IN THIS CHAPTER:
- Why anecdotes?
- Infinite Loop
- The unexamined life
- 60s protests
- Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything
- Pioneers get shot by the indians…
In pondering how best to write about my life and beliefs, I realised the notion of ‘Anecdotes’ seemed to best capture the intended content. A collection of events and amusing incidents drawn from my experience. Never recorded anywhere, they only ever emerge during conversation with others from time to time. Sadly, it’s inevitable that we become repetitive with time and the challenge becomes to recall whether a particular anecdote has been mentioned to this individual, or to that group, before!
However, the word ‘anecdote’ proves more problematic than it appears. The OED defines anecdote as ‘a short amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person’. It cites a Greek origin, ‘an’ meaning ‘not’ and ‘ekdotos’ deriving from ‘publish’, it literally means ‘things unpublished’ – which immediately puts this publication into something of a logical infinite loop. Do these remain anecdotes now they have been published? Perhaps publishing them will mean I can no longer use any of them again. I guess I will need your help to help to create new ones!
ASIDE: Infinite loop always makes me think of Apple. When the young Steve Wozniak was working a day-per-week at Sylvania, a consumer electronics company, he first learned to program. He consumed a FORTRAN manual and ambitiously set his very first task as the tough old chestnut of the Knight’s Tour challenge. This involves moving a knight chess piece. The goal is to establish a process by which in just 64 moves it visits all 64 squares of the chessboard. Wozniak, with some assistance, set out to keypunch his program to work out a solution. His approach was a process of elimination to establish the correct start point. Once compiled he loaded the software, but nothing appeared to happen. The Sylvania team established that his program had put the computer into a loop, an infinity loop. On further investigation Wozniak calculated that the program he had written would take longer to run than the universe had existed to date! Now you know why the address of the building in Cupertino where Apple has its headquarters today is One Infinite Loop.
The OED ‘anecdote’ definition says it had something to do with Socrates who refused to publish his spectacular thought processes, believing that writing served to imprison knowledge. His immortality was assured by Plato and others who did record his thoughts after his death – the ‘imprisoning’ had value. Plato’s account of the trial and conviction of Socrates reported that the great philosopher failed to defend himself against a death sentence. He repeated his belief that
‘the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being’.
Reaching my seventieth birthday seems to be a very good moment for me to examine mine.
Collins Dictionary is based on American English usage and provides a different definition –
‘a short, entertaining account of some happening,
usually personal or biographical’.
Collins goes on to identify ‘anecdote’ as one of ‘its’ ten-thousand most-commonly-used words.
Unhelpfully, the OED and other dictionaries provide a further sense in which an anecdote is described as unreliable evidence, as a sort of yarn or tall tale. This prompts caution as reminiscence seldom casts the teller in a negative light, and eye-witnesses to an event seldom agree on what actually occurred. I will leave you to decide which definition fits my anecdotes or perhaps we should simply agree that anecdotes are subjective memory, a personal viewpoint – in this case mine!
Another reason for anecdotes is my early realisation that I would rather watch the highlights on Match of the Day than sit through a whole football match – though this is not the case with rugby! I skim newspapers, magazines, television and radio to seek the essence of their material. Thus, for this exercise I thought it would be smart to get to the pith, leaving out too much exposition and philosophising, and not struggling to find purpose – instead I will report events as I recall them. I make no apologies for the name-dropping where that anecdote involved a ‘name’.
I am just one insignificant part of the demographic phenomenon referred to as ‘baby boomers’ – a post-WWII surge in babies created by grateful survivors, returned and recovered from the depression of the 1930s and the war of the early 1940s. We boomers arrived in a period of rationing and austerity but grew through a period of peace, courtesy of NATO, and of good healthcare thanks to the NHS. We were enabled economically to achieve greater individual freedom, expression and mobility than our parents, or theirs.
One of the first casualties of our freedom of thought was a dismissal of the beliefs of our parents. We argued with their establishment by marching about almost everything – civil rights, students’ rights, women’s liberation, nuclear arms, Vietnam, apartheid, hunting…
The soundtrack to our youth was provided by folk, jazz, the blues, skiffle, rock ‘n roll, the Mersey beat, Tamla Motown, pop, reggae, disco… We wore our hair longer and developed our own styles with pop art and op art. We rebelled against elitist fashions, buying our ‘self-expression’ instead in boutiques. We became teds, mods and rockers, hippies, punks, glam rockers, skins, new romantics, goths… … and it goes on!
We no longer sought a job-for-life and began to take overseas holidays. We achieved massive strides financially through the greater use of credit, the expanded ownership of homes, cars – and other stuff! We smoked, drank more alcohol, ate foreign cuisine and experimented with mind-changing drugs. It cannot be denied that as a generation we made our mark.
Now our bulge in the demographic data is entering old age. In 2018 I completed the ‘three score years and ten’ promised to us in the Psalm 90 of the Bible. The psalm cautions that ‘it is soon cut off, and we fly away’. So, before I do fly away, I thought I should contemplate and review my life. Maybe I might fathom out some of what it was all about.
I can see that much of my seventy years were spent thoughtlessly, doing rather than thinking. But, as John Lennon (1940-80), poet songwriter and singer, elegantly put it ‘Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans’. Like most of us, I simply got on with all those plans rather than becoming overly concerned about what life might mean.
Living today we are victim to all manner of intrusions – impacted by 24-hour news channels, constant sport, PPI and accident texts and calls, social networks, cold callers, unsolicited flyers, chuggers… They combine to batter us, leaving little time to sit and think. There is always so much to do that deep thinking is parked – well, my procrastination stops here.
Steve Jobs (1955-2011) PC pioneer/entrepreneur (Apple, NeXT and Pixar) cautions
‘Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.’ Steve Jobs
This journey will be a search for meaning. Douglas Adams (1952-2001), English writer and dramatist, was certainly succinct on this subject. His answer to ‘the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’ was ‘forty-two’. Of course he intended this to be amusing, but just maybe he was on to something. The culture-changing 1450s Gutenberg Bible was the world’s first moveable-type printed book and used 42 lines per page, the Bible’s New Testament Book of Revelation (81-96 CE) says the beast will hold dominion over the earth for 42 months, Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-1977) died at the age of 42… I hear the theme tune of The Twilight Zone starting up in the background.
But then Adams did sound a cautionary note for those pursuing his ultimate question,
‘There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.’ Douglas Adams
I have been fortunate in leading a healthy, varied and much-travelled life, punctuated by diverse challenges. Surely I must have developed some insights of value?
A starting point is perhaps to look back and catalogue the phases of my life, trying to recount the meaningful moments, the real issues and the turning points. Sadly, when you attempt to do this, most of your life simply evaporates under the harsh glare of retrospect. All the things that seemed so important at the time, that left you unable to sleep, drove you to feats of endurance, created the highs and lows of emotion, have dissolved into a sort of haze.
‘Nostalgia is not what it used to be.’ Simone Signouret
One of my earliest apparent memories was of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation in 1953 when I was dressed as Robin Hood at our street party (though this memory is highly likely to have been influenced by much-viewed photos of that event).
Just over a decade later I do indeed remember where I was when John F Kennedy was assassinated. I was stacking eggs on supermarket shelves to earn enough to take my girlfriend out. Another few years and I watched as England won the World Cup, perhaps one of the last memories of living at home with my parents. Three years later my wife and I stayed up to see Apollo 11 ‘Eagle has landed’ moments, careful not to wake our new baby.
These events provide milestones within my life. The last three examples were in the ‘60s, a decade retrospectively awarded revolutionary significance, but at the time I was rushing through school, falling in love, marrying and taking on the mantle (or is it yoke?) of fatherhood and a mortgage.
We are so pre-occupied that many national and international events become backcloths that disappear like yesterday’s papers. It seems only to be particular meetings with certain people, a surprisingly small group of specific events, the outcome or content of just a few conversations, or experiences at particular locations that stand out from the mists. Significantly, it seems that it’s not these events in themselves but the impact they bestowed or wreaked upon you that prove to have been most important.
Is it mundane to be so self-centred? Or is it an emerging truism that events are only significant because of the impact upon yourself! Descartes, who in the above image looks more like a musketeer, stated
‘I think therefore I am.’ René Descartes
Much of that thinking is the received wisdom of others, from books and electronic media. There is such an overwhelming volume of this that it’s necessary to select which mental baggage we care to take on board or file away for the future. I wonder if we should flip Descartes, to say
‘I am, therefore I think.’
A friend, Richard Fairhurst, once summed up my early career by suggesting my ‘problem’ was that I was a pioneer. I was confused until he added that the pioneers get shot by the Indians! He was quite right. I was often involved at the start of new technologies where there was rather more heat than progress. He suggested that I glide back along the path of progress and be involved where the money gets made. I took no notice.
‘I pioneer, therefore I don’t think.’
This is my opportunity to sort through my over-crammed mental Rolodex and work out which cards proved worthy of firing up my synapses. So here are the memories of a salesman, often also described early on as a ‘technology whore’, a life of selling my mind and body to various new technologies.