Some decades ago, the UK Government issued a special 50p coin in celebration of the national membership of the European Community. On the tails-side the imprint was of hands joined in a circle, symbolising continental togetherness. You could buy a gift edition with the coin mounted, as I recall, on a velvet bed in a wee red box. The object might seem very superannuated if viewed now.
Back in that day, I gave the gift version to a French friend of mine. As he was privately wealthy, I had been worried that he would take it as a trinket. However, a long time after I had, officially and forever, left that town in Burgundy, I called at his home one day, dangerously unannounced. His wife showed me into his study and I saw the red box and shiny coin, kept on display by the square-metre blotter on his desk. Suddenly, Henri swept in from another part of his flat. In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book, much leafed at the time, discoursing the dispersed emotions of the circumnavigator’s life, he speaks of greeting his far-flung fellow pilot-chums, the ones he would meet but unexpectedly if ever at all, with de belles flambées de joie. Even off guard, Henri always seemed naturally moved to act and talk as if I were somebody, somebody valuable.
Years intervened. Invisible to each other, caravans swept away across the parted prairie. I recall only one postcard from him, sent from Turkey, telling me to make sure to visit the Aegean coastline someday. That was the last I heard.
The rub is coming now.
Almost exactly thirty years to the day (ie not recently) after I had first stepped out of the railway station in Chalon-sur-Saône, I found myself in Lyon. The ritual opportunity to go back to the old haunt was a confusion in my head. Nevertheless, I took the train and soon found myself walking up Rempart St Pierre, the street where I had once lived, with Dr. Fernoux and his family in the penthouse and the student in the basement, in the room next to his maid.
Just at that moment, an elderly couple, obviously residents, emerged though the electric glass door of the old block. They saw me standing by the steps, motionless but stalkingly alert. Confirming that they did indeed live there, they waited for me to explain myself. I pointed down to the window and told them of my time. They knew of the family. And, yes, Dr. Fernoux was no longer with us. Long since gone. No surprise. After all, when I first met him he was fully 25 years older than me.
In the decade in which your blogger was born, life expectancy for men in the UK was averaging no more than 66 years. (Even in the socially and gastronomically superior France, the figure was only 68). Pension status reached, the bucket would be promptly kicked from under you. Not much time to stand and stare, look back in anger or in anything else. And, in any case, retrieval mechanisms were weak. To help you reflect on your twenties and all their content, the only mnemonics were, well, your memory and the kodaked sepias which lay generally untroubled in the landing chest of dingy drawers.
More, when life was well-ordered under the thrall of 9-to-5 and mobility limited, there was neither much value in nor opportunity for proactive social exhumation. But now, if you hit 65 and still have 25 years of compressed morbidity to hand, the past can readily get mobiused into the future and back again. For example, you may try to make things good with a wronged friend some 20 years after your insensitive behaviour… but maybe again 20 years after that, 20 years later still. Is this workable? What indeed is the etiquette, the ethic of ageing with a possibly febrile conscience and an undimmed appetite for experience? Can any of us successfully speak backwards, learn the proper grammar of enriched and inevitable longevity?
Dr. Fernoux left lifestyle advice out for me like crystal bowls of amuse-bouches.
He would casually affirm that whisky should be taken as a digestif and not, the common practice, as an apéritif. Lavender was the only flavour of skin-care a gentleman should ever use. There was a certain verbally sophisticated way of sending, even via her parents, a suitor’s message to a young lady which was simply bound to impress. (There was an audible tut though when I once expressed an affection for Brigitte Bardot; in the judgement of the house my sights were being set depressingly low). After introducing me once to his primary-school teacher, he would musingly try to put a percentage on the amount of knowledge necessary to his job – he was a surgeon – that he had learned before the age of 12. Actually, he once invited me to join him in his operating theatre and after I was professionally wrapped in all the rubber and gauze he dared me not to be sick or to faint while he took a scalpel to a hernia.
For such a scholarly guy, he was completely uninhibited about admitting that many things baffled him; he could never understand, for instance, how fresh fish was available every day in a town so far from the sea. A gentle atheist, he viewed religious practice not with contempt but with bewilderment. He had concluded a long time past that the wisdoms of Montaigne were unbeatable. Watching television one day, he pointed out that Jacques Chaban-Delmas’s campaign to be President would be forever spoiled by the fact that for 20th century media he had such a disagreeable voice. I thought this was a trivialism at the time but…
He spoke but once of his life under the occupation during WW2, telling me that in his estimation only 5% of France could be described as Resistance and only 5% Collaboration (a view that stayed in my head as, partly stimulated by Henri’s remark, I made it my business, many years later, to find and talk to old résistants on both the British and French sides),
In fact, though I never properly noticed or measured it, Henri Fernoux cut a deep lifelong stamp onto my own attitudes and ultimately behaviours. I am guessing now that I never, in those early to mid years, put myself back in contact because I assumed I would be a disappointment – like the once most-likely-to former pupil who turns up for the school reunion, overly and disappointingly proud of his success in the laundrette business.
I wonder if this sort of feeling is one of the more bitter fruits of even the Rinkli Funstaz outlook on the Third Age. For the question, of course, is : does the universe really care if you try to go back, take the risk of having to explain who you are to someone who may well have long since forgotten, offer incomprehensible thanks to a barely recognisable friend? If the past has been bottled and, like the song says, labelled with love should you just keep the wine untouched in the rack next to the chest of drawers?
Do such dilemmas denature with age? I rather think not. Knowing I had a taste for sweet wine, Dr. Fernoux once gave me a chateau Sauternes bottled in the year 1959 – the best year apparently since WW2. Never opened it. Still have it. It has been wrapped for the furniture van in every home-move. Look at the label every now and then.
Now. This is, as I write, 2019. I recently learned that Dr. Fernoux died only in 2016 at the age of 90. Speaking too euphemistically to the elderly neighbours in Rempart St Pierre on that long-past 30-year visit, I had concluded that he was already dead.
But, in fact, he was still living and indeed lived on a long time.
Bad mistake. Premature ageing, of a sort, on my part. Sad. Bad Third Age management.
There is no poundstretcher romanticism in our tale here. Male life expectancy in the UK has now reached ca 78 years and for women the figure is ca 82. For France, the figures are 76 and 85 respectively. For the US, while we pass this way, the figures are 76 and 81. (Sources : ONS, Insee, CDC). In millions of Western Third Aged lives, the future will be whipping back through you like the seasonal mistral, laying waste old familiar forests, opening new paths and scattering the bracken. The common soul faces 25% more life-and-times than it has ever had. You thus get more chances to try new forms of nutrition, make good losses and – this is painful – declutter and re-declutter. Sometimes the Third Age is associated with a depletion of memory but the inverse is really true. Only 16% of 80 years olds in the UK have dementia; this is very sad for those who have it and those who care for them. But the majority will face the big Rinkli Funstaz question : now that I have become many people born of many pasts and multiple futures, how do I live well with myself, become an efficient life-manager, know when to talk and connect and when maybe to stop looking for debts to clear?
There was a certain Spring morning during my Chalon years. I was still asleep when there came a thumping on my door. Henri had sent his young son down to tell me that without pause I had to come with him up to the penthouse. In those days I had but one pair of trousers. Unshaved, shoeless and undoubtedly rather rebarbative to any spectator, I rushed to the lift and a few seconds later – with still no clue about why I had been summoned – the boy showed me into the living room and on to the veranda where the family had gathered.
Henri was pointing me to the horizon, all cold and pink streaks. There, unmistakeable, was the solitary glowing outline of the summit of Mont Blanc, hundreds of kilometres to the east. The conditions that morning made it visible from the heights of Rempart St Pierre for a few evanescent moments. In those crisp dawn inks, the moments were all perfectly beautiful, making like a giant lost Turner canvas thrust unexpectedly in front of your face. The view was not likely to pass that way again any time soon. The old boy wanted to make sure that I caught it.
And I have the peak still, vivid in my mind’s eye, the thrill as big as ever, to this day. Guess that was his plan.
Worth 50p in anyone’s language. That is £10 million in today’s money. And rising.