Wednesday, 1 February 2012

At Seventy

At Seventy

Following my 70th birthday party in The Plough Inn at Wolvercote, I stumbled through some half-prepared, half-enunciated, half-baked thoughts that may have left the company confused (or at least half-confused). I try to enunciate those thoughts here.

One of the words I had scribbled on a scrap of paper was 'Pinnacles'. The thought there was that I was not going to attempt to summarize my life in terms of achievements or great moments. Of course I had my moments; in research and in family life. But I remember the depression I caused my father simply by asking him to note down the salient features of his life in case we forgot details when he could no longer correct us. He jotted down some notes, but that threw a pall over his spirits, which hung over him for weeks. A keen reader of biographies, he emphatically rejected the idea of a biography of his own life. Similarly, I remembered my reflex rejoinder to my son Richard when we were discussing "You and Your Research" by Dr. Richard W. Hamming (and Medawar's "Advice to a young scientist"), for I said that doing significant science, while admirable, is not the only worthwhile life-aim or life-justification. As a retired scientist I do not want to count my publications or rank my contributions. I seek my justification elsewhere. Jean Anne said she thought of me as a basically cheerful or contented person, which gratified me.  I would like to see myself that way too, for lurking right behind me is the black shadow of failure, the 'nearly made it' man, the too lazy, self-complacent, or forgetful man. I awake from more dreams of failure than dreams of success. But I rather deliberately look the other way; and furthermore I advocate that others do likewise. I like to count as the pinnacles of my happiness and ground of my gratitude that myriad upon myriad of exquisite moments that life can offer most of us, like opening an apple, or seeing a flock of starlings or feeling rain on one's face. They are too many to count, but not too many to savour; and the savouring can fill the day, the year, the life.

I tried to say something about my un-analysed desire to introduce my family to my friends and friends to family; my yearning for a circle (like the Bloomsbury Set) which had not just the spokes but also the rim of the wheel; a fellowship. Perhaps I uniquely enjoyed my few years as a fellow of Clare College for that reason; a fellowship entirely without competitiveness, great scholars who cheerfully sat down with young research fellows with the shared aim of mutual enjoyment and common improvement.

I wonder if I managed to deliver my message.

L. Cawstein

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