Guidelines for a Good Life
(or Lessons I have Learned)

by Andrew Lee-Hart




Rules are good

The world is a chaotic and strange place, with no pattern or rhythm to events, and with no God or Messiah to guide us. Because of this uncertainty we need to create our own rules, our own guidebook or else how can we follow a path in life and avoid slipping into madness?


The rules listed here have helped me live my life and stay sane, most of them I have worked out myself from experience and observation but others I have learned from those around me. Perhaps we all need slightly different rules to meet our different situations, but these ones have suited me and have helped me become who I am today, and if they help any reader of these scribblings then I will be very happy and feel that in some way my life and thoughts have been justified.


Some readers, as did my family (now no longer with me), and my colleagues (likewise) will think these rules are not for them, that they are carrying on well enough without such wisdom, but are they? Are you, unknown reader, truly leading a good life? Have you added to the sum of human contentment? Can you really achieve anything without maxims and laws to govern how you spend each day?


Back it up.

This is from my tutor at university, she was speaking ostensibly of my first year History paper, but it is something I have never forgotten, and value considerably.

“Don’t just state an opinion” she would say, “prove it, back it up.” And this rule got me through all my university exams, no statement left unproven, no theory left without being supported by evidence. Following this advice is presumably at least part of why I achieved a first and was then able to remain in academia and eventually gain a Doctorate. Adhering to this principle is also why I have avoided the madness of religion and political extremism; Doctor Leader’s voice echoing through my head “back it up,” “prove it”.


Such an attitude applies to all sorts of things, when Karen my ex-wife, would state opinions about politics or even our relationship I would come back at her, asking her “where’s the proof?” So often, when thus challenged, she fell silent or stormed out of the room. Even when I agreed with her I wanted her to argue her case coherently, not just state opinions and assume that they were correct because her friend had said so, or because she had read it in The Guardian.



Hot meal, cold drink / Cold meal, hot drink

Obvious really, and one most of us follow without thinking about it. Sometimes I would drink tea with my evening meal, but only if I had let it cool down first so that it had become a cold drink. With a hot meal something cool for contrast and as a blank canvas for the dinner to act upon.



Two chances only

Anyone can make a mistake once and even twice is allowable, especially with children, but three times? If that is the case, then why not thirty times or three hundred times? The other lecturers said that I was too strict because of the number of students I had thrown out of my classes over the years. But I had standards and the other students soon discovered this and their work improved in consequence. I have no regrets that I demanded the best from my students just as I demanded the same from my children and my wife, and particularly myself.


“You are getting worse” said Lynsey, Professor of History here in Bangor, “almost every week there is a student complaining about you; essays ripped up, students mocked in tutorials, ideas torn to pieces. You are becoming intolerant in your old age.”

This was a year or two ago now, and I was sitting in her office, imbuing the smell of Earl Grey tea and lemon from one of those mushroom-shaped air fresheners which must have been hidden away somewhere. Lynsey, Professor Jardine is ten years younger than me, she is an expert on James I of England, and like the subject of her work, she came down to England from her native Scotland to rule us all in rather a decadent manner.


Briefly I thought about what she had said, contemplating her silently as I did so and then I explained, and not for the first time.

“I have always been the same, the students that come here are less bright. My standards are the same Yesterday, Today and forever. That is why I work in an academia.”

She shrugged, I suspect not recognising the allusion and then after a moment of small-talk about the department she let me go to single-handedly impose some standards on that year’s new students.



If your class are not listening speak more quietly.

Worked with my children, worked with my students.



Every opinion is provisional

So many people have assured me that they strongly believe this or that, but as they get older they change their minds, or at least moderate their ideas. Likewise what is orthodox for one generation is incongruent for the next. In the nineteen fifties it was not only okay to smack children, you were somehow being remiss if you didn’t practice some kind of physical punishment, now it is on the verge of becoming illegal and is certainly frowned upon. The smug social scientists who assure us that they have all the answers will look like fools sooner or later, and if they are lucky will not be around to see the rejection of their ideas.



If it is easy, try something else.

“Those who are content with the easy path will never progress. I was from a poor and uneducated family in Shrewsbury, but I was clever and hard-working and thus did well at school. My teachers praised me constantly, so did my mother and father, slightly shocked that a son of theirs could be so bright. But I did not allow myself to listen to praise, I knew that I had to push myself beyond the expectations of those around me; I would not have passed my Eleven Plus if I have just been content, nor gone to University, nor got where I am today.”


I don’t know if she listened or understood, Rachel or Rebecca, something beginning with an “R” anyway. I had made this little speech numerous times throughout the years to a variety of students, even to my own children, who clearly did not take it to heart, but I was never sure how much of an impression it made amongst my students either. The latest recipient of my wisdom was a tall, thin girl (definitely not yet a woman) with long black hair which she bit nervously, and dark brown eyes darted here and there, looking more at the books on my shelves than on me. She smelt of joss sticks, an odour that was barely noticeable at first but became stronger the longer she stayed.


The essay, on Queen Anne had been poor, and she could do better, and I wanted her to write it again.

“But I am so busy” she complained, “I have an essay for Professor Jardine and I have to prepare for a tutorial with Doctor Gilpin.  And there is my job in the off-licence.”

“But this is the best time of your life, you are young, have no commitments, when you are older and married you will understand about lack of time. You need to do it again, I cannot pass it as it is at the moment.”

She swung out of the door muttering something rude, just as my two children used to do when they were teenagers, or even when they were adults wanting money. Sometimes you have to be harsh to teach a lesson, eventually they will realise the wisdom of what I say, although it is taking a long time for Mike and Jane to appreciate what I have done for them.



If your barber talks to you go somewhere else.

My father was a sociable man, everywhere we went he would talk to whoever he bumped into whether he knew them or not.  He seemed to see it as a challenge to get a conversation and a laugh out of whoever he met, and the colder his “victim” was, the harder he tried. Any shop we went to, pub we visited, we would soon be the centre of a lively, noisy throng, and woe betide anybody who my father noticed was distancing themselves from his group, even a young couple obviously wanting time together alone, would soon be dragged to join our party, whether they liked it or not.


I hated it. The talkative man on the park bench seems pathetic and needy, as if they are so lonely that they would do anything for human contact. I am the opposite, I talk when I need to know or provide information, but when I am doing my shopping there is no need to have a discussion with the cashier about the weather, or my plans for the day.  A visit to have a haircut can leave one captive for twenty minutes or so at the mercy of a garrulous barber; I do not mind a “good morning” but after that it should be down to business.


It took me awhile to find a barber who was silent, a local chap whose shop was incongruously on a street full of houses and looked more like a residence than a place of business. I get a grunt when I sit down on the chair which is signal for me to tell him what I want and then he sets to work without further conversation. Sometimes the radio is on, Radio Two, but usually there is silence, just the sound of his snipping at my hair, and the shouts of children from outside. There is the smell of various chemicals for hair treatment and disinfectant, the same smells that I remember from when I was a child and went to my local barber in Shrewsbury. I have been going to this place for twenty years and do not know the barber’s name, nor he mine.  


He seemed old when I first discovered his shop, and he must be in his seventies or even eighties now, and perhaps he will stop soon. I wonder if he is saving up to retire or does he enjoy his job and stay doing it for the pleasure of it?  Maybe he has grandchildren and a wife that he is looking forward to spending more time with but needs the money so carries on, he certainly does not seem happy, and on the (very) few occasions that I have been present when somebody else comes in the shop he is equally terse with them.


Maybe one day he will speak to me, put his hand on shoulder and tell me about his life, his dreams and his hopes, and then he will talk and talk and never stop, and if that should happen I would never go there again, scared and annoyed by this unprovoked intimacy.



Do what Maigret would do

Oh Georges Simenon, lover of myriad women and writer of numerous novels.  His greatest creation the ponderous policeman Jules Maigret who immersed himself in the lives of the people he investigated, the “why” being just as important as the “who” in these detective novels. The Maigret books were fashionable in the 1960s when I was growing up, partly as a result of the excellent and popular television series with Rupert Davies as the protagonist, in those happy days when there were only three channels to choose from and everybody watched the same things. It was something to talk about at school, or in my case think about when I was not revising for exams and writing essays.


I bought the novels wherever I could, and by the time I was at university I had a shelf full, and now I have a complete collection both in English and French. What is the attraction? They were well-written of course, even read in translation this was clear, but it is the single-mindedness of Maigret which truly appeals to me; he was determined and a little brutal, realising that if you do not have the advantages that other people have, you need to be all the more unrelenting to achieve your goals.


At times I thought Karen and I would be like Maigret and his wife; sharing the same goals and showing the same determination. She like me was from a poor background, even poorer than mine, an estate in Bradford in a house bereft of culture and ambition. We met in my first job at Birmingham University where I was offered a post after completing my Masters. She was on the run from her parents and had got a job in the administration department, typing up correspondence and answering the telephone.


She was beautiful in a buxom sort of way, and she was quiet, appearing to weigh up every word before saying what she had to say. I took her out to the theatre, to the art gallery and to poetry readings, and she loved absorbing the artistic life of the city. Like me she wanted to better herself and I admired that and felt I had met someone who shared my vision of the world.


Unlike the Maigrets, we could have children and did so, Mike first and then two years later Jane. Soon after Jane was born I was offered a better job in Bangor and Karen settled in the Athens of North Wales, perhaps settled more than I did, training to be a social worker and then getting a good job and making friends. Sometimes I thought she knew more people in the university than I did.


Unfortunately, as she got older she rebelled against me, dismissing or mocking my opinions.

“We are supposed to be a team” I would tell her after another row, probably about the children, “you are supposed to be my support, my help-meet.”

“No I am your wife, your equal and I will not kowtow to you. You are not my father.”

And then she would get on with her day civil but unfriendly and as neither of us would apologise this would go on for weeks, blighting the lives of our children.


I soon discovered that she was not a kindred spirit as she lacked my determination when things got rough, and when I fell out with the children she invariably supported them, and when I told her about my fallings out at work she would often take the other person’s side, suggest I apologise and make amends. And then when my recent trouble came upon us, again she was not steadfast. I don’t think she believed the accusation, but just felt I had it coming.

“You cannot bend in the wind.” She told me with anger, “you have no toleration or give.”



Music is important, but not that important.

Music was everything to my father and to my mother too. The house was filled with guitars, saxophones, fiddles; often these instruments were just passing through as friends dropped them in for my father to mend or to tune, for free of course. And usually when I returned home from school I would hear singing as I walked towards the front door through the small, neglected garden, kicking at a dandelion in frustration.  There would be my father and mother singing together accompanied by guitar or something more arcane. More often than not there would be a friend or two joining in, but whilst for these friends, music was just a hobby, for my parents it was their life, more important than anything else including me.


My parents performed wherever and whenever they could, even if they were paid a pittance or nothing at all they would play, and when I was young I would go with them; to pubs, parties or sparsely attended folk festivals. They played folk music, traditional stuff such as “Barbry Allen”, “Silkie”, “Early One Morning” &c. I would sit at the back of the audience (if there was one), often with a book to read or paper to write on and would sigh with relief when they had finished and then the three of us would either sleep in the car or head back home, arriving back at some unearthly hour in the morning, me cross and resentful whilst my parents sang to each other, happy in their mutual selfishness.


They hoped that I would be musical; a guitar was put in my hand before a pencil, and they wanted me to read music before I could read books. But I was just not that interested, I would practice when they told me to, but I could not love it; they even bought an old piano in the hope that it would be more to my liking, but I just did not care.  In the end my mother taught herself to play it, making up songs during the afternoons when she was not doing a housework or doing her cleaning job. I must have been a disappointment, their only child and whilst I had some musical ability I also had perspective and realised that it was frivolous and that I had to get on and learn my living. It was as if I was the adult and they my children.


For a short while such music that my parents loved was popular, in the early sixties there was a “folk boom” but then Bob Dylan came along with his politics and surrealism and he used and abused traditional folk music before casting it out back into obscurity where it belonged. They were singing music that nobody cared about, and which was insufferably dull and limited.


It would not have been so bad if my parents had made any money from their music, perhaps set up a music shop, or taught schoolchildren, but much of what they did was for a token amount or for a friend and thus for free.  They both, therefore, had to do odd jobs to keep us in food and warmth, jobs they would give up once they clashed with a festival or something else that affected their precious music. It was fortunate that my father died relatively young, in his mid-fifties when he could still earn and (just about) keep the wolf from the door, but my mother lives on and is reliant on the money that I can give her, presumably realising how much she has wasted her life.


My dad was pleased when Mike and Jane showed an interest in music and he nagged at me to encourage them more.

“Your mother and I got so much pleasure from music and Mike and particularly Jane have so much talent.”

“They are good at a lot of things” I pointed out, “and I don’t want them neglecting their studies for a hobby.”

“But it is important and it is something that they can have forever.”

I glared at him; my father shorter than me and scruffily dressed, like some fading hippie.

“What did it really bring you and my mum?” I asked him, “all you ever cared about was music, and look where it has brought you?”

Maybe I was rather harsh, but I did not want my children ending up like their grandparents.


Mike did carry on playing the guitar, just to spite me I expect, and I imagine he still plays, but Jane gave up once her grandfather was dead and now she earns a good wage doing something in television. Karen says that she and her husband do have a piano but apparently it is more for their children, and hopefully they won’t take it too seriously either.



Yorkshire is best (from my wife)

My wife would always compare everywhere with Yorkshire; countryside (not as wild), cities (not as big), accents (not as pleasant). Yorkshire was the ideal, and yet as soon as she could she left home and moved to Birmingham, rarely visiting her parents afterwards, she said they were harsh and unloving. She never told me why she left them, what was the final straw, but perhaps she just was not tough enough.  When she did go back she refused to allow me to go with her.

“It will remind me just how similar you are to my dad” she would say “anyway I won’t stay for long, I have nothing to say to them, and what they sat to me is of no account.”


We occasionally visited the county; we had a weekend in Haworth and a couple of weeks in North Yorkshire near Richmond, and whilst I could see the county was beautiful I have no idea where this comparing came from. I like Shropshire, my home county, but I realise there are prettier places and places where the population are a bit brighter. Give me Italy or a Greek island rather than the frozen North.  


And has Karen returned to Yorkshire, home of all that is good, now that she has left me? No of course not, she found a cottage just outside Bangor and carries on with being a social worker. I see her sometimes as I wander down Bangor high street wondering how to fill my time, looking for inspiration from the mountains above me, if I see her first I duck inside a shop but often I am not aware of her presence until she is by me, her subtle perfume taking me back to when I was happy and secure.


And yet her influence remains with me; visiting some cathedral city my first thought is that it is hardly York or Beverley. Perhaps if I visited Yorkshire again and really looked I would find Jane’s soul and heart, buried deep within the Moors just waiting to be dug up and cared for.



Scone pronounced as “con”.

Logical, “cone” is how it is spelled, so the fact that many people pronounce it “con” suggests that is the true pronunciation and the “cone” spelling is pretentious people trying to sound posh.



If they don’t want you, leave.

That is why I left. I had taught at Bangor for over thirty years and had become an institution almost as much as the university buildings themselves, yet they clearly did not appreciate me; no offer of a professorship over the years and when that student (Rachel is her name apparently) put in a complaint about sexual harassment they dropped me like a hot coal. She claimed that I had “groped” her; tried to kiss her and then grabbed her bottom, as she fled weeping from my office.


It went on and on, I had my say, was eloquent and polite and explained that she was angry because I requested that she re-write a substandard essay but it was not enough, for some reason the university council did not believe me, or did not want the hassle of standing against one of their students. The Student Union got involved which did not help, and Rachel knew the right words to say, the right buttons to press. I was suspended whilst the University investigated, I spent my free days researching Queen Anne for a book that I had been thinking of writing for many years (my lack of publications a possible reason for my lack of progress in academia), waiting for the University to sort it out and rusticate Rachel.


I had expected Karen to be sympathetic.

“Are you sure you didn’t do anything?” she asked. She knows me better than anybody and had to ask me that.

“Of course I didn’t touch her; a girl just out of school. It is revenge, and she cannot back out of it now. She has no proof.”

“But neither do you. And you are so harsh to your students and even your colleagues. You have always lacked diplomacy, and now see where it has got you.”

Clearly my wife knew that I was innocent of the charge but for some reason it was still my fault.


She said the same when I fell out with the children.

“Try to empathise. They are only young. Bend a little.”

But I could not pass her stupid essay, just as I could an accept mediocrity from my children, without standards the world becomes chaotic and there is nothing solid to hold onto. Universities are surely the last bastion of intellectual rigour, and when we allow that to be compromised then Rome falls, and we are in the dark ages, with no Renaissance in sight.


“You could resign” Professor Jardine, Linsey said to me. She had sent a formal letter, asking me to a meeting in her office (she could not even ring me but had to send a letter, “Dear Doctor_”).  I argued a little, pointed that I was innocent and that they were letting a student get away with blackmail, the consequences.

“The next time she is given a mark she does not like, what is to stop her accusing someone else of some sexual misdemeanour?”

“You have been accused of a few things in your time here” she kindly pointed out, “and there is no proof either way”.


And then there in that meeting I gave up, clearly the University wanted me to leave I was an embarrassment to them, and this was more important than all my work for them. I did not tell Professor Jardine about my decision, I left her office keeping my thoughts to myself, but that evening wrote a resignation letter of sorts, and was gone, leaving my possessions for the university to do with what they liked. Unfortunately the University dominates this small city and everywhere I go there are University buildings, or students, the only people speaking English in this isolated Welsh City.



Attempts to simplify things usually end up making it more ludicrous.

I used to have great fun mocking the beliefs of a Mormon colleague in my early days at Bangor. He was a fellow lecturer, a young man from a poor background like me, but his religious beliefs were ludicrous and I saw no reason not to tell him so, after all we worked together in a place where ideas should be challenged, and if they don’t pass muster, thrown out.  The Mormon attempts to make religion more simple left it with so many unanswered questions; we are all gods, and that god was once a human, baptism of the dead, the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible, all strange and illogical. A religion that was set-up to make Christianity more straightforward ended up doing the opposite.


Nowadays I would have been disciplined for my treatment of Bill, but he was new, having got a job after completing his M.A. and was anxious to please, so did not dare complain. A couple of my colleagues called it bullying and eventually he left possibly for Utah. In fact I rather liked Bill and am sorry if I hurt his feelings. I did write to him after he left, but he did not respond, perhaps he did not get my missive.



Choice is not as good as it might seem.

The one argument for becoming a vegetarian which almost convinced me, was the lack of choice for those who do not eat meat. Going to a restaurant you can be overwhelmed by what is on offer, especially when you are not a fussy eater like me, even in the University canteen there were so many options available. If I was a vegetarian the options would be reduced by at least three quarters, and it would be so much easier to choose something to eat. Eventually I realised that it is best to stick to the same things, saves me having to worry, and I know what I like, so that whilst my friends and family bicker and decide what to eat I can impatiently tap my fingers and wait for the waiter to take our order.


My shirts and ties hang up in order in my wardrobe from right to left so again I don’t have to worry about what to wear, I take the next one in line and put my washed and dried shirts at the back of the queue. In the end I try to limit choice, so that I only have to worry about what is important and that does not include food and clothes. It is true that Maigret did care about what he ate, but then he was French and so I will let him off, but I doubt that he worried what shirt to wear, or what tie, like me he had more important things in life to deal with than trivialities.



We are defined by our job

When Mike said that he was going to be a support worker I pointed out that he would be defined by this, it did not matter what his parents do or what qualifications he has, he is now “a support worker”, and that is how people will see him.

“Do something more befitting to your intelligence and status” I told him.

He ignored me, and now where is he? Living somewhere in Liverpool I believe, spending his days wiping bums and drinking tea, talking with his colleagues who presumably have not a GCSE to rub between them. And he had so much potential, his teachers said so, he could easily have gone to university, and not just a former polytechnic but a real one, studied an important subject and made something of himself.


Every so often I would send him job advertisements from The Daily Telegraph or the TES, but he never responded and so I desisted in the end, after all you can only do so much to help someone. I just hope one day that he will appreciate that I tried to help him which is more than his mother did with her laissez faire attitude of do what you want. In the end we are remembered for what we are paid to do, not what we might have done.


And now I sit at my desk wondering what options I have for life. I can afford to live here albeit with less luxury than I am used to, but that does not bother me, I will still have enough to eat and be able to warm the house and treat myself to the occasional play, but a job gives you a position and something to get up for in the morning; to teach the young or to capture villains from the streets of Paris.



Two titles; the second to clarify the first

See the title of this pamphlet.


Be honest always

I drummed it into the children, be honest always, Karen said that you can be honest and kind, but so many people think a “little white lie” (how I hate that phrase) will do nobody any harm. I prided myself on the fact that my children always knew where they were with me and I hoped that they would always ask my opinion because they knew I would be honest, but actually they rarely did ask for advice, choosing the kind half-truths of their mother, perhaps the truth hurt too much.


Even my fall-out with my daughter Jane started because I was honest. She was always my favourite child; leading a sensible life, working hard, doing well at exams; a serious girl with serious ambitions. Our estrangement started off so trivially, when she brought her boyfriend Dave to stay with us in Bangor. They had met at university over in Norwich and from what Karen said it was very serious, it was their final year at university and they were living together just outside the city, and they planned to stay together once they had both graduated and go wherever they could find work.


He seemed a sensible, respectable young man; smartly dressed and polite, and as is my wont I quizzed him about his course and what he wanted to do in the future. He was studying “mental health,” and was hoping to work with teenagers with mental health issues.

“Isn’t mental health just extreme selfishness?” I asked him, “ask any teenage girl if she is suicidal or if nobody understands her, she is bound to say yes. That is just teenage girls, full of self-pity and angst, and now we have a whole profession built around it.”


Dave looked at me rather shocked, that is the problem with university these days, you often are safe from the real world and awkward questions, but to be fair he started to try to answer me in a reasonably intelligent way. But my forthright daughter Jane was not having any of it.

“I knew it was a mistake coming here” she shouted at me, as rude as ever. And within two minutes they were driving away into the distance and I have never seen either of them since, not even at their wedding.


“How could you?” Karen said, “why do you have to be right about every fucking thing? And so insensitive, you know Jane has had problems.”

“I was just trying to have a discussion” I pointed out.

“But you know those kind of comments are going to upset Jane. Why do you have to dominate, your father wasn’t like that? Ring them and apologise.”

But I didn’t, perhaps I should have, or if not apologise at least tried to explain. Unfortunately, the longer you leave things the harder it is to back track, and so I was not invited to the wedding and after that I did not want to say sorry. But I sometimes wake up with tears in my eyes thinking of my daughter and all the other young women at the university who I struggled to be kind to. Who did not understand the love and affection I had for them, the yearning to make them all that they could be.



Never go back

If people hurt you, then you cannot go back to them as they are likely to do it again. But then where can a man in his late sixties go with no job and no wife? All I have are these rules, and to these I cling like a sailor to wreckage in a vast, stormy ocean.


I often used to wonder if Maigret was happy after he retired and moved to the North of France with his wife; did he miss the busy Paris life, the scuffles, the detection? Did he spend his time brooding about the past? Even retiring with honour is still retiring, giving up. Being superseded and thrown out to sea.



Dreams Mean Nothing

I am in a folk band, holding a guitar which I cannot play, trying to bluff and  blend in with the rest of the band which, I suddenly realise is made up of people I know; Karen and my children, my parents, some of my former colleagues and even some of my students from years gone by, and they are all playing together in harmony making the most beautiful music.  But then I become aware that my solo is coming up, that I will have to come to the front and play, and that I have no idea how to do it. I stand in the midst of all these people, this piece of wood in my hand, and I am absolutely petrified, whilst all around me the music goes on. 



a line


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