Monday, April 27, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

A few weeks ago I went to an event of a sort which would once have been a rarity, but which now is becoming more commonplace  - at least in the Western world.
I went to my aunt’s 100th birthday.
My aunt was born in the year of the Gallipoli campaign.
My aunt has all her marbles. She has only recently moved into a rest home, she can still chat in a lively fashion about the extended family, and knows all the names of her nieces and nephews and cousins and all their children. When I talked to her, she set me straight on aspects of my Lowland Scots ancestry, about which I did not know. She quite abashed me by her alertness, and I have many decades to go before I reach her age.
Of course my aunt is a little infirm, requires help in getting up and sitting down, and would not be able to run a marathon (she is 100 years old, for goodness’ sake). Otherwise, she is the picture of health.
Naturally, I had to wait my turn to talk to her. She was seated on a sofa in the centre of a room in her daughter’s house. Admiring family members were chatting and eating and drinking around the room. All were waiting their turn for the privilege of joining her on the sofa and talking with her. If she were a more pretentious person, she could have adopted a regal posture.
My aunt is my mother’s younger sister. My mother died in 1994 at the age of 82. If my mother were alive now she would be 103. She was born in the year the Titanic went down. In comparison, I think of myself as young, reinforced by my whole psychological formation as the youngest member of a large family. Despite all mature reasoning, a part of me will always be the little brother of my older siblings, and my foolish mind often begins with the assumption that I am a youngster in any gathering of adults.
But at my aunt’s birthday party, a counter-thought established itself. Here I was circulating among cousins (many of them grey-haired or bald) and comparing notes with them about children and grandchildren, and travel plans, and memories of things that happened half a century ago. The young teenage grandchildren of one cousin were yipping around outside and splashing in and out of a pool.
Suddenly I had a flashback to my maternal grandparents’ Golden Wedding celebration when I was a young child.
It was around about 1960.
I was tall enough to see over the top of the tables where the nibbles were piled, they being my chief focus of attention. I was of an age when I could slip between conversing adults, as I came up only to the adult midriff. And as the speeches and as the talk went on, I wondered who these old people were and what all their boring talk was about. They all seemed so ancient. The impression I have (I cannot recall in detail conversations I heard in childhood) was that they grew up in a world of legend, far removed from my time. I was too polite a child to use such a term, and I’m not sure that it had yet been coined. But what I thought was that these people were old farts.
I come out of the flashback and realise that, to those happy kids playing around outside, I now am one of the old farts.
What they cannot know, of course, is that I am really still a teenager only playing at being a patriarch and mature adult male. And that was probably the psychological disposition of those ancient forebears I saw as a child.
At this point, I could reflect on time and how it concertinas us and how relative our perceptions of it are. To a child, twenty or thirty years ago is prehistory. To you and me, twenty or thirty years ago is yesterday. My one-hundred-year-old aunt may have a Victorian name, Laetitia (the same name my grandmother had). But she is my contemporary, not a figure of legend.
None of this depresses me, for in ageing I find I continue to be the person I am, and will continue to be until death or senility (whichever comes first) gets me.
Some time ago I wrote a poem, which touches on similar themes. Here it is.


True history has a trail. Not just
the bubble of the moment but
the strings tied to your feet, in
ancestry, paternity, uncle- and aunt-ship
and those who survived a time
before your own, but can still live it
in your time, recalling, explicating,
seeing things in the present
of yourself. And in your brain, too,
1966 is not just 1966, but what
you have brought to that table.

So it’s ‘66. I’m fifteen
or thereabouts and watching
on Sunday afternoon television
(single-channel, black-and-white)
an English film from 1951
called I Believe in You in which
a do-gooding probation officer
with plummy voice
saves proletarian youth from crime.
And I’m thinking “How old,
how very old, this film is!

You’d never have a lead now
played by Cecil Parker, or
the audience asked to like
these snobby types.” Not that
I put it into words like that.
(I’m redacting. You understand.)
I mean I had a sense the world
had changed, and even, un-rebellious,
on a sofa, in a living room, I knew
this was the 60s
and the film was an antique.

So now I’m stunned to find
the gap from film to me was only
fifteen years; and fifteen years
is nothing in my life now,
taking me back only to
1999 when I knew what I know
and who I know and was already
me as much as I will ever be.
And I’m thinking of the trail,
the strings, those things
clutching the grown-ups

in 1966, the older ones who thought
this film something they’d just seen
yesterday at the Bijou,
modern, like them. And 1951
was last year. And outside the pub
old RSA types still in their heads
fighting Tobruk, and not having
to ask why Matapan Road was called
Matapan Road because that was
their recent history and they dragged
the trail into my time
and theirs.

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