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Simon Mark Smith’s Autobiography Chapter 45

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Chapter 45 – Legacy

Legacy – Part 1

The Canadian pioneer, Nelson Henderson, once said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” For many, this sets out what it means to leave a legacy. The idea that as “me” becomes “we” a completion of life’s journey takes place, and through this, our legacy, we will leave a part of who we were in the minds, hearts and lives of those who’ll come after us.

While this may appear to be an altruistic action, as with most endeavours, no matter how worthy our motivations, our desire to leave a legacy is partly driven by selfish intentions. After all, faced with oblivion the idea of leaving something behind which will “live forever” has an appeal, even if the image of who we are to those future generations barely resembles anything of who we truly were. Then again, even meeting someone face-to-face when they’re alive might leave us feeling the same way too at times.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Every great institution is the length and breadth of a shadow of one [person]” and while that’s true to a point, are not all societies the result of multitudes of interlaced legacies? Not only that, but when it comes to legacy, each of us will not just leave one, but many. Firstly, there’ll be those we’re directly connected with and will include their memories of us, then there will be all the things we were involved in creating or destroying, as well as all those things that go unseen, which had we not existed, wouldn’t have either. While many believe our legacy is something we have a large degree of control over, the truth is somewhat different, because everything we do is part of our legacy, including many unintended consequences, both good and bad. When the German soldier leant down to help, rather than kill, my grandfather on the battlefield, he had no idea his actions would directly result in you reading these words now, nor was he motivated by the idea of leaving a legacy. Instead, his feelings of empathy most likely directed him, and although I don’t know what was going on in his head then, over 100 years later, I am grateful, beyond measure, for his kindness.

Still, there will always be some who wish their name to be in lights for eternity, but they will have to get in line as, no matter how much good one does, when it comes to being remembered hundreds or even thousands of years after our death, there’s only so much room at the top of the legacy table. In this year’s Legacy League Tutankhamun, Confucius, Buddha, Cleopatra, Abraham, Jesus, Mohammed, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Churchill, are still holding on to their top ten slots and don’t look too ready to be sliding down the chart any time soon. Of course, thousands of others are still well remembered, but, even so, millions more whose impact was probably just as great, are now almost completely forgotten beyond a few obscure books or rarely visited web pages.

Just as with beauty, when it comes to being remembered, who’s deserving of the crown is all in the eye of the beholder. We memorialise people because it suits us and fits in with our worldview to do so. For instance, you’ve probably never heard of Victoria Woodhull, and the reason why might become clear the more you hear about her. She was born in a frontier town in Ohio in 1838 and grew up in abject poverty and an abusive environment. At 15 she was forced to marry an alcoholic womaniser with whom she had two children, one of whom had a learning disability. Her husband was also abusive and unfaithful and fortunately, she eventually managed to get divorced from him. It was then she began to formulate ideas regarding women’s rights, particularly around sexual issues. In 1871 she gave a speech in Steinway Hall, New York City in which she put forward views way beyond her time.

“To woman, by nature, belongs the right of sexual determination. When the instinct is aroused in her, then and then only should commerce follow. When woman rises from sexual slavery to sexual freedom, into the ownership and control of her sexual organs, and man is obliged to respect this freedom, then will this instinct become pure and holy; then will woman be raised from the iniquity and morbidness in which she now wallows for existence, and the intensity and glory of her creative functions be increased a hundred-fold…”

Around the same time, Woodhull became the first female stockbroker, which resulted in her making a fortune much of which she then used to found her own national newspaper which advocated for women’s suffrage, sex education, licensed prostitution, birth control, short skirts, and vegetarianism. On top of all that, in 1872, when women were still not allowed to vote, she became the first woman to run for the President of the United States. However, on the day of the Election, she was imprisoned for a month, for publishing an obscene newspaper. If we don’t know much about her currently, it’s probably because some of her contemporaries didn’t want her to be memorialised.

* * *

The Legacy of Truth and Divine Intervention

There’s a trend nowadays for people to self-identify, however, in reality, it’s our peers who define us and the same goes for our legacy. What others say of us after we’ve died tends to be accepted as the truth even though it may have been edited by those with their agenda. If the outcome shows us in a good light we may well not mind too much even if it’s not true, but if it reflects badly on us then we may have preferred obscurity after all. It’s no wonder then that nearly all cultures have historically opted for a divine being, being ready and willing to do the job instead, even if those who remain in this dimension will never know the outcome.

* * *

First Days in Halls and College – Part 4

Once I’d paid my rent for the term ahead I had enough money left over to buy a fancy HiFi system so, instead of putting it into a savings account for a rainy day, I opted for a bit of retail therapy and made my way up to Tottenham Court Road where, like a lamb to the slaughter, I completely believed the words the salespeople spoke and within minutes was putting my money where their mouths were. As I brought all the boxes back to the halls, a few of the other students who were also interested in that kind of thing came to have a look, listen, and help set it up, and that’s when the beginning of some of my new, ‘halls friendships’ began. From the music system to the type of music, we began to find each other.

* * *

The Lights of Nostalgia

The stereo I’d previously used at home only had one red power light and a green one that illuminated the radio frequency display. Likewise, the only coloured dashboard light on Mum’s car was a beautiful blue one that appeared when the lights were on full beam. But the HiFi units I bought that day were crammed with a myriad of lights and illuminated animated displays. For me, this marked the moment when the whole world became a lot more sparkly, yet I can’t help but look back on those older simpler lights and feel they had a deeper emotional impact.

* * *

The Inequality of Quantity

When it comes to leaving a large legacy, it would be easy to believe the more people we affect the better, but given we’ve already acknowledged we can’t tell how significant or good a legacy will ultimately be, it’s just as probable that the smallest of actions may have the most profound effect on all of humanity, and no one would ever be the wiser. Western cultures tend to veer towards bigger being better, even though most of us are continually reminded by those same cultures that it’s all about quality, not quantity.

* * *

Who’s Who

If ever I write about my life from 18 onwards, there will be a lot of name-dropping as I’d get to meet lots of celebrities, mostly, just because I lived in London. While most of them were very ordinary, some played up to their larger-than-life personas, but in a way, I wasn’t so keen on that side of them, because I knew I wasn’t meeting who they really were.

One morning I got on a tube train going to Swiss Cottage when I noticed a couple sitting opposite me. The man had a moustache and a walking stick which he waved about to get my attention. As I looked up, I realised we were the only passengers in the carriage, and as I smiled politely at them, I realised he was the film star John Hurt. For the next few minutes, he spoke to me in a very ostentatious manner, and it soon became clear he was drunk. The woman he was with seemed to play along, and then at the next stop, they both staggered off.

Okay, it was a bit of a thing to have encountered him, but I knew I hadn’t met who he was at all, and what he showed me was just an image he’d wanted to project. Well, he was an actor. And because of that, there was no true connection between us except that which could be gathered between the lines.

* * *

2023 – JM

The other night I’d thought about someone I knew 24 years ago. I typed in their name on Google and saw straight away that they’d died last year. In one of the obituaries, his sister said that when she last spoke to him, he said he was living in a caravan behind a pub in the Essex countryside and was cold and lonely. Soon after this call he took his husky dog out for a walk and died of a heart attack, aged 82.

When I first met him, he’d come to my flat in Fulham to look at a computer I was selling. As I answered the door, I thought I recognised him, but it was only when he was sitting on my bed checking out the computer that I asked, “Are you John McVicar?”

“Yes,” he said, “is that a problem?”

“No, I just thought I recognised you.”

Soon after he left, I called my friend Lee and told him what had just happened as I knew he was into famous gangsters of the 50s and 60s, and John McVicar had been one of them. However, unlike most of them, he’d reformed and become a well-known writer. Lee was very interested to know what he was like, but it wasn’t until sometime later that I’d get more of a sense of who he was. As things turned out, John decided it best I build him a bespoke computer, so arranged a further meeting and over the next year or so I’d either pop around to his place to help with IT issues or get invited to some of his publishing company events at the Bulgarian Embassy.

John lived on the south side of Battersea Park in a flat which was dark, and full of paperwork and functionality. He also had a dog back then which was very friendly and would always want to play with me, which annoyed John because he wanted me to focus on the job at hand, but then as I was making the dog happy, I got away with it. Sometimes when I went there, we’d chat a lot, but occasionally as John talked, he’d fart mid-sentence while not showing any sign that anything had happened. So, thinking I was being tested, I followed suit and didn’t react either; still, I couldn’t help but think he was looking for the slightest muscle movement in my face to betray my aloofness.

A few years beforehand, I also became slightly acquainted with another famous person, Richard Wilson, who played Victor Meldrew, in a TV sitcom called One Foot in the Grave. The more I got to know John the more I could see that he was not only physically similar looking to Richard, but personality-wise, was very much like the continuously antagonised character Victor Meldrew.

One day I was around at his flat when a cold caller telephoned.

John: “Hello”

Telesales man: “Hello sir, how are you today?”

 John: “What do you want?”

Telesales man: “We have a very special offer for you.”

John: “Sorry, what’s your name?”

Telesales man: “You can call me Robin”.

John: “What are you doing right now Robin?”

Telesales man: “I am working.”

John: “Yes, well so am I, or at least I’m fucking trying to, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to get on.”

At which point he slammed the phone down, looked at me and shook his head.

For all his reformation John was still very confrontational, and I heard a few stories from others about him getting into fights. An undercover cop once told me he was on a job with a few others and ended up in the changing rooms in the Battersea Park athletics club, where they witnessed John beat someone up. Normally they’d have stepped in but instead just reacted as any dodgy guys would. Another incident occurred at the Chelsea Arts Club, sometime before I became a member, in which I was told he got into a fight over an issue regarding an ashtray with a 2nd Dan karateka who was visiting from the States. The first part of the fight resulted in John being knocked unconscious, and the second in him coming around, realising what had happened, and breaking into a furious rage, during which he pulled off his own shirt and then hunted down his adversary. Again, it didn’t go well as apparently, he ended up with a broken arm, and a suspension from the club. I once asked him if he ever got into fights and he told me he was a pussy cat nowadays and besides, he could end up back in jail if got into trouble. I’ll leave it to you, which version to believe.

When I knew him, he was in his 60s and still very athletic. At the time he was writing a book about a famous TV presenter, Jill Dando, who’d been shot and killed a few streets away from where I lived in Fulham. One day he asked if there was any way I could either hack or get into the computer of someone he suspected of being involved. I told him I couldn’t, much to his disappointment.

We’d known each other for about a year when he asked me to write a book he already had a title for called ‘Cracking the Net’, which he wanted to be a streetwise guide to using the Internet. So, I got on with writing it and brought five chapters to him. As I walked in the flat it felt very quiet. I asked where the dog was. He said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” But a bit later he added, “The stupid thing ran out in front of a car.”

“Oh no, how awful,” I said, “I loved that dog.” He nodded at me and then walked out of the room for a few minutes.

About a week later we spoke on the phone about the chapters I’d written, much of which he liked, and it was then he told me that once it was published, he wanted me to promote the book and use my disability within the marketing process. When I said I wasn’t willing to do that, he said something about people with their heads under the hood not being able to hear anything because of the noise of the engine, and that was pretty much the end of our time together.

One of the reasons I’m telling you this, outside of name-dropping, (clang), is to illustrate how different our perception of someone is when we get to experience them as a person, rather than their memorialised image. That’s not to say we don’t get any sense of a famous or historic person’s essence, especially if they left artworks or other creations, but still, it’s only through being known in real life, especially on a close day-to-day basis, that we will feel we were ever really known, and the legacy that lives on in the hearts and minds of those who knew us has some significant truth to it.

As for John McVicar, there were some for whom his reformation never excused his past crimes, and even after his death they didn’t want him to be remembered but, given many of our historical figures are not exactly the epitome of virtue, it’s interesting to note not being allowed a legacy is seen as a punishment.

I think, from what I knew of John, he’d managed to control his public image, at least to a certain degree, so as he aged and became aware of his physical demise he preferred to be remembered in his former athletic glory, but that came at a cost, yet still, it was one he chose to pay.

* * *

Lost in Time – Part 1

Many of us will never have heard of Victoria Woodhull, and it won’t be long before John Hurt and John McVicar will be lost in time too, along with the many other millions of people who did extraordinary things during their lives, and that’s just it, most of the famous names we knew in our lifetime are not only abstract versions of who they were but they won’t even be remembered by the next generation, let alone in a hundred years. So, this notion of fame providing a means for us to live on through, is probably far more limited than its promise suggests.

Similarly, I’ve spent decades believing that we can “Digitise to Immortalise”, thinking that my music and other creations would live on beyond me online, but eventually, I came to realise this wasn’t true either. Sure, we can digitise something and at a later date, it should appear just as it did when it was saved. However, there’s an Achilles heel to this theory. Just as information on the Internet has a relatively short shelf life, so too does the media upon which data is stored, whether it’s connected to the Net or not. Therefore, it will become obsolete within a short period and consequently, there’ll be little likelihood that much of the current online or offline content will be available to future generations, especially if, as with any legacy, it doesn’t fit in with the agenda of those who choose what gets to remain.

* * *

Legacy – Part 2

Although the desire to be remembered forever may be popular, most of us will be happy to settle for more attainable forms such as passing on our DNA, name, values, and culture via our children. However, just like being a famous figure, this too could be just as abstract a version of who we are if we don’t become known by our family members and other loved ones.

* * *

Indiscernible Legacies

On a conscious level, we may be well aware of the gifts bestowed upon us from previous generations, however, there are many other, often less obvious ways in which we are affected by others. Legacies are fundamentally an expression of hope, love, generosity and caring, but some may also come from less selfless places too. My father spent a lot of time and money in the betting shop and would often tell me he wanted to win big in order to leave me a legacy. No doubt this was a good excuse for him to indulge his gambling tendencies but witnessing him fritter away the last of his wealth meant I’d never follow in his gambling footsteps. Similarly, my mother told me she didn’t like the skin on cooked tomatoes, or the sound of the dentist’s drill on her teeth, and for years I too believed I felt the same way, but it wasn’t until I realised that neither of those things bothered me, that I understood they were a part of her legacy.

It might also be said we create a legacy for ourselves throughout our lives, especially as a result of our less-than-altruistic actions. Regret is a powerful emotion and even though we may repeat behaviour that leads to negative outcomes, sometimes our regret will cause us to change. Okay, we haven’t died and left a legacy for ourselves, but in a way, the “we” of the past leaves a legacy for the “us” of the now, both good and bad, and is constantly doing so.

* * *

Lost in Time – Part 2

As we travel through life we’re surrounded by eras from the past, present and future and therefore we can never simply be products of a single time. For instance, I didn’t see the Goon show as a child, but it still affected the humour of the programmes I did watch. Likewise, all my senses were subject to the cross-fertilisation of the eras around me, from the smell of houses, the furniture and books within them, to the different types of fire smoke in the air, the scent of old ladies’ perfume, the loud bangs of the Royal Tournament or Concord breaking the sound barrier, the camaraderie of the Scout Jamborees, or the isolation of empty streets where the sound of horses pulling a cart on a quiet Saturday afternoon had me running to the window to watch them pass.

This is nothing new, the world is constantly evolving, and everything disappears eventually, genres, heroes, celebrities, landmarks, all we love, and all we hate. And yes, that’s a frightening thought, but it also serves as a reminder to appreciate what we have for as long as we can.

When we know our death is imminent, we’ll realise we don’t kill time after all, but it kills us, and every precious moment from then on will free us of the belief that time is money.

* * *

The Legacy of Grief

One of our most direct and immediate legacies is the grief our loved ones feel both before and after we’ve died. The various stages of grieving are well documented, so I won’t repeat them here, not that that would normally stop me. If you don’t know about them already, they’re worth checking out even if doing so may make little difference to the pain you’re likely to experience as you mourn the losses in your life. Still, seeing it as a process may offer a little comfort.

I’ve mentioned Veronica quite a few times throughout the chapters and as I got into my 20’s she and I became close friends. In the year 2000 her dog, Trigger, died, and wanting to get away from being alone she went to Australia where she stayed illegally for close to a decade with a woman she loved there. Over the next nine years, we’d often speak on the phone but at one point she stopped answering and then a few days later I got a call from her partner.

“Veronica has had a stroke and the authorities have found out she’s overstayed her visa. They’re going to send her back to the UK.”

Never to do anything by halves, Veronica’s predicament made the national newspapers in the UK, mainly because the different health sectors over here didn’t want to take responsibility for her, which meant her being stuck in a hospital for close to a year. Eventually, she ended up in a place near where I lived, where she had her own flat and carers to help her.

I’d often visit her but soon came to realise a light had gone out in her eyes and besides buying or stealing loads of things she had no need for, she didn’t want the life she now had. So, one day, when she got an infection, she refused to be seen by a doctor and within 24 hours was unconscious. She was then rushed to hospital where it became clear the infection had spread rapidly and she had no chance of recovery. Over the ensuing days, her partner flew over from Australia, and a few other close friends gathered around her bedside. The doctor asked if they could switch the life support machines off, which we all agreed was the right thing to do, and then we sat and waited for her to quietly pass away. Eight hours later she was still going strong, and I was getting very uncomfortable, so, I looked at one of our mutual friends and said, “Hurry up Veronica, my arse is killing me.” I knew Veronica would have appreciated the humour even if a couple of the others nearby didn’t. Shortly after that one of the nurses brought us some sandwiches, so, thinking a midnight snack might appear a little disrespectful, we went to a side room to eat. It was then someone shouted, “She’s going.” So, we rushed back, swallowing our food in one go, and said our goodbyes.

* * *

A few years later I wrote a song about Veronica, here are a few of the lines from it.

“And your soul it lights my life still

While your laughter drives my tears away

It’s just that look and a little smile

And just the way we laughed till we cried

You were my light in darkened times

And I was yours when you couldn’t shine

You were my light in lonely times

A friend for life when I couldn’t be mine

And just like a summer’s day

I feel you in the night”

While I wrote this with Veronica in mind, it was also about many others I’d known who’d passed away and had a profound effect on me too, and now as I get older, I realise just how important they were and privileged I was to have connected with them.

* * *

Therapy Session 1986 – Significance and Normality

Simon: I’d like to think that I’ll leave my mark on the world.

Therapist: Don’t all people do that?

Simon: Well, I mean in a significant way.

Therapist: Why do you want to do that?

Simon: Because I want to be remembered after I die.

Therapist: But who will they remember, won’t it just be an inaccurate image of you?

Simon: In a way, yeah.

Therapist: So, what is it you’re trying to achieve?

Simon: I want to feel like I’m doing something significant and worthwhile, that other people will think well of me.

Therapist: Why do you want that?

Simon: Because I think my meaning, I mean what makes life feel meaningful, is to have done something positive for other people

Therapist: But my question is, why do you feel it’s important to feel significant in the eyes of others?

Simon: I think you’re trying to get me to say it’s because I feel I am not significant.

Therapist: You may think I have an agenda, but you might say something I wouldn’t ever have considered. That’s partly why we’re doing this, to discover things that might help us understand why you think, feel, and act the way you do.

Simon: Aha.

Therapist: In a way, you revealing who you are to me, isn’t that a lot more real than an image of you cast into the future?

Simon: I guess so.

Therapist: Maybe feeling that we are known for who we are by people who are close to us is more significant. If you feel that you are known and accepted for who you are you can do things because you want to, not because you’re driven by an urge to be remembered. In the rough and tumble of family life, there’s a process going on where people get to feel known by others. That’s partly why those relationships are so explosive, they cause who we are to be exposed. Perhaps because you didn’t experience a family environment you were left not only feeling a bit forgotten at times but also unknown.

Simon: I can remember not showing my Mum what I felt about things sometimes.

Therapist: Have you ever heard of the glass child?

Simon: No

Therapist: It’s a metaphor for how open we are when we are very young, everyone can see through us. When we lie, people laugh because it’s so obvious what we’re doing, and when we cover our eyes, thinking they can’t see us, they laugh because they recognise the innocence they once knew. We were so easy to see through, it’s as if we were made of glass. The thing is, we find it unbearable at times to be so easily caught out, so we find ways to cover ourselves.

Simon: It’s a bit like Adam and Eve suddenly feeling naked.

Therapist: Yes, in a way, but one of the consequences of covering ourselves up is we start to feel lonely because we also find it hard to feel unknown by others, especially those we love. How can we truly feel loved when people don’t know who we are?

Simon: But what happens if we are unlovable?

Therapist: Maybe that’s more a weakness in those who cannot love us.

* * *

2023 – Testing – Part 2

For a few days after being asked to come in for further tests, I couldn’t help but worry that my number had been called. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but apart from hoping it’s nothing serious I have applied some of what I’ve been writing here to myself, and it’s helped a little. The main worry I had was, there are a few things I’ve wanted to get finished, including editing and publishing this, and if I become very ill, I might not be able to. By taking on board that we don’t know the consequences of our lives and the legacies we’ll leave, I’ve relaxed a bit in terms of accepting I may not be able to complete my objectives and if that’s what happens then so be it. But if you’re reading this, then maybe I managed to after all.

* * *

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