Not work-shy and not retiring

Image of Harry Eyres

My father, aged 84, still sends out three wine offers a year; he regularly goes to wine tastings in London; he even hauls about and delivers cases of wine, despite my mother’s attempts to stop him; until very recently he was still mowing the precipitous piece of lawn in front of their house with his old rotary mower. Ching Ling’s father at 82 still goes into the office every morning in Taipei. There are half-hearted attempts to stop him too, but he says he would be bored if he stayed around at home all day.

Perhaps this has rather skewed my ideas about retirement, but I was still touched the other day on a wine and food tour of Lombardy to see the 80-year-old Gualtiero Marchesi, often regarded as the father of modern Italian cuisine, appearing in crisp white chef’s uniform, far more smartly turned out and more upright in bearing than many of his guests (including this one, I fear) at his restaurant at the L’Albereta hotel in Erbusco, near Lake Iseo.

Marchesi doesn’t just turn up every evening at dinner at the restaurant; at lunchtime he can be found in his Milan restaurant, Il Marchesino, in the Teatro Alla Scala. This 80-year-old has absolutely no thoughts of retirement; on the contrary he is constantly thinking up new culinary compositions to match such classics as his gold leaf risotto and cuttlefish in its own ink.

This aversion to retiring seems quite a thing among Lombard restaurateurs. Another good but very contrasting place to eat in Erbusco is La Mongolfiera dei Sodi, where you can carve your way through great tender slabs of beef in the open courtyard of a 17th-century house. In full view of diners, in an office which seems entirely lacking in modern technology, the 80-year-old patron Gioacchino Coppini goes through the day’s paperwork when not coming out to greet guests. This is his place, which he created as a Pisan exile in the greener hills of Franciacorta; why would he retire?

Retire is an odd sort of word, when you think about it. In old-fashioned English you either retire to bed, or to a secluded place. The latter sense is also present in the French word retraite. Of course, those who are weary from excessive work want to put their feet up. But there is only one place, “a fine and private” one according to Andrew Marvell, where you put your feet up permanently.

I have a feeling the idea of retirement is rather like that of holiday; much yearned for and fantasised about but often desperately disappointing in practice. One thing is clear: those who have little idea what they are actually going to do, either in retirement or on holiday, are unlikely to relish them. Some who are relatively young and healthy think they will enjoy playing golf or tennis every day; but it may turn out that what was truly enjoyable as a weekend pursuit becomes less so when pursued too avidly. The stark realities – that you were never that good in the first place, that the inevitable inroads of time mean you are unlikely to get much better and at some point will definitely get worse – come more cruelly into focus.

These ideas about retirement are inseparable from thoughts about the meaning of work, and even beyond that, the meaning, or meaningfulness, of life. My father carries on his wine business because he loves it, because he finds it interesting and stimulating and satisfying (wine is after all an inexhaustible subject); because it is, in a way, his life.

He is lucky, I suppose: he found a line of work which he liked, or rather he gave up another career to pursue the thing he really wanted to do. Unfortunately for all too many people a dichotomy persists between work as something imposed from outside and therefore unlikely to give true inner satisfaction, and leisure as a fantasy realm of choice and freedom. In this split world, neither realm is destined to be truly fulfilling; work will always be resented and leisure will not deliver its promise, because only things that are worked at yield a true reward.

I have always imagined I will be among those (if lucky enough to be granted longevity) who carry on what they love doing until they drop – not merely out of predilection or philosophical conviction but because of sheer economic necessity. I doubt that economic pressure is what drives Gualtiero Marchesi to pursue his unrelenting schedule, and it was not what led Arthur Rubinstein to continue playing the piano, and making recordings, well into his nineties, when he could no longer see well enough to place his hands correctly on the keyboard without help from his producer.

However much you love your calling, there is, at least according to many eastern philosophies, an ultimate wisdom in learning how to give up, and when to stop. But that need not be a nerveless surrender, but the crowning achievement of a well-lived life.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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