The great secret that all old people share is that you really haven't changed in 70 or 80 years. Your body changes, but you don't change at all. Doris Lessing, O Magazine, October 2003
Not long before my mother died, J. made the trip from North Surrey up to Hertfordshire to visit her in her nursing home. J. is 86 and, with A., is one of the oldest surviving family friends from the early years of my parents’ marriage. Although her mind is sharp and clear, she is very deaf and has poor balance. Following a fall in her flat a few months before the visit, her confidence in public had been badly shaken and she undertakes journeys with great reluctance.
However, she was determined to mount this expedition and Mum’s brief but brilliant smile of recognition when J. bent down to kiss her in greeting justified the effort. After the visit, we drove the 10 minutes across the valley to our village so that J. could meet up with the youngest member of this family with which she has had such close associations over some 65 years.
The day went well. R & R, M (Emma was at work) and I took her for lunch at the Red Lion and J. balanced acute and detailed memory with a cogent grasp of the world of today. As I took her onto the platform at Hitchin station, I remarked upon this clear retention of mental faculties and expressed the hope that, when in my late 80s, I would be as fortunate. She grimaced and said that she would trade all the mental acuity and any accumulated wisdom that might have come with it for the ability still to hear her beloved jazz or to play a 90-minute game of tennis. “Old age”, she said, “is vastly overrated. Don’t have any truck with it”.
So, as I drove home, my thoughts were centred on the prospects for one who has managed the first three-score without really touching the sides, but now has rather less territory to cover for the remaining part of the journey.
You’ll be glad to know that I shall resist the temptation to document the content and direction of my thinking. There’s been more than enough rumination of the slippers-by-the-fire variety here recently. But suffice it to say that, since I retain from a largely unextinguished childhood enough of the conviction that mortality is a process that happens to other people, the melancholy didn’t last long. However, tucked away in my files are three little items that, it seems to me, do have something of value to say to us about the hardening of arteries and the failing of the senses and these I shall share with you…
[1.] Five years ago Michael Caine was interviewed on his 70th birthday by fellow oldie Michael Parkinson. He was asked whether any half-decent case could be made for the ageing process. Without any hesitation Caine declared that the very good thing about ageing is that it places you in a territory where you are no longer presented with alternatives. In youth and middle age, he said (and here I’m paraphrasing), there is a sense of an indeterminate future within which you might, at some juncture, make those final, life enhancing changes. In old age that option is no longer available and you have only the opportunity to be cheerful or to give up. Before the onset of old age people treat life as a sort of rehearsal for something yet to come, Caine said. He grinned that wolfish grin. “I say to them, this is it!”
The other point that he made was in reference to some research that he did for a part at one time. He was reading some material on abnormal psychology and he came across the assertion that when we falter in the face of adversity then we are in most danger of becoming that which we fear most. This simple truism – elusive maybe because of the somewhat specialised context within which it would normally be found – struck him forcibly and he made the decision to effect change within himself accordingly. Being able to look back on that moment of realisation and to recognise the benefits that accrued from taking positive action from it was, he believed, a function only possible in age.
[2.] A joke (and if you’ve heard it before, skip to 3.):
An elderly couple had dinner at another couple's house and, after the meal, the wives dutifully cleared the table and withdrew to the kitchen. The two elderly gentlemen leaned back in their chairs and lit cigars. Blowing a plume of blue smoke towards the ceiling, the guest said to his host: "Last night we went out to a new restaurant. It was absolutely splendid. Can’t recommend it highly enough".
The host asked: "What's the name of the restaurant?"
The first man opens his mouth to reply, then knits his brow in obvious concentration, finally asking his companion:
"Ernie, what’s the name of that red flower you give to someone you love?"
"A carnation?" his friend suggested.
"No, no. The other one," the man responded testily.
"No, no, no," growled the man. "You know - the one that’s red and has thorns."
"Oh, you mean a rose", his friend laughed.
"Yes, that’s it, that’s it! Thank you!" the first man cried. He turned toward the kitchen and yelled: "Rose, what's the name of that restaurant we went to last night?”
[3.] A sobering truth:
There is more money being spent on breast implants and Viagra than Alzheimer's research. This means that by 2020, there should be a large elderly population with perky boobs and huge erections and absolutely no recollection of what to do with them.
This strange, haunting poem comes from Breton poet René-Guy Cadou, who, in a brief life – he died at the age of 31 – produced a substantial body of work. He was something of a favourite of my old French teacher and early (unwitting) mentor, Roger Gerhardt. I’m in the process of translating two others.
30 MAI 1932
There remain only you and I in the attic, My father. The walls have collapsed. Flesh has decayed. The wreckage of the blue sky tumbles all around. I see your face more clearly. You’re weeping. Tonight we share the same age Beneath these her remembered hands
10 o’ clock. The wall clock strikes And blood recoils. Everyone’s gone. House closed. Far away the wind pushes at a morning star.
Everyone’s gone. But you are there, My father, And like bindweed, My arms entwined in your arms, You wipe away my tears, hot across your fingers
Episodes of fear, which come and go. In the wee wee hours, mainly they come and, by virtue of time and circumstance, they should be ignored, not disseminated. Broadly, it’s the nexus between the uncertainty of the journey forward from here and the certainty of its destination. Specifically, it’s the fear of frailty in the face of age within the context of my condition and its treatment.
I have had two subsequent nights of sleep and the agitation that preceded the insomnia hasn’t returned. My GP reckoned that it was down to my having taken the last tablet relatively late at night and a fair distance away from a meal. That and anxiety.
With this condition and its future course there are possibilities and probabilities. I need to accept the former and embrace the latter. There are many people – some within the larger circle of my acquaintance – who are facing graver prospects. Time’s passing. I need to live within the days here and now.
A man in late middle age had picked a new and highly recommended primary care physician. After two visits and exhaustive lab tests, the doctor pronounced that he was doing "fairly well" for his age. A little concerned about the conditional comment, the man couldn't resist asking him: "Do you think I'll live to be 80?" The doctor re-opened his file, glanced through it and then looked him up and down. "Do you smoke tobacco or drink beer or wine?" "Oh no," the man replied. "And I don’t do drugs, either. Never have" "Do you eat rib-eye steaks, barbecued ribs, that sort of thing?" "Oh no, my previous doctor said that all red meat is very unhealthy." "Do you exercise at all, in the fresh air? Playing golf, sailing, hiking, bicycling?" "No, no, nothing like that,” the man replied. The doctor pursed his lips. "Do you gamble, drive fast cars, or – if I might intrude - have good sex regularly?" "Absolutely not to the first and to the second, I’m afraid my time is past." The doctor closed the file. "Then why do you give a shit?"
It’s 02.06 and I haven’t slept tonight. During the evening, in the middle of a band rehearsal, I felt a strange, contradictory sensation – great tiredness and yet a sort of buzzing alertness behind it. I mentioned this to Emma, but thought no more about it, although I was very conscious of its still being active when, at about 11.30, I got into bed. I may have dozed for a while, but woke into full consciousness at about 12.15. I tried reading, but experienced the familiar tiring of the eyes and momentary dozing that normally signals the onset of sleep. But as soon as I put the book down and my eyes focussed on the room about me, the wakefulness returned. I read and rested my eyes fitfully and then finally got up at 01.55. I came downstairs and fired up the laptop. Now, at 02.17, such is my state of alertness, it seems pretty clear that I shan’t sleep again tonight.
I have written often of insomnia. I’ve had bouts of it ever since childhood. More recently, it’s been initiated by one of the kids waking up in the night and my being unable to get back to sleep after settling them down – as was the context of the previous post. But it’s not been severe or particularly troubling for a couple of years now. Tonight there’s something qualitatively different in the state – an edge of attention, of clarity of consciousness that transcends the tiredness. My heart rate is steady; I don’t feel agitated (beyond a sense of some distress at being awake when it’s the last thing I want to be); there are no other physical symptoms in place that might account for the state or that appear to characterise it at this point.
All of which is leading me to the conclusion that it’s a reaction to my course of prednisone. Insomnia is a recognised side effect, although it’s normally identified as being accompanied by a degree of physical restlessness and disturbance, which I can’t say that I really feel. If this is the case, then I’m due a somewhat rougher ride than I’d anticipated. I’m on a low dosage – 20 mils a day – and I’ve been taking it for six days now without any reaction thus far. But although after a further week of the same dosage, it will then gradually diminish, this course lasts for three months and, on present showing, it would seem likely that the insomnia will continue.
Immediate reactions to this unanticipated state of affairs are, of course, marked by anxiety and some distress. My sarcoidosis was diagnosed 18 months ago and – apart from a few clear physical symptoms that have caused no discomfort or inconvenience and some periods of agonising over where it might all go – the condition has had no direct or consistent impact on my life. Assurances have been given that my presentation of sarcoid is mild and – in the words of my physician – of ‘the best kind’. Her general prognosis has been that the condition is unlikely to have any major impact on my life ahead. However, the standard medical wisdom is that the condition can only be successfully managed by the administering of prednisone. Her hope for this current course is that after three months the sarcoid activity will be sufficiently inhibited for me to come of the drug for a while. Being chronic, the condition will re-establish itself, but the plan would be for an alternation of relatively low-level prednisone treatments and prednisone-free periods.
All of which offers a degree of comfort. I could contemplate that regime with some sense of having got off lightly and – within the minor inconveniences caused – life could go on much as normal. But if it’s now apparent that I’m going to begin to experience at least one of the negative side effects of this powerful corticosteroid drug then the picture changes significantly. It would mean that on current dosage then the likelihood of insomnia would attend each course of treatment. On higher and/or longer dosages, there would be the possibility of further side effects – salt and fluid retention, weight gain, high blood pressure, dizziness and (the immune system having been repressed) higher susceptibility to infection. All of these reactions are commonly reported by sarcoid sufferers taking prednisone and not for nothing is treatment frequently identified as being harder to deal with than the condition for which it’s being applied.
I’m presenting a negative assessment here, a worst-case scenario. But if this insomnia is the product of a low dosage of prednisone then – my vulnerability to prednisone being made apparent by it - my fears are not entirely without foundation. And having experienced absolutely no side effects with my higher, albeit shorter course last year, I had confidently expected a similar experience this time around. The nature of my current wakefulness is different in character to my standard insomnia. Where with the constitutional kind, I would by now, at 03.21, be flagging, I am fully awake and alert. Time will tell, but I fear that my experience of prednisone is going to be different this time.
I shan’t post about my sarcoidosis or its treatment at this length again. I do so reluctantly now. The content and general focus of this blog have been long established and, whilst I include personal detail frequently, it is not of the confessional or self-expository kind. Friends have been thoughtful and concerned when I have dealt with this subject previously and that has always been welcome and gratifying. But I have no intention of stepping out from behind the combination of materials that have been the substance of the Patteran Pages during the past six years in order to record faithfully the progress of my indisposition. There are many blogs out there that go towards the fulfilling of such needs in individuals and they have faithful followings from those whose needs are correspondingly satisfied and that is exactly as it should be in this strange shared world of ours. But for better or worse, I’m not one such and nor, I believe, are you.
So as before when I was uncertain as to how events might pan out, I shall step back for a while to watch and wait. I may well come tumbling back in within days. Indeed, if the nights are going to be long then I suppose I might, at last, have those protracted stretches of time within which to write at length and leisure. But I think that there may be a bit of a struggle coming up and if so then there’ll be some adjusting to do. Best to do it behind the scenes and then take stock after a little time has passed.
When I wrote the first draft of this poem, it was Rosie who had me up several times a night. Now it’s Maisie. So there are few nights during which I’m not squatting pensive in the darkness and silence, watching them sleep.
A BRIDGE OF DREAMS
Sitting here between you in the dark, breathing hard from the stairs, your cry my summons, I wonder where these boat
beds are floating you tonight. I wonder what kind of cataract spilled you and then spun you back. Is there for us a commonwealth
of dreams? I ask into the dark. Are you all heir to my dusty fears? You lie across your beds, starfish beached, the ragged pulse of reverie
flickering behind your eyes. I try to read its rubrics through shadow and across the years. Is there, then, a great pontoon
of dreams, bound together like Xerxes’ ships across the bay? And may I cross it, boat by boat and so go back, go forward?
The following is an elaboration of a comment I left on Dave King’s excellent blog, Pics and Poems.
STRONG LANGUAGE FROM THE START...*
I find it extraordinary that within all the animated and vigorous discussion that goes on concerning the public use of swearwords, no one ever seeks to explain what it actually is about the inscription or utterance of a small group of specific words that causes them such anguish, pain or offence. Vague mention might be made of implicit violence, monotony of utterance or an unhealthy preoccupation with matters lavatorial or sexual. But never is rationalisation offered for the extremity of reaction to what, in the final analysis, is merely a word. There simply prevails instead a tacit assumption that the perception spectrum of distaste to revulsion that is brought to bear on the swearword is quintessentially reasonable and pretty much universal in its application.
It would, of course, be crass simply to reduce words to their basic units of phonemes, morphemes and graphemes and claim that they are no more than noises in the air or glyphs on a page. Clearly words like 'nigger' or 'yid' have an intrinsic value whose sole purpose is to vilify and condemn and as such they possess a negative power that must always transcend context.
But the two words 'fuck' and 'cunt' simply do not carry the same narrow, acutely focussed associations. Their territory is sexual. In widest usage, the first is a verb meaning sexual intercourse and the second is a noun synonym for vagina. That’s it. Yes, both are used in anger and in insult and, circumstantially, they are removed from their territory of origin. Sometimes the point is made that aggressive use of the two words creates associations that debase their proper usage and setting. But the same transference of usage is made for, respectively, the word ‘shag’ and the word ‘fanny’ (UK version) and whilst their incidence might offend, neither word carries a modicum of the volatility of their taboo counterparts.
That in the 21st century we are able to discuss sex and sexuality seriously, calmly and sensibly is one of the more positive legacies of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most of the sad and debilitating ignorance and much of the clammy, inhibiting shame that attended sexual consciousness during the 19th century and most of the 20th has been dispersed. So how is it that whilst a television audience will tolerate – even be indifferent to – casual or elaborated violence and, through advertising and performance material on pre-teen TV channels, the post-pubescent sexualisation of childhood, it will jam switchboards at the utterance of the word ‘fuck’ before the 9.00 watershed and 'cunt' at any time?
In short, what is it about the utterance of a pair of words that can energise us so extravagantly over the representation of deeds? This is not a rhetorical question. It is a genuine request for rational, well-argued, objective elucidation. I’m not looking for a fight; I’m not even laying down the foundations for a debate. I will listen closely and consider carefully and then be on my way.
*The standard BBC warning before any programme containing ‘foul’ language.
If still within your comfort zone, these may interest and entertain.
Longer term readers of the Patteran Pages will know that I have an auto-immune condition called sarcoidosis. In 90% of cases it attacks the lungs, although liver, kidney, heart and brain can be affected too. It causes tiny ‘granulomas’ (minute lumps or nodules) to gather on the tissue and in severe case they will, through their proliferation, cause organ failure. In about 5% of cases, the condition is terminal.
I have been receiving six-monthly checkups for the past 18 months. Apart from a six-week course of prednisone – a powerful corticosteroid that suppresses the activity of the immune system – shortly after diagnosis, my sarcoidosis had been pronounced ‘quiescent’ and no treatment has been necessary up to now. However, the latest blood test indicates that the sarcoid is active and, in today’s six-monthly check-up, a three-month course of a relatively low dosage of prednisone was prescribed.
Whilst this is disappointing and dispiriting, it’s not entirely surprising. I’ve had a couple of symptomatic episodes recently – a skin rash and an attack of tendonitis – and I rather expected that some sort of response would be necessary. But I had hoped, of course, for a further treatment-free six months and now I must adjust my perspectives accordingly.
For all my rejection of the witless don’t-worry-it’ll-all-work-out-fine optimism with which the constitutionally terrified greet all problems, challenges and setbacks, I am positive. I don’t appear to have sarcoid in any of my internal organs. My lung function test – blowing into a tube attached to sensors – indicated that all was well where sarcoid strikes most frequently and there are no symptoms in the other vulnerable areas. My physician describes my sarcoidosis – manifest as painless lesions on the hands and recurrent iritis in my right eye - as mild and responsive to treatment. During my six-week prednisone course, I experienced none of the distressing and sometimes debilitating side effects that, for the sarcoid sufferer, can be a high price to pay for remission from an incurable disorder. She doubts that I’ll experience any with this longer course. And her long-term prognosis is of a manageable condition that shouldn’t affect my mode de vie through the ageing process.
But right now, here in a silent room late at night, my consciousness is primarily of frailty. I have been healthy and physically strong throughout my life. My physical well-being is a crucial element in my sense of self and identity. Now the first inklings in age that I too may be impermanent are consolidated by a condition that, in more developed form, would have profound effects as I move towards conclusion. Tomorrow, the day after, in a week or so, I shall have reordered my relationship with this disorder and – during waking hours at least – accommodation will have been made and equilibrium will have been restored. For the time being, the struggle must proceed.
This is the first draft of a translation of Jacques Prevert’s Le Désespoir Est Assis Sur Un Banc.
DESPAIR SITS ON A BENCH
In a square on a bench sits a man who calls out as you pass He wears pince-nez an old grey suit He smokes a little cheroot he is seated and he calls out as you pass Or he simply beckons Best not to look Best not to listen Best to pass by Make as if you haven’t seen him As if you haven’t heard him Best to pass by pick up your feet If you glance at him If you listen He beckons and nothing and no one Can stop you from seating yourself beside him Then he looks at you and smiles And your terrible suffering begins And the man continues to smile And you smile the same smile Exactly And the more you smile the more you suffer Terribly The more you suffer the more you smile Fixedly And you stay there Frozen still Smiling on the bench Children play right next to you Passers-by pass by Unhurried Birds fly up Leaving one tree For another And you stay there On the bench And you know you know That you will never play Like the children You know that you will never pass by Unhurried Like the passers-by That you will never fly up Leaving one tree for another Like the birds.
Four bankers appeared before the parliamentary Treasury Committee today to try to account for their responsibility in the foundering of their banks. All of them admitted some culpability and offered apologies.
Including bonuses, the earnings during 2007 of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Sir Fred Goodwin were £4,190,000.
Andy Hornby, former CEO of Halifax Bank of Scotland, trousered £1,926,000.
HBOS’ chairman, Lord Stevenson, managed a mere £620,000.
The RBS chairman Sir Tom McKillop limped in last with only £750,000.
During questioning all four bankers admitted that they had no formal training or qualifications for the posts they had occupied.
I sincerely believe that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies, and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale. Thomas Jefferson
It’s easier to steal a man’s money by setting up a bank than by holding up a bank clerk. Bertold Brecht