A Keen Life

A Keen Life

Philosophy December 04, 2014 / By Ben Irvine
A Keen Life

When you commit yourself to the endless repair of a chronically unravelling world, you are rarely deprived of things to do, of goals to sustain you, of a sense of meaning.

On 11 July 2014, an eighty-year-old male patient who was experiencing neck pain and difficulty balancing was taken to Addenbrooke’s Hospital. These were ominous symptoms in someone who had been fighting cancer for a decade. After being admitted to a ward, the man got out of his bed and made his way to the toilet, only to find that a previous user had splattered the cubicle with faeces. Discouraged, the man returned to his bed and informed a nurse, who replied that cleaning the toilets was not her responsibility; someone else would come soon and do it. The man waited, and waited; no-one came. An hour later he re-emerged from his bed and demanded to be given a sponge and a bucket and some disinfectant. His request granted – he was a wilful man – he returned to the toilet, cleaned up the mess, used the toilet, and went back to bed.

A month later, he was dead.

My friend Bill Papworth was a great man. This is not just my opinion. When he was buried at a woodland site near Cambridge, I recited a series of tributes to him, at the request of his wife, Hilary. She showed me a folder of the correspondence she had received following, or immediately prior to, his death. The folder was stuffed with three inches of cards, letters and printed emails, many of which referred to Bill as ‘great’. He was not a famous man, but almost everyone he ever met remembered him with deep admiration and affection. He was ‘remarkable’, ‘marvellous’, ‘amazing’, ‘inspirational’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘wonderful’, ‘splendid’, a ‘dear, dear man’, a ‘hero’. ‘Everybody loved Bill’, one correspondent summarised.

What makes a life exemplary? Is there a secret to such a life? It seems to me that the tributes to Bill are like fragments of a treasure map that have now been brought together for the first time. The map is, of course, imperfect, due to the fallibility of human memory and judgement. But in the various scenes of Bill’s life and work that are revealed by the tributes, I believe there is a clear indication of the way Bill lived, a way that culminated in the brilliance and appeal of his life. Bill’s way could be summed up as one of keenness. He lived a keen life.

Perhaps fundamentally, Bill had a keen intellect, as attested to by the tributes which speak of his ‘incredible’ and ‘formidable’ mind and his ‘razor-sharp intellect’. However, Bill was much, much more than an intellectual; he was also keen to ‘put into action all his amazing ideas’. In the 1950s he attended Oxford University but found it stifling, an institution run by ‘old men who didn’t care about anything’, as Bill himself recounted. His appraisal of his professors was reciprocated in their appraisal of him. ‘Not top-class material’, said one patronisingly; ‘should do well in industry’. They were half right. Bill became a top-class industrialist, working in managerial roles in car manufacturing and shipbuilding and as chief executive of a farmer’s co-operative within the food industry, throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s respectively. He was ‘probably the smartest person I have ever worked with’, one former colleague reported.

Known as ‘the foreman’ from the age of two, Bill’s greatest talent lay in getting people and places organised. With his ‘incredible attention to detail’, he was a keen spotter of inefficiency, and became an ardent proponent of F. W. Taylor’s scientific management theories, which sought to minimise waste in the production process. At a shipyard in Belfast, Bill chartered a small plane every fortnight to fly workers from all parts of the company to Stockholm until they began to understand how it was that for every one ship they completed in Belfast, their Swedish counterparts, with the same resources, were able to complete five.

Taylorism is often criticised for prioritising profits and processes over people, but Bill knew that this simplistic verdict gets things back to front. Well-planned, efficient, automated systems can free up people to do what people do best, and what only people can do – generate new ideas, collaborate, and inspire each other. Bill was renowned for his creativity – he had ‘a huge enthusiasm for new ideas’ and ‘an ability to think outside the box’.  And though ‘he could be a real fighter when he needed to be’, he was admired for his collegiate style of leadership. He was ‘a great and supportive boss’, declared one employee. ‘His ability to define and analyse a problem and then to delegate the execution of its solution was exemplary’, said another, adding: ‘I only worked for Bill for two years, but he gave me the opportunity and confidence to achieve the remainder of my professional career’.

Bill was ‘always looking for practical ways to make the world a better place’, remarked one correspondent. This was true outside as well as inside the workplace. With a passion for nurturing ‘wider international, religious and social understanding’, in 1997 Bill and Hilary founded ELST (English Language Studies for Tibetans), an educational charity. As well as providing scholarships that have enabled many young Tibetans to study at Cambridge, ELST has created opportunities for Cambridge undergraduate volunteers to teach in India, Nepal and Mongolia. A Tibetan connected to this project wrote that following Bill’s death ‘the Tibetan people have lost one of our staunchest allies’.

Recently, Bill and Hilary were working on creating ‘Teach First Global’, a scheme similar to the Teach First scheme in the UK but which aims to send skilled teachers around the world, helping to catalyse education, skills and trade in developing countries. And, in the months before Bill died, the couple were busily engaged in the early planning stages of an ambitious conference which is scheduled to take place in Cambridge in September 2015, involving contributions from, among others, the Dalai Lama and Rowan Williams. The event will be a ‘dialogue’ on the theme of how human beings can best live together, co-operate, and share perspectives in a society increasingly characterised by specialisation and globalisation. Bill called this theme ‘Universal Responsibility’; it was his enduring, and final, passion.

Yet as much as Bill showed that it is possible ‘to think Big and actually change things’, he was far from being one of those all-too-prevalent intellectuals whose excessive humanitarianism has deprived them of any humanity. With his ‘strong moral core’, Bill made a difference on a small scale too, where charity is felt most keenly. After he had spontaneously completed a list of repairs on a visit to the house of an elderly auntie, she responded, “Bill, every time you come, you make things a little bit better’, a quote that says it all. Numerous correspondents leave no doubt as to his ‘extraordinary kindness’; he was a ‘kind and compassionate man’ who ‘gave so much to so many’ and was ‘always ready to help when there was a need’; he was ‘the kindest person I have known’, ‘one of the kindest, most selfless and wonderful men on this planet’.

In whichever area he was connected to, Bill consistently ‘gave so much to the local community’. In Liverpool he acquired a handful of houses while working as a self-employed property entrepreneur in the 1980s; he was well-liked as a landlord, which is no mean feat. During a spell living in Tavistock in Devon he drove the community bus and helped set up a local support services centre as well as a drop-in centre for people with mental health problems; ‘Bill did a lot of charitable work in our town’, one resident concluded. In London, where the farmers’ co-operative he worked for had its headquarters, Bill got involved with the charity Kensington Mind. And in Cambridge – where he moved after marrying Hilary, his second wife, and remained until his death – he ‘played such an active part in our local area’, as one neighbour recollected. Another commented that ‘the neighbourhood has lost a real character’.      

‘I had the pleasure of getting to know him as we chatted over the hedge’, one lady reminisced. Bill was renowned as a keen conversationalist. He was ‘such good company’, ‘a delight to be with’, ‘always interested and interesting’. On reading the tributes, I was pleased to discover that I am not the only one to have noticed how Bill’s eyes sparkled like little Christmas tree lights when he listened or spoke. ‘When I think of Bill’, said one correspondent, ‘I see the little twinkle in his eyes sparkling with joy and freshness’. Another mentioned ‘the warmth and sparkle of conversations with him’.

Partly, no doubt, Bill was good company because he was a good person. The tributes paint a picture of a ‘gentle soul’, ‘lovely fellow’, ‘thoroughly decent person’, ‘nice guy’, ‘lovely man’. With his ‘cheerfulness and enthusiasm’, and ‘mischievous sense of humour’, he was ‘such good fun’, ‘always friendly’, ‘wonderfully warm’, ‘unflappable’, ‘warm and engaging’, ‘empathetic’; a ‘gentle gentleman’, ‘one of life’s true gentlemen’. No wonder he was ‘a much-cherished friend’ to so many people. Behind Bill’s sparkly eyes was a true partner in conversation. He looked right at you, into you, and you could almost hear the whirring of his mind as he geared into what you were saying and shaped his response. You felt like you were joining him on a quest to find out the truth, or the right thing to do. You were tapping into his keenness; he was ‘always very positive, encouraging and supportive’, ‘so positive and supportive to others’.  

But keenness can also mean having a sharp cutting edge or point. Bill did not always agree with what you were saying; far from it. ‘He was often a challenging person to talk with’, noted one correspondent, adding ‘but I always found him interesting and engaging’. Another reported, similarly, ‘Whenever I met Bill, I always came away energised, inspired and enthused – his passion challenged and woke up the tired cynic that I had become. I will always be grateful to him.’ Likewise: ‘He combined a powerful mix of idealism and optimism with a strong dose of realism and practicality, a rare feat to achieve in today’s cynical world.’ In bringing his formidable intellectual rigour and practical experience to bear on whatever topic you were interested in, Bill was ‘a great teacher’ who left you with a feeling of ‘awe and wonder’; his ‘wisdom has always astounded me’, said one tribute. ‘Always with something a little bit different to say’, ‘an individual and interesting man’, Bill often had a ‘life-changing’ effect on people. As various tributes put it: ‘he only had to enter a room and you knew he would change the way you were thinking for the better’; ‘I always left feeling my brain bulging with new perspectives; ‘he had a profound impact on my life’.

Ultimately, Bill’s kindness and frankness were inseparable; his frankness was one manifestation of his kindness. He was ‘a greatly heart-warming, generous, wise, informative friend’, summarised one correspondent. ‘He was a father and a grandfather and a drinking companion all rolled into one’, quipped another, hitting the nail right on the head.

Bill’s life was exemplary because it was lived keenly. He cultivated a keen intellect and brought that intellect to bear on practical problems. He had a keen eye for eliminating inefficiency. He possessed the keen farsightedness to perceive large-scale social problems and was keen enough to do something about them. He showed a keenness to help people on a small scale too. He conversed with people, keenly listening and talking. And he dispensed the keen advice – wisdom – which is necessary to get others to see, and live, as keenly as he did.

These qualities merged in the form of Bill’s longstanding, active commitment to conservative politics – a commitment which otherwise might surprise some readers. Bill was wary of the tendency of governments towards inefficiency, and sceptical about the willingness of social engineers, and the people who vote for them, to solve social problems at any scale, large or small. He was insistent that caring requires charitable deeds, not just words. He was doubtful of the wisdom of welfarism, which offers kindness without frankness, which is usually no kindness at all. And, yes, he was aware of the immense power of businesses to generate wealth and improve the world. Trade means reciprocity, partnership, and mutual gain, of which Bill cultivated a lifetime’s worth.

When I visited him in Addenbrookes, when his illness had first entered its terminal phase, Bill held a coin in the air, and – ever the teacher – posed me a question: Was the real coin in my mind or in his hand? He was pleased that I understood what he was getting at. He wasn’t indulging in a round of subjectivism, that perennially distracting philosophical parlour game that is taken far too seriously by too many intellectuals. He was pointing out that what made the coin he was holding a coin – that is, an item of currency – was the fact that he and I, and innumerable other people, could count on it as a valid IOU. A coin embodies trust – the trust that a favour, for which the coin was exchanged, will be repaid. Moreover, the same trust involves an assumption that the favour can be paid back by anyone in society who recognises the value of the coin and is willing to trade their own efforts for it. This system of social organisation struck Bill as a marvellously efficient way to foster co-operation on a massive scale.

Of course, as in everything, Bill was never divisively partisan about his politics. He called himself a ‘Red Tory’ and spoke fondly of his ‘Blue Labour’ friends, those who knew the true meaning of money and understood that responsibility cuts both ways: for a society to derive the benefits of responsibility, its members must act responsibly. Whenever Bill was required, through his management roles, to negotiate with trade unions, he always insisted that there was common ground to be found between the negotiating parties. And he was determinedly fair in his business dealings. One of the tributes in the folder was from a business owner, a contractor who had recently offered Bill her company’s services for free, by way of a strategy for generating paid opportunities further down the line. When Bill insisted on gifting her some money right away, as a relationship-building gesture, she sent back a remarkable letter explaining how she was going through some tough times, having recently had a disabled child, and Bill’s generosity had touched her deeply. He had a habit of making a difference.

Bill was also keenly aware of the shortcomings of capitalism. As well as yielding the rewards of widespread competition, capitalism tends to generate large-scale ‘tragedies of the commons’. These are scenarios in which competitors seek personal advantages but end up collectively worse off; the ‘commons’ are harmed. A well-known example is the destruction of the environment. We are all harmed when we overexploit the planet for personal gain. Other tragedies of the commons in modern life are more subtle, to mention but a few: TV watching destroys communities; litigiousness makes us wary of each other; urban car users scare off pedestrians and cyclists; profiteers exacerbate inequality by relentlessly targeting the gullible poor with phoney marketing promises. Perhaps most damagingly, even banking itself, the lifeblood of a capitalist society, is vulnerable to a tragedy of the commons. The financial crash of 2008 was caused partly by the irresponsible over-deployment of funds by bankers seeking commissions and bonuses. I only ever saw Bill cry once, towards the end. He was telling me how in the late 1950s he was saved from bankruptcy by a bank manager who lent him money but, in the process, rigorously helped him get his financial affairs in order. It was a time, Bill sighed, of greater trust between bankers and their customers.

Bill and I talked for hours and hours about the ‘commons problem’, that is, the prevalence of tragedies of the commons in modern life. With his aversion to inefficiency, he saw the problem as a blight upon capitalism. He fervently hoped that, along with communities and charities, dialogue about Universal Responsibility might be part of a solution to the problem, or even help unearth a technological solution to it. How can we measure the negative impacts of our economic transactions upon the commons, and thus factor those impacts into the price of specific products or services? The problem, stated like this, seems maddeningly intractable. There are too many people out there, too many repercussions and ramifications of our economic activity for us to be able to measure them all; even governments – or perhaps especially governments– cannot do it. On one occasion I suggested to Bill that we might be able to identify a proxy for those impacts, something easier to measure but which contains the same, or similar enough, information. His characterisation of my proposal was beautiful and unforgettable: ‘measure the shadow, not the mountain.’ That was as far as we got with the problem.

From the start we were both sure, however, that any solution to the problem had to be faithful to capitalism. Money itself comprises a solution to a tragedy of the commons: when people cannot trust each other on a massive scale, they tend to kill each other instead, the epitome of collective harm. The barbarism unleashed by comprehensive social engineering policies, and the violence of pre-industrial societies, is – or should be – ample demonstration of this fact.

Recognising such dark potential in life, perhaps Bill’s conservatism boiled down to one thing: his rejection of Utopianism. ‘Everything falls apart’, he once said to me. Due to the nature of reality, and the reality of human nature, life will always present us with challenges, problems to fix. Indeed, you could argue that to do good, to be good, requires us to appreciate that there will always be good to be done. There is a Monty Python sketch about a ‘Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things’. The sketch gently pokes fun at a committee of besuited, well-meaning men who are leading a meeting of the society; keen men like Bill. When the Chair warns that ‘this is no time for complacency... there are many things not on top of other things’, we laugh at the futility of it all. But deep down we (should) see that these men are existential heroes. When Bill cleaned that hospital toilet, he knew it was a philosophical act. Shit happens, and will keep on happening, so each of us must be personally committed to clearing it up for as long as we live, and, while we’re at it, minimising the wastefulness of our own activities.

I think Bill’s commitment to making things better explains why so many of the people who paid tribute to him observed that he ‘lived a life filled with purpose’. When you commit yourself to the endless repair of a chronically unravelling world, you are rarely deprived of things to do, of goals to sustain you, of a sense of meaning. Those who knew Bill admired his ‘loyal tenacity to whatever task presented itself, whether building shelves or his dedication to charitable projects’, and marvelled at how his ‘interests and experience were so wide’, part of an ‘amazing life journey’, a ‘varied and interesting life’. We are all of us, always, looking for meaning; the search is part of the deal of being human. Bill’s inspirational example – his ‘enthusiasm for his projects was infectious’ – suggests that we can find meaning, as he did, in ‘a life well lived’, one of ‘energy, compassion and vision’.

No doubt, Bill’s purposefulness sustained him through hard times, particularly in his last decade. He endured the surgical removal of his prostate and a large section of his oesophagus, and underwent the rigours of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but somehow remained – or at least gave the impression of remaining – ‘ever cheerful throughout his illness’; he was ‘so full of optimism, despite the difficult times he had had’. As one friend summarised: ‘His energy, commitment and enthusiasm for his life’s work, even in the face of grave personal illness, are inspiring beyond imagination.’ I was once moved to tell Bill he was ‘stoical’. He rejected my praise; ‘for me, it is normal’, he insisted. He continued to work on his projects till the end.

In ‘living and dying so courageously’, Bill might even be said to have remained purposeful in death. In his last days on the ward, he could be heard patiently explaining the problems of the National Health Service to any doctor or nurse who would stay with him long enough to listen. Hospitals should run things efficiently not in spite of but because of the need to provide personalised, humane care, said Bill. Any staff members who did listen long enough were soon nodding appreciatively. He was diagnosed with two brain tumours, one of them in the cerebellum region, which coordinates movement, and was offered the option of undergoing a ‘technically challenging’ surgery with a 20 percent chance that he would never come out of hospital. With only weeks of life expectancy predicted without the surgery, Bill initially consented. But on the morning of the surgery he withdrew his consent from Addenbrooke’s Hospital and insisted upon discharging himself. Hilary recalls a harrowing day of anxious deliberations and frustrating discussions, mostly between Bill and the surgeons. Bill got his way.

Soon after arriving home he was sure he had done the right thing, as was Hilary. In the hospital he had become frustrated by an accumulation of little things – for instance, not being allowed to shower without assistance, which was always slow to materialise, and being unable to digest the food the nurses kept bringing – whereas at home he was... at home. Emerging refreshed from his own shower, he told Hilary he ‘felt like a completely different person’, adding, ‘I have been at the edge of the pit of hell’. He took out a pen and paper and began documenting the events of the day and recording his thoughts, finally handing the sheet to Hilary. He had written that the important thing about the day was that they had got through it together.

In the last few weeks Bill’s friends visited him liberally. They sat with him while he talked. They listened. You never knew when a shard of insight would break through, despite the advancing tumor inevitably beginning to hamper Bill’s cognition and movement. He was finding everyday activities increasingly difficult. It would take him half an hour to walk along the corridor because, with so much swelling and pressure on his cerebellum, he had to execute even habitual actions consciously. Hilary remembers his final walk round the block. He had to walk behind her, because he needed to watch her feet. He kept telling her not to turn round, because when she turned round he got confused and couldn’t organise himself. He was keeping lists, lists and more lists, fixatedly documenting everything that was happening to him. But Hilary thinks that, in a way, Bill was more himself than ever at this time. He had always tried to live consciously and meticulously. Though he was now deprived of backup from other parts of his brain, his inner planner remained at the controls. He was keen to the last.      

When the time came, Bill was transferred to a hospice. Years before, he had written an advance directive to the effect that he didn’t want to be heroically revived, i.e. didn’t want to be kept alive once he was unable to eat or drink independently. The doctors praised the clarity of these instructions. Although Bill’s eyes were closed in the last few days, the nurses said that in these circumstances hearing is the last thing to go. People sat and talked to him. One visitor recalled that he ‘looked comfortable when we saw him, and as if he was not in any pain, and at peace with himself’. Perhaps Bill knew his work was done, for now at least. With Hilary by his side, he stopped breathing at 6.15 on Saturday morning, 9th August.

Bill was a member of the Church of England, but, in keeping with his character, his religious sense was open and expansive; he believed simply in ‘something bigger than himself’, as he would say. Those who paid tribute to him leave no doubt that his life and work will remain keenly felt, ‘a bright and enduring light’. His ‘good work will echo on, calling forth the good in others’; ‘the essence of his passion and love for humanity will live on in all who were fortunate enough to know him... in all who benefitted from his great and caring work throughout his life’; ‘for all of us who were lucky enough to know him he will remain very much alive’; ‘he leaves a lasting memory with all of us who had the privilege of knowing him’; ‘we will no longer see him, but he will live forever within us, with us’; ‘he has passed his spirit to people around him and people he supported’.

Of course, biggest of all is that mysterious source from which we all come, and to which, following Bill, all of us will one day return, our coldly beautiful universe with its tenuous grip on love. For the time being we must add whatever strength we have to that universal struggle, and hope that in death we will find greater power. ‘Wherever you are Bill’, said one tribute, ‘I am sure you will get them organised’.

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