Many people seem to have a carefully worked out list of activities and preoccupations that they have been longing to pursue in the gloriously tempting spaces opening up post-fulltime work. Developing new or long suppressed talents and passions, such as painting or writing springs to mind, and many may even build a second very satisfying career around such new creative directions. Others want to pursue the dream by learning golf, a new language, a musical instrument…
I have made a little film and started a blog – but I don’t really have a clear ‘wish list’ and I certainly resist the very grating ‘bucket list’ term and its associated mentality. Lately I seem to have expanded my participation in book clubs, a worldwide community phenomenon that appears to be growing exponentially. This topic deserves some attention today in this blogisode.
1. Swinging with pre-retirement book clubbers – the golden age
My first ever book clubbing experience in recent memory started years before I retired. Over a drink one night, I was scooped up by friends into what was predominantly a gay and lesbian book club, with people from across the sexualities spectrum and from a speckled variety of professional backgrounds – for example, several medical practitioners, a marketing academic, a tv journalist, an accountant, a medical professor and a town planner, with others contributing intermittently to the colour and movement over those few years.
We opened with a flourish. Essentially, the ground rules were that the person who hosted the book club each month had to choose the book, provide the venue, do the catering, and lead the discussion. This appears to be a fairly common scenario that I hear about on book club grapevines. Cooking a meal for about 10 – 15 people was pretty high pressure for me (given my rather limited domestic skills and small kitchen), although others appeared to take this challenge effortlessly in their stride. On the plus side, we enjoyed our book clubbing adventures in some amazing venues – for instance, at a couple of very gracious historic mansions in both New Farm and Kangaroo Point, and at the homebase, a glamorous East Brisbane riverside residence.
As the months sped by, things began to unravel organisationally when we all became too busy/too lazy. Sometimes we would hastily decide just to bring along any book we had individually enjoyed reading that month, a process which at least broadened our reading repertoire, as we often swapped books at the end of the evening. Once we agreed to share and discuss our favourite poems with the group. Ever dramatic, the glittering hostess of the poetry reading night, Isabella Short, invited a distinguished guest actor friend, Bille Brown, who read the poems brilliantly of course. (Sadly Bille has since passed away).
On another evening, we decided to have a film club instead. This worked out pretty well as we enjoyed seeing Ang Lee’s film Ice Storm, and discussing this powerful film at a restaurant afterwards. The rainbow book/film club dissipated eventually through natural attrition, particularly when two key members left town, one to pursue his career in Arizona, the other in Sydney. However, I still have fond memories of that moving feast of a book club venture, sharing a mutual love of books with a diverse group of people, and making some friends for life.
In recent times, the film club idea has been revived with a different core group – Marty Manchester, Bella De Lillo and me. This new incarnation is still in its infancy, as we have only seen Her and Gloria so far. Both films have inspired some interesting discussions, so it seems that the future is bright for the 2014 film club, which will hopefully expand soon.
2. More book-clubbing action: dancing to some new literary tunes
Since 2011, as a new Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) member, I have revved up my activities in one of my favourite cultural hubs in Brisbane, attending a range of events, such as book club meetings, lectures by artists and curators, and enjoying Uplate gigs linked to Blockbuster exhibitions.
Regarding my Gallery Members’ Book Club involvement, I find that I like the rather unusual way the books are selected each month to coincide thematically with current exhibitions. Sometimes the connection is a bit of a stretch, although, overall, this imaginative method presents a different, interesting mix of both fiction and non-fiction books to mull over. I also find myself discovering books and authors that I would probably never have encountered otherwise. Once a month (as often as we can) my literary friend Dorothea Sitwell and I engage in a book discussion, which usually eventuates amidst cups of tea, cake and sometimes sandwiches in the Members’ Lounge, often followed by a drink at the bar later.
At times, the discussions are unfortunately hijacked by a self-absorbed member of the group who makes the book and the related exhibition all about her/himself. On the ‘up’ side, I do like the relative anonymity of the public nature of the Gallery book club events, even though we find ourselves sometimes sitting beside people whom we have only just met and know nothing about. At other times, we also realize that we are missing a person who had made some fascinating points at the previous month’s book club meeting, and we hope that particular insightful person will surface again in the future. But, in a way, these unpredictable elements add some spice and mystery to the Gallery book club adventure. By comparison, ‘closed circle’ book clubs restricted to friends and friends-of-friends tend to lack such unexpectedness and diversity, although they do have compensatory comforts. Meanwhile the Gallery club is becoming rather too popular having doubled in size in the last 6 months, and is now broken up into 4 separate groupings.
At about the same time as the Gallery Book Club was becoming embedded in my life, I was spurred on by two particular friends, the irrepressible Seamus Irish and the inimitable Wolfgang Schumacher, to become a member of the grandly titled Edmund Burke Book Club, run by the enthusiastic bookseller, Guy Coaldrake at the Barracks. Once a month, we engaged in quite serious debates about history, politics, economics and other such weighty topics. Sometimes the non-fiction books were fairly heavy-going, and it was quite an achievement to finish reading these tomes each month.
Other choices such as memoirs gave us some light relief, perhaps with the guest author attending, or, alternatively, we gained insights from an invited guest who, for instance, happened to have lived in Zimbabwe at the same time as the author-of-the-month. People in the group came from various backgrounds including retired academics, a former diplomat, teachers, public servants, members of the legal fraternity, an architect, a filmmaker, an hotelier… Inevitably, individuals sometimes held opposing ideological views (e.g. on conspiracy theories) and robust arguments ensued, all grist to the lively Edmund Burke mill.
Sadly, with the shutting down of Coaldrakes Bookstore (a great loss), this book club was disbanded at the end of 2012, although it has subsequently re-formed at a different bookstore. However, for a variety of reasons, I haven’t managed as yet to go along to this reconfigured club. I keep meaning to consult with Seamie and Wolfie about the new club, but we seem to get sidetracked into talking about buying or building a cottage in Provence or the effect of climate change on bees. Somehow the regrettable absence of Guy Coaldrake leaves quite a gaping hole that is hard to fill.
Anecdotally, I hear about other people’s book club experiences around town and beyond. No doubt there are as many stories as there are book clubs. Sometimes it seems that the logistical challenges can be difficult, and tensions arise, according to my dear friend Katie Appleby, especially when members live out of town, and the group works on that monthly scenario of one person choosing the book, providing the venue and doing the catering. Others have managed to sort out the logistical and cooking pressures quite sensibly and pleasantly, by savouring the book, food and atmosphere at a different local restaurant each month. My old friends Elizabeth Forster and Catherine Wordsworth belong to a supportive restaurant-based group that has survived many years of the reciprocal relishing of books and life across the whole spectrum of shared experiences.
On the down side, stories have also surfaced from one friend’s book club about personality clashes writ large, while from another, underground mutterings rather than open warfare tend to rumble away – e.g. about the irrepressible club member who continually hogs the floor and never picks up body language signals. Overall, at least, the love of books and reading usually wins the day.
3. Hobbling along in hobby land: a fine line between pleasure and pain
Beyond reading, certain occupations that could be termed ‘hobbies’ have simply not been on my post-retirement agenda – e.g. learning any kind of ‘craft’, an all-embracing, terrifying category. There are craft activities that totally intimidate me, while others I find almost laughable. I quickly checked on Google and found a huge array just waiting out there for me to indulge in – e.g. gold leafing, decoupage-ing bangles, crafting bird artwork from paint chips, making my own facial scrub…all worthy activities, often exemplary from a sustainability perspective, but not really beckoning me personally.
It is fair to say that I have always shied away from anything that could be seen to fall into a standard hobby category. Whenever I have been asked to fill out the ‘leisure interests’ space on a particular form, the perennial ‘hobbies’ I have been able to come up with are reading books, watching films, and travel.
Like many kids I did collect stamps for a while. Also, from time to time, playing the piano might pop up as a listed hobby, but as that endeavour required many hours of concentrated practice, sadly this lifelong pursuit has fallen by the wayside. Anyhow the word ‘hobby’ somehow diminishes that sense of true love and dedication. Looking guiltily at my beautiful old piano which I was given at the age of 4, I feel a surge of nostalgia deep in my being for the time when I could actually play classical pieces with some flair. Stirred by such memories, I mentally add ‘piano playing’ to the mythical list of ‘lovely-things-to-pursue-now-there-is more-time’, in the vain hope of reigniting that once-loved skill and passion.
Despite a recent popular surge in community knitting and sewing circles, I certainly haven’t rushed out to join, having been scarred for life with failed attempts in those arenas in the dark past. I came an inglorious second last in primary school domestic science classes, particularly in sewing, so I knew early in life that I had no calling whatsoever for the domestic life. Regarding knitting, I had to do therapeutic craft work when I suffered severe head injuries and brain damage after a near-fatal car accident at the age of 18, and one activity involved endlessly knitting a very long scarf. My poor mother would come up to the hospital, unpick my clumsy knitting each day and redo it so that I could start afresh the next day, with some dignity.
It is all very well knowing what you don’t want to be preoccupied with in the phase of life called post-retirement. I seem to have continued in a kind of pleasant haze involved in an array of leisure time commitments rather similar to those I somehow fitted in around fulltime work. Now I tend to fill the days with, for instance, such pursuits as watching films at the cinema and at festivals, dining out, reading novels, bingeing on the latest TV series, engaging in academic and non-academic writing, hanging out with friends, going on short and long trips…Learning a new language should be added to the list but it keeps slipping away for now.
Of course, as mentioned in an earlier blogisode, I have also been regularly engaging in the noble sport of wiffwaff, aka ping pong/table tennis. This ‘hobby’, a delightful pastime, has brought much joy to me, as has dancing unrestrainedly in rather odd but charming places with the same core group.
My commitment to film culture is still paramount, in particular relation to the Brisbane International Film Festival and the West End Film Festival, as well as supporting other such treasured events as the Iranian Film Festival Australia each year.
Once I decide to restart, and finally, completely, and utterly finish the dreaded doctorate before it finishes me (the odds are 50/50 at present on who will be finished first, me or the thesis), volunteer work in a number of significant organisations pops up as the next possible post-retirement phase close to my heart. I certainly wish to emulate my admirable friends who are working hard, for instance, in reading and writing programs in various schools with Indigenous kids or refugee kids. But meanwhile, back in New Farm…
4. Politics inside and outside the pub
Even though I am not usually a good ‘joiner’, I have at least signed up to be a member of a political party recently, with the aim of rising above apathy and cynicism, working locally for the good of the community, while thinking globally. As a feminist, I have always thought that the unfairly mocked expression ‘the personal is political’ has a strong ring of truth to it, while the reverse also resonates – ‘the political is personal’. Every day I encounter the appalling media coverage of the political debates in Australia, particularly from the dominant Murdoch-run media and all the commercial television networks. This experience certainly personalises the political arena for me, and my response is both visceral and intellectual. I definitely resist being disempowered or disenfranchised by the powers-that-be.
This new personal/political commitment probably also does not fall into one of the conventional ‘hobby’ categories. I am keen to be involved in grassroots politics, hoping somehow to inspire others, especially young people, to re-engage in the political process – a tall order, I know. At present, through my local Party branch, I hope to start by helping organise a ‘politics in the pub’ gig at the Brisbane Powerhouse. The first topic will most probably relate to the recent Queensland ‘Bikie’ laws, at an event where people will participate in a stimulating debate about significant democratic issues regarding the presumption of innocence, and the fundamental constitutional separation of the State and the Judiciary.
On the more general issue of ‘why be involved in politics?’ I want to finish this blogisode by quoting a philosophical piece from the rather marvelous Brain Pickings website . I certainly want to be both smart and politically committed. Here Brian Eno’s thought-provoking views are expressed:
Music pioneer Brian Eno, a man of strong opinions on art and unconventional approaches to creativity, is concerned that we see politics, a force that impacts our daily lives on nearly every level, as something other people do:
Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague… Is this because we feel that politics isn’t where anything significant happens? Or because we’re too taken up with what we’re doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Genomics or Generative Music? Or because we’re too polite to get into arguments with people? Or because we just think that things will work out fine if we let them be – that The Invisible Hand or The Technosphere will mysteriously sort them out?
Whatever the reasons for our quiescence, politics is still being done – just not by us. It’s politics that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan and a few hundred thousand casualties. It’s politics that’s bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It’s politics that allows special interests to run the country. It’s politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It’s politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo.
But we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.
What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing.