We are not too keen on south Derbyshire. Sorry, but it ain’t a patch on the beautiful north. Today we faced vast expanses of scrubby grass randomly blotted with humungous clumps of elephant eye nettles. Fine fun if you are a flea but a stinging misery for us. The farmers who grow their miserable crops of beans across public paths should be driven across them stark naked. If they want a volunteer beater I’m your man!
We were then obliged to cross the A38 both ways. The cars and tankers, all apparently driven by swivel eyed zombies, zoom along as if they were racing at Silverstone. I suggest you should check the validity of your life insurance policies before crossing. Then we found we had made a false start because there was no bridge across the River Love. So, in order to resume our correct route, we were forced to retrace our steps and we had to face the A38 for the second time in an hour. This trip was the ultimate laxative as it seemed so unnecessary.
Still, we are making steady progress. General Montgomery insists that every yard of our 260 mile trek is walked and any backsliding by me is met with withering contempt and a swipe with her stick.
Walked through vaguely improving bits of south Derby and then we hit Swadlincote and it all went pear-shaped again; it’s one of the more dismal places we have walked through in the last five years. We lunched in Chicote in the graveyard of the local church. The church was locked, as usual!
I woke up out of sorts. Then I read a booklet prepared by my friend James Pringle, in which he quoted a work on spiritual depression by Martyn Lloyd Jones. Lloyd Jones mantains that we spend too much time listening to our inner thoughts, which are often negative and depressing, when instead we should be talking to ourselves and questioning the dark influences that can drag us down. I spend the morning brooding about this.
The Long Goodbye
I saw yet another news report claiming that the number of deaths amongst the elderly rises sharply when winter conditions are poor. The implications of the report are obvious: that our mean old government should do something about it by increasing heating allowances, providing better pensions, improving NHS services, and so on.
Not that this affects me of course, for I am still two years younger than the age Nelson Mandela was when he became president of South Africa. However, should we be actively looking for ways to prolong the lives of those who are already very old? Don’t get me wrong – of course I don’t want anyone to suffer unnecessarily or to die unreasonably before time. But do we really want to live to be 100 or 110? Do we seriously expect that doctors will one day announce they have cracked it, and we can all live forever? When is the right time to die? Is a lingering, lonely and aching old age better than death?
We all have to die of something at some time, and I recall there used to be a release from this mortal coil called flu. In the hard, old days it was called the “Old Man’s Friend”. In today’s marshmallow times, medical science has zapped flu as deadly enemy number one along with dozens of other ailments that used to carry people off to a relatively early death.
Joy and Woe…
On the face of it, that has to be a very good thing. But as the poet Blake told us “Joy and woe are woven fine”. That means that whenever we hear good news there is usually a sombre shadow hovering in the background to spoil our fun and make us think. This particular dark shadow guarantees that whenever we read of yet another medical breakthrough, another couple of months can be added to our life expectancy – already longer than at any time in the history of the world. So we are destined to spend ever longer in what Ronald Reagan’s wife, Nancy, called “the long goodbye”, often a time of acute misery for us and invariably a time of great worry for the families who love us. They have to watch us growing bald, batty and doubly incontinent in, say, one of Weston Super Mare’s geriatric wards.
Now, I have nothing against Weston Super Mare or any of its excellent geriatric wards. I am using them as a symbol for anywhere that – in one of my more savage nightmares – I can vividly imagine myself creeping inch by inch towards death.
The poet Philip Larkin wrote a searing poem called “The Old Fools” where he ponders why those living alongside other ancient, dying people aren’t screaming at their terrible one-way fates? He ends the poem with the chilling words, “Well, we will find out”. And so we may…
So whenever I go to a contemporary’s funeral and hear colleagues lamenting that “he died before his time” and about how unfair that is, I often think that perhaps my dear, dead friend is fortunate in quitting while he was still ahead.
The Birds of Lust
As I walk past yet another church, something springs to mind – not that I need reminding! A short while ago, I saw a young woman in church and immediately fancied her! It was not just a fleeting thought – this felt like a real connection. She was about 30, slim and edgy. I looked away at once for I didn’t want her to see me slavering away in pew three. But I couldn’t stop admiring her out of the corner of my eye and imagining. You don’t need the details… nothing particularly original about any of this.
Funny though – you would have thought that after all this time that sort of thing would have died a discreet death, or at least the old Adam would have faded to leave me in crumbly peace with nothing to prick me other than a few memories. But no, damn it, here it was again, hot and red-raw, and the years melted away like snow on a windowpane in a warm westerly wind.
Kingsley Amis wrote that the imperative of lust was as if he’d spent most of his adult life chained to a lunatic. He was spot on. And my lunatic started to gibber away and pluck relentlessly at his rather flimsy chains as if I was still a lad of 20 and as randy as a squirrel in a sack.
I told Jane and my children in a rather jokey, guess what sort of way, for I have found that secrets can turn dark and septic, and then they fester. I suppose old men are always frightened of being laughed at. I’m well aware that all the clichés are true, especially “There’s no fool like an old fool”. The family looked at me indulgently – my daughters with a touch of incredulity – and Jane was kind and sympathetic. She gave me a hug for she knows that this nonsense has nothing to do with my love for her. Betjeman wrote in his poem “Late Flowering Lust”:
I run my fingers down your dress
With brandy-certain aim
And you respond to my caress
And maybe feel the same.
Yes, of course, he knew all about it too!
Martin Luther knew how to deal with lust. After all, monks are likely to know as much about it as anyone. He wrote, “You cannot prevent the birds of lust flying about your head: but you can at least stop them from nesting in your hair.”
Not much hair to nest in these days so I’d better start flapping away.