By Force of Arms

I’m a geriatic.  I know the meaning of the word.  So when I see a neo-octogenarian being sworn in as the ‘Leader of the Free World’ you’ll forgive me for feeling a little concerned, especially when the process requires the protection of an entire army.

In many less ‘free’ countries that would be considered a coup.

Joe Biden (78 – and I presume we have more than just his word for that?) now has his finger on the nuclear button.  I hope he manages to stay awake through the special briefing from the military that accompanies that privilege, because it is quite critical,  isn’t it?  He seems to have trouble finding his way to the podium sometimes, and equal difficulty remembering what he came to say when he gets there.  I can totally empathise.  

Simple decisions, like what to have for breakfast, and little memory issues around the last encounter with the car keys become major concerns as our years advance.   More attention needs to be given to plotting the geography of our working days, with particular reference to the availability of armchairs and bathrooms.  Medical assistance needs to be…well, within reach, shall we say?

Should we ever meet, Joe and I, I would be pleased to swop experiences of our comparative medication programmes, because I feel certain there are a number of pitfalls there.  Bisoprolol and Statins are deleterious to concentration, I’ve found.  And one should never be afraid of taking a short nap in the afternoon. Or a long one…

Not that President Trump is much less scrawny an example of spring chickendom; and something other than heroic, in many respects; he cuts an unlikely Che Guevara figure as a potential revolutionary, yet the system has almost certainly reinvented him as such.  There was always the fear that if politicians got their talons into the Internet they would use it to create a monster and that has certainly been a product of the last four years.  The question is, if this is what they can achieve in one term, what will they spawn in the next?  

For me, as an outsider, the politics themselves are of less concern than the collateral damage:  ‘Democracy’ (and god, the futility with which we cling to that word) hinges upon the will of the majority being not just established, but accepted.   Have we seen the last election process in which that can happen?    If opinion can be shaped by fake news, and majorities won by fake counts, if fake issues can generate extreme solutions, what have we left?

Young opinion is shaped by young science, but in all that is new young opinion should be guided by, and not used by, those older and hopefully wiser in the ways of the world. The Media Freeway is a certain friend to those for whom the cynical exploitation of idealistic youth paves a road to success.  Where have the wise heads gone?  If they still exist, why are they too afraid to speak? 

This leaves those of us who still care with some odious decisions on a personal level.  It won’t rock the world if I close my Twitter account, though I may regret it because Twitter was fun, once.  But can I go on contributing, in however small a way, to an organisation that exerts censorship and pursues policies of ‘no platforming’?  Can I ever go to a polling booth again and vote, not wondering how my tiny ‘x’ will be cast?  Is there any source of information, be it news, archive material or simple learned opinion I can still trust?   

In a socialist autocracy, only the red message thrives.   If we must persist in chasing the illusion of ‘Freedom’, we are faced with an ever-steeper climb.  For those of us in the rest of the world, Joe Biden’s inauguration by force of arms is a sad occasion.

Bathyscaphe

Here it is once again – the most ungodly week on the calendar!

 I must confess I greet this festival each time with increasing wonder – like by whose permission am I still here?  This is a special one, though: it’ll surely be the smallest, and for the first time I go into it with the feeling of being watched – not by friends and family  who are accustomed to my excesses, but by the lurking presence of ‘authority’.   If I step out into the yard for some fresh air:

“That’s far enough, sir!”

I wasn’t going to go any further, but the strange, black-suited figure at my gate is not content with that explanation.

“You should return to your habitation immediately.  If you want air, open a window!”  His voice is muffled by mask and screen.  “Take The Pandemic seriously.  Do you realise that at least one person in a hundred thousand could suffer a moderate headache because of your selfish action?”

I won’t mention my own headache, brought about by a liberal application of gin, for fear of being gift-wrapped in cling film and carted off to an empty Nightingale Unit fifty miles away.  It is easier to retreat.

Indoors, though, the atmosphere this week promises to be, depending upon our state of ‘lockdown’, one or another kind of hell.

Not that Christmas is ever easy.  In normal years we might at least air our rapacity on the street and go about with our best ‘God bless us, every one!’ expressions as we bestow good wishes on those we meet – in normal years, but not this one.  The streets are all but deserted. Those we do encounter are so disguised by masks and haunted looks they might as well be talent-spotters for Hezbollah.

Meanwhile the media, sensing our inability to mingle with friends, relatives, loved ones, are primed and determined to batter us with a relentless hail of ‘Christmas Specials’.  Backcloths to football shows embellished with fake ‘snow’; everyone from the weather girl to the Prime Minister (oh, imagine!) clothed as if for pantomime.  Picture Dumb and Dumber, our two ‘medical experts’ dressed in crinolines, and Boris Johnson as Widow Twanky.  “She’s BEHIND YOU!”

“Oh, no she isn’t!”

 As of today the assault will intensify.   Every programme, TV or radio, is ‘Christmassed up’.  I await the Queen’s Christmas Day message with trepidation.  Mock antlers and tinsel were never her thing.

There is one consolation for us oldsters.  On the afternoon of the Sainted Day itself we elders get centre stage.  The audience may be smaller, but we can still beguile them with our tales of better times. Think of it as I think of it – as scattering the faery dust of Hope.

Some drink-impaired relative will offer a cue:  “I bet things were nicer in your day, Grandad…”

 On this special day nostalgia rules.  Be it around the festive table, ‘up the pub’ or ‘down the club’, at some stage the talk will turn to yesterdays; and some of us will relish the drift, and others will prefer to forget.

There are very good reasons why history is such a favorite subject.  Pursuant upon the miasma of too much wine and too much dine, we are too cosseted and cosy for conflict: it avoids politics, which are always dangerous, and religion, which is equally devisive.

Immortal quote:   “Stop going on about religion, Dad; it’s Christmas, for god’s sake!”

Not that history is entirely without its pitfalls.

“Remember Jeff’s party?  Things got really hot, didn’t they?  I never managed to explain to him how we broke that bed!”

After an icy silence:

“No, I don’t remember.  What bed, and who is Jeff?”

Lethal!   The greatest traps are not so much the deepest submerged, but those whose fronds wave gracefully in the coral shadows, still occasionally visible in filtered daylight from above.  Beware!  Snorkelling nostalgia is contingent upon truth. All facts are verifiable.  Only the rashest romancers dare to embellish facts that are commonly known.  Only the most boring would bother.

No, the more interesting story-fodder lies full fathom five – or three-and-a-half, at any rate.  Here, where little light intrudes, the most remarkable treasures of retrospection are to be found nestling cosily in sand, awaiting the salvage of your story.

“Ah, 2005!  That was the year Pope John Paul died, y’know.  I was in Rome at the time.  No-one expected it, him popping off like that.  The outpouring of grief was incredible.  They had to close St. Mark’s Square for fear of people getting crushed.

“St. Mark’s Square?”

“Yes.  I remember how terrifying it was.  I was caught up in the hysteria…”

“In St. Mark’s Square?”

“Yes, amazing place, normally. Like a great theatre…”

“Amazing – and in Venice.  Did you mean St. Peter’s Sqaure?”

“Oh?  I mean, yes, of course!  How could I forget?  It was so hot, that June..”

“He died in April.”

Little traps, with big, yawning chasms of credibility beneath!  By just that one, tiny slip are we judged; thereafter our audience will be a little less rapt, still kindly, but indulgent.

Prepared for fiction.

In nautical terms barnacle-encrusted recollections get less distinct as you descend below the twenty-year critical level.  And far safer.

 Mischievous currents may move events and places around, so as you drag your air-line among them in your steel helmet and leaded boots you can no longer trust them to be as you left them, all those years ago, but who’s to know?.

Was that before the Berlin Wall came down, or after?   ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’  Who was President then?

This is Christmas and the wine is flowing and your audience, most of whom were yet to be born in the times you so gleefully explore, is as captive as they’re ever likely to be.  Tired, well-fed caterpillars, you can watch their eyes glaze over as you help them into the chrysalis.

The Peurto Rico Trench of memories.  No-one should dive to sixty years or beyond without a bathyscaphe, yet it is warm, it is comfortable, and in some ways a liberation.  Depth and darkness.

“Did I ever tell you I was one of the crew of the Kon Tiki?  A bit of a wild one, I was, in those days.  Me and – dear me, what was his name – Floyd!  Yes, that’s it; Floyd Patterson. We used to hang around with a Swedish chap, Thor Hennerdahl.  We did a lot of boating together, y’see…”

The Monopoly Board was laid out some five minutes ago.  A face leans into vision.  The money is being counted out

“Do you want to be the top hat, grandad?”

If I look up I will see a little Mexican Wave of returning consciousness pass through my small audience

I had something important to tell them, didn’t I?  Wisdom to impart.  Whatever it was, I can’t quite remember it.   Maybe next year, when there are more of us?

No, that isn’t true; there won’t be.  Every year we get fewer in number.  Little by little, time will ease us apart.

Never mind; it’s Christmas – in ways the man in black at our gate can never understand.

“Yes, I’ll be the top hat…”

The Swami on the Hill

This morning, as I prepared for a day filled with nothing in particular, I watched a nubile young person on the television demonstrating some torturous poses which she dubbed as ‘Yoga’.  Later, in the shower, I started thinking back – always a mistake when you’ve so many years to think back upon.  Bathrooms do that – it must be all the steam.  But I digress…

Do you recall those youthful ‘phases’ we all went through, when we sought ‘The True Path’?  I tried a lot of ‘paths’, I remember, including quite a few that required pharmaceutical help.     I also tried Yoga, mainly because at the time I was with a girlfriend who practised it.  And I learned the thing about Yoga is, yes, you’re always practising it.  You never get it absolutely right.  

My unimpeachable source impressed upon me that to qualify as a true Yogi and to draw the benefits that entails requires a life of dedication, that the poses are there to help you achieve complete breathing and the Elysium of meditation that lie beyond.  ‘The true Yogi drinks when he is thirsty, eats when he is hungry, sleeps when he is tired’  Incredible as it seems, I’m sure many of us can remember a time when we actually believed we could live life that way? I certainly did:  I was in love, I suppose.

Of course, the truth soon dawns.  Achieving a full lotus pose becomes impossible if your wife is impatient to be driven to the supermarket, or if your dog recognises that peculiar sitting position as a kind of game.  The next thing you learn about the lotus pose, as with a number of other yogic distortions, is just how long it takes to un-achieve it, as well as the surgical procedures that may follow.

In such a direction Elysium does not lie.  The attending physician in Accident and Emergency explains:  “If God had intended your hip to go that way he would have put it on the other way up.”  Doctors can be very cynical, at times.  And very unsympathetic.

Then there are the daily penalties of ‘working life’; the pints of beer quaffed for social gain, the ten-minute lunchtime visits to McDonalds, the protracted sessions on an acutely uncomfortable, orthopaedically unpardonable office chair, the sleepless nights slaving over a hot infant, the arguments, the rows, the assault charges…     ‘Sleep when you are tired’?  Alas, no more:  ‘Sleep no more, Macbeth (curious name for a child, you say? You haven’t met her) doth murder sleep’.  ‘Eat when you are hungry’ – a slogan KFC would no doubt adopt with enthusiasm, but terrible for your waistline if practised as freely as the doctrine would recommend.

Plunging at last into retirement I may have wished my days of limitless freedom would return, that I might grab one of those vile bedroom curtains, fashion it into a dhoti, and take my true place as the Swami on the Hill.  My years at the beck and call of the daily grind were behind me.  I would be able to drink, eat and sleep to my heart’s content.  The ‘True Path’ stretched out before me; Nirvana beckoned.

How wrong was I?

No sooner had the dust settled than I was apprised of my duties as ‘Parent in Residence’,  I learned how a day filled with nothing in particular requires organisation, time management, responsibilities.   Further, I discovered my vulnerabilities ‘in old age’ not only rendered the lotus pose physically impossible, but even to attempt it would earn a look from the attending physician in Accident and Emergency that could best be described as ‘withering pity’.  Nor was settling for the ‘downward dog’ any sort of solution.  Different dog, same game.  Same supermarket, too.

The schedules, the plans and the commitments have not gone away.  I am merely that much slower in fulfilling them.   So, not only am I as busy in retirement as I was when I got paid, but I am also physically less equipped to keep up.  Nowadays, to maintain the pace means resorting to ‘uppers’ of a very different kind to those I imbibed in my youth.  All legal,if that is any consolation, but all essential, or so I’m told.

Takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it?

Well, at least I must finally concede that the Complete Yogi, as well as the ‘complete breath’ that is the gateway to perfect contemplation, lies somewhere beyond my reach.  It will never be.   It never was, truth be told, because the life of the true Yogi does not translate from that hilltop – does not fit into the modern world.  Our posturing is just another form of exercise to be fitted into an appointed slot in our day.  The elastic woman on the silver screen who demonstrates her ‘Yoga’ is guilty of a misnomer, because those extravagant poses are merely a form of exercise that might as well be aerobics, or weight training, or any number of alternatives far removed from the true prize sought in the Astika of a Hindu philosophy many thousands of years old.

I shall roll up my mat, restore the bedroom curtain, and let each incident-free negotiation of the staircase serve as my small victory.   A Dhoti and a turban are rather too draughty for an English winter, as it goes.

Namaste.

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