You may remember me writing that I once went into a pub (wait for the rest of the sentence! It isn't such an unusual event so far) and, whilst waiting for my drink, the barman suddenly shouted out, 'Hello Bill! Happy birthday.' All the locals had gathered to greet him and a jolly nice party atmosphere developed. Everyone greeted Bill and offered him a drink. In fact I suspect he didn't buy a drink all day. I was so taken with that.
Not with the free drinks I don't mean, although there was I admit a certain attraction in that, but it was the fact that the local community knew Bill, knew it was his birthday and wanted to celebrate it with him, and that moreover the barman also knew him well enough to greet him, that appealed and made my heart jump slightly with envy. When I retire and settle down, that's what I want, I commented at the time. I dearly want to live in a community, to visit my local and have the barman (or preferably an attractive barmaid) greet me with, 'Hello Neil. Pint of the usual?' I will feel I have arrived.
Part of the reason for this is of course that I have spent my life wandering the world (which I shall continue to do in fact, mostly because it is what excites and motivates me) and clearly there is somewhere within me a gene which hankers after being settled, retiring, not just from work, but from travelling too, from being forever unknown in strange cities or empty countrysides.
But, hang on a moment, I can hear you cry, you are retired. Yes, OK, I don't engage in any salaried occupation, but I do drive for my local charity, I am getting more involved in the administration of my local bridge club, and I do lead walking groups around the world. One day maybe I'll stop doing those things and just sit at home. I could do that. I'd probably last about a week before I started walking off somewhere, or learning a new trade, or building an extension to the house, or joining the local movie-making club, but I could do it.
But that feeling of belonging, when you walk into your local and people in there greet you by name . . . Wonderful! I must say it has begun to happen a little here. I do now often meet people in the street who say hello. But, when I wander into Hemingways or the Crown and Cushion, nothing - beyond normal politeness (except for that lad with the bleached hair who keeps saying, 'no probs'; he needs to improve his customer friendliness I always think).
We went into Petersfield today. It was market day and The George was packed at 10.30. I counted 60 people in the bar and the garden was full, as were the few table outside at the front, so I reckon 100 people having coffee, breakfast, brunch, etc. Well, I don't expect anyone there to remember me by name, but actually the atmosphere was really comfortable. I wondered then whether what I really want is comfort instead of that frisson of awkwardness that you feel in an unfamiliar establishment.
But, no, I think it's the human contact, that sense that, not only do you feel have you been accepted into a community, but also that you have welcomed by its other members, a private club maybe in which strangers aren't included, however nice they are and however friendly the welcome, and one in which you don't just wear a badge or a T-shirt, but where the individual participants have interaction and genuine personal contact with each other.
With these thoughts as ever in my mind, the other day I went into the chemist. 'Hello Mr Hook. How are you today?' smiled the pharmacist. Not what I dreamt of for my retirement, but maybe I have now arrived?