Saying Goodbye

28 06 2009

[You can listen to this podcast here, or subscribe by searching ‘James Townsend’ on iTunes Store]

You always know when you’re doing something for the first time. It is often more difficult to know when you’re doing something for the last time. Well, if you are listening to this letter on the radio then this is the last time that my voice will be broadcast on URY. That is unless at some point in the future I am quoted by Sky News at the top of the hour… but don’t hold your breath on that one.

This week has been a week of many last-times. Some predicted, others not. We didn’t realise at the beginning of the week that we had in fact seen Michael Jackson perform live for the last time. Thankfully, it is not the last time we will hear him, and industry experts anticipate that this will be the first time that one artist has occupied every place in the top ten list of bestselling records.

Unfortunately, though, Michael Jackson was not aware that he was going to die. Just the day before his death, his choreographer spent several hours rehearsing with him and reported that he was on ‘top form’. Consequently Jackson will have been deprived of the knowledge of all those little last-times.

The last time he saw his family. The last time he visited a special place, or the last time he moonwalked. Now, I don’t anticipate my own death at any point in the near future, but I now that I do now have to leave York. Consequently I have spent the last week aware that whatever it is I have been doing, it is likely to be the last time that I do it.

By this I don’t mean the great symbolic things – handing in the last piece of work, or attending the last campus event. What has more significance for me is the plethora of little things – returning the last book to the library, for example, or very nearly stepping on a campus duck for the last time.

One thing that might be worth pointing out here is the danger of becoming sentimental about all this. As soon as you try to put special meaning into a last-time – doing something with an especial reverence, say – you will inevitably find that some genial but unaware fellow will present himself and trample all over your moment with banal wittering on the weather.

Something else I have noticed is that we never truly appreciate just how happy we are in a particular situation until we are faced with the threat of it all being taken away. The student life, for all its stresses and frustrations, is a fantastically liberating thing. Where else can you spend an entire day socialising with friends, and then write it off as unproductive with no consequence?

I often hear complaints that we pay too much for our university education. Three thousand pounds a year is not that much, surely, when we look at the opportunities we are given. Where else will we have free access to, for all its faults, a world-class library and online access to a seemingly infinite number of resources? Where else will we have the chance to spend hours and hours contributing to something that has absolutely no relevance to our chosen career path? Here I am thinking in particular of student newspapers, television, radio and film-making.

More than anything else, though, University gives you one thing that we cannot find anywhere else – uninhibited access to a vast number of people. What is more, they are broadly interesting, friendly, funny and engaging people. Even the nutters and the weirdoes are, on the whole, good company and if nothing else provide some entertainment.

And it is the people in York that I will miss most of all. There are special places – York Minster, for example, which has been home to me every Sunday morning. Or indeed Betty’s, the outrageously priced and over queued-for tea shop. Or the ubiquitous smell of poo in the bar of Lendal Cellars.

And of course there are special moments in those places and others – the time when so and so got so drunk they did something hilarious. Or a particular dinner to celebrate an otherwise unremarkable birthday, but for some reason sticks in the mind.

But all this is nothing to the memories of great people. Even the ones we haven’t met but see from afar – red jumper boy, or annoying girl who talks in the library – we will miss their reassuring and familiar, if sometimes frustrating, presence.

Michael Jackson once memorably told us ‘Don’t stop till you get enough’. Well, unfortunately in this case we have to stop, even if we hadn’t quite had our fill. Time moves on, and at some point we have to start making some money for ourselves.

Another member of pop royalty, perhaps not the King of Pop but certainly a Grand-Duke of it, Elton John took a different line to Jackson. He said: ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word.’

I disagree. I think it’s a different word – Goodbye.

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