Richard Smith: A proposal for your retirement

Richard SmithLots of my friends have recently retired or are retiring. None of them, as far as I know, have been on preretirement courses. They launch into retirement, which may be very long, ill prepared, perhaps reflecting on stories of people quickly fading and dying after retirement. I have a proposal for them.

I’ve not been on a preretirement course and am in fact accumulating jobs (12 at the last count) rather than shedding them, but I imagine preretirement courses to be sober affairs: preserve your energy, be financially cautious, don’t move to a house with lots of stairs, make a will and a living will, plan your funeral, tell your children you love them.

I’ve got a different idea, which came to me this morning while reading Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius. 1922: Modernism Year One. My proposal is that you follow the spirit, or even repeat the actuality, of the ten days spent in 1922 by Raymond Radiguet, poet and (probably platonic) lover of Jean Cocteau, and Constantin Brâncuși, the Romanian “patriarch of modern sculpture.”

In your retirement, putting your carpet slippers aside, you don either a dinner jacket or a designer cocktail dress (depending on your gender, orientation, and taste) and go to the opening night of the coolest nightclub in the world. For Radiguet and Brâncuși it was the Le Boeuf sur le Toit, haunt of Cocteau, Picasso, Chaplin, Chanel, Hemingway, Les Six, and the Aga Khan. It was “the very cradle of café society.”

As is common among retirees, Radiguet and Brâncuși soon got bored, so they grabbed Nina Hamnett,  the “Queen of Bohemia,” who was sculpted nude by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and had love affairs with Brzeska, Modigliani, and Roger Fry, and headed for Montparnasse.

Around midnight they understandably got “the munchies” and went to the Gare de Lyon for some bouillabaisse, that most tricky of French soups to get right. They were disappointed with the soup at the Gare de Lyon. They presumably went there because the ingredients, which are uniquely Mediterranean, could be taken fresh from the express from Marseille.

This is where your retirement begins to get interesting. Radiguet and Brâncuși thought that the obvious thing to do to get decent bouillabaisse was to go to Marseille. So, ditching the Queen of Bohemia, who must have got boring by this stage, they took the night train to Marseille.

Naturally they drank all the way to keep their spirits up. Although unlikely to be recommended by your doctor, heavy drinking is probably essential to this proposal. It would be hard to carry off sober.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the bouillabaisse in Marseilles was also disappointing, so Radiguet and Brâncuși continued their search for the perfect soup by taking a boat to Corsica. The book doesn’t reveal whether they ever found the perfect bouillabaisse (obviously a version of the Holy Grail), but they did spend 10 days in Corsica drinking brandy to keep themselves warm (it was January). As a retired person, you will be allowed thermal underwear in addition to the brandy, which, as every doctor knows, doesn’t keep you warm, but opens the blood vessels in your skin, making you more at risk of hypothermia.

You keep this up for 10 days and then return to Paris (or Didsbury, Croydon, or wherever you started). Although your life may be shortened, your retirement will undoubtedly be enriched.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.