Friday, April 27, 2007

The Shadow of The Witch

witch shadow

I turned 50 a couple of weeks ago. It was a bit like the fabled Millennium, and the fabled Y2K Bug that never bit; another number, milestone, speed limit, the busy flickering of ghostly symbols in a deserted station. The universe of numbers is just another kind of dream, since we keep waking to the perpetual present where they don't (can't) count. As Eliot put it:

'... the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm."

Or, perhaps more pertinently:

'Fifty today, old lad?
Well, that's not doing so bad:
All those years without
Being really buggered about.
The next fifty won't be so good,
True, but for now—touch wood—
You can eat and booze and the rest of it...'

from 'Ode To Me' by Kingsley Amis

I first came across this in a Penguin selection of Kingsley Amis's poems, which I'd bought in a bookshop near Charing Cross tube around 20 years ago. Far from his best poem, but the first few lines stayed with me for some reason (a few lines later the poem becomes a right-wing rant about 'The Soviet sphere' invading England like Mordor encroaching on The Shire).

The son, Martin, also wrote lines that stayed with me, the closing paragraph from his novel 'The Information', about a writer waking to middle age:

"The Man in the Moon is getting younger every year. Your watch knows exactly what time is doing to you: tsk, tsk, it says, every second of every day. Every morning we leave more in the bed, more of ourselves, as our bodies make their own preparations for reunion with the cosmos. Beware the aged critic with his hair of winebar sawdust. Beware the nun and the witchy buckles of her shoes. Beware the man at the callbox, with the suitcase: this man is you. The planesaw whines, whining for its planesaw mummy. And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night."

That "nun with witchy buckles"... Another incarnation of the woman on the creaky bicycle from 'The Wizard of Oz'. And the man in Amis's book is only FORTY!

For myself, I guess the Information is arriving alright, but in dribs and drabs: no revelationary torrents yet, thanks be to Nothing. I imagine few peoples' lives become as "clear" to them as Philip Larkin's "lading list". Sometimes birthdays can provide miniature clearings (or the illusion of clearings, which about amounts to the same thing). Ten years ago, I opened our front door and caught my first glimpse of the Hale-Bopp comet. Here's the poem I wrote about it:

A COMET AT 4 a.m.

One late last look
before bed, and there
it is, finally, a flared
slightly bigger star
plunging but held,
dissolving in the bluey dark
above sleepshut houses and gardens.
Brightest on April the first,
the day before I turn forty.
Birthday candle, fuse-light,
your failing exclamation mark
will work its way
to the back of the mind,
where I’ve let in these words, minutes
tailing from the earthly core
of a spring morning, here
on the doorstep.

Ten years later, the signs are less rueful. I am married to a wonderful woman and we have a beautiful little boy. Though we woke up Monday morning feeling crap (a stomach bug), we recovered somewhat by late afternoon. My wife brought me a little chocolate birthday cake with one candle and a balloon blazoned with the number in question. Our appetites hadn't recovered yet, but our son had fun blowing out the candle and playing with the balloon (and eating plenty of cake).

That evening we celebrated my birthday in style, with cousins and friends, in Layla, a great Turkish restaurant on Pembroke Street. Someone called for a speech, so I made one (about 10 words, amounting to "thanks everyone"). When they asked for a poem the only vaguely appropriate one I could think of (which I know by heart) was James Fenton's blackly funny 'God, A Poem'. I'm pretty sure this has been widely anthologised, but for those who haven't come across it, here's the opening stanzas:

"A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You'd thought would be firm as a rock,

A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you'll get from th'Almighty,
Is all that you'll get underground."

So here I am, 50 and still aboveground. I am not yet at that point where, were I to drop dead, people might dust off the platitudes about me having had "a good innings", but I am long past the point where phrases like "so young!" could have any real meaning (no matter what people say about 50 being "the new 40").

Larkin has some resonant phrases for this time of life. In his poem 'The Old Fools' he mentions "extinction's alp", a familiar landmark that "stays in view wherever [younger people] go", but is hidden from the "old fools", since for them it has become "rising ground". Hopefully, I am not one of Larkin's ideal readers, those men "whose first heart attack is coming like Christmas." But I am now in the foothills of Heart Trouble and Cancer Country, even if the lie of the land doesn't seem that threatening. Strange. Death and I are now on speaking terms, though I don't share Emily Dickinson's or Stevie Smith's affection for what Hemmingway called "that old whore". I am in no great hurry to get back to where I am going. Anyway, what's to look forward to? The tunnel of light is here and now, not at the bricked-off end.

The contradictions are gathering, fast and thick. I want to keep living, as long as possible, yet I also want to keep at least a modicum of what makes living worth while: memory, reasonable mental and physical health...all the things you eventually forfeit for longevity, till all you're left with is enough small change to cross the river (sorry; the metaphors, also, are gathering fast and thick). Death or life? Provided extreme pain or depression doesn't make an appearance, there is no contest is there? And if there is a contest, a weighing up? As an old friend of mine once put it, “you might as well stick around for the lightshow.”