URSABLOG: A Worthwhile Journey
“That’s Kenilworth Castle, and beyond that, the city you can see is Coventry,” I said.
“You seem to know a lot about it,” my fellow passenger said.
“Yes, I do, I suppose,” I replied. “I was born and grew up there.”
My fellow passenger – a very friendly and agreeable man from Crete – and I were on an Aegean Airlines flight about to land in Birmingham. He was going to a real estate exhibition at the National Exhibition Centre, and I was on a very special family visit. For those of you wondering why there was no blog last week, this was why: family came first. I hope you will forgive me.
As we landed I became very thoughtful. I was reminded of poem by Philip Larkin – who too was born and brought up in Coventry – called I Remember, I Remember, based on a poem of the same name by Thomas Hood who compared the joy of his wonderful childhood with his fallen state in adulthood, and mourns the loss of innocence. Finding himself unexpectedly passing through Coventry railway station, Larkin is surprised. His travelling companion asks him:
‘Was that…where you “have your roots”?’
Larkin rather sardonically, bitterly even, thinks:
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started…
The poem concludes:
‘You look as though you wished the place in Hell,’
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.
‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’
I am not in the habit of having conversations, literary or otherwise, with fellow passengers on planes. I usually settle into my window seat and immerse myself, either in work or in a book. But my travelling companion was particularly gregarious and likeable, and so we spent some time chatting about each other’s lives and work. And actually I was rather proud to point out the place where I started; it was a beautiful day and the countryside around was showing England at its best, and I was looking forward to my visit.
The main reason for my visit was to attend my nephew’s baptism, where I was to become his godfather. Before I left, everybody in Greece who knew of my trip kept saying to me “παντα αξιος” and when I asked them to explain it, the translation was hard to figure out: “always worth it” did not sound quite right. So on the morning of the baptism I called a close Greek friend of mine to ask what the real meaning and context was. I wanted to be prepared if I was called on to make a speech, and it was the kind of thing that could be a bit different: the godfather from Greece bringing Greek words to the party. As it happened I was not called on to make a speech – to the relief of many I suspect – but the real meaning and context as my friend explained is to wish to the imminent godparent something like “may you always be worthy.” This struck me as particularly apt.
Living in Greece for so long has changed my attitudes to many things, and how I see the world. I cannot help where I come from – I cannot pretend I was not born in Coventry – and I will always be British, even if I finally manage to achieve my stated ambition of gaining Greek citizenship. But I view family life differently now, which is hardly surprising because I live among many people who come from Greek families, many of those families having welcomed me into their lives.
The wish of “παντα αξιος” – to my understanding – is for the godparent to always be worthy of the title, the responsibility, because the godparent in Greece is so much more than someone to attend the baptism, but almost an additional parent, to shower the godchild with presents and affection, but also be the one that the godchild can turn to for advice, protection, support and love throughout their lives. It is a responsibility as well as an honour, and to be worthy of both is not to be taken lightly, and should be taken with a profound humility. I took this to heart once I realised it, and so I wanted to get to know my nephew, and after the baptism, my godson, better. I felt I wanted to create a bond that he would value, but more than that, one that I would be worthy of.
I wish that those of us that find themselves in positions of responsibility and power, whether in business, in politics, in education and even in personal relationships would view things in the same way. Rather than acting as if the employee, voter, student and friend, lover or partner, or even child, should be grateful for the benefits bestowed on them, the employer, manager, politician and teacher should reflect on whether their actions and decisions are worthy of someone who has been given that responsibility.
Personal relationships are more difficult of course, but I have come to the conclusion that we should try our best to be worthy of the trust, affection, time and love invested in us. Only by doing this can we in turn be really able to invest trust, affection, time and love in them. Things do not always work out of course, especially in affairs of the heart and I readily admit that I have not always lived up to these standards. But I do not think I am alone in this, otherwise much great art and literature, not to mention poetry and love songs would not have been created.
In my mind the shipbroker/principal relationship revolves around a similar axis. To gain the trust of a client is not always easy, and a broker – apart from trying to earn commission – must be able to provide the services that the client wants in the way that they want it, as well as not only protecting their interests but promoting them. By extension, as a broker I hope that I am worthy of the authority entrusted in me, and the trust my clients give me to be their ears, eyes and hands in the marketplace. You may say that shipbrokers are hardly in a position of power, but I would disagree. Shipbrokers have the power to do many things, good or bad, and are not just the innocent postboxes or greedy middlemen and women of popular imagination. My frustration when I cannot provide what my clients want from me is palpable, and as my colleagues know to their cost, I take it very seriously.
As an employer and educator I feel this even more keenly. Whether as a director, lecturer, teacher or examiner, my duty to those that I have responsibility for is not simply giving them knowledge and the tools to do their jobs, or pass their exams. It is to make sure that they understand, grow, and in fact are inspired to do better for themselves and fulfil their true potential. I will readily admit that I do not always succeed in this either, and often feel I am not worthy of the responsibility that I have undertaken.
I doubt that my sister and her husband realised that their invitation for me to become godfather would lead to such deep reflection, but I think they knew at least that I would accept the honour of being a godfather to their son seriously, albeit in my own way. And the weekend was indeed a joyful one. My mother’s house being so full of my sisters’ families I stayed with my own godmother, 89 years old, and still as hospitable, sharp and insightful as I have ever known her. I stood whilst my godson was baptised in the same font as I was, many, many years ago. There was a satisfactory feeling of continuity, of love and experiences being passed through the generations.
The weekend was enveloped in the noisy love that only those from a large family can appreciate, and those from smaller ones can only wonder at. In between I had conversations with my brothers and sisters, and my mother, my nieces and nephews, and walked around my old neighbourhood, and in all of this I noted what had changed and what was different. I realised that as much as I revere Philip Larkin as a poet, the only similarities between us are that we grew up in the same streets, albeit separated by a couple of generations. When I was growing up, something was always happening, and if anyone was at fault, it certainly wasn’t the place’s. He was also, it goes without saying, a real poet.
As I landed at Athens airport on Sunday evening, and made my way home, I felt that the beginning of my godson’s relationship with me had started off well. I do not have children of my own – sometimes a regret, sometimes a blessing, sometimes a feeling that we have to live with the cards that life has dealt us – but I have enough nieces and nephews, eight, to love and spoil. And I have godchildren that will feel the love I can invest in them, whether they like it or not.
I also felt that having gone back to the place where I was born and raised, and come back to the place I now call home, I can accept the lessons I have learnt from both places, and get the best of both worlds. But this is requires work and effort, and continual conversations to reassess and recalibrate my position in the world, and in my relationships with others, as people grow up, develop, and grow old. I just hope that in all of that, I can always be worthy of the trust and responsibilities that have been given to me.