Astringencies

Glory, Jest and Riddle

When I review my life, I realise how little I have had to complain about– which, of course, has never stopped me. A man who, like me, has been free to make his own stupid decisions, yet has suffered little hardship as a result, is a fortunate one indeed.

grumpy IIIf complaint were removed from human conversation, I suspect that most of us would fall silent. I know that I certainly should.

The fact is that interesting lamentation is far easier than interesting appreciation, just as it is easier for novelists to portray a memorably wicked character than a memorably good one. This, perhaps, is the reason for the phenomenal worldwide success of Alexander McCall Smith’s series about Mma Ramotswe, the Botswanan lady detective of “traditional build”: she is good without being dull, which comes as a great relief to us in this vale of villainy.

Anthony Daniels’ columns appear in every edition of Quadrant.
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Complaint, of course, is not necessarily proportional to the seriousness of what occasions it: though the assumption that there could even in principle be an objective measure of seriousness, that were true for all people in all situations and that would compel the agreement of all reasonable people, is extremely doubtful. The lateness of a train hardly bothers me if I have a book and no appointment; but it irritates and even angers me if I have an appointment but no book.

Still, grosso modo, we know when a complaint is reasonable and when it is not. Fortunately in my medical career I noticed a tendency of people to complain about the wrong things, so that their dissatisfaction was easily dismissed as mere querulousness. The only person who ever complained against me (apart from a lunatic who tried unsuccessfully to sue me for $400,000 and subsequently murdered his mother) was a Mr A, who wrote to the hospital management that I was unhelpful in signing a sick certificate for him. The doctrine of our complaints department—the fastest growing in the hospital, of course—was that an unctuous answer turneth away wrath, but I am afraid this was not my view. I was required to answer Mr A, so I wrote, “Mr A is a drunk who beats his wife, and I’m not signing any sick certificate for him.” According to the rules that forced me to answer him in the first place, this reply had to be passed on to him, and I heard no more of Mr A.

When I review my life, I realise how little I have had to complain of: which, of course, has never stopped me. A man who, like me, has been free to make his own stupid decisions, yet has suffered little hardship as a result, is a fortunate one indeed. I hope that when I am buried, I shall be worthy of the following epitaph on the tomb in a local cemetery: He made many mistakes, but they were always a man’s mistakes.

In mid-complaint, however, and in the full flow of lamentation, I am seldom arrested by recollection of my own good fortune. I was on a station platform the other day and, having dutifully complained long and hard about the late arrival of the train to a fellow would-be passenger, we fell to talking. I was very quickly able to gauge the gulf between his life and mine, which induced in me a sense of shame (fleeting and temporary, of course). One never counts one’s blessings for long by comparison with one’s difficulties.

My interlocutor was aged about seventy and was somewhat shabbily dressed. He had a neglected air, and he told me that his wife, eleven years older than he, had died three months before of a rare debilitating disease which had meant that she spent the last eighteen months of her life in hospital. He had visited her there every day. In his hand he held a notebook: he was out train-spotting, and he said that if it were not for this kind of outing he would have gone mad. He lived in a caravan fixed to the ground, one of those so-called mobile homes that horribly disfigure any landscape in which they appear; and he was tired, he said, of looking after himself. By the age of seventy-five he was definitely going to move to an old people’s home and let others look after him.

What an ambition, to be a dependant in a state-funded geriatric home! How well I knew them, these institutions: old people stuck all day in chairs round the day room like wallflowers at a dance that was never going to take place, with compulsory television blinking and booming and the smell of urine irremediably suffusing the whole building. That such an existence could actually come to anyone as a relief, as a consummation devoutly to be wished, was a further confirmation of what I had long known from the fact that there were quite a number of prisoners who preferred life in prison to life outside, that not everyone desires the freedom that autonomy brings, or the autonomy that freedom brings.

We are more deeply divided by our tastes than by our opinions, and I confess that I had always looked on mobile homes with a contempt that extended to those who consented to live in them or perhaps even regarded them as desirable. They—the homes—were emblematic of our modern mania for the most basic or crude creature-comfort, that disregards aesthetics completely. No one now is:

Proud to catch cold at a Venetian door,
Conscious they act a true Palladian part,
And if they starve, they starve by rules of art.

To be as snug as a bug in a rug is our highest good, and we are prepared to ruin any landscape, any ancient building, to achieve it.

Safety is the other cynosure of our eye: how many eighteenth-century interiors in England have been ruined by fire-doors and signs pointing to emergency exits, as if fires broke out every day! We are prepared to risk nothing for the sake of beauty.

As for train-spotting, it seems to me an activity only slightly more interesting and intelligent than golf, a game invented (so it seems to me) to reconcile Man to death, total oblivion being much preferable. And yet I found myself profoundly in sympathy with my interlocutor on the platform, our differences notwithstanding, and more able to see things from his point of view. My heart was seized with sorrow for him, and yet I knew also that the next time I saw a park or agglomeration of mobile homes, no doubt housing many such as he, I would still feel an anger at their ugliness. The western suburbs of Sydney, which appear to go from here to eternity, induce in me a like confusion of sentiments.

My little encounter on the platform took place just after I had returned from São Paulo in Brazil. I don’t know whether São Paulo is the largest city in the world, though I certainly hope so. Its skyscrapers seem to extend over the whole earth as a rash spreads in an infectious disease. Its public transport system is undeveloped, to say the least, so the rich use helicopters, the middle-class are stuck in traffic jams for a considerable proportion of their waking lives and the poor are squashed like sardines. There are people in São Paulo who spend three hours each day getting to work and three hours going home. The car, which was once a symbol of personal freedom, is there a symbol of enslavement. Even the thought of the traffic in the city exhausts me and drains me of the will to leave my study.

And yet the Paulistas did not seem to me ill-tempered, rather the reverse. That anyone can maintain his good humour after fifteen minutes in a traffic jam, let alone after the times endured in São Paulo even to go short distances, is proof of human resilience. When I am served by an obliging waiter in a restaurant in São Paulo (which, incidentally, is one of the best cities in the world in which to eat), I cannot help wondering how long it took him to get to work for wages that cannot be princely. For a moment I feel guilty, and thank my lucky stars that undeserved fate allowed me to avoid such an existence. I have never commuted in my life, and of all the advantages that I have enjoyed, this is one of the greatest.

When one looks back on one’s life, or indeed on anyone’s life, one perceives an unstable compound of fate and personal effort. Our lives are neither entirely self-made nor entirely determined by circumstance. We are, to quote Pope once more, what we have always been and will always be: the glory, jest and riddle of the world.

Anthony Daniels’s most recent book is his first collection of short stories, The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, published last August by New English Review Press under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.

 

3 comments
  • whitelaughter

    An excellent read…so I have nothing to add. Trust the author will regard a lack of comments as more proof that we’d rather focus on things we can complain about!

  • Jody

    Do you ever get the feeling that 1) cities are appalling, and 2) there are just too many people on this planet?

    This all leads to disagreeableness.

  • Stephen Due

    Really one of the best and most famous retrospective looks at life is the ancient book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. Those who do not own a bible can read it at Bible Gateway online (www.biblegateway.com). If you are not religious, never fear! Ecclesiastes adopts a secular perspective on life, from the position of a great king, who has achieved more in his lifetime than any of us can imagine. His conclusion (famously) was “All is vanity”.

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