It hadn’t occurred to me that this would be the first day I no longer worked for the New Internationalist. I walked through the centre of Oxford in the early morning among Morris dancers, toffs in ball gowns, people disguised as trees and choristers dressed as angels chirping unseen from somewhere up a bell tower. May Day is celebrated in Oxford with almost no reference to the reason for the holiday in Britain - International Labour Day - though since the Thatcher era the ‘spring’ holiday has been attached to the nearest weekend, rather than to the day itself, in a quintessentially British style of paganism.
When, some time ago, I decided to leave the New Internationalist at the end of April, it was not with the idea in mind that I’d therefore begin the next part of my life on such an auspicious day. Though, come to think of it, I’m not altogether sure what idea I did have in mind.
Certainly, the words of Tony Benn - Britain’s favourite old man, with whom I have occasionally been confused, simply because I also smoke a pipe - that he was leaving Parliament ‘to get more involved in politics’ did resonate with me a bit. Not that I have any problem at all with the ‘politics’ of the New Internationalist. It’s just that if you are employed by a media organization, however distinct from the corporate version, you can’t help seeming to speak for it, and the New Internationalist puts great store by its political independence. The meltdown has, I think, created an urgent need for active political engagement on the Left, and the thought of having the freedom and the time to do this has become increasingly attractive.
Even so, other words that resonate with me came from someone at a meeting of Put People First in Bristol a couple of months ago. ‘How could you be leaving New Internationalist at a time like this?’ they wanted to know. And I didn’t have a good answer. It’s true - short of Nirvana, there really are few better places where one could possibly hope to be working at the moment. After 20 years, there’s a lot I’m already missing about the place, most of all the people. I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have been able to work there for so long.
But there comes a time… When I started at the New Internationalist in 1989 no-one had ever ‘retired’ from it. Modest pension arrangements had adopted 60 as the likely retirement age, presumably because people felt that by then they’d probably have had quite enough of you and it would be time to give someone else a go. Now, when it’s on the cards that you’ll have to work until you die in order to pay back the bankers for their grand larceny, that looks a little fanciful. So does the idea that free-market capitalism would fund decent pensions.
However, by the time you’re 60 or so the elbow joints do tend to become less responsive, it’s harder to find injury-free partners for tennis, your children are becoming compassionate and the taste for constructive office politics has begun to fade. I’m now 62-and-a-half, and my particular problem is that my instincts have become even more irresponsible. The prospect not so much of ‘retirement’ as of starting out as a maverick pensioner became irresistible.
Besides, I’d already begun to construct a life of minimalist ‘sufficiency’ here on a Dutch barge near Bristol. How sufficient it will prove to be, given my ineptitude with money, remains to be seen. But I’m making a start by heading for the River Thames, and a minor role for my barge Wiphala in the wedding of a much-loved niece. By car it would have taken two hours - by barge I’m multiplying that by weeks, and even so I’ve broken a golden rule of barging about, that you never count on being anywhere on time.