Going out with a whisper

Dec 28th, 2006 | By | Category: Personal Columns

“Who was the Secretary General after Waldheim?”

“I don’t know”.

“You do. You must do. Don’t you remember? Thatcher and the Falklands, who was at the UN then?”

“I don’t know.”

Finally, I had to resort to Google for the answer as to who was Secretary General of the United Nations in 1982. Not that it had anything to do with the conversation anyway, which had been about Kofi Annan who retires next Sunday.

31st December is a bad time to leave a job. No-one notices you have gone. Half the country hasn’t yet returned to work after the Christmas holiday, lots of people are at parties and there is no proper television news. It’s like slipping quietly away from a noisy drinks reception, everyone is so engrossed in their own conversation that no-one could even say precisely when you left.

If you were the world’s leading citizen and you had been there for ten years, you would feel inclined to leave in the middle of a working week. “Hey guys. Here I am. I’m leaving now and I want you to all pay attention to my farewell speech”. Going on a damp, cold and grey December Sunday isn’t really going to have the maximum impact.

Maybe that is what real greatness is about, being happy to step out the door when no-one is looking, not needing to clamour for attention because you are big enough not to need it.

I remember being in the cemetery at Montmartre in Paris in the summer. It is a fascinating experience. There were graves of the great and the good, the rich and famous, epitaphs describing the attainments and the qualities of the deceased. Occasionally, you find the grave of a really great person, such as the composer Berlioz. Berlioz’ headstone has two words and two dates, “Hector Berlioz, 1803-1869”, when you are truly great, nothing more is needed.

Leaving your job on the Sunday of a holiday weekend when there are few to even notice is the mark of a man who doesn’t need attention, he knows his own place in history.

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