Category Archives: history

My life’s essentials 14: Ilfracombe

Ticket to ride

This ticket started me on a journey 50 years ago on Saturday, 2 August 1969.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that train journey from Paddington to Ilfracombe, on the north coast of Devon, would bring me to the place where I would live 50 years later.

We had a marvellous fortnight’s family holiday, magical even, before returning home to resume everyday suburban life. That, it seemed, was it. But my family loved railways and I remember in my teen years daydreaming in school lessons about modelling the station at Ilfracombe. It seems the place had caught hold of me.

Now, I’ve always been a dreamer. Sometimes, when people ask me a straightforward question, if my mind isn’t in gear, I struggle to come up with an answer there and then, only working it out later on. However, deep down I’ve always known what I’ve wanted to do – write, create and communicate – although back then I didn’t realise I would do this with computers and the internet. 

What has started me thinking about my journey, in terms of my home, my work and who I am, is finding this ticket from all those years ago. I didn’t think I had mapped my future out, but, looking back, I took definite steps to get here. I started out in the corporate world, but after 10 years realised I did not fit. I remember, when working at British Airways, I visited the North American Air Fares department about a job there, which would have been a big promotion. As the chap talked, I felt my eyes glaze over and realised how stifled I would be in that role. I didn’t apply, but he rang me up after applications had closed to see where mine was. The job would have been mine, but I could never have stood it. And that’s how my career progressed, from Cromwell Road, Earls Court to Heathrow Airport to the Aldwych in London, back to a soulless business park in Maidenhead and then, when I jumped off the corporate ladder, to our spare bedroom in Windsor. Here I established our communications partnership with my brother Simon.

15 years ago, when Mrs Z and I wanted to escape the Heathrow noise pollution and mindless rush of the South East, I suggested moving to Ilfracombe. I thought she would tell me not to be so stupid. She didn’t and we moved. As with the rest of my career, it wasn’t easy. The telephone exchange had only just been upgraded to ADSL and the small population restricted, as it does still, the size of market for many sectors, especially mine. But with the internet, I worked virtually for clients across the country, some of whom I never meet. 

Am I happy? Apart from reaching the age where I often feel melancholic because of all the dear souls no longer present, I am content. I’m now close to celebrating working for myself, at home for 25 years, am just about to complete my dissertation for my History MA, launched a business magazine this year, which is giving me the most fun ever, and am organising a business exhibition in October. All in the loveliest place I can think of living. 

In summer, I start the day early with a walk on Woolacombe Beach with our spaniel, while in winter the two of us brave the winds as we crawl round Capstone Hill in a storm in December darkness. Mrs Z is content and our spaniel arranges our life so that we exercise and relax every day. What more could we ask?

Some say that Ilfracombe and North Devon are 30 years behind everyone else. I see them being 30 years ahead, because here many people value time more, are closer to nature, which I interpret as life and death, are more generous with their help, and appreciate what we all have. I think many businesses have forgotten these values, but perhaps more people are slowly realising how important they are. 

I do not have as much monetary wealth as I might have had from staying in the corporate world in the South East, pursuing opportunities purely because they were lucrative, but I am doing what I always wanted to do. And I am doing them where I have wanted to be for 50 years since the date on that ticket: Ilfracombe.

Posted in a musing, history, Ilfracombe, my life's essentials.

Epic sagas of the future or historical footnotes?

For my History MA, I recently wrote an essay on the topic of how 19th century imperial powers relied on collaboration with indigenous populations in order to administer their colonies. I am interested in collaboration – in the sense of ‘working together’ – because, however much we do or don’t like it, we are all interdependent. As babies, we depend on parents or guardians to feed, protect and nurture us. As members of ‘settled’ communities, rather than nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, however much anyone wants to live by themselves without intervention from others, we are forced to depend on others to provide us with food and other products and services essential for life, as we cannot just go and forage for survival.

I am interested in exploring the limits of interdependence and independence. Why should we, for example, pay taxes to fund services that we disagree with? Is there a point at which those appointed or elected to represent us cease to act with our best interests at heart? What are our options in these cases? Can we ever be truly independent? Can we ever be free?

These are some of the questions that led me to resume my study of history. Why? Because I heard and read about people in various elections and political campaigns talking about issues and rights, and realised that my knowledge was often superficial. I wanted to know more about how we got to where we are now, to understand the journey, the questions and decisions people were faced with, the mistakes they made and how we can learn from them. When asked to suggest a topic for research, I suggested Magna Carta, because I had only read about it recently after seeing it invoked frequently for one cause or another. Originally, I imagined looking at the events leading up to the issue of this document in 1215, but my own historical journey has led to me focusing on its influence 700 years later in the 20th century, which was a surprise to me.

Magna Carta Memorial, Runnymede | @robzlog @robertz

Magna Carta exerts its influence long after it was issued

Now, as many current government and administrative institutions, structures and processes are being questioned, we can get so caught up in the moment, imagining present circumstances to be unique, that we forget that this has always happened. What was useful once stops working. People become, or feel they have become, disenfranchised and believe that their leaders, appointed to govern responsibly for their benefit, have ceased to do so. People do not always welcome change, but it is inevitable. If change is necessary, it will force itself on people, making them choose future paths.

Living interdependently, people collaborate with each other. If people become discontented with institutions, will they limit their engagement and co-operation? If their withdrawal from participation in community life grows, what effect does this self-imposed isolation have on individuals and communities?

These questions can be both fascinating and frightening. Many of us have been fortunate to live through what can be seen as relatively settled times and disruption can appear threatening: results could vary from war at one extreme to peaceful reform at the other.

But, providing we do not destroy ourselves with the powerful arsenals at our disposal, perhaps what appear to us as major crises will become footnotes in history books of the future? Who can tell?

Posted in a musing, history.
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