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And there I thought I had had a full life! In post-modern jargon that values life in terms of experiences rather than buying things (giving meaning in the past for modernists), I can look back and can see I have had a fairly wide range of experiences – from abseiling with the Royal Marines on Dartmoor, to trekking through the jungle of Borneo before it became a tourist track, to listening to Modern Jazz on the Southbank, to thrashing along Germany’s autobahns at 120 miles an hour, to sailing a small dingy on a gravel pit in a force something gale, to walking the heights of Exmoor in the middle of winter with snow under foot, to…. well the list can go on and on but I realise now, with Andrew Marr, that so much of life went on without me.

A while back I wrote an article here entitled, “Big Events and Little Events” and in that I noted that there were things going on in the world in my earlier years (and probably still now, today) that WE – yes that is you and me – had no idea about, like the work of a certain Tim Berners-Lee who basically invented the World Wide Web. Although most of us had not a clue about what was happening back there in 1989, the foundations of so much modern life were being laid down without our knowledge. What was interesting was that personal computers (as against the massive hulks that filled rooms) had been around for about eight or nine years by then but the communication and information world didn’t explode for another ten years on from our first tiny-memory home computers. Back then, computers hadn’t become suave yet. I disliked the BBC; it seemed purely functional and it would take a slightly wacky but thoroughly brilliant character by the name of Steve Jobs to mix function and fashion in the worlds of phones and computers – but I knew nothing of it while it was happening!

I find these sort of thoughts real ‘levelers’ because however great the person is (unless you are talking about the Queen and even she is not all-knowing), the reality is that ALL of us have such narrow fields of knowledge and experience. The trouble is that pride sees the area that we’ve been in and we think we are such experts (and we may be – in THAT narrow sphere) but when it comes to the whole scheme of things we missed out on 99.99999% of what was going on in the world because that is how we are – limited. Perhaps that is why we bolster ourselves with our thoughts of how important we were in our shop, office, factory or business, because we fear the thought of being a single atom in a mighty cosmos.

I recently heard someone talking along similar lines to this and she talked about how she used to swim regularly in the local swimming pool and every week swam a certain number of lengths in a certain period of time. Then she entered a mud race, one of these crazy cross country races that involve lots of water and lots of mud, and she realised she had never swum in a lake before. So she found a local lake and dived in and swam out to the middle and then panicked. Where did she go, how long would she swim, what…..? With no boundaries she was suddenly lost. For the proud and arrogant, a realization of the massive world we’ve missed out on, is a healthily humbling experience.

But it’s always important to get balance, isn’t it?  So does it mean that my life has been worthless because of my limitations? Although I can look at a wide range of experiences that comprise my life, I’ve only got to listen to my kids telling of their holiday experiences around the world, to get my life in perspective. Of course the truth is that when my kids eventually reach my age, it is probable they will numerically have more different experiences to look back on, but they will still have missed my experiences. When they talk to their kids (no doubt grown up by then) they too will be forced to re-evaluate their lives that were not as spectacular as they thought.

Wisdom is perhaps realizing reality, realizing how small we are, but also realizing how good parts of our lives have been – and being thankful.  Yes, I lived through the fifties with the coming of rock ‘n roll and changing moods escaping the war years, yes I lived through the swinging sixties (in London) moving from an unsure teenager into an uncertain twenty-something. The changes were being brought about by a very small percentage of the population and no doubt I affected a tiny portion of that world, but like most of us I don’t have a massive building in London that I designed that shouts my name, I don’t have a gold medal from the Olympics that puts my name in record books, I don’t have a scientific paper or invention to my name, I didn’t change the world of fashion.  

And then I start thinking, how much did some of the ‘big names’ really affect major change in the world? John Lennon was a big name back in my youth but my kids don’t rate him and the fact that he is prematurely dead makes him even less of an icon of change. His music goes on and like many others I enjoy much of it, but the images of him letting his life pass by in bed with Yoko Ono before he was assassinated, do nothing to impact or change my life. In fact, make a list of a hundred ‘stars’ (film, music or acting generally) and ponder on the impact such people have on your life today. People we followed, people we enjoyed, people we were moved by, but just small, vulnerable people in a very big goldfish bowl.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and now the guys at Google, help me focus on world events, historical events, people and experiences, and the more I see the more I wonder and marvel at how much there is to know and how much I don’t know. Even the person with six PhD’s is ignorant in comparison to the sum of all knowledge. And do six PhD’s make you happy? I doubt it. Contentment, they say, is being happy with not only what you have, but what you have been able to do. Steve Jobs was always pushing on for something better, something more new but he’s dead now. His life seems to suggest you can be either contented OR a world innovator but not both at the same time!

We probably need a mix of contentment and lack of contentment to push the world on, and no doubt the older you get the more you value contentment. So, Andrew Marr, thank you for your book and thank you for the reminder of how much I have missed out on, but I have a feeling that I have a greater sense of well-being today because I did miss out on so much. I refuse to get stressed today thinking about what I could have done and what I missed. I am incredibly grateful for the things I have been able to do in life and I still have goals to see changes come, before I pass on from this world (and there’s another whole area of reflection), but I am not going to worry about what might have been, or what might yet be. I contributed to the past (and am grateful) and I may yet contribute to the future, but we’ll have to wait for that before I can claim any glory!  Let’s conclude, as we always do, with some lighter quips and quotes:

What makes most people comfortable is some sort of sense of nostalgia. I grew up in a small town, and I could count my friends on one hand, and I still live that way. I think I'll die in a small town. When I can't move my bones around a stage any more, you'll find me living in a place that's spread out and rural and spacious.

Justin Timberlake

It is one of the paradoxes of American literature that our writers are forever looking back with love and nostalgia at lives they couldn't wait to leave.

Anatole Broyard

Nostalgia Is Not What It Used To Be


The Past, The Present and The Future walked into a bar. It was tense.


“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.” 
Bil Keane

“We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it.” 

Rick Warren

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