Does the ageing eye bring perspective or distortion, disappointment or contentment – as past encounters are revisited?
I met the guy on the fringes of a think-tankish meeting somewhere in central London, sometime in the 1980s. Having something to do with the publication of a pamphlet on the political situation in Cyprus, I had a vague but half-justified reason for being thus introduced by a friend of mine. What I remember was how polite he was as he insisted, through my mumbles, in making sure he had got my name right. We talked rather aimlessly for a few minutes when, empty of new conversation, I took my leave. I regret it now, not living even a wee bit longer under that fabulous fluency of speech and charm.
Following his career in later life with special reference to his work on the subject of faith, I came across this line : “Allow a friend to believe in a bogus prospectus or a false promise and you cease, after a short while, to be a friend at all”. It is a proposition to chill the ancient blood. For it becomes ever harder as you age to talk directly to those friends that are still standing, however certain you are in your own convictions. How can you tell a friend of 40 years that, ultimately, his jokes stink, his fashion selections constitute a hate-crime, his beliefs are steadfastly medieval? As they say in Govan, you need only six to bury you – but what if your geriatric honesty starts bring the big funeral number down below three? Any relationship tolerates only so much bluntness (I nearly wrote so much Blunt!). Consequently, any chance of happiness will evaporate if life turns into a seminar with no audience, only a speaker. Ineluctably, there’s a lot of compromisin’, with apologies to Glen Campbell, on the way to that horizon.
Hitchens also teaches us to stay polite and avoid sarcasm. Does not solve anything – but it steers you through the day in all its many maddening encounters and might leave your dignity just about intacta.
Permanently skint as a post-graduate, I had taken a job as college receptionist. This involved working the old PBX switchboard, receiving packages, etc. To emphasise the almighty of the role, the receptionist was sat behind a huge glass screen which could be slid, noisily and intimidatingly, back and forth, only from the inside. The lodge was so his (all male back then!) demesne. And there were specific privileges also. For example, the arrière-boutique contained the only soft mattress and blanket for miles; plus, when the undergraduate bar closed of an evening, the receptionist would be passed a generous drink of his choice through a porthole used only for that purpose. And yes, you could sleep through the night and get paid. Which, of course, you did.
One morning, Benazir came by, down from her room, chatting though the screen. Behind the receptionist on a counter lay the proof of that other employee privilege : electric kettle, teapot and biscuits. Benazir caught sight and let herself indoors behind the screen; nothing unusual about this at all. To this day, I can hear the silky swish of her floral dress as she went over to organise the tea into the china.
Then the drama.
Suddenly a man appeared, briskly through the storm doors and over to the glass screen. There was both determination and exhaustion in his attitude. He was wearing a brown suit which did not fit him at all, his shirt crumpled like a littered paper-towel. His accent was, to my ears, definitely Indian sub-continent.
There was no small talk. “Where is Benazir?” he gruffed. “I must see her. Which is her room?”. Seated and watching the screen’s reflection, I could see Benazir staring at the man in frozen silence. But he did not notice, persisting with the receptionist, getting angry. Though I have never for one second felt comfortable about this, I lied to the man. “First of all, I happen to know that Miss Bhutto is not in college today”. He wanted to go find her on the estate. “I am actually not allowed to let strangers into the grounds” – though how I was in fact going to stop him was not clear (and it was also not true anyway). The man looked straight through at myself and, standing five feet behind, the statue that was Benazir, not seeing her. “However”, I said, “if you want to leave a note for Miss Bhutto, then I will personally make sure it goes into her pigeon hole”. The man, seriously unimpressed, insisted that he had really to see her in the flesh; I insisted in reply that this was just not possible. It was hard not to envisage him as a threat but I guess that he, for his part and whatever his motive, did not for a second imagine that Benazir Bhutto was to be found making the tea in the servants’ quarters.
Suddenly the man seemed punctured. Without pleasantry, he shot back down the ramp, away from the lodge and off towards town. Never saw him again. We both groaned with relief as Brown Suit thus flapped away. Benazir make a remark about people from the homeland often seeking her, hoping she will receive petitions and make intercessions. We smiled and never talked about it again; I never even made an entry in the incident book.
The memory of that day is such a sadness to me now.
Ahmed Ben Bella
Tonight, it is my job to take care of an Algerian visitor. I am thirty years old. His name is Ahmed and he has come a long way to give a talk on the subject of global poverty and economic under-development. The event is cursed with delays not of his making. But he does not seem upset and I find myself spending time alone with him at, very incongruously, a drinks reception in a grand but faded Victorian hotel. Ahmed does not really know who I am but is glad of a brief companion. He speaks only French (which locks out other would-be participants), obviously does not drink wine and his conversation is never going to be trite. He had indeed been, following a troubled but ultimately successful demand for statehood, the President of Algeria in the early 1960s. Ahmed Ben Bella is, by the time of our encounter well into his sixties and in exile.
He has a message for me, a songline, certainly not one shared over the years, I am sure, with only myself. As he speaks, his manner is so intensely still and his eyes so polished and doleful that I feel as if he is lasering the message onto a screen at the back of my head.
Following a coup against his leadership, he tells me, he had been imprisoned for a long time at the hands of sometime political allies. But if – this was his song – he had allowed bitterness at being betrayed and abused to enter his heart then that would have been the thing that killed him. In his confinement, he had devoted himself to spiritual reflection and forced himself to keep pure of any violence of thought.
I may have been nobody to him but, in that moment inhabited by only the two of us, he is as fixed on me as an ancient mariner. There was a lesson – a judgment about tolerance and forgiveness and ageing – which he just has to make me hear.
As he speaks, the skin on his face is stretched sallow with fatigue, a face that is a charisma of pain holding a voice that has stayed soft. In later years, I learn more about Ahmed’s life and all the extremes – including many assassination attempts – which he had to endure. It is impossible for me not to like him for the hour we are in company. And I believe that he believes in what he is telling me. But I have never been sure about his song of life. And I cannot know if he kept it running as an anthem in his head through all the years – thirty in his case – that lay ahead. But even if he did, just how universal and how useful are the lyrics? For just how long and how far can one float in the grey sea of spiritual serenity and stay sane and responsive?
I remember Ahmed’s as one of the many voices I have heard recommending cool emotions for every crisis, not letting yourself become passion’s slave, keeping the ego off the drink, especially as you age.
Around my university years, I was invited to dinner in the home of a sympathetic friend. Rather to my surprise, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis appeared and each took a suitably distanced chair round the table. She was very sweet-natured and he, the Kingsley, effortlessly turned into the funniest person I had then met. And he still owns that crown. That evening, he had just learned a new word – “shoppy” – and made a short but riotous speech about its range of possible meanings. He then held forth of the activities – malign in his view – of one Alger Hiss, not well known, I suspect, to the other diners. That one down, he switched to the subject of fan mail with special reference to correspondence – more than suspicious, in his view – from antipodean clergymen. It would be fashionable to say that he was extremely rude and I curse myself still for laughing till I was nearly sick. As he left, he took with him my tie – a flappy monstrosity in Aston Villa stripes with a strange opalescent thread running through – which he had admired over dinner. As my tie was clearly funnier than my own attempts at speaking, I gladly gifted it to him; it brought forth a laugh and I fleetingly thought that I did not actually possess all the personality of a multi-storey car park in the greater Rochdale area.
Been aware of and hesitant before and vulnerable to the power of celebrity ever since.
For a while in later life, her fame well-established, I knew Shere. Her male partner, prominent in banking, was an absolutely delightful person also. Over the occasional lunch ensemble, she would talk over the issues of the day; and every thought she shared about basically every subject was refracted through her own appreciation of feminism and the multi-millenarian gruesomeness of women’s lives. Far from being an ideologue, she nevertheless radiated an ideology. And just listening to her speak brought home the knowledge that after centuries of heavy gendering, one actually knows, on that basis alone, very little about other people’s lives.
Ageing, if you are lucky, makes you vibrate to all you have overlooked, all you have under-appreciated. But luck does not always make you better. Sad.
This is an unambiguous piece of advice, advice about how to love the person you are and, importantly, the person you used to be. Find where your heroes are buried and go put flowers on their grave. Locate their plaques. Have your photo taken. For these are journeys truly reserved for old people, those who need to be reminded of the thunder they heard when they were young. Does admiring Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and all his generosity towards life for forty years prepare me for anything? No. It merely throws a makeshift bridge of goodwill across the decades; it offers but a chance of grace, I think, for as long as I keep walking over. It is a version of how I might find the way back to and forward from my best house.
At a drinks party, many years ago, I watched as a lady whom I had just met – a school-teacher, as I recall – was introduced to a leader of the Red Clydeside movement, a way-back-then struggle to improve social conditions in the industrial belt of a turmoiled Scotland in the 1910/20/30s. He had been long since un-remembered; for him, there was never to be social media exposure or screechy fans or TV quiz-show appearances. With the fight in him seeming smothered under all the decades and perhaps under all the defeats, the wrinkled rebel – obviously a member of the scrubbed-clean-every-day proletariat – was staring, wordless but smiling, out from the living-room’s only armchair. At first, under the record-player’s throb, Moira did not catch his name. And she spoke to him as if he were deaf and, given his age, probably proud to be at the party, any party.
It took a few moments for the overseeing host, knowing his mission, fully to explain. We started by talking to the gentleman about the quality of digs and dosshouses in the Ayrshire of his activist eras. Then abruptly, penny-droppingly realising who and what he was, Moira brought her hand up to her mouth. As the moments passed, tears started to spill over her fingers. “Oh, I know who you are”, she shouted over the din. “You’re a… hero to me”. The old man looked as if an electrical current had suddenly shot up his spine. And then, as she leaned down to him, they embraced like re-united lovers, ones who have actually never ever met.
I watched. Then I looked away.
And I did not need to be reminded that, as Willie sings, the days whittle down to a precious few…. Actually, I need to be reminded of this every day.
Yes, himself : a sua excelência, Senhor Presidente.
Back in that day, as a junior official I had a number of meetings with him, mostly over pizza. In fact, big-hearted intellectual, I bought him a Margherita – rien que nous deux – in south London as, for the last time, we discussed the politics of contemporary Latin America. He was extremely likeable and I concluded then as before that, whatever was happening in Brazil (and my knowledge thereof was, of course, profound), his project was going nowhere.
As we parted on the street by Elephant & Castle – this was the 1980s – I wished him every success in life and he, rushing for a plane, was nearly knocked down by a car as he crossed Walworth Road. I gulped in horror but the swerve was good. We then waved like happy chums and never had occasion to speak again.
On such assumptions and on such strokes of luck does one’s life pivot. Not much to add.