When Barry Harris retired after 40 years, his wife told him to find something new. Driving gave him fun, freedom and friendship – and the spur to start changing his life.
Have you had a job that defined you in a positive professional way and gave you kudos but that you didn’t actually enjoy? This job may have settled the bills and helped pay off the mortgage but was it fun? Maybe Purpose and Passion doesn’t have to be all about ambition and gaining prestige? It’s possible that doing something you really enjoy, eg. meeting people when you’ve spent decades in an office pushing a pen (or these days pushing keys and a mouse and visiting colleagues virtually on Zoom!) Like Barry I actually like driving so when I moved out of town I actually liked my commute – driving in at leisure with a coffee and radio blaring!
After Barry Harris retired, he was “hanging around the house, slipping into the daytime telly routine”. His wife, a midwife, must have felt troubled by that, because she told him: “Just find something to do! Volunteer or something.”
Harris had spent 40 years as a graphic designer, working his way up from a paste-up artist after graduating from art school till he retired as a freelance in the packaging sector. All that time he lived in Warrington, Cheshire, where the couple’s four children were born. It’s a long time in one place and one profession, and perhaps why, when pushed to act, he popped into a local job agency. “I just asked: ‘What have you got?’ And they said: ‘Can you drive?’”
He delivered bathrooms and then solar panels, before getting a job at the food retailer Greencore, delivering sandwiches and groceries, “travelling from A to B and meeting the customers”. He was 62. “It was refreshing because it was completely different.”
There are about 40 routes out of the depot. “We go all the way up to Carlisle, across to Yorkshire, Anglesey and down to Stoke-on-Trent.” But Harris’s favourite is the 200-mile round trip to the Lake District. “It’s unbelievable, the scenery up there,” he says. “The freedom of it all.”
Of course, there are deliveries to make, but the only responsibility is “going from A to B to C”, whereas family life with four children “was a rollercoaster”. Sometimes, when he sits behind the wheel of his van, radio on, countryside rolling past the window, he remembers his first ever long drive, in his first car.
He was 20. He bought a Morris Minor on a Thursday and set off for Cornwall at two o’clock the next morning. “We just decided to go, a gang of us. I wasn’t married. No kids. No responsibilities.” It took about eight hours, switching drivers, the world opening up around them till they reached Newquay at 10pm that evening. “We didn’t have a care in the world,” he says.
He gets similar feelings from this job. “It’s just widening your horizon. Getting up and going out.” Driving has turned the everyday “into an adventure”.
There’s the banter in the office where Harris, promoted to team leader, is “20 or 30 years older than the majority” of his colleagues. “I give as good as I’m given,” he says. There’s always different music on: “My era was early 70s, and their interests are 80s, 90s and 00s. There is always something to talk about.”
Switching to this very different occupation has made Harris feel ready to try new things. He started saxophone lessons a few years ago, and now gigs with a band; he is 20 years older than his bandmates too. It’s another first. “Maybe I should have done things earlier and not confined myself to one area, but it’s done now,” he says.
At grammar school in East Ham, east London, where he grew up before moving to Warrington at 16, Harris was academic, and passed eight O-levels. East Ham was “a melting pot of different cultures. We were all in the same boat. Being Jamaican was part of that,” he says. His father had come to England from Jamaica in the late 1940s but “he never talked about Jamaica”. Or “Maybe he did talk about Jamaica, but being a youngster it washed over me.”
As his father was dying in 2012, he started to talk about how “they kept farmyard animals in the garden, walking so many miles to school, things like that”. His father’s side of the family “all came to pay their respects” from Jamaica; it was the first time Harris had met them.
Either way, he has never been to Jamaica. But maybe as part of his recent “opening up”, he will. He lets out a big sigh. “Could be like finding my roots.”
Does he think he will get there? “Could be next year.” All that is needed is, he says, to say: “Let’s do it. Let’s go.”