Re-attiring not retiring

November 2017

A necessary part of my leaving my final full-time academic post, after twelve years served in a variety of institutions, was to clear my office, located many weary miles from my home, and unvisited for quite some time. I duly drove my trusty Volvo onto campus and loaded it up a random collection of books, trophies and artefacts, including my silken doctoral gown, which I discovered stuffed unceremoniously behind the door.   My next stop – post this exhumation and sealing off the scholarly tomb – was to point the car towards my next destination in pursuit of a newly kindled interest, a song leaders’ workshop conducted in an ancient abbey, sunk deep in the Oxfordshire countryside. On an impulse, at breakfast, I decided to make some use of my much neglected gown before it was ultimately mothballed, with no more graduation rituals to grace, no more stifling in the summer’s heat, mechanically applauding as a procession of young lives pass out before their proud parents eyes.   i rescued my gown from the car and slipped it on, marvelling at the creases, stains and general lived-in look so characteristic of all my wardrobe, now enhanced with a whiff of stale exhaust.  i had no idea why I did this, but I allowed it all the same, curious as to where this might lead.  Sitting down for breakfast on the ancient bench  beside a much venerated song leader renowned for her wit and wisdom, she asked, not unnaturally,  something along the lines of ‘what’s with the gown?’, but more elegantly phrased.  I recited my story of my ultimate retreat from academia, and of my impulse to give the gown one last airing, by way of a symbolic ending, in the setting of this ancient seat of learning. ‘Ah’ she reflected ‘So you have just retired?’  Rather shocked by the utterance of this taboo term, I blurted ‘No, Not all, I do not recognise the R word,’ although of course at one level her conclusion was factually accurate, and her inquiry kindly.   ‘Ah, I see’ she countered. ‘So you are re-attiring, not retiring?’ I loved that reimagining of the R word, and gave her a full swirl of the reclaimed garment in recognition of her speed, sharpness and accuracy of thought.  She asked of my twelve years before the academic mast. I explained that it all began in my mid-fifties, when I was occupied with writing a narrative doctorate that was ultimately after much struggle  to gain me the licence to inhabit the hooded gown.  The doctorate was eventually titled ‘On becoming an academic.’ I speculated that at this turning point in my life that I may well be in the process of reversing the engines.

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