Thursday 23 January 2020

Campbell Spray: 'I don't want to be Methuselah... but it sure is nice to beat the psalmist'

A big round birthday arrived last week for Campbell Spray and sent him reflecting on his luck in life

HAPPY AND THE IVY: Campbell Spray is joined for a birthday lunch by his son Marcus and daughter Rachael
HAPPY AND THE IVY: Campbell Spray is joined for a birthday lunch by his son Marcus and daughter Rachael

So that's it then. A couple of glasses of Champagne in The Ivy, a few toasts, some wonderful presents and then last Thursday it was all over. I was 70 and my birthday was done and dusted.

It might have been bad enough for my wife to say goodnight to someone in their sixties on Christmas Night and wake up with someone in their seventies on St Stephen's Day, but my thoughts of pending mortality were only reinforced by Joe Duffy's two hours of obituaries that morning of all those who died in 2019.

"The days of our years are threescore and 10," is written in Psalm 90. That's fine for the psalmist, yet a number of his forebears, as related in Genesis, had gobbled up the big years and no wonder that we had to accept our miserly 70.

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Seth, Adam's third son, lived to 912, a bit short of his father's 930, who had an awful lot of time to carry around his guilt, let alone Eve's.

And then Noah of the Ark put in 950 years; 150 of which were spent preaching about the coming of a great flood and still that didn't have Bertie in his wellies.

The little known Jared lived for 962 but it was his grandson Methuselah who was the big daddy of them all with 969 big years put in. He inspired the Champagne bottle that holds the equivalent of six ordinary ones.

Now that's what I call living.

So I was born on what my family called Boxing Day 1949. It was the year that George Orwell's prophetic 1984 was published. I arrived about 10 days early as my parents were on their way to a cocktail party. Knowing my father, he would have continued on as my mother delivered a 13lb turkey in the nursing home where I held the weight record for many years.

My mother was a small woman and, perhaps little wonder after a natural birth, she wasn't that keen on me for a while and left me to the ministrations of my nanny, who in turn would put me in the pram and take me for a walk during which she visited her lover.

No wonder I have married a psychotherapist.

Of course my parents were of their day and my birth was just four years after the end of World War II during which they had met and had both served in with distinction. My mother as a front-line nurse, often dealing with the last hours or minutes of people with absolutely appalling injuries and my father was a Royal Marine officer who met her in Egypt after he had been evacuated from Crete. They were a generation who saw death many times at very personal levels. We Boomers are lucky.

But still, I suppose that in many ways reaching three score and 10 in pretty good health is lucky.

Although one of my editors says 70 is the new 50.

And I'm a lot luckier than many colleagues who over the years succumbed to drink or drink-related accidents.

And I am a lot more fortunate than my first wife's second husband who was stepfather to my two English-born children for more than 30 years. This incredibly fit man died three months ago aged 63, just a few weeks after finding out he had pancreatic cancer.

Then also I am a lot luckier than my son Daniel, who spent his last Christmas with me in Dublin five years ago and died the following April. Of course, he was playing Russian Roulette with heroin and with that drug the house rarely loses.

But we have to be positive - even if now, as Leonard Cohen said, I am occasionally hurting in places where I used to play. And if I have to accept that I'll never play rugby for France, Ireland, England, Scotland or Australia - all of which I'd be eligible for - it does bring a bit of relief from having to keep my boots clean.

So it is time to count my blessings. I have made it this far and there is a lot to go, I hope.

I have a beautiful wife who is still in her 40s (just) and three wonderful children; Marcus, a senior economist with the British government; Rachael, a project manager with a charity/quango in London; and Laura, a senior nurse in Greater Manchester who is also a wonderful mother to my three grandchildren.

And it was those three who gave me such fun a few months ago during a break in Center Parcs Longford, including going on a search with the three-year old Thomas for an eight-foot squirrel.

Then there is Ziggy, our Jack Russell, who brings such joy to our life as did Sam our collie/lab cross for so many years. You can't betray a dog's trust. Perhaps it is time to get Ziggy a small partner of his own to settle down with.

I have had a great life and a fantastic career with wonderful colleagues during a time when newspapers were real power-houses. If there is a lesson, it is to be a bit kinder to everyone, including myself.

And if there is one big regret, it is not spending more time with family and less in the ever-devouring world of journalism and, of course, its outer office, the pub.

On Christmas Eve last Tuesday, as I took Ziggy on his last walk of the day I marvelled at the wonderful, clear, starlit night just as I had done many times in Cornwall, Scotland, Yorkshire and Cavan.

I could glimpse magic up there and among the stars perhaps I really could just see a sleigh and reindeer making its way or was that a really special big star in the East? There was something splendid, sparkling in the night.

As we turned down from Dalymount Park I could see that the front gates of St Peter's Church in Phibsborough were open for the first time for years, almost beckoning, welcoming people into the lit interior.

And then, like a sketch from a Dickensian story, an old colleague wearing a Santa hat and accompanied by a dog passed. "Campbell, it's gone to f***! It's gone to f***!". I wished him Happy Christmas, turned into our garden and switched on more of the lights on the pine in our garden.

Wistfully, I looked over at the church. There was a bit of longing, although Catholicism was never to my tastes. I miss brushes with religion and the Church of Ireland services in Grangegorman Church. The hymns, the hymns; they still nearly draw me in but it was never the same after Daniel's death.

On Christmas Day our little family of me, wife and Ziggy went for a walk in the Dublin mountains, just as we have done for zonks and especially did five years ago. There was a snipe of champagne in my backpack and some crisps and hummus.

Everybody we encountered was in good form; dogs and humans. All wished one another a happy Christmas. And as we sat on cold rocks overlooking the wonder that is Dublin and its bay, we know how lucky we are.

Whatever our age, we are alive and in command of our faculties. My wife's mother, just a few years older than myself, resides - like so many - in a world of her own and is looked after in a Scottish care home.

When I was a young teenager, some men who had served on D-Day were still in their thirties and men who had fought in the trenches of World War I were younger than I am now. All of them congregated in our small hotel in Cornwall but their silence of internal memories of horrors were legion.

All the latter are dead now and most of the former. On my 18th birthday a friend of my father came over to take me out in his beautiful Bentley and let me drive. A few years later, he drove it over a cliff and wasn't found for weeks. The demons had got too much.

So as I see into 2020 and whatever years lie ahead - after all my father lived until nearly 93 - I can look back with some regrets but also memories of many joys. And, as it says as part of Evensong, there is always time to make amends. As Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, "there's no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused".

And of course Psalm 90 Verse 10 goes on to say, after mentioning the three score and 10, that "if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away".

Perhaps that is too grim on which to end. My wife, who I married in September after 17 years together, gave me a lovely card last Thursday morning. It is of an elephant holding a balloon.

Above is the legend. "Happy Birthday, remember age is irrelephant" (IRRELEPHANT).

Indeed; have a happy 2020, I am going to.

Campbell Spray was executive editor of the 'Sunday Independent' until earlier this year and continues as motoring editor

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