The Seventh Seal

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

‘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…

Oblivion and all that

It came to me in a flash that when I die, the whole world will come to an end; not just for me, but for everyone in it, as far as I’m concerned.  Now, I’m not a great one for philosophical thinking: existentialism, for me, might as well not… er, well… exist, but I do find it slightly comforting to know that the whole universe can only exist for as long as I am in it.  When I cease to be, everything ceases to be.  Unfortunately, from the same view point, it will never have been in the first placeso, not much point in keeping backups of everything on the computer is there?

If this all seems uncomfortably close to the I can’t see you, therefore you can’t see me view of a child playing Hide and Seek, well, that is entirely consistent with everything that constitutes me and my life.  I presume it is part of the human condition that we all feel the need to make plans for when we are no longer here, but I think that I might just have found a way out of it.  Planning has never been a strong point for me.  I tend to either plan every last ounce of enjoyment out of an enterprise or get the day wrong and find myself on a bus load of pensioners heading to Cleethorpes in the rain.  The lure of there being no point to it is quite a strong one.  I have, in the past, started to make all kinds of elaborate plans for my funeral, but now I realise that there is no reason to do so, because it will never happen!  (The italics are my own.)  I will not be able to hear ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ therefore it is not playing; never has and never will exist.  I might as well choose ‘Bye Bye Baby’ by the Bay City Rollers, which, when I do cease to exist, will provide a bonus for all of us.

Actually, thinking of all the things I will take with me: pain, starvation, the Taliban, Okra, is quite comforting.  Imagine a world with no Chicken McNuggets.  It will come, but I will not be able to imagine it.  As I look out of my office window I see a giant buddleia at the end of the garden and it is absolutely covered in butterflies.  Imagine a life without that.  Imagine a life without anything, including life.  Quite disturbing isn’t it?  Occasionally my mind digs itself such a trough and it can be difficult to get out of.  I do so now by thinking of my kids and my grandkids, and by remembering that for them life will go on long after I am no more (selfish buggers!)  Each of my grandchildren will carry something of me into the future: for one it is ginger hair, for one it is a fearsome curiosity, for one it is legs that would look more at home on a carthorse.  Maybe they will remember me, maybe they will not.  If they do, I hope it is with fondness and not every time they catch a whiff of urine.

Not that I am planning on going anywhere just yet – I must make that quite clear.  Whatever I may have lingering in the future that is waiting to pull the trigger, I am blissfully unaware of it at the moment.  I feel like one of those posh fridges that monitors everything you put into it, but has no idea that you dropped a rogue brussel sprout in December 2012: it knows that the milk has only a day or two left, that the salad tray is devoid of all except a multi-pack of Mars Bars, that you really should have put a lid on the tin of tuna you opened last Wednesday, but it does not have a clue about the lump of green goo that is slowly spreading through the drain plug.  If it did, it could tell you why you can never open the fridge without setting off the smoke alarm and why everything you ever eat tastes of mouldy brassica, but it wouldn’t have a clue of what to do about it.  I doubt that, ‘Get yourself some long plastic forceps and a pipette for sucking up goo’ is part of its vocabulary.  To be honest, as my only real experience of AI is through the Terminator films, I suspect that it is far more likely to disguise itself as a central heating boiler, seduce my wife and take up arms against me.  Perhaps there are some parts of the future that I will be happy to miss.

There are two main reasons why I am currently involved in this navel-gazing.  The first, and most obvious, is that I have just caught sight of the bloody thing in the bathroom mirror.  I’m sure it didn’t used to look like that!  It used to lay in the midst of an area of toned muscle and taut skin.  It now looks like a sink hole in the middle of a pink blancmange.  I would like to do something about it, but I fear that it might involve sit-ups and I cannot live with the sound that my back makes when I try to do that.  I’m pretty good at sit-downs, but not so good at getting-back-up-agains, unless I have something to hold onto.  I will just have to wear a vest and whitewash the mirror.  The second reason for the navel gazing?  Well, I have just spent a couple of days in the company of my grandkids and they are so full of life (an absolutely infuriating amount of it) that I have started to realise that I am not. I am left with a sense of inadequacy that I only otherwise feel when watching ‘Only Connect’.  Whatever I had that formerly passed for get-up-and-go, has pissed off with the au pair and left me with a mortgage I can no longer afford and a dog that farts whenever it moves.  I am not what I once was – although I’m not sure that I ever was – and I am not entirely happy with what I fear I might become, so the best thing I can do is to just be what I am now.  It’s not much, but when the lights go out, it won’t matter.  Meantime, I get the popcorn in, fuel up on the kind of fizzy drink that will bubble out of my ears if I run, laugh at the absurdity of it all and try not to worry.  There’s almost certainly nothing I can do about it now anyway…