Ceasing to Teem

By Peter Bellwood

There’ll Always Be An England (from The New Statesman): Drug dealer Karl McGarry, 25, torched his own head as he tried to petrol-bomb a rival’s car. Leaning in through the window, he set fire to his furry hat, then, hat still ablaze, jumped into his getaway car and set the vehicle on fire. Pleading guilty to arson, drug dealing and burglary, he was jailed. Said Tom Swift, defending, “he was utterly and completely out of his depth.”

So you think making up comedy’s easy?! Here’s the difference between English and American humor: The English treat the commonplace as if it were remarkable, Americans the remarkable as if it were commonplace. The English also define humor as “the difference between what is planned and what actually happens.” On a more frustrating note, it’s now illegal for girls in bikinis to ride bikes in Honolulu. Causes too many accidents.  Oh, come on! How else am I supposed to have accidents?

These days, I’m running tests to see if my various bits are still functioning. Getting out of bed, I look in the mirror and recoil at the haunted gargoyle blinking back at me. Being vertical and breathing’s a good start, but does nothing to address my overriding concern: is my brain still working and will I be able to write? According to novelist and cartoonist James Thurber, the fear of the American writer is the process of aging. In a Paris Review interview, Thurber observed:

“Getting old is constantly on the mind of American writers. I’ve never known a woman who could weep about her age the way the men I know can. Various fearful writers believe their inventiveness and ability will end in their 50s, and many felt that they simply couldn’t write any more.” In Europe that’s never been the case. Thomas Hardy, for instance, who started late and kept going. Of course (the English poet, John) Keats had good reason to write:

“When I have fears that I may cease to be

 Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain.”

Classic statement. Thurber once did a drawing of a man at his typewriter, surrounded by crumpled paper, staring doomily down. “What’s the matter?” his wife is saying, “has your pen glean’d your teeming brain?” Thurber “writes basically because it’s so much fun. When I’m not writing, as my wife knows, I’m miserable. I don’t have that fear that suddenly it will all stop. I have enough outlined to last me as long as I live.”

Inevitably, as one ages — including Alexander Chancellor who writes the “Long Life” column in London’s Spectator — one has occasional fantasies of becoming a helpless, dementia-gripped vegetable at the mercy of resentful and sadistic caregivers. His immediate problem: “I couldn’t recall the name of the actress who canoodled with Leonardo DiCaprio on the stern of the Titanic, even though I’d been introduced to her at a party.” Reassurance came, however, in the form of a cheery news item saying that ‘older people’s brains do not lose capacity — they simply take longer to process the huge amount of information gathered over a lifetime.’

German research scientists at the University of Tubingen found that brains work just like computers, and when they get clogged up with stuff, they need, like them, more time to find the information they’re looking for. Said the team leader: “The brain works slower in old age, because we have stored more information over time. The brains of older people do not get weak. On the contrary, they know more.” Comforting. But the team failed to point out the essential difference between computers and human brains.

Computers don’t have to get clogged up: all disposable material can be cleared at any time. But brains don’t have a DELETE button. They just accumulate more and more information as the years go by, none of it ever to be expunged. Chancellor’ s problem was that “the memories taking precedence in my brain are the ones that I am most eager to forget. Moments of pain, embarrassment, humiliation and failure predominate over the more pleasant or creditable episodes in my life.”

I know what he means. Of course, my list’s different. He’s focused on childhood illnesses, failing exams in Russian, rejection by assorted women — things I take in my stride (except the Russian exams). My catastrophes involve, at age 6, falling into quicksand and almost being sucked under before my mother yanked me out; at 8, being placed on the back of an apparently-placid donkey, which instantly took off at a sprint. Simultaneously, the saddle, me gripping the pommel, slid 180-degrees until I was upside-down, head inches from flying sand, sharp rocks and  galloping hooves, screaming, vomiting and hanging on for dear life, And during a spell in the British Navy, having to contend with an angry Maltese sailor who attacked me with a knife after I’d beaten him in a swimming race across Portsmouth harbor and back.

Oh, and breaking my femur as I tripped over the curb at Montgomery & Matilija and crashed to the ground. I’ll never forget the sound of that bone snapping.

As writer John Mortimer — of “Rumpole Of The Bailey” fame — has observed, if you don’t have a sense of humor about getting older, you’re doomed.  When my grand- mother reached her centenary birthday, I asked her what it was like to look out on the world through the eyes of a 100-year-old woman. She thought for a moment, then said: “Well, let me ask you a question. How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” She laughed at my expression. Within minutes, we decided we were both about 12!

And finally, a true heroine — Alice Herz-Sommer (1903-2014), 110 when she died this year, the oldest known survivor of the Holocaust, in which she lost her mother, other family members and close friends. Born in Prague, sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp with her husband and son, it was her love of Chopin that saved her, since the Nazis, wishing to create the impression that the camp was humane, allowed her to give concerts.

Until the end of her long life, she retained a formidable energy, which she attributed to swimming 20 lengths a day, a regime she continued until she was 99, and to a diet consisting of “fish, chicken soup and Bach.” But the most important factor of all, she believed, was optimism. “It depends on me whether life is good,” she declared. “Not on life. On me.” Amen to that.

And a last word to Alexander Chancellor. I don’t think it was on the Titanic’s stern that Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio did their canoodling. It was on the prow, wasn’t it? I’m almost sure it was, her with her arms out in the blowing gale, and DiCaprio behind her, nuzzling her ear. Memorable shot. Mind you, I’m not 100 percent certain. There could have been some Kate/Leo stern- canoodling going on which I missed. I could be wrong.

I thought I was wrong once, but then realized I was mistaken …

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