Thursday, 12 January 2012


After the Christmas and New Year break I return here with one of the main inspirations for my story.

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind
don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.  - Dr Seuss

As I write this, Michael is enjoying a well-earned retirement. I have had the privilege of knowing him for some 26 years. His earlier life has been quite hard, because that was the life he was born into. But of all the people I know, his life has been one of the greatest contentment. Combined with some of my own lifetime’s rather varied experiences, the lessons I have learned from Michael greatly influence what I now do and think.

I will tell you a bit about Michael. Almost everything he has done in his life, I have done the opposite. I realise now that what I have learned in the past I have learned the hard way. But since I have known him I have gradually learned to put some of Michael’s wisdom into my way of thinking and doing things. It will be impossible for me, at this fairly late stage in my life, to achieve anything like the wisdom and level of contentment that Michael has always naturally enjoyed. But surely, it must be worth allowing some of it to rub off into my life and maybe yours too? Judge for yourself.

‘Gentle giant’ would not be amiss to describe Michael. He is certainly a gentleman and many a stranger with a really worthy need has benefited from his generosity. Physically he is large and has been a very powerful man who learned to use his strength as little more than a boy, shifting pit props down a coal mine more than half a century ago. From those times to the present day, from what he has earned, some has been put away every week and never touched. So he is that much the richer than almost every one of us because he has never owed anyone a penny nor paid out a penny to anyone in interest.

Most of his working life has been connected, in a variety of ways, with the land. Animals, plants, fences, trees, birds, shotguns, wildlife, machinery, crops, fishing. None of these hold any mysteries for him. He is comfortable with them all. That makes Michael very much a countryman and much of his wisdom derives from country ways. But he is not so steeped in that way of life that he has no connection or understanding of urban ways. Indeed he was born in a city, as I was. I have a theory that those with only one experience are usually pretty dull to all except those with the same experience, who can therefore share it. Both of us wanted to escape from the city as soon as we could. Michael’s special wisdom derives from the interaction of the ‘comfortable’, although hard, country life with that of his experience of life in the big, bad city. Others will of course find city life more appealing, for a whole variety of personal reasons - there is no problem with that.

Michael has an unassuming and genuine wisdom about the ways of the world. Not exclusively about the countryside, for example, but on almost any subject. He can give a clear, simple and incisive view on almost any of our world’s or our country’s current troubles. That means he doesn’t sit on any fences. Some of us might see his strongly-held views in political terms. We might - but he does not. It is therefore possible to respect his views. They immediately clarify subjects in my mind - far better than any waffling news correspondent or self-important politician. You don’t have to agree with his views - but after hearing Michael’s clarity of reasoning - you might.

Michael is the type who, given half a chance, will spin yarns for hours. In my 25 years of knowing him, I have rarely known him to repeat the same story. And the stories are always interesting. How many folk can you think of who can keep that up, without your attention wandering? His stories are certainly not fiction. He will tell a tale of what happened the other day, in the ordinary course of his life. A tale of some simple domestic transaction, which we would pass over as commonplace, unless we heard it from Michael. His deep insight into people adds colour but more important it adds the reasons why people think and do things. Michael’s insight and understanding is worth more than all the psychologists in the land. It often occurs to me that I should have tried to switch on a tape recorder every time he began his yarns - but he might not have liked that.

He will also tell endless tales of what happened to him throughout his life. Never self-consciously and never in any way trying to impress. Michael has absolutely no need to try to impress anyone because very few can offer him the relatively simple things that are all he needs to achieve his wonderful level of contentment. Indeed, he would much rather give than receive. He might give you something he had grown or shot or even bartered for at a local market. It might quite easily be generous praise and encouragement, but only if deserved. Or it might be a ten pound note to a deserving stranger. That would only be with a very rational purpose, after a meaningful conversation. There would be no strings attached.

He bought a small field. He had no other purpose in mind for it than to dig a pond for the wildlife to enjoy and for himself to enjoy fishing. He planted trees in the field for no other purpose than it gave him pleasure and the knowledge that the trees will give future generations pleasure.

Michael is not overly rich in material possessions but he certainly wants for nothing. That’s because he has little use for the expensive complexities of life. He has a substantial nest egg amounting to a lot more than most of us have. The combination of always spending less than income, never owing anything and having very few costly wants has seen to that. And, even in retirement, he enjoys any opportunity which comes along to grow his nest egg even bigger. He regularly buys something and sells it for a profit. Just because it amuses him to do so.

As a friend, he is the best. Although you might not want him as your only friend … all those yarns! But he will not suffer fools gladly. In his younger days very few would have picked a fight with him … I know who would have always won and I am sure he usually did! But very much more often, he would win the argument by tipping his battered hat to the back of his head, hunching his shoulders a little, allowing his deep eyes to rest on his opponent for a few moments. Then his gentle husky voice would, in just a few clear words, quietly explain the facts of life. Then all would be well, with understanding all round.

Michael is certainly no Saint Michael. Confronted by one of Them, he will have transformed his dress and demeanour into that of a country bumpkin with little or no knowledge of any Rules. Nor am I a Saint either, really. My life has been varied. I guess I have had a lot of useful and relevant experience. In one sense there is absolutely no reason why I should be the one to write this book. We could all do it, could we not? Lot’s of pearls of wisdom out there. A natural desire to pass on the good news. How many of us, of a certain age, say, “If I had known then what I know now, things would have been very different!”

Would they? Well, yes, I believe that possibly they could. There’s a whole library of reasons, should you care to read them, which will give examples of ways in which we could do things differently, follow the examples of others, avoid obvious mistakes. If only we could choose the right way at every new obstacle. But we are human. It is human to do the opposite of what our parents tell us, to rebel as teenagers, to ignore good advice, to make the wrong decisions, to run too many risks, to lose instead of win, to acquire bad habits. Indeed - to succumb to the seven deadly sins.

It’s also human, of course, to do a lot of right things, thank goodness. It is getting the balance right that is the trick - and that is not easy.

Successful people (in the usually understood sense - big house, flash car, expensive tastes, etc.) will not be the natural readers of this booklet, although deep inside a few of them there may be a thought that there should be something even more satisfying than the next round of golf or expense account blow-out. I have no idea - I have never been there. Nowadays I have no aspirations in that direction, even if I ever really did. I have discovered something much better.

Very unsuccessful people - those who have really drawn the short straw of life - either by their own actions or otherwise - are also not the natural readers of this booklet. But if you do happen to come across it, please read it several times and understand it. The intention is that it should offer something for everyone.

An early inspirational mentor of mine, an author, used to tell people that he never wrote books for his readers - only for himself. In that way, the words he wrote were genuine - there was no point at all in kidding himself. His books were therefore fresh and alive and inspirational. His readers could detect that and loved him all the more for it. It is my intention to follow the same rule. But I do have some types of reader in mind (forgive me). You could be young and thinking that you know it all, that your life is mapped out, you will be successful, enjoying a lot of fun on the way. Indeed, many of us probably start out with such aspirations. That’s great - nothing wrong at all with that. I really hope you achieve your goals but for the great majority, I suspect, it doesn’t quite work out that way. At that point, I hope you are reading this book. Later in life, there are usually some real crossroads. “Shall I change my life before it is too late?” Well, this book seeks to be something of a signpost - you may like to consider its ideas and practical suggestions. Then there is the age when, successfully or otherwise, you have arrived at the point when a new direction is a bit impractical. But somewhere, nagging away in the background, is a desire to have achieved just one other thing in life, difficult to define. Could it be simply described as Contentment?

In the ordinary way, as I have said, anyone can write such a book as this, containing their own recipe for success. Very few people would undertake such a task, mostly because they would not have the confidence that their ideas would be of any interest to anyone else. Ordinarily, I really should fall into that category. But perhaps I could say, because of the nature of my own life’s experience, that I have something to offer. Perhaps because I am able to string a few sentences together reasonably well, that I could be the one to write this book. NO, NO, NO. I could not say that. Not just like that. I am too modest! My booklet would be average and with no more to offer than anyone else’s. You may think it is average (or worse) anyway.

The reason why I feel confident enough to sit down to put this together is because of the real privilege I have enjoyed in knowing Michael for the past 26 years. Not because of any specific thing which he has done in his life (very few would want to copy his life in that sense). But simply because of his instinctive and very natural contentment which has run all through his life and which has, in a modest way, touched mine. Michael just happens to be one of those few lucky but quite ordinary people who seem to have got it about right without too much effort. One of those people who genuinely enjoy a contented life.

So this is my book, with my ideas - some of which you might like, or not. But the only reason for its existence is that my experiences and ideas have been touched by the catalyst which is that privilege of knowing Michael.

He has taught me that the more a person’s life can be simplified, the fewer the material possessions, the more caring for others and the wider World, the more lasting contentment that person can enjoy.

I dedicate this book to my very good friend Michael. He is quite a bit older than me and there will come a time when I shall no longer be able to enjoy those conversations with him and which are such an inspiration. He has certainly contributed in large measure to my view about The Meaning of Life and, indirectly, has therefore made a big contribution to this book.

No matter whether this book sells many copies or not, I shall personally have benefited greatly by knowing Michael. Thanks, my friend.


A few months after I had written this chapter, Michael died. I have left the
words in the present tense because I prefer it that way. Michael often
appeared to be a solitary person but large numbers of people whose
lives had been touched by his wisdom were present at his funeral.
Rest in peace, my friend.

Next time, we will begin to get into the nitty-gritty and simply say it how it is. Good old-fashioned facts, honestly stated.