Author’s varied experiences inform his writing

2013-09-10 00:00

“I’VE lead an interesting life, that’s why I write,” says Henry Spencer, explaining what he calls his hobby.

“If I’d lived the conventional life I would be wealthier, but wouldn’t have much to write about.”

Spencer (71) is publishing his second book at the end of the month and its subject matter — death — certainly benefits from his slightly offbeat approach. Titled Placing the Bucket, which he explains is a reference to the term “kicking the bucket”, the book is subtitled A practical guide to preparing for a successful death.

Spencer arrives for his interview looking snappy in a white polo-neck shirt and sports jacket, with an earring in one ear and a wristful of shiny brass and copper bangles.

Although he’s become an expert in matters relating to care of the elderly after 20 years in the sector, he’s had a varied career, changing jobs “at least” 30 times and moving house 26 times. “My wife and kids deserve a medal,” he admits.

He went to school at Northlands Boys’ High in Durban North, but it wasn’t a happy fit. “I plugged matric,” he says ruefully.

That ruled out university and, married at 21, he started earning a living as a miner on the East Rand. He moved into business and worked his way up to top positions in several different companies, mostly in clothing and textiles.

“Then, at the age of 51, I had a mid-life change in career direction and became chief executive officer of The Association for the Aged [Tafta] in Durban,” he says. He stayed there for nine years, the longest he’d worked anywhere.

He’d also, in his early 50s, decided to study through Unisa, and obtained a BA in psychology, with a minor credit in social work.

This was followed by a Masters degree in applied ethics from Stellenbosch University, where he says he learnt that knowing the correct questions is as important as answers.

Meanwhile, his work in the elder-care sector was continuing, and for a year he tried to run both Tafta and the Pietermaritzburg and District Care of the Aged (Padca). It was too much, and he quit both at 58.

A four-and-a-half year sojourn in England followed ,where he had various jobs, including operations manager of eight homes for adults with learning disabilities.

He returned to South Africa and now consults and writes books, the first of which, titled There Is Life After 65, was published last year.

The idea for his new book came about while sitting nervously on a plane.

“I thought, if I died, what would happen to my wife? It’s not oxymoronic to talk about a successful death. We should aim to leave our family and friends in an okay position — financially and emotionally.”

The book is about the details of dying and — if you’re the one left behind — losing a spouse, details such as having to learn the computer and being able to take care of one’s affairs.

It doesn’t flinch from painful details such as death certificates, funeral arrangements and being alone.

While the advice he proffers is practical, his tone is sympathetic but matter of fact. Never twee.

As with his first book, there’s a good dose of humour too. “Most of what I write about is quite heavy stuff, so I believe you have to lighten it,” he says.

Spencer has a third book coming out in December, about adaptive driving for elderly people. “Your head can’t turn like it should, so you have to adapt,” he explains. “Try changing a wheel — even for a man it’s difficult. I thought about how to make this easier for an elderly person.”

Despite the mushrooming of retirement villages, he doesn’t believe perceptions of ageing are improving. “Lifestyle villages are really just retirement villages, but people are scared of their own mortality. I had a developer once say to me that he didn’t want to see a wheelchair when he was driving into his village,” Spencer said.

He lives with his wife Ruth in a cottage in one of Maritzburg’s retirement centres and plans to keep on writing.

“My books take a long time to write because they’re mostly anecdotal,” he says. Fortunately, he relishes the process, finding it “lovely to concentrate”. With at least another six books planned, he has much to look forward to.

• Henry Spencer’s book is available from Book World, Exclusive Books, and at The Witness Hilton Festival.


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