Age and Wisdom

Meeting Ronnie Crouch for the first time at what was to become “my local” shortly after moving into the area was an experience. He was a sprightly,  slightly elderly gentleman, with a glow and smile about him which draws the attention of those still wading through the chaos of their own making, otherwise known as middle age. Just the kind of bloke I like to get to know, so I said to him as I stood at the bar waiting to order my drink, “Well the sun seems to be shining then” and he smiled at me and raised his glass in salute.

We started chatting on this and that and nothing, as people do, and then, prompted by curiosity, and moved somehow by his unscarred optimism I asked, “What keeps you young?”. He replied, “Since I could stand on my own two feet I’ve only been interested in four things, Booze, food and sex and shelter,”

” Not too bothered,  with the ancient Egyptians or consequences of global warming then” I said. “Couldn’t care less.” he replied. I’m old enough to know that anyone who wants to run a country these days is a bit gone in the head, so after a century or ten of mankind getting it as wrong as he can. I’m  sticking to simple pleasures while they are available.”  He paused briefly and then added. ” Its a bit like giving a gun to a five year old, letting mankind manage his own affairs”

“Bloody hell” I said, “We’re going a bit deep aren’t we,” and he smiled. “When we were primitive enough to be frightened of something other than ourselves there was some hope, but now we think we know it all and can do what we like so sure enough, we are gradually messing up anything we can see, and most things we can’t” I looked at him anew then, because I could see that the “Booze, Food, Sex and Shelter” thing was more a protest statement than a philosophy I asked him , “What’s the strangest thing you’ve  done?”

“I climbed up to Machu Picchu last year” he said, “And I can tell you I was out of breath when I got there.”  I was surprised and impressed because the guy was clearly already in his seventies, and he continued . “I sat down and took  out a Big Mac and a Coke, to toast that ancient civilisation, with the cuisine of the modern age.” He  looked at me as if he was telling me something, but I’ve no idea what it was

It was time for me to go, so before left I asked him what his tip of the day was, and quick as a flash he said, “There’s no such thing as fresh wisdom.” That’s Ronnie for you, every glib aside had an aftertaste , and every casual observation was drenched in his experience . He was the most complicated man of simple tastes I ever met.

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Etiquette and Meeting A Lone Lady On A Towpath

Here I was, or there, or even here and there.  Well, OK. On a towpath, walking back quite early in the morning after sampling the local brand of fresh air, lightly seasoned with diesel fumes and a sprinkling of cement dust from some roadworks when I spot a lone lady walking towards me at a current range of approximately two-hundred yards,

I do not like this happening. In the country life is simple. As you pass her you would say, “Vegetables failing again Doris” or “Hi there, how’s your Mum” and with complete strangers a simple, “Bit chilly eh?”  and onwards you would go with, in my case, my mind firmly fixed on a plate of scrambled eggs and some decent conversation with my much loved goldfish, Jacinta. In London things are more complex.

A claxon sounds on the bridge and all senses and instincts go to action stations. “Keep it light, Keeeeep it Light, no panicking among the nerve-endings paleeeese” says our noble leader, who speaks from somewhere in the centre of the brain. Now the range is only 150 yards and you can see she is wearing a nice blue dress, tucked in at the waist with a matching belt. Some reckless molecules from the waist region suggests you say, “Lovely dress if I many say so, and worth discussing over breakfast,”  while remaining out of slapping distance in case your invitation is declined.

Ninety yards and time for sensible suggestions only if we may. Heart rate rising slightly, and a sense of unease evident in thickening neck symptoms.  “Eye contact and a brisk but courteous nod” suggests someone from the earlobes, while other canny folk say, notice something interesting on the other side of  the river and walk past without comment.

Almost too late for strategy meeting now as we approach the twenty-five yard mark. No more suggestions seem forthcoming and a glassy grin, rich in unease and discomfort floods across your face and you open and close your mouth weakly in the manner learned from Jacinta,  who has no wardrobe to speak of, the shameless hussy.

The lady looks at you and is clearly alarmed by evidence of palpitations and mouth flapping, together with some head-nodding to show that, strangers we may be, but we are all companions in the world village apart from some rough-necks on the Ukraine border, a number of folk in the middle east, and other places where head nodding may result in execution.

Still for better or worse, apart from her moving as near to the fence as possible to maximise distance, the moment is over, and a pleasing absence of humans is evident between you and the gate you are seeking. Now all that matters are the eggs and the prayer that you hope to never meet her again.Botched first meetings are always made worse by the clumsy efforts to explain them on re- meeting.

For example. You meet her three days later, and she is getting as near the fence as possible, and quickening the pace. You serve towards her and raise your arm to demonstrate there is nothing to worry about. “I say” you gush, “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you the other day, I was………” Sliding sideways she just manages to get past you and scuttles on at speed. You have managed to create an “incident” from poor planning and your clumsy efforts to put her at her ease.   There is no manual for what to do on the third meeting.

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A Short List of Life-Saving Kitchen Tips

Following on from my Slackers Guide to Success, a small village on the edge of Delusion, I passed through once on my journey to Professional Oblivion, I thought I would slide a couple of catering tips out for those who seek to save the time spent by the misdirected, moving pots and pans around the kitchen: time they could use more profitably looking out of the window, wondering what went wrong with their life, and checking out obscure channels on the Television. My current favourite is a programme developing the new craze for “Bath-time Yoga.” The warning to “Avoid Unnecessary Splashing” always draws a smirk from my tired lips as I raise a life-saving cup of tea towards them.

First tip, and obvious when you think of it, always have a drawer full of take- away menus. Even at dinner parties, where my Thai green chicken curry is famous, a slick piece of pre-guest arrival telephonmanship, followed by a discrete conversation with our microwave, offers guests the chance to enjoy the very best in cuisine while allowing me to save enough energy to thrill them with my conversational gymnastics and cork-removal expertise.

Second tip. Never sneer at a meal served “en croute. ” Remember, only a tin opener stands between you and catering paradise. Recently, in a brief flirtation with “High-Living” we purchased three tins of crab meat. Open tin, add a little lemon and a few particles of coriander to add that “je ne se quoi ” to the flavour,  (Otherwise known as “What the hell is that?”)  and welcome yourself to a session of crunch by crunch ecstasy: no washing up involved.

Accept any invitation offered from a distance of no more than three hundred yards, to allow a good chance of returning home safely after another prolonged period of corkmanship but at someone else’s expense ( yippee ), or at least labour. Look up “Jokes” on google  I have noticed that making people laugh helps them overlook the odd wrinkle in your un-ironed shirt, but I must not foist all my wisdoms on you at once.

Where would I be without my “Slackers Guide to Housekeeping” but a lack of motivation means I must save those pearls for next ti

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The Slackers Guide To Success

Owing to a natural lethargy this will be a short article, written in those small gaps between a mid-morning nap,  luncheon and the afternoon snooze. Still, in the brief time available, let me slip a couple of life-tips into the ether. The question is, how does an undirected unambitious man of moderate ability, that is most of us, make anything of himself in this complex and driven world?

I’ve no idea, of course, but lack of knowledge never stopped anyone giving advice so lets plunge in with  two ‘low-effort goodies’ which helped get me to the top of the Health and Safety Department at my county council. A pinnacle of achievement unhorsed, to mix my metaphors, when a rogue hair dryer  electrocuted a visiting dignitary and my head rolled in the customary manner, leaving me free to offer my advice and observations to the world. Needless to say the wife was delighted with the extra company.

Breezing past my own personal tragedy, my first tip is this. As a junior in a departmental meeting, when the head honcho finishes speaking, and regardless of the content, you look round at everyone in the meeting and say “I think that point is crucial.” Chuck in a bit of head nodding and direct eye contact to  add cutting edge gravitas.

Second tip: never walk  anywhere slowly. You are a driven man on the cusp of success. Walk at speed, and make sure you have a file under your arm, even if you are going to the toilet for a quick sip of  vodka. Only go for smoke breaks  when you notice some pretty heavy dude is also outside, and then praise him or her with out mercy or accuracy.

Finally, because a smart man always gives three tips for the price of two, do something for charity, and if you can’t be bothered, pretend to anyway. Act a bit tired a couple of days a week, revealing during the day that you were “Up pretty late, doing something you’d rather not expand on for the less fortunate then us.” On no account refer to the TV programme you were actually watching. Remember, the hard truth: even Slackers have to concentrate, on occasion.

That’s about all I’ve got time for now, as pillows need plumping and heads must settle down to a soft period of day-dreaming involving some beauty in a United Nations uniform asking me for the secrets of world peace.


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Isolation and the Social Voyager

The house that was meant to be my home became the space I lived in. Over a short period of time, it seemed to me, I had met people, made friends, been loved and loved others in return, although not in equal measure, and through accident, carelessness and weakness of character, I had lost it all again. So I found myself, in my mid-twenties, entirely alone and without support or reference points. The phone did not ring, and no one cared if I lived or died. It was a strange place to be for one so young. My food was delivered by van so there was no reason to leave the house, apart from my visits to the cinema which was my one escape. Watching lives moulding together on the screen filled me with a painful inexpressible emotion as I saw what others had and I did not. I watched people sitting near me, and sharing snacks and sometimes leaning in and kissing each other, or chiding children to be quiet. I saw them involved in the normalcies of life from which I was excluded.

I am a natural fitter- in, chameleon, a member of the crowd, but now I had no need to mingle any more. I could do what I liked and I would always eat but I had no function or need to interact apart from socially, and I had destroyed all that. I had grown up largely free of ambition or specific dreams: I did not wish to be a surgeon, or an architect or anything else you can imagine. I just wanted to be normal and loved, and yet I found myself as far from that place as a man can be. I did the basic cleaning in those rooms I inhabited, but largely I allowed the house to look after itself and, I noticed over time, that if I went for a walk along the landing, or peeked into rooms I had to enter, I would see a thickening carpet of dust settling over every surface. I wondered how, with all the windows closed, such volumes of dust could find their way to all this furniture. I filled my day with such idle thoughts, the answers to which I never found, and never cared enough to investigate. I drifted into stagnation, a depression if you like, when I had everything a man could want apart from interests, recognition and the love of others.

In case you are worried, this is a piece of fiction.

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Violence And A Sense of Belonging, from The Third Reich to the Islamic State.

There is a programme sometimes broadcast on the BBC fronted by a man called Michael Palin, which explores the world through his tolerant, engaged and curious eyes. He meets with every kind of man and women regardless of colour, orientation, creed and location and celebrates their unique way of articulating what it is to be human.  It is a beautiful, engaging and involving picture of mankind on the planet and he sees the world as I like to see it. It is not always so.

Adolf Hitler stands in that small group of people most consider without redeeming features. Somehow this wild and evocative orator gave a section of his society  a sense of vision and purpose, at a time when  his country was struggling in horrific social quicksand.  His sickening eloquence  gave enough people a sense of purpose and “Hope,” it seems, was more important than the details of his innate vulgarity and thuggish agenda.  The “civilised” looked on in mild confusion, unsure what polite people did under these circumstances. However diseased his premise, his vision mined a rich seam of alienation among social exiles and the newly minted destitute,   He harnessed their frustrations like no one else.How could that happen ?

As Tennyson wrote so lyrically

“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:

To a defeated nation, mired in depression and weighed down by the sanctions imposed on it by the victorious allies, his driven, purposeful voice seemed like a beacon of hope and purpose.  Those in power or the “Inner circle” thought they could harness and handle ” this vulgar corporal.” They were wrong.

You and I are far too sensible, individually and collectively, to repeat such mistakes are we not. Sadly that has always been true and always been false. Man repeats mistakes and rises from the ashes to repeat them once again like waves pounding on some indifferent shore we call our future.

In the Middle East, there are waves of violence and terror spreading across the region, the result, in part, of the complacent solutions placed on it by the Western World with that sanctimonious sense of knowing “the greater truth” that so many other regions find insufferable.  Once again, in horrific tones, fanatical zealots are preaching a mixture of hatred and religious and racial cleansing with an energy which is sucking disillusioned youths living marginal or questioned lives in Western cities, to leave their homes and families and join this new crusade to “cleanse the world of the unpurified” whatever that means to succeeding generations.: to harness their previously undiscovered anger and resentment to a “Holy War”

Once more, as “well-bought up people” wring their hands and try to find a “meaningful dialogue” with these uncouth being from another culture, the hatred and sense of vindication and release felt by these young men and women,  again horrifically expressed makes itself felt.

Now some young man from London, possessed by fearsome visions of a different religious and social order slits the throat of that brave and admirable journalist who risked everything to tell the truth and stayed to pay the cost. In Gaza and the Western Bank the rights of one peoples are thought to be secondary to another and where, “Not compromising and giving ground to these inhuman monsters” is the thought on both sides of the negotiating table. We wonder where and how it can all end.

It is only after the volcano has finished its eruption that we can move in and start to repair the damage. It is only after the violence stemming from deep frustrations, hatred and bigotry has exhausted itself, that quieter and more healing souls can move in and  exercise their compassion.

Some politicians have called for “calm with calm” but “Calm” will never be the long-term bedfellow of injustice. How I long for some figure like Ghandi to rise up out of the masses and, refusing to react to constant provocations, make the moral case for change and solution without  violence, but with increasing volume, until even the most inflamed and hate-filled soul is shamed into looking for a better more forgiving way . Without the presence of his kind, and selfless shaming vision he bought to bear on British India, we are in the grip of smaller strategic minds whose “final solutions” allow for nothing but the destruction of those who oppose them.

“All I have is a voice” said W. H, Auden on the eve of the Second World War, before adding sadly, “There is no such thing as the State and no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice to the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.”  Millions were to die before mankind remembered the message so many have once more forgotten.

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The Queue For Eternal Awareness

“What was your life like?” I said to the man one ahead of me in the queue of judgement . “I was like a man possessed,” he said as we waited . “How do you mean” said Mr Safe, namely me,  now mourned with clean piety by a wife, relatives and various friends, as we waited; me and this newly met soul, to discover the shape and texture of our individually constructed eternities. Your Heaven or Hell, it transpired, are tailor made to provide either exquisite pleasure or suffering to the individual. Judgement is a bespoke service from which there is no escape.

“I could not stop the words. ” he continued. I had morsels of praise but my diet was mainly indifference, sometimes mixed with embarrassment. I would talk to anyone, long after they wished I was gone, and eat at cafe’s pretending I was welcome and part of the community. Really, I was trying to express an idea: to get a concept on the page,” “What concept” I rashly asked, because even the newly dead, with eternity before them have finite patience, and mine was tested.

“The concept of natural and emotional wilderness” he replied. “That manners are what we wear to make ourselves bearable to each other and ourselves. That iconoclastic indifference lies at the heart of each culture, and the pretence that this isn’t so is the foundation of every building, built to glory the individual.”

I found myself smiling as he said this and said, “And you found you had some difficulty making money from this vision.” He snarled at me, as if he had somewhere left to stalk off to, but now there was nowhere else to go. Right or wrong, wise or foolish, we shuffled forward to learn our fate, and nothing we thought or did would alter that now.

It was a curiosity of the arrangement that we where allowed to chatter idly with others in the queue and even hear what the angels said about their lives, before receiving our own sentence and reward. Those in front would drift slowly towards their designated experience and they too, would learn what would become of you.

At last our bitter author stood before the angels, to hear their observations and they said, “You have been brave and fearless, and not ducked the cost of your observations and for eternity you will be bathed in the recognition and companionship you craved for your entire life. Proceed in peace and Love.”

I was slightly taken aback and still trying to make sense of what I had heard when the voices of angels began speaking in my head. “You have lived a mealy mouth life without engaging in any serious wrong-doing. Hiding behind a  fearful superiority, clinging to accepted opinions and ignoring anything which might disturb your peaceful existence. You lived among those you might have rescued but were not sufficiently moved to help.  You will now experience their life in eternity. You will experience what you chose to ignore.

As I fought to make sense of what I’d heard, and felt the first touches of that isolation which was to mark my designated experience I looked up and saw my colleague in the queue stare back at me. His fading figure seemed lit by hidden sunlight. He had heard the sentence, and I could see compassion flooding from his eyes. He, who had lived with isolation all his life, could not save me from a fate he knew too well.

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