On the back of my Saturday Guardian magazine was an advert for a skin cream that claimed to fight the ‘Seven Signs of Ageing’. There is a photograph of what is frequently referred to as a ‘handsome’ woman, which means a woman with short hair who might be older than 21, sporting a glowing complexion. The seven signs of ageing are not enumerated but she seems to have none of them. Is there a concensus as to what these seven signs are, as there is for the Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? I’m not sure what they are but, for the record, here are my Seven Signs of Ageing.
1. Being unable to keep your mouth shut.
I remember once in a conference on child protection there was a woman from the RSPCC talking about about a man who had a flat on the groundfloor of a block that looked out onto a children’s playground from where he would watch the childrn play. He gradually got to know the children. He even bought toys to intice them into his flat. One toy he bought for the boys was an action man, together with a range of different costumes and accessories. When I heard this I could not stop myself from piping up, interrupting this moving and tragic story to ask if he had bought a frogman’s outfit. The room fell silent.
2. Refusing to keep your mouth shut.
Insisting on telling the bemused Tesco staff about Zola’s late 19th Century novel ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’ (The Ladies Paradise) which tells how the early big stores devised the ruse of shifting all the products around in the shop every few weeks to disorientate the customers in the shop and so discover new products. A technique that Tesco continues to apply, though when you instruct them of that they tell you it is to make life easier for the customers. As I tell the poor put-upon store representative, who is trying to get away from me, I wasn’t born in 1882.
3. Deciding not to go out on Saturday night.
4.Fleeing places where they have what they call ‘atmosphere’ (ie noise). This includes stand-up ‘nites’ and ‘live’ bands.
5. Being against the all-night tube.
6. Only going to art galleries when there isn’t a special exhibition
7. As a matter of principal, not believing anything anyone tells me, EVER.
Are these the Seven Signs of Ageing of which the handsome older woman (about 24) with the short hair speaks?
My relationship with the simple housefly continues to develop over the Summer months. I try not to kill the fly when he gets into my flat. This may surprise some of you (see Killing a fly July 28 2015) but I have never been an active killer of insects. My conscience was further piqued a few months ago when my 16 year old niece Vassia reminded me that he might only live for one day. ‘This is his life’, she said. So I couldn’t kill it. Men are great fly murderers. They just cannot bear to have things unsettled. They want the world still and this confounded thing keeps flitting into their eye line. Now where was that ‘Top British Trucks’ magazine? Just perfect to swat a fly. Women are less concerned by flies than by wasps. When a wasp arrives on the scene women go beserk. They are convinced the wasps want to fly into their mouths, so they hold their hands there, like Premiership managers disguising strategy. My present issue with the housefly is a philosophical one. A fly gets into the flat. You don’t want to kill him because this is his life. You usher it towards the front door to let it out. You open the front door. Chances are another one will slip in even as you escort the first one out. And so our philosophical dilemma arises: does every potential solution not carry within it a potential aggravation of the initial problem? I shall call this the housefly connundrum.
The fun fair has arrived in Kennington Park. You would think that for someone who wrote the 13 April 2016 poat on the Circus of the Imagination that this would be a source of rejoicing. But this is Benson’s Fun Fair. Now I do not know who Mr Benson is, but his fun fair which will be taking over half the park for ten days, the last days of summer, is a paltry affair. At least in a provincial travelling circus there is the promise of some scabby lad and his sister on a trapeze and the ten thousand hours of practice that honed their craft to something that pays less than minimum wage, if it pays at all. In a fun fair the scabby lad and his sister have no particular talent or training at all. The park that was beginning to smell like a late summer botanical garden will now smell of chips.
Living with my olde dad is like playing an extended game of noughts and crosses. The moves you have at your disposal are very limited; there is no real scope for any creativity; you just try and go through the game to the eventual stalement and then start again.
We have created a little walk round the block (the walk to the supermarket is too long for him now). We go out onto Town Lane and turn left, we go past Bargain Booze and olde dad says Ah Bargain Booze and I say yes it used to be Costcutters didn’t it. Then we turn onto a path across a field and I say look at those trees blowing and olde dad stares straight ahead and I say no up there and he raises his head and says Ah. It’s blowy up there, I say. Then we turn down around past a house where the first day there was a woman in her garden and olde dad said to her nice day (it was blowing a gale and raining and he wasn’t joking; he was just issuing a standared remark from his stock with no adapting to reality).Then we go up a road called Melbourne street and I say do you know what country Melbourne is in and olde dad doesn’t know so I say it’s a big city in Australia and he goes Ah. And then there’s another street and olde dad reads it and it’s Shoecroft Street and he says where’s that? and I say I don’t know if that’s a town. And then we get back onto Town lane and olde dad stops in front of a new-build block of flats and says it used to be a shop. I say Ah but I’m not sure he’s right. Then he reads the name of a hairdresser next to Bargain Booze: Inspire Hair by Emma. Olde dad says it’s a hairdressers and I say just for women and olde dad says no, it’s for men too. I ask do you go there, though I know he doesn’t and he says he doesn’t know and then adds yes. The shutters are up and I say I’m not sure if it’s still open and then I add, maybe she’s on holiday. And then we turn back onto our street and if the sun is out we say let’s get on the sunny side. Then we get back and olde dad opens the front door which he had not locked. We get back in and it’s who gets to the toilet first.
I am indifferent to champagne. Its taste does nothing for me and I am unable to differentiate between different types. That’s fine. I am willing to accept that for some people the distinction between various types of champagne is a real nuance, as for me the distintion between types of red wine is. The trouble with champagne is that in many cases it is not the taste people are interested in, it is the sign. When you are drinking champagne you are partaking of a certain lifestyle. I was reminded of this on the Eurostar where British men love to buy overpriced half bottles of champagne as a sign of the good life, the continental life. But fair do’s here too. We are all involved in the life of signs. Sometimes, and indeed more and more frequently in western society, the life of signs is what we’re after. Our brands; our logos. How can our notions of taste remain indifferent to the onslaught of the marketing juggernaught. All we can do, I suppose, is retain a healthy distrust of corporate culture and try to take a pleasure in the colours, the textures, the shapes, the tastes of the world around us. My Britishman had brought his own champagne flutes in his small travelbag for the Eurostar. The pop of the champagne cork was a moment of pleasure. That sound must evoke the nostalgia of so many past moments of pleasure for him and his partner; the settling of the fizzing wine in the glass (he must remember that too); his patriarchial control of the bottle (so masterful) and distribution of the champagne into the glasses. So many cultural moments that reaffirm his identity, his success. With the imbibing of alcohol, his voice takes on more volume, more assurance, too much assurance, and I, meanwhile, am by now happy to absent myself from the compartment.
There was a woman on the train from La Rochelle to Paris with a young boy, her son, opposite her. I could see the woman but the boy’s back was towards me and I just had the nape of his neck. The boy was probably about five; the woman forty. They played a game of cards and another game with little coloured plastic pins which once fell all over the floor of the train. When they were playing cards the mum said “Ca, c’est ce qu’on appelle un coup de chance.” (That’s what you call a stroke of luck) And later in the game the boy repeated the same expression back to her “Ca, c’est ce qu’on appelle un coup de chance.” But the mum said no, it’s not, you intended that. They had a nice relationship. She didn’t talk down to him and he was a bright inquisitive boy making observations on the countryside and stations as we passed through. There was something engaging about the woman. She had a range of expressions even with a five-year-old. Often grown-ups limit themselves to just a few with kids. However, there was something about her face that didn’t flatter it. It was only when the boy turned round in his seat that I saw what it was, because he and his mum sported the same feature. The same rubbish haircut. A short, practical cut. A fringe plastered onto the forehead in a style that eliminated all volume and made it look as though the hair was a thin lick of paint that had been applied to the skull. Rubbish hair cut aesthetics are passed through families too. Larkin was right.
My olde dad, when he was in his eighties, used to listen to what he called his cassette every night before going to bed. If you were staying with him sitting in the living room at 11 o’clock, you had to put up with this cassette, which you may have liked on first hearing but over time you came to execrate. It was Sarah Brightman (is that her name?) singing a selection of popular numbers, arias from popular opera or so-called classic ballads. Sarah Brightman has a fragile voice in a pure, innocent style, as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
Then, one Christmas, someone (one of my sisters, not sure which one) had the bright idea of buying for olde dad a DVD of Sarah Brightman live in concert. We put it on some time on Christmas afternoon. There was Sarah Brightman dressed up in thigh-length leather boots engaged in a highly choreographed kitsch rendering of those ‘classics’ sexed up for modern tastes. There were provocative dance moves with a troupe of semi-naked male dancers wearing leather gilets and ticket inspector caps. It was soon clear that in the interim between the production of that cassette and DVD technology Sarah Brightman had become a gay icon.
Olde dad was bemused. What had been an angelic voice from the ether had now become the whore of Babylon. Ah! Le pouvoir de l’argent. I don’t know what happened to that DVD.
In the service industry (restaurants, hotels, stations)in France you are mostly served by attractive, smiling people. In the station at La Rochelle the other day there was a delightful, smiling beauty with a face right out of a fashion magazine, bright, alert, poised. And in the restaurants in Bordeaux charming hostesses lead you to your seat, serve you the grated carrot or the bloody steak with elegance and grace. And you think: I wonder what they’re earning, these accomplished performers, these convincing agents of the tourism world? But then you see them in the wings of their employ: at the back door to the restaurant; on the margins of the station, having a cigarette, looking bleaky out at the rest of the world going by. Sometimes they have their head in their hands or are striking an unintentional archetypal pose of despair, as though they are woodcut extras in the Passion of the Christ by Georges Rouault. Or they assemble in gaggles and mutter, never looking each other in the eye. Their complaints are old news to each other. This is the sorry fate of sevice personnel when their service is not required.
I note that I find it harder and harder to sleep in a foreign bed. This is the latest development in my history of sleep. We all have our own personal history of sleep (often chequered) that plots our life history. Today I am sleeping on a settee in Bordeaux. My nieces Vassia and Natasha are on a matress on the floor on the other side of the coffee table. I prepare for sleep meticulously. The height of the pillows for my long-suffering neck; the sheet under and over. I go to the bathroom as though it really were the last visit before I go to sleep. Who am I kidding? I will visit the bathroom four or five times before setting foot in the land of Nod: for a cold shower; for another pee; just to have somewhere to go. I will also visit the fridge for a glass of cold water. I adjust the window to let the right amount of air in. It is all as if these preparations were leading up to an event. They are not. I will not sleep before four in the morning. First I lie on my back. I know I won’t sleep lying on my back but I have to do it first as the foundation to the edifice of my night’s sleep. Sometimes after 45 minutes I realise I’m still on my back and scold myself for spending too much time on the foundations. Then I’ll turn onto my side. My method is to have the lower leg in front of the upper leg. This also stretches my back to click it neatly into what I imagine is a better position. When the first side doesn’t work I heave myself onto the other side, face against the back of the settee. This won’t work either. If the two side positions have not worked, I’ll have to go back to lying on my back because the sleep foundations will need to be laid all over again. In all the to-ing and fro-ing they will have crumbled. Time for a cold shower. That feels better. Now back for a quick foundation before attempting some side work again. In the end I’m so exhausted that when I fall asleep I don’r realise which side it’s on. I may even have fallen asleep on the foundations.
When I first came to live in Paris as a 21 year old, I put a notice on the wall of the British institute looking for a room. Within a day I received a call from a Dutch girl called Haneka who wanted to rent me her little maid’s room on the top floor of a block near republique for 400 francs a month (£40). All the other maids rooms on the floor were locked up and used for storage by residents of the apartments below. There was Turkish toilet on the landing, no hot water and a mean trickle of cold water. It was perfect.
I lived there off and on for a few years. I worked a lot around France and so stayed in hotels often on weekdays. When I moved to a nicer place I kept the room and sub-sub-let it (at the same remarkable price!) to a catalogue of different tenants. There was Marie, the pretty air hostess with the Marseille accent; the Italian whose name I can’t remember who never wanted to pay the rent but loved to show me his collection of silk ties. He wanted to pay me in ties and was scandalised that I had the poor taste to refuse this contract. The room became a bit of a pain to manage, especially when a homeless man started squatting on the landing and traumatising my Italian. Eventually, I got a call from Seamus, Haneka’s ex, who said he needed somewhere to live (Haneka had kicked him out). Seamus took control. My relationship with the room was over.
Today when I walk past 10 rue du chateau d’eau I look up. That entire floor of central Paris real estate will now be worth millions and must surely have been transformed into two or three sophisticated penthouse apartments. In my day the room was a random space that had escaped the lock-up (I never knew who owned it), home for few years for the young jetsam and flotsam of metropolitan life. Where the young jetsam and flotsam go now I don’t know.