to a recently retired lady who was going to French conversation lessons. I had done French GCSE in school, but had to drop it to concentrate on science A Levels. I had regretted it ever since. Last Christmas, I was given a present of a course of French lessons with Swansea University’s department of adult education.

I go skiing twice a year. My wife and I went for the first time in 2013. She broke her leg but I caught the bug.

My wife retires next year, and we are looking forward to travelling in Europe with our dog.

How do you feel about retirement now?

I did not want retirement to be completely aimless, but neither did I set myself any specific objectives. It has been what I expected, and it is very pleasant.

Retired Lives: the beekeeper

imgp6611DAVID 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?

TARGET: David was a longbow archer in Yorkshire. He has now joined the Bowmen Of Gower.
TARGET: David was a longbow archer in Yorkshire. He has now joined the Bowmen Of Gower.

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?

BEEKEEPER: an aunt who kept bees first got David interested. He set up his first hives after a training course.
BEEKEEPER: an aunt who kept bees first got David interested. He set up his first hives after a training course.

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.

FROM THE CO-OP: David is among a group of local beekeepers who produce and market Gower Honey.
FROM THE CO-OP: David is among a group of local beekeepers who produce and market Gower Honey.

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.

 

Retired Lives: the pot gatherer

 

IMGP5862John Wilson was a local authority adviser on mathematics and computing. He was responsible for teacher training inservice grants, and was Assistant Director of Education for Powys County Council until he took early retirement at the age of 50.

50 seems very early to retire. Why did you decide to retire then? I had planned to retire at 55. My wife was planning to retire the following year. The council was looking to save money, and was getting rid of the education advisory service. I volunteered to go.

Was it a difficult decision? I was not disappointed to go. I worked out that I’d be £100 a month worse off. I thought: ‘why work?’

But was it difficult to make the adjustment? I was not bothered about any loss of prestige or self-esteem when I retired. I had a few things with the council that I followed up on. That work was financially useful.

I understand that you were part of an interesting keep fit project. There was a student in the college doing a certificate to get a gym work qualification. He wanted two older blokes, one who had been fit, and two much younger people. I had played squash at a reasonable level until I was 50. The project was to do a comparison of how quickly we got fit. The end target was to run a half-marathon. I did not do that! My end point was just to get a lot fitter. I did six months with him in the college gym. At home, I walked up and down the stairs carrying weights for an hour every day. By the end of the year I had worn out the carpet. Since then, I have maintained a fitness regime. I have a home gym and spend an hour there every day.

You served as a local councillor for five years. How did you get involved in politics? It started with a discussion around the dinner table. I was complaining that ‘somebody should do something’ and somebody turned to me and said: ‘What are YOU going to do?’ There was a vacancy on the town council, and I was elected unopposed. After a while I realised we had no power at all. I found it a pointless exercise.

The tagline to this blog says there’s more to retirement than gardening; but you are a keen gardener, aren’t you? In the 20 years I’ve been retired, I’ve gathered pots. They have increased in number and size. Now it takes me one and a half hours to water them all. I have hanging baskets as well. But I’ve discovered that the worst bit of any garden is the lawn. To have a good one is a pain! I spend a lot of time out there. Before I retired I had a garden, but that’s not the same thing as being a gardener.

And like many retired people, you enjoy your holidays. Just before I retired, we started going on canal holidays. It did me the world of good. There’s always something to do. If you’re not on the tiller you are the one working the locks. Or you simply get off the boat and walk into the nearest town. There’s now a group of us who spend Christmas and birthdays together. Away from the canals, we have travelled in Europe, America, Canada and New Zealand.

How did your wife adjust to your retirement? I had a year when I was retired and she was still working. Now she is out more often than I am. The church always figured quite large in her life. She is a church warden, and volunteers with the WRVS and Samaritans. So it’s more a case of me supporting her because she does so many charitable and church duties.

Sum up your experience of retirement. There was the professional work at first, then the gardening, the town council work, and holidays all over the world. I have enjoyed retirement as much as working.