We’re always supposed to pay more attention to what people who come in inverted commas say (and mark your fingers in the air accordingly). The elderly, children, the poor, the sick, everything they say is tinged with some significance that is supposed to be syruped and souped up by our impressions, their impressiveness. This is unfair and cuckoo-ish and, quite frankly, a load of bollocks.
In Oxfam adverts, or the usual hand-holding drumroll of interviews with African people, their richly accented voices rolling words around, letting us go into admiring orgasm about their dignity in the face of such oppression and deprivation. It makes us feel better about having more, because we’re spiritually deprived and obsessed with material goods and isn’t it good that they’ve got inner peace and we’d absolutely go for inner peace, but we just don’t have the time or the willpower or the BEING ARSED and if only we could do it through the medium of Ashram yoga or whatever that shit that isn’t pilates is. Who reads books by African writers? Start doing that instead. It won’t make your mind peaceful, but you’ll stop putting this pressure on people to fit into your well-established boxes.
The “out of the mouth of babes” is always a popular one. I went to see The Holiday last week, and apart from the fact it was terrible and I didn’t have my housemate to blissfully lap up that fact with, the two little girls in it reminded me of me c 1988, all adorable moppets of precociousness being sly and silly and so terribly, terribly clever. They showed off less than I did though, and their fort was like some kind of princess castle, which just goes to show they probably didn’t appreciate what a table, a rug and a cavernous imagination can do for you. I wonder if my life would have been different if my dad had been Jude Law and he’d built me a castle. My dad built me a beautiful dolls house which, stupidly, in that hulking way you have when you’re 14 and in denial of ever having been a child, I got him to sell because I didn’t use it (as if that is ever the point).
Kids Say The Funniest Things – do they? Or aren’t they just pointing them out because they don’t have the social skills to use white lies. Kids are considered to be cleverer, more astute, wiser, wittier than grown-ups because they haven’t got a clue about what’s going on yet, and any time we use that old head on young shoulders schtick it’s depriving children of their right to be children, however clever they are.
The elderly – well, I just don’t have the sort of relationships with my elders that engenders great conversations about the meaning of the world. I very much doubt I will ever have a conversation with my grandma that unleashes great insights into her life or mine, simply because our family isn’t like that, we’re very cagey and closed, dancing this great private dance around each other that frequently ends in farce and occasionally in tragedy.
My great aunt makes me birthday cards on the computer, with daisies and fine script. They make me cry because alongside her cheroot smoking, her determination to keep up and learn, is the fact she can’t leave her house and I haven’t seen her really since 2002 because she lives miles outside Norwich. That’s not the only reason of course, if I’d actually wanted to go, I would have, but I don’t, so I haven’t. I don’t know this person and if I go it’s not necessarily going to start some comedy duo because it’s sad, bitter, flailing towards the end. Oh yes, she came to stay at my parents’ house a year or so ago and tripped heavily over one of the carpeted steps on the landing upstairs which gave everyone the mixed sense of annoyance and pity. That’s pretty awful. Not even pretty, just awful. It will happen to me in years to come. The last time I went home I talked to my mother about euthanasia – my mother is vehemently in favour and says if she shows the slightest signs of dementia she’s getting her passport out. You’re supposed to listen to the elderly to garner wisdom about life, the importance of this that and the other. That doesn’t mean you necessarily get it, although you can come away with some good stories.
And the sick. Specifically those who are facing death with good humour, good Oscar-winning humour, grace, acceptance. I say fuck that. I’m a dying of the light person and I’ve felt far too terrifyingly miserable and overwhelmed by living in the past ever to let that happen again. My palms tell me I will be dead before 40, rich and widowed (this by people reading them for me, I’m not hearing my hands…although that would be a rather fantastic eccentricity). I can almost accept that, but I am not going to die before I’ve winkled out as much as I can get, observations, conversations, people, the simple act of being alone and not having your mind go wild all the time.
One person who managed to write reams about dying, about cancer, about raging against the dying of the light (and how we love those words because again it gives us the image of a much-loved film character who’s lusty and vigorous and stubborn, so brave poor lamb but he’ll be dead in one act’s time) was the journalist and broadcaster John Diamond. He wrote about being diagnosed with throat cancer in his 40s for the Sunday Times, and then about the ongoing fight, and then when his tongue was removed and he couldn’t talk anymore, to being shut down into a tiny martyred saint through sheer dint of his illness.
When he got to this point, three years after he was diagnosed, people started making asking him about the secrets of life, like he was the suburban Dalai Lama. I came across the end of his response today after getting a fluid rant about memory from RBT. I’d put that up there, but it’s his. This is the end of John Diamond’s reply to all those people, printed in the Observer on 31/12/00 shortly before he died.
"The answer is this:
This is what it's all about. It's about reading a paper on a Sunday morning while you're thinking about whether you can be arsed to go to the neighbours' New Year's Eve party tonight. It's about getting angry with me for having different opinions from yours or not expressing the ones you have as well as you would have expressed them. It's about the breakfast you've just had and the dinner you're going to have. It's about the random acts of kindness which still, magically, preponderate over acts of incivility or nastiness. It's about rereading Great Expectations and about who's going to win the 3.30 at Haydock Park. It's about being able to watch old episodes of Frasier on satellite TV whenever we want, having the choice of three dozen breakfast cereals and seven brands of virgin olive oil at Sainsbury's. It's about loving and being loved, about doing the right thing, about one day being missed when we're gone.
And that's all it's about. It isn't about heaven and hell or the love of Christ or Allah or Yahveh because even if those things do exist, they don't have to exist for us to get on with it.
It is, above all I suppose, about passing time. And the only thing I know that you don't is that time passes at the same rate and in much the same way whether you're going to live to 48 or 148. Why am I happy? Because I'm alive. And the simple answer to the question 'What the hell is the point of it all' is this is the point of it all. You aren't happy? Yes you are: this, here, now, is what happiness is. Enjoy it."
That came from a sick person. Does that validate it? Does it make it sound any less like the reluctant writings of someone who’s been pestered for divine grace responses and finally caved? It’s common sense, it’s been written better, you’ve heard it before, you’ve said it better. You know that life is about passing time, and how you pass it depends on you. But I think the one sentence that rings this around is this:
“It's about getting angry with me for having different opinions from yours or not expressing the ones you have as well as you would have expressed them.”
That fight is what makes us know we’re alive, just as much as kindness.