Through A Glass, Darkly

In autumn of 2012, they pulled the siphons from my skull, and the spigot from my spine. I slowly started making memories again, but I was rubbish at answering the questions doctors ask patients with brain injuries.

“Who’s the President?” they would ask.

1983. Is the answer 1983?

Longsufferinggirlfriendoftheblogbeth saw where this was going. I’d been in the States for 16 years and my DNA had mutated into something approaching half-American. But just as my accent was (mostly) immutable, on some deep level I didn’t really give a shit who the President was. As Beth will tell you — even at the best of times, if I don’t give a rat’s ass, I don’t remember.

“He’s British. You should ask who the prime minister is.”

So they’d ask, and I’d try a little harder.

“I… don’t know.”

“You don’t like him.”


Answers on a postcard to W12 8QT.

Getting my age right was difficult, too. The brain fireworks had started right at the end of September, and my new age hadn’t had time to take. At the the beginning of the month, I had arguably been clinging on to my mid-thirties. At October slowly swam into focus, I was a middle-aged stroke survivor.

So this week, I was interested to listen to the novelist Ed Docx’s Radio 4 programme, Batter My Heart: Growing Up And Growing Old With John Donne. Like many British kids, I had studied and appreciated the great metaphysical poet in high school. Even if you didn’t, we’re all steeped in Donne. Go and catch a falling star. No man is an island, entire of itself.

Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The twisting eye beams of the last verse of Nerd Bait’s Yes Ricky are pure Donne, too. Just as Docx and the Donne dons in Batter My Heart had exchanged Donne poems with partners, as a teenager I had employed the astonishingly modern seventeenth century poet to woo lovers, borrowing a frankness and intelligence that a teenage Edinburger couldn’t muster.

Ed Docx, and Donne scholars Katherine Rundell,  Colin Burrow, and John Carey find that growing older, they enjoy “the Donne who has started to find problems.”

Of course, it’s easy to scoff at this seriousness from the high hills of youth. Even as we age, it’s hard to shake off a fear that we are succumbing to, as Colin Burrow describes it, a “growing sentimentality and all the other terrible consequences of age.”

“Hiraeth”: young people on a hill.

This week, I watched a show on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe called Hiraeth. Per Wikipedia, “Hiraeth is a Welsh word that has no direct English translation. The University of Wales, Lampeter, attempts to define it as homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire for the Wales of the past.”

In Hiraeth,  a woman in her mid-twenties embarks on an autobiographic journey from a small Welsh family farm to London. My review, while noting the vivacity of the youth of all ages that adds a crackling sense of creativity to Auld Reekie each summer, continues

Hiraeth’s problem is that while figuring out art, moving out, failed crushes, the death of a grandparent, and working towards a first job are impossibly massive and new from the perspective of teenage or early-twenties rural West Wales, without something more, they constitute a diary of things that happen to all of us.

There is a tendency for youth to affect seriousness and depth, in the rush to find the advantages of maturity — independence, experience, and the like. It’s a trap I remember falling into, certainly. This is encouraged by messages deeply entrenched in our society. Return to the first letter of Paul (not that one) to the Corinthians:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Yet, entering my early Clooneys, I find that my favourite line from fifty years of Doctor Who rings increasingly true:

There’s no point being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes!

Peter Capaldi, the next incarnation of The Doctor,  is interviewed by Rachel Aroesti in this week’s Guardian Guide. The middle-aged Scottish man discusses the first few times he filmed on the new TARDIS set: “[T]here were always very nice prop guys telling me how to work the TARDIS, and I was like,”

I know how to work the TARDIS! I’ve known for a very long time how to work the TARDIS. Probably longer than you. So you don’t need to tell me!

Caught between sex and stroke, between Jack Donne and Doctor Donne, between piloting the UK government and the TARDIS, what’s a man to do? Act his age, I suppose….

A middle-aged Scottish man (with companion) acts his age in the TARDIS.
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10 thoughts on “Through A Glass, Darkly

    1. Shh! Friendoftheblogpaul has written an app that generates 800 words on apoplectic topics every week. Though I think the Scottish gloomrock function is broken.

    1. Thank you, Joyce! Funny that we should be thinking along not entirely dissimilar lines this week. Maybe age is a number, after all.

      Everybody, if today’s topic is of interest to you, run — don’t walk — to the 15 August post on Joyce’s Tales Of A Stroke Patient. You’ll find it in the blogroll to the top right of this page.

  1. Paul also said, “though we’re wearing out on the outside, we’re getting newer on the inside.” I like to think this can mean “act your inside age, not your outside age.”

    1. That’s true, Clare. And no doubt when used by a third party, has the potential to be pejorative. But thinking about what age one “is acting”, I think, can be a useful tool. What’s the point of being a grown-up if you can’t enjoy its opportunities among the pressures, I suppose. Friendofthebloggreg and I were discussing what it was like to be 17-18. Like him, I have no particular desire to be that age again; I feel comfortable in this well-worn skin. But, remembering some of the upsides — the thrill of new discoveries, the excitement of different experiences — helps me remember how fresh those things can make everyday life. For me, that’s something worth aspiring to. So I hope that’s what I mean when I tell Longsufferinggirlfriendoftheblogbeth that I’m seventeen in my heart.

  2. We’ve discussed this before. But I would be horrible at those questions even unstroked.

    If someone woke me up to ask my age or who the President is or what year it is, I really don’t know if I could answer correctly.

    To be honest, if someone woke me up and asked me a question, the most likely response would be me punching them in the face, yelling out non-sensical profanity and rolling back over into sleep without ever knowing it happened. (Please warn the doctor that’s not me being strokey.)

    1. We have? Oh. Did I mention I had a stroke?

      Yeah, dislocation, identity, all that good stuff.

      And of course that’s the right reaction. My father was once gently roused from post-op anaesthesia, and quite unbeknownst to his conscious self, risked suture-rupture by picking the lovely nurse up and throwing her across the ward.

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