“Take some condoms and don’t get a tattoo.” These, apparently, were my last words to my eldest son as he set out on his pre-university gap year in the 1990s. Like so many words of wisdom, they now seem rather dated. Nearly every other person these days sports a tattoo.
Moreover, just as marriage guidance counsellors sometimes get divorced or racing tipsters have off days, my own track record on gap years does not bear examination. I backpacked nowhere. I built no schools and bungee-jumped off no towers in the developing world. And I certainly faced no dangers or dramas that would improve in the telling in the years to come. Instead, I worked as an accountant in the City of London.
No words can quite convey how awful that was. On arrival, we were issued with four different coloured pencils. There was a dress code that was stricter than school. (Waistcoats could be dispensed with in the summer; bowler hats could be worn only by partners and senior staff.) Most days consisted of calling figures to each other as we audited various firms’ accounts. Different types of ticks had a particular kind of significance. The most excitement I had was playing a very minor part in running a common tax fiddle under which the wealthy inhabitants of farms in genteel spots would put the farm in their company’s name and deliberately run it at a loss to offset the tax liability on the company’s profits.
I loved, however, being in London, and on a few occasions I found myself asleep at the end of the District Line instead of getting off at Mansion House. And I shall always treasure the look of appalled horror as I announced to my boss that I was leaving and going to read history and politics.
My words always seemed empty to me over the years as I pep-talked or enthused about gap years to generations of students setting off on these adventures. “Look,” I would tell them, “you pass as an adult (we both know that the jury is still out on that one). You are not lumbered with husbands/wives/partners/children/mortgages/three weeks’ annual holiday, to say nothing of middle-age spread. God does not deal you a hand like this again.”
As I approached 70, however, I began to realise that I had that rare thing in life: a second chance. I was now virtually retired and the recipient of various pensions. My children were settled and I was the smiling possessor of five grandchildren. I lived on my own and could rent out my home (whose mortgage was now paid off). I had recently noticed faint stirrings of that spirit that moved me, as a student coming across a sign that pointed one way to Greece and the other to Bulgaria, to simply toss a coin. I began to wilt after correcting university essays for more than 40 years and writing for the nine-millionth time in the margin: “Check the difference between its and it’s.” But I also realised that, as age was racing up on me, I soon would not have sufficient stamina for a gap year. It was, in the immortal words of that Elvis hit of my youth, Now or Never.
I have become a gap year bore. I enthuse to everybody – family, relatives, friends, people at parties and in the queue at the village shop, to say nothing of complete strangers. I realised that in the coming months there would be a few moments of doubt, when even a week at Butlins at Minehead would seem appealing. I have now got myself into a situation where backing down would be an unbearable humiliation. In a strange reversal of roles, my eldest son tried to counsel me: “Do you really know what you are doing?” (He did not think he needed to warn me about getting a tattoo or forgetting to take condoms.)
A plan has begun to emerge but has been subject to many revisions and changes of heart: France, Spain, Morocco, Egypt, India (working there on an educational project), Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia (working there as a fruit picker), New Zealand, the West Indies, Canada, the US and then home. I intend to travel rough with the occasional burst of semi-luxury and to use every mode of transport from jet plane to walking. I will let the house for a year, so there cannot be any reduction in time.
The reaction to my plans has been a mixture of envy, incredulity and scepticism. “Do you think you will make it?” I am constantly asked. The truthful answer is that I have my fingers crossed.
I am still debating some important details. Backpack or suitcase? (I have a fantasy, very unlikely to be realised, of taking a Gladstone bag to Gladstone on the Queensland coast.) Is it best to grow a beard and save on shaving equipment (last time I tried, I began to look a little like Santa Claus)? Will my Picasso Guernica T-shirt still cut it?
I plan to throw a large party and depart in style the next day, using my bus pass.
John Kirkaldy is a part-time associate lecturer in history at the Open University.