Getting Older Honestly
By 69-year old John Uttley, author of Where’s Sailor Jack?
His debut novel was published in Summer 2015.
It’s quite commonplace for someone of my age (nearly 70) to say that they feel just the same as they did when they were a teenager. I frequently do it myself but the statement doesn’t stand up to close internal examination.
Nowadays, it can be more a memory of what the hormones should feel like than the real thing. The spirit’s willing but the flesh weak. The only similarity is that procreation isn’t the primary driver at either age. Although surprises can happen in both age groups, they are rather more common at the younger end.
Funnily enough, I think both age groups are more likely to take the idea of God more seriously than those years in between. The young are asking what does it all mean? The old, what has it all meant? What is it about plays against what was it for.
In old age, there still is a bit more life to be lived. Statistically, I can hope for another decade or a bit more, while having to reckon with the thought that I could keel over any day, or be diagnosed with something awful. The young usually don’t fall prey to these thoughts, for them the probabilities are lower. For the old, there is the stream of funerals to be attended (the only necktie I ever wear nowadays is black) and the most dismal of all, visiting those even more elderly in the nursing home, with the consequent feeling that maybe death isn’t such a bad thing. Yet, when I meet someone I know in the street, my eyes can still light up at the prospect of a short conversation and maybe a spot of banter.
And what has life meant? It feels like everything that has happened, the good, the bad, the exciting, the desperately sad, they all had to be. There is an old Rabbi joke that life begins when the kids have left home and the dog’s died. That suggests a late paradise for my wife and I as we go on smart cruise holidays and share relaxed evenings, her drinking a glass of prosecco and me plumping for a fine claret. We certainly hope for a bit of that. But there’s far more pleasure for both of us in seeing our kids as adults, and hoping that when they’re old they’ll look back on life saying it had to be like this.
I do still walk the old family dog across the fields, as he too considers alongside me, what has it all meant? It’s not a lot different from when as a teenager. I’d walk the former old family dog round the park when I got home from school. I still mourn that guy’s passing as much as I will do shortly when this fellow reaches his time. I’ll hope that when it’s my turn to knock at the door, there’ll be two joyful barks and St Peter will feel he’s no choice but to let me in. And one day all the family I’ve known, from grandparents to grandchildren I’ve never seen, will meet again on God’s golden shore. Old friends will be there too, nobody missed out.
That’s what this old man dreams for. Sadly it ain’t necessarily so.
Where's Sailor Jack?
John UttleyPublication Date: April 28, 2016
Number of pages: 324
A family saga that takes in three generations of two families and all the struggles, tribulations and fireworks that you would expect as well as plenty you wouldn’t. Where’s Sailor Jack is the story of Bob Swarbrick’s journey from Northern-grammar-school-boy to business magnate through the break up of his marriage, the arrival of a new lover and an unhurried, consistent search for meaning in his life.
Bob and Richard are grammar school boys ‘done good’. Starting life in similar working class homes they have progressively climbed the ladder until they are able to both sit comfortably as champions of industry, and look back on their achievements and failures with the keen Northern wit that never left them, even after years of exile life in the south.
As they reflect on their lives, loves and business decisions both try to find an explanation to fit their lives: Bob seeks purpose, Richard meaning. While soul-searching, the reader is witness to an exemplary part of British history - from their childhoods in post war Northern England to the boom years in a prospering South (before survivors guilt starts to bite in their latter years and they wonder just how their opportunities would have worked out if they were born a few decades later).
The book covers and takes a unique look at romance, religion, business sense and social mobility but does so with wry tongue in its cheek whilst looking for a laugh, not a deep and meaningful conversation.
Read an excerpt:
On a Sunday soon after his move north-west, Bob was flying high on Virgin, to LAX, as everyone but he knew Los Angeles airport was called. His last long-haul flight had been on Atomic Futures’ business in the bulkhead with British Airways. At over six foot and heavily built, he could make good use of the leg room. In an unflattering lavatory mirror, he saw receding, greying hair and many wrinkles above a jaw line a boxer could break a fist on. He’d never quite understood how his rugged looks had charmed the several-to-many women along the way. The seating arrangement in Virgin’s best seats made the cabin look like a beauty salon, but he’d played safe and eschewed the offer of an onboard facial. The Journey Information on the monitor told him there was about an hour of the flight to go, confirmed by something looking like the Grand Canyon out of the window, though it looked bleak enough to have been the surface of another planet.
He was trying not to sleep on the way out, nor to go to bed until at least ten o’clock Pacific Standard Time. He’d flicked between the films on the in-flight entertainment system, and found nothing he’d wanted. He’d then settled down to listen to some music, first Elvis, then Ray Charles and finally Abba, who’d bounced along merrily at first until a cold sweat told him that he was the loser standing small alongside seventies woman. He switched Agnetha off to pick up the book he’d brought, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, which he immediately put down again. His eyes were tired.
He reclined the chair to be alone with his musings on his return to Lancashire. Blackpool was making a good fist of doing itself up, despite New Labour lousing up the Las Vegas style casino scheme, not that he’d ever really wanted it. In the evenings, the place was alive with young ladies joyfully, sometimes even decorously, celebrating their hen nights with like-minded friends. The folk who lived in St Chad’s hadn’t changed that much. The young people at church had the same freshness that he’d once had, full of their multimedia world and excited about their opportunities, though the ladder had been pulled up since his day, leaving cows from the Fylde fields with more chance of going through the eye of a needle than any ordinary kid entering the kingdom of riches he’d inherited. Lancashire wasn’t at the centre of things the way it had been back then, with Blackpool the Mecca for comedians, Liverpool the capital of music, the mighty Granada television like a second BBC, and the Manchester Guardian thinking about what the world would do tomorrow. He saw The Guardian moving to London as an even bigger betrayal than John Lennon’s sleep-in.
The summer of 1963 with Freewheelin’ on his turntable and the Mersey sound on every radio was forever to remain his Archimedean point. Martin Luther King was dreaming his dream accompanied vibrato by Joan Baez and civil rights were coming. Bras weren’t being burnt though. Much later Jane challenged him with why not. He’d answered that women’s liberation hadn’t come out of nowhere. She’d generously agreed that it was only fair for apes like him to have had their day in the sun before the real business got done.
He’d had a vacation job in Stanley Park and that had given him an affinity with the old codgers from the Great War who came for the brass band concerts. Though they were sitting in God’s waiting room, they were cheerful, talking for hours about space travel and the like but not of course about their health problems or the trenches. He thought of his never-liberated Grannie who died at the start of the pivotal year. She’d make him green jelly with bananas whenever he went round as a kid and had knitted most of the jumpers he was still wearing through university after her death. His sister had in her kitchen the old milking stool from Grannie’s farm-girl days, with more than a thousand years of history stored in its battered wood. Like the religion his ancestors had shared, its purpose had been endorsed by the long passage of time. To lose either would be to lose his soul. He didn’t want to live so long that his memory of Grannie dimmed.
He was off to LA to discuss the possibility of him chairing a solar technology company, The Northern Solstice Inc., looking to be floated on AIM, the small companies’ part of the London Stock Exchange. He’d created a portfolio of non-executive chairmanships since his nuclear demise; nice work if you can get it, he’d say. He’d had surprising success given that he was temperamentally stuck somewhere between public and private sector. On one venture, he’d helped rescue a telecoms company after the dotcom bubble burst, which he’d then sold to a trade buyer, a conglomerate chaired by Sir Charles, for a huge profit, a month before the market fell again. He’d found that the private sector was about living on your wits rather than on solid ground.
He hadn’t much knowledge of solar economics or if it was such a good environmental thing. He hoped that this opportunity could provide some atonement for his past environmental sins. As a nuclear man, he’d never been a denier of the greenhouse effect. He knew how expensive nuclear had been but could see no better option despite his lingering doubts on waste disposal, weapons proliferation and operational balls-up issues. He was as antagonistic towards wind power as most power engineers and ornithologists were.
The invitation to LA had come from a woman he’d got to know at Black and Robertshaw, an accounting firm working out of Bristol whose corporate finance arm had handled the telecoms sale. They were advising on the Northern Solstice flotation, acting as Nomad – shorthand for nominated adviser. Wendy Ballinger was already in LA and he was to meet her the next day with the acting Chairman and the CEO.
In the arrivals hall, the driver arranged by Virgin was holding up his name. All upper class passengers could have a limo for up to an hour’s journey. Anaheim was in the band. He was stopping at the Stonehaven there, near to the Northern Solstice factory in Yorba Linda as well as close to Disney. Wendy was upmarket and uptown, staying at the Westin. His mobile beeped a message as he reached his room. Wendy wanted a word. He was desperate for the lavatory, but couldn’t prevent himself from ringing her first. As he waited for her to answer, her face appeared in front of him on the screen in his brain (not on his phone, that was an early, basic model), almost elegant, with a distinguished nose. Her blonde hair looked natural enough but did owe something to a bottle. He found her both friendly and competent, a pleasure to do business with. She was a while answering and his internal camera panned slowly downwards. In her early forties, married without children to an older man, her bosom was worthy of the name; her long legs went all the way to her not insubstantial bum. And she was intelligent. He should have thought of that first.
She had bad news, disclosed in pure, gentle, Gloucestershire tones that could have belonged to a sixth former. She’d been at a pre-meeting with the acting Chairman, a guy called Peter Forster, along with the CEO, Emil Fares. Forster was a hard-nosed South African who owned Forster Capital, the largest shareholder. He’d told Wendy that they didn’t want her to handle the listing as Black and Robertshaw had no market strength.
Bob wanted to ask if that meant he’d wasted his time coming out, and if somebody would be reimbursing his expenses, but realised he’d better sympathise first. She didn’t need that, believing that her firm, although not a strong broking house, had done a pretty good job. “No first division broker would handle such a small transaction,” she asserted. “And there’s so little time before the date they want to float that they’d like to take a look at you. They’ll also want to know if you’ve any other ideas as to who else could act as Nomad.”
“I’d have no idea. I wouldn’t want the job now anyway,” he said, honestly enough as Wendy was a big part of the attraction.
“That’s up to you, but I’d be grateful for my reputation if you could hear them out. Perhaps Divinity might do it. They’re pitching hard into renewables.”
Bob became more interested. “Fancy that. An old friend of mine from my nuclear days, Richard Shackleton, told me over a round of golf that he’d just joined Divinity Partners. He said it was about time the Godhead had some new blood. Do you know him?”
Wendy did know Richard, who she called a terrific bloke. “Hey, thee, me and him could make a great team if they’d have us,” Bob reckoned. “Can’t we get him to do the broking and you to be the Nomad?” Wendy doubted Forster would agree to that idea but was happy for Bob to try it on.
Bob was already looking forward to Richard joining them and started to tell Wendy about his daft ideas. “Like me, he doesn’t think metaphysics should be a dry study of what can and can’t be said, but a licence to think insanely. According to him, we can’t actually change anything physical and all events rigidly follow the laws of nature. But we are free to make whatever we want of what happens. I remember a flotation meeting with loads of advisers. We took time out to discuss Schrödinger’s cat, as you do. Richard…”
“As you and Richard do, you mean. Tell me about that some other time,” she interrupted.
“George Coulson, the CFO, will be in the hotel lobby at nine o’clock to collect you. We’re meeting in Emil’s office at nine thirty.”
Having at last managed to have a pee, he unpacked his case, lining up one shirt and tie, his suit, a pair of socks and shoes for the morning. He put pyjamas on the pillow, soap bag and razor in the bathroom, Saturday and the alarm clock by his bed, before he had had a quick shower, drenching the bathroom floor. At a quarter past nine PST, twenty two hours since leaving his London flat, he went to bed.
He quickly went to sleep, only to wake with a start at about two o’clock, gasping for breath. The heavy quilt was over his head. He pulled the quilt halfway down the bed and managed to sleep again. An hour later he woke again. This time he turned the air conditioning off. Sleep wouldn’t come. He tried to read for a while, propped up against the pillows. In the big mirror on the opposite wall, he caught sight of his gaunt face drained of colour. With a shock, he realised he was looking at his Dad, Jack Swarbrick, laid out at the funeral parlour. That Swarbrick big conk was a matter of pride.
Of course it wasn’t his Dad, but the embodiment of hard-wired genetics. Wendy’s face, and much prettier conk, had frozen on his internal screen. He slept through till 6.30am with her in view.
Copyright © 2015 John Uttley
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