The truth is I admire the steely grit of those pessimists, who can carry on despite their gloomy prospects. If I didn’t have the hope of better things just around the corner, I think I’d have to put my head in the gas oven. My relentless ability to bounce back may be foolhardy and probably even annoying but it’s what gets me through life. I like nothing better than a potential adventure despite my history suggesting that things have a tendency to not work out as I’d hoped.
I suppose my first major setback came at the end of my first year at university. We were on the threshold of those gloriously long summer holidays and everybody I knew was preparing to go off on an overseas jaunt. The fashion at that time, it was the summer of 1981, was to spend a summer on a Kibbutz. I don’t even know if they still exist, I’ve not heard the word for years but all that working the land sounded too much like hard work to me. My friend and I therefore decided we would apply to work somewhere more cosmopolitan. Such was the popularity of summer jobs abroad there was an agent on campus who arranged everything and we had high hopes of being au pairs in Paris or chambermaids in Rome. I suppose alarm bells should have started clanging when we were given positions as domestic workers in a rural area of France that we’d never heard of.
As I said though, I’m an optimist, nobody can put a spin on a situation like I can and rural France suddenly seemed like a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle of city life. I was about as wrong as it’s possible to be, it was a total nightmare. We were in a dilapidated inn in the middle of nowhere, chopping vegetables and washing pots for what felt like 24 hours a day. Nobody spoke English and although my CV boasted O Level French, it seemed to be a different version of French than the one that everybody else was speaking. The old woman who ran the inn was a tyrant, she made Cruella DeVille seem like Mary Poppins. After only one week, my friend and I sneaked away in the middle of the night, not caring that we were surrounded by nothing other than countryside, miles away from anything even remotely resembling civilisation. Eventually we found a road and a car stopped to give us a lift.
And this is where being an optimist paid off because, after a week of wretched drudgery, an adventure had come to call. It turned out the inhabitants of the car were Spanish boys, about our age, who had also absconded only not from disastrous summer jobs. These boys had done a runner from their national service, which let’s face it is much more exciting. We were joining forces with three lawless bandits. Well, that’s what it felt like at the time. We had a great summer; those boys were nothing if not resourceful. We found cheap hostels or slept in the car and the only arduous task was finding a phone box every Sunday to phone home and let my parents know what an industrious time I was having working in that inn.
You could be forgiven for thinking that after such a mishap, I might have adopted a more cautious outlook on life, but it wasn’t to be. I’d got the taste for travelling and decided that I wanted to study abroad. I applied for a scholarship and was accepted at The University of Texas in Arlington and, with little more thought than meeting handsome men in cowboy hats, off I went. The culture clash was indescribable. For a start, arriving in July, the heat almost killed me. I couldn’t drive and the campus was basically in the middle of nowhere, the first week felt like I’d been transplanted to the moon. I confess my optimism did start to feel a little bit like insanity but then a funny thing happened. It turned out that Texans are some of the friendliest people you could wish to meet and I had two of the best years of my life. I didn’t meet any men in cowboy hats but I made lots of lifelong friends and a whole lot of happy memories.
I’m a little bit embarrassed to confess I have adopted the same haphazard approach to my professional life. Having staggered rather than marched purposefully into teaching, all of the jobs I’ve embarked upon have been based on nothing more substantial than the promise of a good social life. It’s not always been a successful method and, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion, living in places that are frankly better suited to passing through. In my typical ad hoc fashion, I accepted one post in Southampton thinking it was on the coast. I apologise to anyone living in Southampton and, the Southampton of today is quite lovely, but that was a long year. In the late 80s before the much needed redevelopment, it was a dump.
By the time I was in my 40s, I was the only person I knew who didn’t own a house. I’d always preferred renting because that way I was free to move whenever I fancied a change. However, I returned to my home town of Sheffield just as crazy house prices were having a serious effect on the cost of renting and so, I followed what seemed like everybody’s advice and bought a house. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you? I am now the proud owner of a fixer upper. To be fair, it’s been a fixer upper for the 8 years I’ve owned it and I don’t envisage it being fixed up anytime soon. I spurned all the warnings and was won over by the open staircase that made it seem like a farmhouse and the fact that it had an attic.
In reality the open staircase is a nightmare because it means the kitchen is mostly freezing and the attic, which I’d envisaged as my writing den, is either sub zero or tropical. Do I regret buying it? I love my neighbours and I like feeling part of a community plus my mortgage payments are infinitely cheaper than rent. However, I hate having to worry about things like if my slates have blown off and finding the endless electricians and plumbers etc to fix all the problems. So on balance it’s probably yes and no.
The truth is, having lived my entire life optimistically on a whim; I doubt I’m going to change now. And, even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to. For me the beauty of life is that while ever we are still drawing breath, anything could happen. Adventures are everywhere if we open ourselves up to them. I loved the fact that when Alan Whicker died recently, his wife said that death held no fear for him; instead he simply viewed it as his next big adventure. It seems to me that with such an outlook on life, there really is nothing to fear. Okay, maybe we will make mistakes and things will go wrong along the way but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. My grandmother used to say, “When one door closes another one opens,” and I think that’s a pretty good way of viewing our journey through life.
I don’t suppose it really matters whether you are an optimist or a pessimist just as long as your philosophy works for you. Some people say the glass half empty perspective means that you are never disappointed because you don’t ever expect things to work out. It’s true enough but what a miserable bloody way to go through life.