Yesterday was my last day at IPSA – the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which regulates MPs’ expenses and decides their pay and pensions. I was the Director of Policy and Communications there. I’d been there since its creation in early 2010, following the MPs’ expenses scandal. Eight and a half years of my career, and the best job I ever had, with the best people. I’m “only” 59, so I didn’t have to retire, though my civil service pension had a retirement age of 60. And a lot of my colleagues really didn’t want me to go. If anything had kept me at IPSA over the last couple of years it was those colleagues. Special people. I’ve always had a sense of mission about what IPSA was set up to do too, and a feeling of responsibility about the place, having helped create and shape the organisation. The early days were a battle for survival, as a lot of MPs were very hostile; but things settled down, and today it’s a very different atmosphere, give or take the odd recalcitrant. In a way I feel my job is done, though I’m sure I will miss the day-to-day interaction with some great people. Great friends, in fact.
So I love the place, love the people, feel a sense of mission and a kind of paternal responsibility. So why on earth am I retiring?
It’s a fair question. I’ve asked it of myself many a time. I would. I’m always asking myself questions, challenging myself. I’m my own harshest critic. But there is an answer. It lies in an essential restlessness and a desire to do more of the things that really inspire me. In my novel “The Decision” there is a character called James. He’s the father of the three siblings around whom the story revolves. Towards the end of the book – this isn’t a spoiler! – some of the main women in the story are in a cafe, reflecting on events. James comes up. His second partner, Emma, says this about him:
There’s something going on in his head that doesn’t belong to anyone else. It’s the thing that drives him. Searching for something – quite what I’m not really sure he knows himself. Except he knows it’s never what he is doing at the time.”
When I write dialogue, it feels like I am simply transcribing what the characters say. I’m not putting words in their mouthes, manipulating them. So it was Emma who made that up, not me. But when I read it back later in the day I wrote it I thought, I’ve just described myself perfectly.
The things that inspire me could loosely be described as creativity and learning. New ideas and expression. Seeing people discover themselves, expressing their talents. It’s why I feel truly inspired by my work as a school governor, seeing the pupils learning, discovering, creating, expressing themselves. It’s why I blub when I watch “School of Rock” or “Dead Poets Society”. It’s why I love going to concerts by new bands, making their way, burning with the passion of the ideas they have been building up all their lives. It’s why the favourite parts of my job have been when we are creating something, working out how to solve a problem; or when I’m helping colleagues to develop themselves or deal with a challenge. It’s why, on a few occasions in my civil service career, which began in 1992, I seriously thought about chucking it in and becoming a teacher. I never did it, partly because of the money, partly because I wondered whether if I would be able to tolerate the ones who looked like they couldn’t be bothered. I say looked, because actually, there is always an underlying reason for someone’s bad attitude. But I’m a bit prone to thinking if you can’t be arsed, I can’t be f*****. That would never work in teaching. It’s not that good at work either, and I’ve tried to guard against it.
And that love of creativity is why I have been writing in my spare time for many years now. My music book, my poems, my novel, this blog. And now I want to do more of that. Not fit it in around everything else. I want it to be the thing I do first. And I want to paint, and improve my guitar playing, and maybe make some music, go to art galleries and take photos of London. Self-indulgent? Maybe. But I’ve done my 35 years of being a lemming, commuting into central London 5 days a week. I can afford to leave, I won’t be letting down my family – in fact I’m going to sort the house out too!
Blimey, there is a lot to do. I could be very busy. And not bored, like I have been a bit in my last couple of years at work. There’s just one risk: in the words of Johnny Rotten, Sex Pistols era, I’m a lazy sod! I can happily sit around reading the news, listening to music, mulling over my Fantasy Football team, chilling. So I am going to have to set myself a strict regime: get up reasonably early, go cycling, breakfast, writing, and then other stuff.
Will it work? Will I have the self-discipline? I’m sure I’ll let you know. But I’ve got to. The opportunity is too good to miss. No more saying, well I’ll do that when I’ve retired. I have retired!
Now is the time.