When I retired two years ago my reduced income stood out like a shorn lamb in a winter blast, and I didn't care. For at long last I had turned from something I had wearied of, and welcomed something which delighted me. My time was my own. If anyone asked me the literal meaning of that I could say that I did not know, but I did know the state which inspired it. It is revelry, an inebriation, a whimsicality of words that can only be checked by a light diet of full stops and semicolons.
I was a steel melter, a maker of steel, for nearly 50 years, from the age when I was strong enough at 17, until the age when i was far from strong at 65. It would be a kinder thing to retire from such work at 60, but very few do so in the steel trade. For most the pension is meagre, and in some steelworks it doesn't exist at all. Things are improving nowadays, but the steel furnacemen of former generations were too busy wiping the sweat from their brows to think much of adequate protection in their old age. They didn't expect to live long enough to be old, and generally their guess was right.
At work I was a well paid man. I was in charge of a steel furnace, a first-hand steel-melter. It is a proud title, for a first-hand melter is someone a somebody in the world of heavy industry, even today. For many years before I quit work my income never fell below £1,000 a year, and for the last five years it was nearly £1,200. That sort of money could compete with the income of many professional men. I had the opportunity for saving, and I did so, but not with the avid dedication of the born saver. Anything I acquired was something which despairing caution wrested from the natural spender. But just about four years before I quit work, my firm created a voluntary pension scheme which allows me £7 3s. every month. It's not a lot compared to present-day standards but I'm not grumbling. Indeed I regard it as the sweetest and most important money in my life, for it saves me from being a very bitter man – which I would have been if I had walked out after 50 years, without anything to show that the firm gave a hang about me.
Besides that I have a superannuation of £3 8s. monthly from my trade union. All told, with our national pensions, my wife and I have an income of £8 12s. 6d. weekly. We own our home, and that helps a lot, but there is nothing left when the bills are paid. Our capital is sacrosanct, we defend it to the deaf – so how do I earn an extra pound or two to make life sweeter still?
I was fit enough for jobbing gardening, for caretaking on new property and canvassing. I was offered all three, more than once, but I turned them down. Apart from my own garden and vegetable allotment, and the two other gardens I tend for old and infirm friends, I want no more of manual labour. For me the real thrill is to make my pen do the earning for me. So I started a new profession. I became a Wordster.
As far as I know a Wordster is not defined in any dictionary, but for me it is a person who sits at a desk in a quiet room and chases every prize, no matter how humble, with his one-fingered, hammer-stroked typewriting. If an editor offers half a guinea, or even 5s. For a letter, then mine is on the way by the next post – except when I need to do some research first. Then I am in my local library post haste. I have done very well in this line and to date I have earned £10 13s. Crosswords I leave alone. They mortify me by revealing my ignorance mercilessly. I also leave children's competitions alone, because I'm too honest and because I'm afraid they might beat me; maybe I should have put the second reason first. I enter regularly for all spot-the-ball competitions, and for those which offer motor cars, holidays abroad, and all sorts of fortunes for arranging lists correctly. Up to now I have been so successful that I still ride an old bike, and last summer could not manage one half day in Blackpool.
My short stories effort has been a little better; one acceptance at five guineas out of 20 contributions. My newspaper articles have done very well – 19 guineas. In radio, too, I have a very good percentage – three of my eight offerings brought me in altogether 25 guineas. Television has given me nothing at all but I have only tried ideas for features. Perhaps they considered me a crank: only one acknowledgement for four letters.
In between these exertions, I have just completed a book of 100,000 words, dealing with steel-furnace life. I look forward to bearding some London publishers with my manuscript. I can think of no greater thrill than to see one's own creation in book form. What if it is never published? Ah well, it was a pleasure writing it; and, honestly, I enjoy reading it myself.
It would be wrong to imply that all this was just the result of a sudden decision. I have always wanted to write. Much of my reading and my studies have been in preparation for it. It would have helped to discuss literature on the steel furnaces, but I kept quiet. My mates found such talk embarrassing. Except for one or two, they were all practical men. Good men too, for throughout its history the British iron and steel trade has attracted decent men. Our shiftwork system prevented me from regular evening study in literature, or in discussion groups, so I joined correspondence courses instead. They were excellent, and it is not the fault of my unseen tutors that I am still hazy on sentence construction and punctuation. I have a habit of throwing a handful of commas in the air and letting them land where they may. I had better improve. Next June I intend to sit for my GCE in Literature and English Language, O-Level. I wonder how my bald head will shine among the juveniles? I am looking forward to it and studying hard, in between my pursuit of little cheques.
I like everything in this way of life for which I planned so long. I like my quiet room, my typewriter, my desk and the loneliness. The loneliness is especially dear to me after the noise of a steel-melting shop. And I like the little cheques. I remember reading many years ago of Cole Porter's first visit to London. A lady at dinner asked him, 'Which do you think of first, the lyric or the music?' 'The cheque,' answered Cole Porter.
I'm much inclined that way myself.