Packing a bag to return to England for a week, Mr Britten came to mind.
Mr Britten was headmaster of our two teacher primary school for the last term I was there. He was very different from his predecessor, he drove a bright orange ‘K’ registered car, the most up to date registration possible in the spring of 1972. He played the piano with one finger and much humour and he was very fond of reading. At the end of the day he would read to the whole class, the book still remains clear in the memory, Bran of the Moor. He wore his hair closely cropped and was probably not so many years older than those he taught.
Snatches of conversations still remain in the memory. He once asked, maybe in the context of some English comprehension exercise, what was meant when it said that someone was middle aged.
‘They are in their thirties’, I answered.
It seemed a reasonable answer. In 1972, people died in their sixties and thirty was halfway to sixty, so it was the middle.
Mr Britten smiled. ‘I hope not’, he said.
Years later a philosophy lecturer looked at our class of young students. ‘Your outlook on life changes once you pass forty’, he said, ‘then you realize that you really are going to die’. So middle age was reached at forty, not thirty, I was ten years out. But when did we really realize that the halfway point would come and that then there would come an end?
Tom Stoppard’s character Rosencrantz becomes bewildered at the thought that life’s end seems programmed into children:
We have no control. None at all . . . (He paces.) Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever. It must have been shattering – stamped into one’s memory. And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure.
There are moments when those blissful, hopeful days with Mr Britten seem infinitely attractive. Days when the world seemed young and life seemed to stretch out forever, days when even being thirty was such a remote prospect that it could be discounted from your mind.