Yesterday I duly completed my second consecutive day of rescue boat duties and learned something sobering about myself.
In common with most members of the human race, I am self-effacing enough not to want to offend or bother anybody and would simply like to conduct my life on the basis that I try to treat others as I would like to be treated myself. A huge part of my existence is spent trying to fit in with those in my vicinity, or those that I come into contact with wherever I go.
Right after leaving school in 1970 a mate and I set off upon an adventure in Australia, where – by choice, barely knowing what we were getting ourselves into, otherwise upon reflection we might not have done it – we worked for four (12 hour day) months upon a building site in the inhospitable depths of northern Western Australia for what, to us, was a very welcome fortune (in effect, part of it danger money) – the bulk of which we then spent travelling up and down the east coast. No hyperbole this – it was a tough working environment and, to coin a phrase, both of us grew up fast – it was a dose of reality that as sheltered public school boys we probably needed badly.
Eventually, after seven months, the two of us returned to the UK with wads of cash and pronounced Aussie accents. We hadn’t acquired the latter at all deliberately, but clearly – with hindsight, both of us trying to fit in, we’d subconsciously taken on the Aussie inflections and modes of speech (with the ends of sentences rising slightly) and so on. Seriously, we could have come straight from Central Casting at Neighbours, had you listened to the soap’s ‘action’ with your eyes closed. The Aussie accent is a strangely compelling one. I am told it took us – well, that’s not quite accurate, I can only speak for those who knew me at the time – a minimum of six months to sound British once again.
My illustration above hopefully goes to serve the point I am making. I’m a wimp. I don’t go around strutting upon life’s stage as myself – strong, opinionated, characterful, domineering, making a definite impact upon others … perhaps received positively by some and negatively by others – i.e. essentially being myself and frankly letting the devil take the hindmost.
My overriding concern is that ill-defined quest of ‘fitting in’ if I possibly can. To a group of religious or philosophical debaters, I would instinctively try to come across as intellectual. To a bunch of UKIP supporters, I’d probably be in favour of the UK coming out of the EU [mind you, I’ve never met a bunch of UKIP supporters]. To a warren of pro-Europeans, I’d probably see the benefit to the UK of staying in. And so on. You get my drift, hopefully.
I was at it again yesterday. I was assigned duty with a sideman, a 28 year-old guy who was a young doctor – five years younger than my own son. He had a hint of ginger in his darkish hair, was plainly intelligent and driven (in another eight years, after fourteen in total studying and working, he hopes to become a consultant surgeon) and – though taciturn – conversed easily with those around him, including me. He was, by some margin, more a man than I ever was at that age.
I couldn’t help myself. Suddenly I was acting as if I was also in my late twenties – talking about his studies, his demanding working schedule, sport, women, politics … you know, the sort of thing late-twentysomethings talk about. I was also holding forth about my own career, offering little quips and minor gems of wisdom that I’d gleaned from my meagre career, basically being a ‘lad’. I was enjoying the moment, being a young man again, for that is always what I have been at heart.
After our lunch break back on dry land we went out for the afternoon session, this time joined by a female friend of his – not his girlfriend, just someone he had known for twenty years or more because she belonged to a neighbouring family and they’d grown up together. Again I was acting like a late-twentysomething, quasi-flirting with her, cracking ‘hip’ jokes to them both [well, I thought they were ‘hip’ jokes]. It was as if for yesterday I had been transported back in time by forty odd years.
I thought I was coming across as ‘in tune’ with their generation, but God alone knows what they were thinking.
[Perhaps it was “Blimey, Suzie, I’m going to have to go out again this afternoon with this loony old geezer. Please come with me this afternoon, you’d certainly get a few laughs listening to him and it would certainly help to reduce the boredom factor I’ve been suffering from all morning ...”].
However, the watershed moment – the damning, self-awareness, moment – came when we were operating a ferry service, collecting the sailing fraternity from their boats and bringing them to the pontoon so they could ago ashore.
Here we took groups of six to eight sailors, collected from various craft – most of them aged forty-through-seventy and, by the nature of the types who tend to go sailing in this part of the world, most of them hearty, dynamic, well-to-do professionals (or City bankers, or successful businessmen, or public sector chief executives?). They were all high-achievers, strong characters and at ease socially with each other.
At one point in the difficult tidal, weather and wind conditions, more by happenchance and good fortune than anything else, I managed a small but rather slick piece of motor-boat manoeuvring [involving millisecond-long steering shifts and adjustments of the ‘forward’, ‘neutral’ and ‘reverse’ options on the engine throttle] in order not only to avoid colliding with three different boats but then slide gently alongside the pontoon that we were seeking to reach.
As we tied up, one of said gentlemen turned to me and said “Congratulations for that exceptional bit of seamanship” before jumping ashore, I blushed and took it (if you see what I mean) as a generous piece of encouragement from a member of a senior, established, generation to a young whippersnapper who, more by luck than judgement, had managed to deliver a minor act of true competence and quality.
Rather than the less-impressive truth – that in fact it was a small complement from a man of about fifty to someone who was nearly fourteen years older than he was.