‘Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.’ – E.B. White*
My greatest failing as a writer, I think, is that I get easily sidetracked by the desire to make sense. (My second greatest weakness is that I continue to think it acceptable to describe myself as a writer. I have, in the past, painted many a ceiling, but I have never viewed myself as Michelangelo.) I have a gift for vacillation matched only by my tendency to forget whatever point it was I wished to make before I decided I didn’t want to make it. My finger is so rarely on the pulse that I have no idea whether what I write is alive and well or ready to be minced and pressed into a burger. I try to keep things as simple as I can because, if I’m honest, I’m not much good at tying up loose ends: my macramé skills are not now what they never were then and even as a boy scout with an impeccable woggle, my clove hitch left much to be desired.
I now (or, if I am truthful, at some point in the past, as there is always a considerable lag between writing this stuff and publishing it, giving myself the time to consider who I might have offended, how I might have offended them, what is, or isn’t, funny and why) inhabit a body in which all of my various bits and bobs appear to be engaged in a battle to determine which can fail first: a battle which my teeth are currently winning hands down. (Or is it my hands, teeth down?) In days of yore, dental hygiene was a vigorous business; buffing and scrubbing my way to the kind of white and uniform pegs that I never actually achieved: this is the result of a youth spent opening beer bottles with ill-equipped molars and repeatedly swilling my tonsils with super-strength black coffee. My mouth now resembles a church graveyard from a Hammer Horror film: tombstones lurch at erratic angles, pieces drop off with a haphazard regularity that always takes me by surprise, there are gaps with something (I have no idea what – could be spinach) growing within them. I expect Iron Maiden will book it as a concert venue some time soon.
I find this deterioration incredibly depressing. Even more troubling – because I can no longer gnash my teeth in anguish – is the knowledge that it can only get worse. However much I have the frontage repaired the infrastructure continues to crumble. My mouth contains so much mercury that I am an inch taller in the summer.
Age, unlike life, does make sense. Surely it is perfectly acceptable for stuff to stop working when it is no longer needed. Why worry about retaining teeth when all you really want out of life is a bowl of warm soup and a slice of bread to dip in it? The heart does not need to pump so strongly, to pump blood hither and thither at a pressure adequate enough to stop the arteries collapsing like an Italian government, when the body in which it assiduously oscillates does little but sit in front of the radiator and moan about the buses. What is the point in nature making efforts to retain 20/20 eyesight when the most dangerous thing you are ever likely to encounter is the doormat? Who needs hearing when the telly turns up so loud? Might as well let everything slide a bit – you’ll be dead soon enough.
Except, most of us are not prepared to simply slide off into our evermores without at least a small amount of resistance, are we? We accept age, but we don’t surrender to it – unless, of course, avoiding it requires an awful lot of effort. It does become increasingly difficult to put too much endeavour into confronting the inevitable, but most of us are determined to put up at least some degree of fight. Like Cnut (King Dyslexic I) we cannot hold back the tide, but we can soak up a lot of it into our socks. Age will teach us new tricks: you cannot stop a speeding truck by standing in front of it, but you can deflect it slightly by standing to one side and throwing drawing pins. You cannot avoid Death, but you can stall him a little with chocolate and banana skins. Chess, for me, is not an option – I get confused by the little horses. Could Death be tempted into a game of Trivial Pursuit – I feel I always stand a chance with the inconsequential? (I’m sure that my assumption that Death is male must be due to a 1960’s upbringing and Max Bygraves on the TV.) Keeping the brain active, that’s the thing, isn’t it? Sudoku, Countdown, Crossword, Pointless and Only Connect: keeping the brain vigorous is surely the only way of stalling dementia – although after thirty minutes of the delightful Ms Coren-Mitchell’s show, nobody can honestly avoid feeling that they must have something seriously adrift between the ears. It is like listening to a Scott Walker CD – the conviction that there is something not quite right with at least one of you is overwhelming.
I have learned in these last few years that fingers cannot be taught new skills beyond a certain age and that no amount of pain and perseverance will lubricate the transition between G and E7 without dislocating ancient knuckles. I have discovered that no matter how hard I try to concentrate, the computer will still get me in checkmate within fourteen moves, even on ‘beginner’; that no matter how closely I follow the instructions on the macramé kit, all I ever make is a knot; that no matter how prepared I feel at the beginning, I will always be left with a piece of wood that ought to belong somewhere when I have constructed my latest bookcase.
It’s the knowing, isn’t it? Do you want to be sound of mind, but feeble of body, or vice versa? I cannot decide: I cannot make up my mind and yet, even if I could, I am aware that it would make not one jot of difference. What will be will be. What fails, fails. What persists, persists and no amount of reading books you do not understand will change that. There’s no point in trying to make sense of it. Don’t let the Devil lead you into a cul-de-sac of rationalisation, unless, of course, you are confident that he is going to be the one who can’t find his way out. And if he does manage to button-hole you into a game of chess, make sure that you are fully acquainted with the rules before you start. Try to understand how come the clergy slide around the board ineffectually, approaching everything obliquely, never tackling anything head on (oh, hang on…); how come the little horses manage to turn in mid-air when they’re jumping over things and, come to that, how come a castle can even move in the first place. But don’t fret too much about it: it isn’t good for you at your age and, after all, it’s not as if your life depends on it…
*I included this quote because it was the starting point for today’s ramble. That it did not, in the event, go anywhere near where it was intended to go is entirely par for the course. I am sure I will return to the theme in the future – although not necessarily when anticipated…