THE CAGE

 

Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019

 

 

My diary noted today that 2019 had now produced 12 rabbits and that our household – that comfortably mannered and predominantly civil paradigm that is not quite entirely virtual since wherever it has been it has always had some physical form – has been smoke-free for eleven months. A number of friends on Facebook applauded the latter, which was nice of them. One, a day or so earlier, had advised that he had finally thrown out the ashtray he kept at his Gold Coast address for us to use when passing by. We have any number of ashtrays, some of them of the finest glass, in storage elsewhere. They’ll be thrown out when we finally break open the eight cubic metres of expensive space we’ve rented for years, pending occupation of our next desirable domain.

 

The Distaff and I tell each other that we feel better for being off the fags. And that’s true, in the prosaic and tedious way in which, in search of a small extension of anticipated lifespan, people nowadays obsess about their health.  But the real reason for abandoning the thoroughly enjoyable habit of a lifetime lies in its monetary and social cost. In many of the jurisdictions in which we choose to pass our time, it’s too damn expensive, inconvenient and embarrassing to continue to act like Thomas The Tank Engine on uppers.

 

Today is notable for another fact too. Before the month has run its course, I shall officially have become an Elderly Obstruction. That’s what happens to you when you’re an Australian and you turn 75. (The Distaff is much younger, lucky duck.) Seventy-five is the age where car hire companies laugh when you suggest they might like to rent you a vehicle. It’s the birthday that finally makes you completely invisible to anyone under forty, except (very rarely) young and visibly pregnant women who might offer you their seat on a bus. It’s when the passport office offers you the child rate on your renewal, half price and half time – five years instead of ten. To add to all this beneficence, various offices of the nanny state are growing impatient to tell you they are ready to send – on their schedule, not yours, and if you qualify as indigent, having lived far beyond the life expectancy of your retirement kitty  – such assistance as may from time to time be authorised, either free or subsidised, to accommodate your medical, paramedical and social needs, as officially defined.

 

This is disagreeable to a free spirit. It signals that you may no longer truly cite William Ernest Henry’s ‘Invictus’ as your order of the day:

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

 

That verse is wonderful, by the way. Its first line goes just as neatly, and aptly, with straight and gait.

 

And that’s the thing, you see. Adversity needs to be met with humour, just as responsibility must be met face-front, head high. Laugh at the daemons and stand up straight for the firing squad.

 

When Clive James died last week (Nov. 24) I was half-way through rereading Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’, the 1969 Onanistic and onomatopoeic American-Jewish-socio-sexual testament that made his name as a writer. It was given to me by a lovely friend who visited and who I had suggested, since she had told me she hadn’t, that she should read it. I read it first in the year of its publication and have known it ever since as ‘The Gripes of Roth’. Steinbeck’s shade has never haunted me over that jest. I like to suppose therefore that he gets a giggle out of it too.

 

James’ departure was unsurprising. He made it to eighty, an age he once noted was a decade-long bonus on the old allotment of three score and ten. He died in Britain, where he had lived since the 1960s when he joined the Blighty Expeditionary Force of Thinking Antipodeans.

 

The art of the quip was James’ forte. Some were short, some were longer, and among the most memorable were book reviews which comprised a single yet Medusa-headed complex of put-downs.

 

He was an acute observer, noting once that the British secret service was staffed at one point almost entirely by alcoholic homosexuals working for the KGB. (I’ve known one or two who were not homosexuals, but who’s to argue with a leading penseur de bonnes pensées?)

 

Nothing escaped his piercing intellect. He said once that you can never get a woman to sit down and listen to a drum solo. (Though that aside, he never observed, at least to my knowledge, the guiding principle that I have always found invaluable in gender comparisons: That as a man I have more in common with an illiterate Mongolian yak-herder than with any woman ever invented.)

 

Among his many talents, James found note as a poet. Of this, and of poetry in general, he said (in 2013 and I surmise only half in jest): Ban poetry. And make sure that anyone caught reading it is expelled from school. Then it will acquire the glamour.

 

He will be missed, Clive James, though he has left us a body of work to remind us that he walked among us before he returned to our normal state of non-existence. He had a thought about that, too, once: No one gets out alive.

 

He told Mark Colvin – alas, now also non-existent – on the ABC radio program PM in 2015: Little books are things to write at my age, I’ve decided.

 

That last thought is his best advice to me. I’m no Clive James – far from it: I’ve never been to Kogarah in my life – but there is one little book in me that is struggling to emerge.

 

I must see that it does.

 

And here’s a visual prompt to Clive James, a BBC appearance in 2016.

 

 

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