John Spurl­ing

At the Sec­ond Grand Cli­mac­teric

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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.

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