Retirement was a complete change. Only vaguely had I thought about what had driven me and this suddenly changed completely. Ways of thinking, the people amongst whom I had been active, priorities, what I did, where I went, all suddenly changed. I awoke on the first morning - a Wednesday - when I couldn't go to work and decided to paint the outside of the house. The weather was fine, the task kept me active and I could even talk to people passing in the street. This kept me active in body but not exactly in mind. So I became a school governor and began an Open University www.open.ac.uk
course in Mathematics and Computing. The work in a school was to get me involved in a people activity. The learning filled an educational gap, because I had always regretted not doing advanced level maths, and it taught me something about computing theory.
The governor's activity was never really satisfying. The school was in special measures with 29 governors. But I completed my four-year stint.
Although expensive, OU study is on the whole very well organised and I enjoyed it immensely but there are examinations and all that revising during the last part of the course lessens enjoyment. Having done four years I looked around the examination room at the mostly much younger people with career motivation and wondered what I was doing there. I got my diploma though. How was I going to make use of what I'd learnt?
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I discovered the University of the Third Age www.u3a.org.uk
and joined North London U3A. The first group I became involved with read and studied literature written by writers in English whose first language was not English, and by foreign writers in translation. Our group numbers between 10 to 15 people from varying backgrounds. All have an enthusiasm for learning. We meet to plan our programme of books for the year and all who wish, get the chance to introduce and talk about a work which they have chosen. One of the books I chose to introduce was a novella by Thomas Mann. Before I entered engineering as a career I had read German at University. Through years of non-use my fluency had suffered so I took the time and the trouble to read the book in the original, and spent a few days in the library reading the background to the work and some academic criticism. With our seminar over, my interest had been roused so I decided to take the study further and do a translation of my own as a personal mental exercise, something I should not have found myself undertaking without the U3A stimulus.
It is possible with motivation to undertake learning by oneself when retired but learning with others enhances the experience enormously. Members of the U3A bring with them a lifetime of individual experience. Sharing ideas becomes wonderfully rewarding.
And what about teaching? A principle established when the U3A movement began is that those who teach learn and those who learn also teach. There is hardly anything as satisfying as holding forth on a favourite subject. A U3A group gives every opportunity to indulge this pleasure. In preparing to lead a group, you find yourself having to do some research, and this can be addictive, especially on a subject which you have chosen yourself. What has astonished me is how many places and institutions which are available to do this research, most of which are free, eg British Library www.bl.uk
, London Metropolitan Archives, www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation
Work you do for U3A is not marked or formally judged except of course by oneself. There are no exams. As groups develop you find yourself making new friendships. Because a U3A is defined by a geographical area these new friendships will be local and therefore easier to foster. If you have a common activity making new friends with similar interests will happen at any age and I do not believe this lessens when you are older. The main thing is to find others around where you live and get involved in something. U3A enables that to happen.
North London U3A organises over 55 different interest groups. They include Psychoanalysis in Literature, Elizabethan History, Architecture of London, How Language Works, Playing Chamber Music. The people who lead these groups often have an expert background having spent their working lives in the subject. Physical activity is also a feature of a U3A. In North London there are groups which combine organised walks with finding out about the environment – for example two groups explore the Thames. There is Yoga, Table Tennis, Country dancing, Tai Chi, and in the late spring someone is starting Croquet.
For me joining that literature group has led to other things. The U3A was looking for a membership secretary and it was just at the time when I had a brand new new diploma in computing with a speciality in databases. And what an opportunity to do some application development before my OU studies were forgotten. So I joined the committee. Then I was asked to act as membership secretary for the Greater London Forum made up from most of the U3As in the London region. And I became involved for a time with a national activity on the editorial panel of their educational magazine.
institutions like the British Museum and Royal Opera House are increasingly getting help from U3A members to carry out projects which limited resource otherwise would not allow. Teams of eight to ten from different U3As under a coordinator meet regularly for a defined period with people from the institution to carry out largely research projects which normally end in a formal presentation to the host organisation and a written report. An example is the oral history project undertaken with the ROH. At present several teams in London are working with Brunel University to study the way ageing is handled in literature; a group is working with the Keats House Museum in Hampstead; another is carrying out an archiving project with the Nightingale Fellowship at St Thomas’ Hospital; a second study at the British Library is now nearing completion; and we are just about to embark on a project with the Post Office Museum.
U3A has meant that retirement has been more than old hobbies, reading, television, theatre and friends for supper (although for the most part these remain essential - and very enjoyable - and there may be more friends to invite to supper). I wake in the morning with tasks to do, sometimes wondering whether I can fit them in; like I used to when I was at work but perhaps with a greater freedom to please myself.