At the Second Grand Climacteric
Climacteric, sb. A critical stage in human life; a point at which the person was supposed to be specially liable to change in health or fortune. According to some, all the years denoted by multiples of 7 (7,14,21, etc.) were climacterics: others admitted only the odd multiples of 7 (7, 21,35, etc.); some included also the multiples of 9. Grand climacteric...: the 63rd year of life (63=7 x 9) supposed to be specially critical. (According to some the 81st year (81=9 x 9) was also a grand climacteric.) – Oxford English Dictionary, 1933.
Long ago, reading law at Oxford in the 1950s, I was one of a small group of fellow students taking private acting classes from the actor Vladek Sheybal. Our secondary purpose, beyond honing our skills, was to support Vladek who, after playing the lead in Andrzej Wajda’s film Kanal, had fled communist Poland. His only other source of income then was a job in the kitchens of a Catholic charity restaurant near Folly Bridge. We worked on scenes from Chekhov’s Three Sisters, mainly on Stanislavskian or ‘Method’ principles. But all I remember of Vladek’s teaching, except that we had the usual English difficulty in projecting enough emotion, is what he told us about playing old people, how their limbs were stiff and their movements slow and cautious.
I might have noticed this for myself since I had lived all through my ‘teens with my grandmother and, during the Oxford vacations, still did. But I was too centred on myself to be very observant of other people, especially not of a person I had grown up with. Even when I tried to follow Vladek’s advice, I found it difficult to imagine myself inside a body with such restrictions. Now the reverse is true: it is difficult to remember what it was like to be young and supple, to stride forward at speed as if there was always something urgent ahead, to climb gates in a swift flurry of arms and legs (in the army I learnt to do it by turning upside down as I went over),
to pedal furiously on a bicycle without grinding pain in the knees, to skip across uneven ground or rocks at the seaside with a sure sense of balance and no fear of falling.
Vladek did not tell us, probably because he was only a few years senior to us and knew no more than we did about it, what it was like inside as well as outside an old person. I don’t mean the physical inside, the heart and stomach, the liver and lights. Those may be wearing out or under attack in the elderly, but so they may in much younger people, and the same deficiency of imagination applies to both. Remembering what it is like to be ill when you are not, or well when you are ill, is almost as difficult as to envisage snow in summer or long, light evenings in winter. Storytellers have to do it, but that’s one of their special skills, similar to conjuring up other people, times and places.
What is it like to be inside an old person’s mind? Now, of course, I know, and surprisingly it’s not substantially different from what it always was. Others of my age will confirm this, I think. We may no longer look very like the person we were fifty or sixty years earlier, but we consider ourselves to be the same person and feel that we are. The content of our stream of consciousness may be different – more or less trivial, more or less selfabsorbed – but its style, its tone, its pattern is the same, just as the voice is, just as the handwriting is, unless they have been physically damaged in some way.
This is both a strength and a weakness. In the 1970s, after a play of mine had been performed to an audience of students in Newcastle, one of them asked me how a writer could find his voice. I might have asked the same question a few years earlier when I was a student, but by now I knew the answer. If you keep on writing you will not only have a recognisable voice, you will be stuck with it, as you are with your face. However much you try for variety and however much better you get at manipulating words and expressing yourself, you can never escape the inexorable pitch and rhythm of your thoughts, your voice. Yes, there are people – not just actors – who can give the impression of altering their identity: con-men, career-changers,
fugitives, reformed addicts, religious or ideological converts. But it is only an outward impression conveyed by a shift of costume or circumstances or scenery. We only live once and we are only ever one person.
So the truth is that, since our outward appearance alters imperceptibly over the years, we find it difficult to reconcile ourselves to being old, with all those restrictions noted by Vladek, when inside our heads we are still a younger person. But which younger person from inside all those outward changes? In my case, I think it is the one who emerged from the ‘teens into the early twenties, when I had escaped at last from the innocence of childhood, the imprisonment of boarding-schools, the anxieties of sexual and intellectual adolescence, the regimentation of the army and the efflorescence of Oxford. Others may find a different point in their lives for what I might call their ‘internal age’, but mine has usually been somewhere around twenty-four, the age when I married. From which it follows that when the restrictions – reminders of the real age of the body – kick in, my first reaction has been one of denial. I was very happy to have children in my thirties, but not happy to be thought of as a father and preferred my children to call me by my first name, though they never did. I was even less happy when I turned seventy to be called a grandfather, proud as I am to have grandchildren, but they do at least call me by my first name. These are mere bubbles of punctured self-esteem, but the moment in my forties, playing tennis, when I stooped to catch a low ball and found my ham-strings insufficiently elastic to raise me up in time to return the next one, was a real shock. That was just the start of a steady process of outward attrition and inward protest, though nothing as severe or obvious as a ‘midlife crisis’.
By my late seventies I had accepted that most people on the street walked faster than I did, that kindly people on tube trains gave me their seat, that to rise from a low sitting or squatting position required help from my arms. I had also gained a few psychological advantages: I no longer squirmed over social faux pas (water under the bridge) or took quite so much trouble to please people, or cared too seriously about being old. Indeed, in spite of the physical restrictions, my seventies have been perhaps the best decade
of my life. I do not expect my eighties to be equally enjoyable and for that reason am glad at this second grand climacteric to be able still to find something to celebrate. My mother-in-law, when she was much older than I am now, regretted that her life was nearly over. I recall saying to her:
But you’ve had a hundred years of it. You may not have done all you wanted to, as a woman in a man’s world, but you’ve got four children and eleven grandchildren, all of whom adore you, and you’ve been alive, very much alive, for a whole century, including all those years you had before we were even born.
That is surely the point: we should not envy those who are still young and spry and may have years more to enjoy the extraordinary experience of being alive, but accept that each of us is as much the chance inhabitant of a particular era as of a country.
Besides, the greatest advantage of being old is the accomplishment (almost) of a whole life, the arrival at a viewpoint not only of my own journey from cradle to grave (almost), but also of my friends’ and contemporaries’ journeys. Of course, we can do this at any age and of any era by reading a biography, but however well that’s done and even if it’s autobiography, it’s an artificial construct. The unwritten autobiography in my mind, fitful, scrappy, foggy, spasmodically illustrated, is a living thing, shot through with random flashes of old emotion, pleasure or pain, prejudice, ignorance, anger, frustration, contentment, delight. In my case, as a freelance writer for fifty years, it includes fragments of the research I did on innumerable and wildly various subjects, which I then turned into plays or novels or criticism; together with the partial memories of rehearsals, performances, publications, exhibitions, and the diverse people – actors, directors, editors, journalists, artists, curators – also involved in them. But along with all my research, most often into historical characters and events – ranging from the Aztecs, the British Empire, fifth-century Alexandria and fourteenth-century China to Che Guevara, Mao Zedong and Saddam Hussein – went the unrolling of real-time history around me, what I called in my first novel ‘the ragged end of history’: the leading characters and events of decade
after decade as the second half of the twentieth century wore into the beginning of the twenty-first.
I was fortunate enough, unlike my grandmother or my parents, to belong to a generation that did not have to fight or take an active part in either World War, though an apocalyptic Third War with the Soviet Union hung over us throughout my youth and middle age. I was even more fortunate than many of my British contemporaries, including my wife, who as children lived in cities that were being destroyed around them. I spent my childhood in Africa. But I did see the ruins of London when we returned to England after the war and, as a National Service soldier in Germany in the 1950s, the still flatter ruins of Hamburg; and now, in case my generation needs reminding or my children need to understand the perverse repetitiveness of human history, we can contemplate the ruins of Middle-Eastern cities most nights on television. In the whole seventeenth century there were only seven years when there was no war somewhere in Europe, suggesting a dismal coincidence between the devastating Catholic-versus-Protestant conflicts of Christian Europe then and the horrific Sunni-versus-Shia conflicts of Islam today.
I have a long experience by now of the perennial ineptitude of governments and political parties, mostly second-hand via the media, but occasionally first-hand, such as the mess made of our daily lives by the Labour Government and the unions in the late 1970s. What did the Labour Party do then, having been justly ousted by the Tories, but elect the futile leftist Michael Foot as their leader? Now, after two more lost elections, they have put their left foot in their mouth again, this time perhaps terminally. I could not bear to look at or listen to Foot’s raucous nemesis, Mrs Thatcher, but I admired her courage in taming the unions and restoring democracy, albeit obliquely, by way of retrieving the Falkland Islands, to Argentina.
For all their failings, I have always felt grateful to politicians as well as civil servants for spending their time and energy in tackling our tedious and never-ending social crises: the health, education, transport, housing, security, finances, etc. of a society seething with multitudinous demands,
dissatisfactions and resentments. What a life! And consider what humiliating processes democratic politicians have to go through to reach their goal, which is presumably some sort of temporary power and status! First, to ingratiate themselves with a local Party committee; next, to stump round a constituency and ingratiate themselves with the electors; and finally, if they do get elected and aspire to become ministers, to ingratiate themselves with the Party’s leaders. Yet we never stop criticising the poor creatures. I think it was in the 1970s, when we were living in the then safe Labour seat of North Kensington, that my wife answered the doorbell to find the new Tory candidate on the doorstep. She greeted him crushingly: ‘Nobody votes Conservative here, you’re wasting your time.’ Politely he replied, ‘That may be, but I think you’ll be glad to have these,’ and handed her the bunch of keys she’d left in the door. This was Leon Brittan, later a prominent minister, patiently serving his hard apprenticeship to politics by competing for a constituency he could not hope to win.
My long climb to this eighty-first year climacteric, which began in the British Empire in East Africa, included, soon after I left Oxford, a brief job dismantling the Empire in West Africa. The Southern Cameroons was a small Trust Territory in the armpit of Africa which had been seized by the British from the Germans after the First World War and administered as an adjunct to Nigeria. Nigeria had just become independent and the United Nations ordered a plebiscite offering the inhabitants of the Southern Cameroons a choice between becoming part either of Nigeria or of the already independent Cameroun Republic, formerly a French colony. I was one of about thirty young Oxbridge graduates recruited to administer the plebiscite and found myself, like a character from some Victorian travelogue or thriller, marching through the jungle in the company of ten men: my steward, my interpreter and eight porters carrying boxes on their heads. The boxes contained my provisions, camp-bed, camp-chair, canvas bath, and bottles of whisky to share with the village chiefs, who usually presented my steward with a chicken for my supper. We crossed rivers on swaying liana bridges and came to villages – separated by small plantations of plantain from the enormous forest around them – where the women had never seen a white person, where the cooking smoke from the mud-huts
filtered through the grass roofs, where pigs and chickens wandered freely through the doorless openings and the village children came at dusk to see the amazing phenomenon of a white man sitting in a canvas bath. Except for the steamy climate I felt as if I had landed in a much earlier empire, perhaps Roman Britain.
Did that strong, lithe, long-haired adventurer think in the same way as I do? Certainly he liked the same music. He bought a battery-powered turntable and some records of Verdi, Beethoven and Sibelius and, from his resthouse on a bare knoll in the middle of the forest, played them at full volume through the loudspeaker on his official landrover to the birds and monkeys, mostly invisible among the trees and no doubt hurrying to get in deeper. He was less cautious with alcohol than I am, however, and having snorkelled all day on a beach with several colleagues, and cooked and eaten the catch with quantities of vodka, he was pulled like them out of the sea, where he had dreamed he was drowning, by a passing party of UN Observers.
I never drank vodka again, except on two visits to the Soviet Union at the time of its impending dissolution. I had no alternative there where, in my part-time capacity as an art critic, I was treated as a VIP for the first and only time in my life by artists who had just begun to show their work openly. For them I represented the eyes and voice of the West, which they hoped to impress and so to join the international art world, as one or two of them already had. I felt like Gogol’s Government Inspector, not deliberately fraudulent but embarrassingly overestimated. I looked at the work of a hundred artists, was impressed by some twenty-five of them, and, with a small committee, tried and failed to organise a selling exhibition for them in London. But at least I can still enjoy today the paintings, drawings and collages which they gave me or I bought.
The contemporary art crowding my walls is no longer contemporary, but almost historical. Much of it was created by the new young abstract artists of that heady period in the 1960s when British visual art came into its own under the aegis of my friend and artistic mentor Bryan Robertson, the wizard of the Whitechapel Gallery. Some of those artists have died,
while others have passed or will soon reach the same climacteric as me. Their journeys have wound in and out of mine, as have those of some of the authors of the books on my shelves. I rarely re-read the books, but I look at the art every day and so the often distant past when the painting or drawing or sculpture was made becomes the present, just as my mind can leap instantly from the Cameroonian rain-forest or a Soviet flat in Moscow to this page or whether it’s time to fill my pipe again. I began smoking a pipe as soon as I left school, aged 18, and still do, now that the numbers are reversed, at 81. It’s an expensive pleasure and makes air-travel or visits to non-smoking friends’ houses when it’s raining or cold outside, tiresome, but a constant pleasure all the same, a substitute for eating or drinking too much, and an indispensable aid to thinking and writing.
My taste in music was still somewhat crude when I serenaded myself and the African forest. It was always untutored, since I never learnt to play an instrument or read music until in my twenties we acquired a piano and I tried not very successfully to teach myself. But after returning from the Cameroons I got a job as a BBC radio announcer and for three years, in the continuity studio of the Third Programme or at Proms in the Albert Hall, concerts in the Festival Hall and recordings of instrumental recitals in the BBC’s Maida Vale studios, enjoyed a feast of music. My taste for the Romantics expanded via Mahler to take in Bartok and Tippett, Webern and Boulez. Until in my seventies, with my late discovery from a chance CD that Liszt was one of the great composers – the BBC has never seemed to think so – I reverted to my old Romantic groove, though now with a preference for the seductive, flickering flame of the piano over the blaze of the orchestra. Like my pictures and sculptures, like my books, music removes me from any sense of time or age. I am twenty-four or eighty-one or anything between, living in the exquisite sound of the present moment and at the same time, since most of the music I listen to is already familiar, in the revivified past.
I hardly need Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea to recall some lost memory. Inside my head is a long scroll – like one of those Chinese landscapes through which you travel from right to left as you unroll it – filled not only
with eighty years of random stuff, but with the subjective significance of that stuff. Some people can remember their childhood very well, but mine is no more than a few isolated images. In childhood you are, as it were, on the floor under a table and as you grow up you notice the table and then that the table is in a room, that the room is in a house, the house in a street, the street in a city and so on. It was only when I had children of my own that I began to see childhood more clearly; and it seems to me now that we mostly experience our lives, like the structure of Homer’s Odyssey, from middle to beginning to end.
This has been an egotistical ramble in the quest for what goes on inside the heads of those poor old bent buffers and crones you see depicted, Lowry-like, on road-signs, and whose sad limitations I found so difficult to imagine when Vladek Sheybal drew our attention to them. But even if I had taken the trouble to conduct a series of interviews with my contemporaries, I should not have got any closer to finding an answer than by searching my own mind. For I am indisputably a real old person now and can provide at least my own authoritative answer. I am twenty-four years old, although I have somehow, incredibly, put eighty-one years of life behind me. Yes, I do walk a little more slowly, my hair is quite white and I have seven grandchildren. But please don’t call me Grandad.