Monday, May 04, 2009

Forty Years On

In the the mid 1970s an advertising hoarding on Crystal Palace Parade depicted a smiling middle-aged couple in front of a new house in semi-rural surroundings. Underneath, a caption read something like: 'Frank and Mary Johnson send best wishes to their old neighbours in Penge'.

Not very nice to Penge-dwellers, I thought. Our friends J & M, who rented a flat in the crumbling 1930s block overlooking Penge West station where we lived, heeded the Utopian call. In 1977 they moved to a new estate in the Medway towns area.

It was just as well, because J had a lot of interests. He painted seascapes, made figurines, assembled albums of stamps, and, worst of all for a flat-dweller, collected fossils: to be more precise he brought home chunks of rock from which the fossils were to be harvested. His job on the railways allowed him free travel to places like Dover, where rocks could be acquired. I thought M was a saint to put up with debris, although her local secretarial job gave her some respite. J took great care with labelling, framing and display and loved to talk about his passions.

No surpise, then, to find them forty years on with J presiding over what resembled a small private museum down in Rainham. He's really got into his stride since retiring in the early 1990s.

It was a long time since we'd visited, so there was much to report before J hurried off to some committee meeting. He's involved with local groups, gives talks and leads archaelogical 'digs' in Kent and beyond. Their home, once a fairly standard town house surrounded by flat mud and stones, has been extended to form a series of galleries and workshops. It required a guided tour to view the cornucopia of neatly arranged artefacts, grown to include memorabilia of service days, books and maps. I spotted an Open University degree certificate and a London University Diploma in Archaeology completed since J retired, on one of the crowded walls .

The garden, tended by M, followed the same pattern, built on a number of levels, filled with harmonious shrubs and flowers, with an air of knowing their place in the order of things. M looks on, serene as ever, although branching out into art classes in Rochester. J hinted at a future joint project.

I read somewhere that our generation will probably the last to enjoy a long retirement. In future there'll be no time for wage-earners to shake off what Philip Larkin called 'the toad work' and flourish as individuals. It's sad to think of them grinding away into old age in the service of some faceless company, instead of sending metaphorical good wishes to their friends and neighbours in Penge .
Philip Larkin's Toads:


Katy said...

Great post Sheila, thank you.

Having turned 40 a few months ago, needing to work for another 30+ years is a chilling thought indeed! I'll perhaps return to self-employment when it's possible, maybe in a year or 2 - so much freer in every way.

Sounds like your friend are having a ball! I know Medway well, lived there (Gillingham & Rochester) for many years until moving here 2 yrs ago. Are your friends anywhere near the wonderful Rainham Bookshop?

Sheila Cornelius said...

Thanks, Katy. I wish I hadn't chosen a career that took so muh time and commitment, and self-employment sounds good if you can make it work financially.

I'll ask about the bookshop. Sounds a good place to drop in on our next visit.