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Investing in our future selves.

The present is riven with unseen wormholes into the past, and every now and then, often tripped over by a sight, a sound, or a smell, we fall into one.

This week I was going to write about a mountaineering topic until my memory was triggered by the sight of something hanging on a wall. A few days ago, I gave a talk to a community group that wanted to hear about my mountaineering adventures. The group had no connection to the military but being based in a small rural town with limited meeting space options, they hired the local Returned & Services League hall.

I arrived early and had time to check out the décor. Crossed flags stood centre-stage, and to either side of them was a sparse arrangement of sepia photographs of soldiers and nurses, some smiling, others miserable, all staring into my present while I stared into theirs. On the left wall was a tarnished old sword which looked nothing like the Royal Marines Officer Pattern I was familiar with, but the rifle on the right wall tripped me over and sent me sprawling into the past.

Cradled by two brackets above a door, the SLR rifle stirred memories of a past life. I recalled the weight of it in my hands, the ding of the shot in my ear, the stab of its recoil in my shoulder, the scald of its burnt cordite in my nose. Transported by the senses, I found myself back in the training shed with one knee on the cold concrete floor and a woollen cap pulled down over my eyes while I stripped and re-assembled the rifle blindfolded to a set time. Nearly four decades ago, yet the memory was vivid.

A young Captain Bell, Zimbabwe 1986

My time in the Royal Marines were some of the best and some of the worst years of my life; vivid dreams of the latter still stalk my sleep, but the good times never show themselves. The best included a posting to Zimbabwe teaching field-craft and tactics to Mozambican officers. The worst was training recruits in the UK. On the face of it, there’s not much difference between the two jobs, so why do they occupy such opposite corners of my consciousness?

The past holds many lessons for us, and when rendered down to their essence those lessons can have universal relevance. They’re the stock of the writer’s and speaker’s trade. So whenever something transports me, I make a point of seeking out its lesson and adding it to my store of stories in case it's relevant to the theme of a future talk, article or blog post.

Driving back from the talk, with the cold steel of the untouched rifle still held in the hands of my memory, I pondered the difference between those two jobs, and what made one a good memory, and the other one bad.

The difference, I realised, was the effort I’d put into them. The job in Zimbabwe was exciting and stimulating and demanded a big effort to get things done, so I busted a gut and reaped the rewards. By contrast, the job in the UK seemed mundane and run-of-mill, and with a team of experienced NCOs to take up the slack, I did just enough to get by. Let’s not mince words: I was lazy.

Whether they’re good or bad, feelings can latch on to us for decades. I still get a buzz when I recall a hard lead I did back in the 1970s or a standing ovation after a talk I gave five years ago, and I still get a sinking feeling when I remember baling out on a climb or not doing my best simply because no-one was looking. The effort, or lack of it, that we put into something can follow us for the rest of our lives, either as a congratulatory slap on the back or a sharp poke in the ribs. Either way, it’s an almost physical thing.

I emerged from this particular wormhole to the past with a well-worn gem of truth: we get back what we put in. Render this down a little more, and it’s clear that even though there might be no immediate benefit or reward, our best efforts are an investment in our future selves.


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