Day 9: Charlwood to Wotton

We walked fast for seven miles through far from the madding crowd woodland, quiet and peaceful and to our surprise no small birds were singing.

Some of the woodland was awash with baby pheasants, to the torment of Moses, who very much wanted to kill them all!

We powered along, probably up to three miles an hour. The first two or three days of walking are always hard work as we sweat off months of lazy living and can literally can feel our old  muscles starting to harden. After three days we get into the easy swing of things and the rhythms start to make walking relatively easy.

No-one walked with us and it was a kind of pilgrimage.

Stuttering Halts

Some of my friends’ careers have come to a stuttering halt at Westminster. It’s bad enough for the great Ken Clarke who is, after all, 79, but this cruel termination of his career appears to be a shock to Rory Stewart. I am amazed he has been taken by surprise. How can this be?  

I don’t know Boris but no-one has ever  suggested that he is a particularly kind man.  Quite the reverse is more probable.  It is  surely obvious that he appears to be in a life or death struggle; rather like Holmes and Moriarty fighting  on the edge of the Reichenbach Falls and he would regard anyone not helping him as being  on in the side of Moriarty.

This is not a time for slapping each other in the back, ”Don’t worry, old chap!” at Whites or Boodles. What’s going on – Boris v Corbyn – is deadly serious.

Save the Last Dance for Me!

Life’s “firsts” are landmarks. Celebrated in TS Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi”, the three kings attend the birth of Christ and realise that this shattering first changes everything.

Of course, our firsts are on a far smaller scale, but they punctuate our lives and it takes time to see them in focus. We remember what matters to us, so the firsts etched into our memories often represent life-changing events. The first time we meet someone we come to love; the day we are awarded a degree; the day we are commissioned as an officer, or get a real job; the day we marry, make love, hear fantastic music; or the day we get elected – or fail to get elected! Then there is the star-spangled day our first child is born and held joyfully in our arms; our children’s first words and tottering steps; and their first day at school.

All these moments are stored away in the file marked “life’s happy events”. The key is to bank plenty of happy “firsts”: that way, when the sweet bird of youth has finally stopped flapping, we will have enough good memories to sustain us as we totter through the foothills of senility towards the summit.

Final Fix

Do we even notice, much less remember, the “last” events? The problem, of course, is that we do not always know it’s a “last” at the time, and it all gets lost in the fog we call memory. And of course, there are no warning bells to ring out at these moments of great significance.

Some last events are obvious: the last time we leave a beloved house, or a last day at work. And I suppose alcoholics – and smokers –note with agonised concentration the date of a final fix.

But sometimes it takes decades to really appreciate that a last has occurred. Was I actually aware when I had changed a nappy for the last time, or read a final bedtime story to my children? Did I realise the last time I tucked them up in bed and said a brief prayer over their heads that another milestone had passed?

Then there comes the time when we realise the extraordinary fact that we now need our children’s time and love rather more than they need us, preoccupied as they become with their own families.

End Game

What about the death of relatives or friends? When I visited my terminally ill mother, we both knew this would almost certainly be the last time we saw each other. Yet neither of us – locked in polite English denial – acknowledged the fact.

And then there are the times when Jane and I have mercy-killed various horses and dogs. Readers of my blogs will know just how painful such events have been, each one a kind of murder.

With advancing age comes an acceptance of death by a thousand lasts, faint signs that morph into an immovable tattoo: the acceptance of mortality. Before the age of 40, we convince ourselves that death is for those poor sods that have somehow lost life’s game. Then after 40, its time to “grow up”, and by 70, we realise the days of wine and roses are over and it’s time to get serious as we face an unavoidable end game. We idly note the ages of those in obituary notices, and ponder coffins and graveyards at funerals.

We just can’t get away from these inexorable damn lasts. Jane and I hunted for over 30 years. We loved the sport. Recently I discovered my old hunting boots covered in dust in the corner of the attic. They remain beautiful, the inside leather worn down from the friction caused by a thousand hedges. They symbolise great fun, teamwork as well as hunting.

But after 30 years, my hunting gene seeped away. To some extent, this was caused by the death of my last golden hunter, Spinaker. But there was also the friend who crashed a fence and was driven headfirst into the ground like a dart. His horse fell on him and broke his neck at the very top, so all he could move was his chin and eyes. When we visited, he was drinking lunch through a straw – and I swear this is true – watching a euthanasia debate on the telly. A single tear ran slowly down his cheek.

They say the doctors take those who are crippled below the waist to see those who have lost mobility from the neck down, so they can see how relatively well off they are. It begs the question: to who do those with broken necks get taken to see?

I stopped hunting. But I can’t actually recall the last meet, or the last team chase. And child that I am, I can’t quite face up to the fact that a last has even occurred. The chance I will hunt again is more or less zero but it’s painful facing that reality.

Jane is far more ruthless than I am. When I hit the sod, my clothes will be at the charity shop before I am cold. Nevertheless, I can’t quite face flogging my beloved boots, hunting coats and all the rest so another bugger can have fun wearing them. Dog in the manger? Me? Never!

Last Orders

Then of course the sex thing tries to rear it head (if you’ll forgive the pun). I think of the time the great Denis Healy admitted to Edna, “The bird won’t fly from the nest!” The late Alan Clark (who had considerable form) wrote in his diary, “The first time you are impotent does not immediately follow the last time you have sexual intercourse…The last time you don’t know because there is always hope, until much later.”

A friend in his sixties – a cricketing fan – told me that he had “drawn stumps”, presumably for the last time. You know when friends have called it a day because they’re fat. The seventh commandment is now a joke: what’s the bloody point of being thin?

So a few nights ago, on one of my numerous loo visits, I caught sight of my pale, whiskery body in the mirror. Then I wondered at what point in the future I would need to face the fact that a last has occurred: that my dead parrot was only good for facilitating drainage?

I’m sure the reason these “lasts” carry such emotional weight is that they are inexorable steps towards the greatest last of all: the black door, closely guarded by a dismal sod dressed in black and swinging his scythe.

Of course, lovers of God hope that Corrie ten Boom was right when she wrote, “Death is the old family servant who opens the door into the father’s home.”

What fun life can be!

“Last” drink anyone?

1 comment

    • Anne on September 15, 2019 at 7:49 am
    • Reply

    You won’t hear small birds singing in the woods in September. April/May is the time when they are making territories and you hear them.
    Enjoying your blog.

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