Taking leave quietly

Apr 12th, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

“After Trevor Bailey, it will be Christopher Martin Jenkins”.

To those who loved the test match cricket commentary on BBC Radio 3, they were sad words. They were the very last words of cricket commentating days of John Arlott; the man who was the voice of cricket for a generation.  There was no formal ‘goodbye’; no retrospective reflections; no personal comment; just a professional broadcaster doing the job he loved in the manner he always did it.

John Arlott’s departure always seemed the perfect way to leave.

When Kofi Annan retired on the last day of 2006; it was with a similar cool professionalism.  31st December seemed 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 have maybe felt  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 didn’t seem the moment in which to achieve 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. Leaving your job on the Sunday of a holiday weekend when there were few to even notice was the mark of a man who didn’t need attention, he knew his own place in history.

The quiet taking leave of a place came to mind last summer in Paris. Parisian cemeteries are a fascinating experience; there are graves of the great and the good, the rich and famous, epitaphs describing the attainments and the qualities of the deceased. Lengthy inscriptions extol the virtues and unsurpassed merits of some of those interred in the soil.

What is remarkable is that the truly great seem without need for ostentation.  Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir needed no more than a plain headstone inscribed with their names and dates.  While the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Samuel Beckett, has a memorial that is even more unassuming and is difficult to locate amongst the rows and rows of graves.

If those worthy of a place in the pantheon can depart with such humility, there is a lesson for mere mortals in neither making nor allowing a fuss as one packs one’s bags and boxes to prepare to move to another place.

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