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Wednesday 26 August 2015

Minor anti-climax

Finally it is my birthday. The cards and the brickbats, the kisses and the cuffs, the snarls and the provocative whispers are out of the way and I may reflect, not on the event but on the assumption of great age.

Did I expect to become old, very old? Frankly I didn't. I've always drunk too much (like my Dad but not quite to his extremes) and I expected to be cut off twenty years ago. Cirrhosis of the liver seemed fashionable and I've always lacked fashion.

Failing drink, breathing was often difficult, perhaps from being brought up in the industrial North. Having had one or two hints I found it hard to be philosophical about that but we don't get to choose the door marked Exit.

Words are more fun. I expatiated on "curmudgeon" and accepted it as a single-word label, provided it didn't include the extra softening qualities not covered in the precise definition. But a new word, "caustic", recently cropped up, outside the purlieus of Tone Deaf. Is that me? "Sarcastic in a scathing and bitter way." Probably.

But it's the synonyms for caustic that are so fascinating. I offer these for future reference: cutting, biting, mordant (That's a good one!), derisive, sardonic, scornful, trenchant, acerbic... There's more.

But here’s the diagnosis. In my seventies I suddenly felt the urge to write as well as I could. Whether I achieved this is immaterial, I’m content to die trying. But writing is claustrophobic, selfish, and monomaniacal, and incompatible with the felicities of normal life. One’s always at it, ignoring human politenesses. Obviously I shouldn’t blog but blogging is writing. The tide of generosity ebbs and flows and people get irritated. My gratitude to those still staggering along in support. Roger wilco.


  1. I refuse to congratulate you, RR - you caustic, sarcastic curmudgeon, you! An interesting blog-companion, though.

  2. PS. Just noticed the photo of Evelyn Waugh - is he a hero of yours? There seems to be some some similar acerbity.............

  3. Herzliche Glückwünsche zum Geburtstag, lieber Robbie! ♫ ♪ ♪ I shall raise a glass of quality ale tonight and toast your beißend tendencies. Lebe hoch!

  4. "...felicities of normal life." That's a good one. 80 spanks.

  5. I always like 'excoriating' myself, without being 100% certain of its meaning and usage. On the other hand 'tetchy' is quite good too.

    Looking forward to another non-birthday post in a few days time, reminding us it was your birthday but you'll despise us for saying anything about it!

    Just teasing, I still wish you the best of days and many more to come. Milestones larger than Maurice Chevalier's teeth cannot go unmarked and unreflected upon. A birthday hug to you (and another to VR for putting up with you so long!)

  6. I must admit I envy the gift of acerbity/causticity - it takes guts and a certain type of personality to do it justice. Obviously I don't qualify but I wish I did. (Some) men are generally better at it than women, probably because we're usually brought up to be nice...or nicer than we really are. And those women who manage to succeed at being caustic/sarcastic/acerbic/curmudgeonly in their professional lives (comediennes, executives, politicians, critics etc) usually have a hard time if they keep it up in their personal lives. Whereas a famous, full-time caustic male will most likely have women falling at his feet and attending to all his needs even unto post-mortem. So make the most of it, Roderique! Wear the T-shirt or the pin-stripes, affirm, advertise your gift!

  7. Well, Old Man, I'm glad you've made it this far. You've added much to my enjoyment of life through your posts and comments, irascible as they sometimes are, and oft confusing, but always entertaining. As my real world shrinks and my in-person contacts with its denizens decreases, I value the cyber-friendships I've made even more - none more so than yours.

    I tend to ruminate about the state of my life, too, but twice a year: on 1 January (start of the calendar year) and 25 July (anniversary of my birth). Those dates are gauges by which I measure my successes and failures and try to project (cautiously) how much longer I have to set things right - and do something that will justify my having taken up space on this planet.

    So, because you think birthday congrats and good wishes the epitome of banality, I will simply say, "Good on yer, mate!"

    Keep on truckin', Robbie.

  8. All: Only Avus mentioned the pic and drew the obvious conclusion. Evelyn Waugh, perhaps England's greatest prose stylist (without being flossy about it), was also one of England's greatest Conservative s---s.

    Loaded with hubris I was attempting to draw a parallel: that writing, if you take seriously enough, is an unhealthy pastime. Spending time each day in the role of God is not good for anyone, even God. If there is any excuse for my behaviour (and there isn't really - it's downright manipulation) the answer may lie in the misguided claim that I am a novelist. I'm not; at best I'm an apprentice at it, fool enough to have started my apprenticeship in my seventies instead of my teens.

    I'll not try such a scheme again, it isn't fair on people who may or may not be forced to take my posts at face value. Lucy has had the advantage of watching me at work socially a couple of times and is thus able to wield the pin that bursts the bubble ("Looking forward to another non-birthday... reminding us it was your birthday but you'll despise us for saying anything about it.") while ending nevertheless on a grace note.

    I thank you all for responding, for not inflicting the obvious and most telling punishment of remaining silent. For in the end the half-mad, sweaty, belly-button-regarding apprentice writer needs occasionally to make a connection.

    Avus: As you noticed, arousing interest may involve acting like a bastard but it can't be taken as a long-term policy. I've probably used up all my bastardy credits accumulated over the previous eight decades. Hold your breath for another outburst in 2095.

    RW (zS): Just for once do it in lousy ale: it's more appropriate. Beissend was good and adds some extras to my list: cutting, pungent, sharp and (The best one since it implies the initiator suffers too) gnawing.

    MikeM: Just the right note of ambiguity.

    Lucy: A teasing relationship - I don't think I've ever wished for anything more. Proof of mutual confidence. Hence the carefully chosen and necessarily deflationary "tetchy".

    Natalie: Yes gender's an unfair world although, having awoken to it late in life, I have gratefully seized on it as a theme of growing significance in all four novels. In Second Hand Francine finds herself intermittently occupying a role normally adopted as if by right by men and - to her credit - is uncomfortable with it.

    I'm fascinated to know why you believe yourself unable to make use of acerbity, etc. To recognise it as a social tool is to be more than halfway there.

    "Falling at his feet." How come I missed out here?

    Crow: It's the phrases that are banal; they get in the way of expressing the sentiment which is entirely legitimate.

    Those retrospectives: might it be better if they were not seen in terms of successes and/or failures since such events encourage triumphalism and sorrow, both counter-productive. However reflecting on "taking up space" suggests you have the right priorities.

    My personal view is to suppose that there is no mystical "other" influence and to subsequently pose the question: what is the most logical form of behaviour as a synthesis of our instincts and what we observe in others. Of course such an approach may encourage us on the one hand to become a hermit, on the other a serial killer, neither of them worthwhile solutions. But that's where "logical" steps in. It may be hard to define but it's rather easier to recognise.

    As to being entertaining, it's a way of achieving the initial bridge. Earnestness may not be enough. Sorry about being confusing - no doubt evidence that I've bitten off more than I can chew. A frequent and growing tendency. And thus we stagger on.

  9. I am fascinated by the idea of deciding to do something newish in your 70s. I wonder what it will be for me; wing walking maybe or nude cribbage. I look forward to it. In the absence of permission to wish felicitations, may I express my hope that whatever you decide to do with your 80s comes to full fruition. Deine.

  10. Blonde Two: Wing-walking is merely an extension of slogging across Dartmoor in deep fog without a compass. Nude cribbage is better but only if you're bad at cribbage. Suppression of self should be the aim: once it was to be found in ashrams, whatever they are. These days it is more easily achieved by getting a job in London while living in Swansea. That's the first step, the second is to find yourself on the Paddington-Swansea train with a defective laptop. Nirvana - the self becomes nothing more than an electron with positive charge, a quantum contradiction.

  11. "I'm fascinated to know why you believe yourself unable to make use of acerbity, etc. To recognise it as a social tool is to be more than halfway there."

    The acerbic comment or response doesn't come naturally, or come at all, to those who are not gifted with that talent by nature or experience. While I certainly recognise it as a social tool and admire it when skilfully used by others, unfortunately the acerbic/caustic mot juste has never entered my mind, even when the social situation cried out for it. Do you give lessons?

  12. Natalie: Do I give lessons? All of us do; you yourself do, for instance, though you may not recognise the process as such. It is human nature to attempt to persuade but not, alas, for altruistic reasons. There is nothing so ego-massaging as to discover that someone has accepted a piece of our advice, however paltry, wrong-headed or self-serving. Why else would any of us go to the effort (and for some it is an enormous strain) to parade our lives in blogs? Sub-consciously we wish the outside world to resemble the world we approve of, and thus we provide examples. Teaching by analogy.

    I am enormously flattered to be asked even though I'm almost 100% sure that the question was throwaway, a form of punctuation. Despite this conviction my ego is so massive, so well-polished I am willing to take the question at face value, to shelve my normal scepticism.

    Acerbity. First step must be to delve back into your psyche. Just suppose the mot juste did arrive, and it arrived on time. Would you dare use it? Do you have the social audacity, the willingness to take risks, to utter it and - possibly - watch the whole flow of conversation change direction as a result? One way of assessing your ability is to count up - over about 5000 words of blogging - the number of times you use the first-person singular. Is the total modest or embarrassing? If the latter you may be equipped to enter the acerbity stakes.

    Second step. Forget the mot juste idea. First thoughts, first reactions should nearly always be discarded: they tend to be banal. The acerb (a noun I have just invented) will get nowhere by spouting clichés. Go over this re-comment, pick out its weak-points and, as homework, practice and polish rejoinders.

    Already I sense you are wearied. Who could be bothered...? In fact indolence rather than lack of ability is one reason acerbs are thin on the ground. Here endeth the first lesson.

  13. Robbie, thank you for your encouragement, or provocation, to continue.

    First step: a mot juste does sometimes arrive hours or days after the relevant occasion. Would I have used it on the spot? Depends on whether the company was made up of friends or strangers. If the former, yes. The latter: unlikely. But shy, modest and self-effacing I am most definitely not. In nearly 15 years of blogging and other web-presence my use of "I/me/moi/myself" must add up to about 95 percent.I'm not in the least embarassed by this. Have a browse through my blog archive and website to verify. However, my weak acerbity score could be because, a: on the impersonal level (eg on politics or other areas of human idiocy) it's too easy to be acerbic and (some) others do it so much better in any case. And b: on the personal level, it really depends on who I'm talking to and whether I know them well. This is a minefield of a subject and would take far too much space to do justice to.

    Second step: I've just done it, haven't I? The only weak point in your advice is that it doesn't have enough information about the person it is addressing: me. It attempts to remedy this by asking questions, which I'm attempting to answer in a long-winded way. The lesson to be learned here is: edit edit edit! Cut cut cut! Less is more. Acerbic is best doled out in small sharp bites. Right?

    You're right, we are all teachers. I was/am good at it in the domain of art and a few other subjects. On the family level, some might say I was too eager to teach/give advice when it was not required. "..Sub-consciously we wish the outside world to resemble the world we approve of, and thus we provide examples..." Very true!

  14. Natalie: "Shy, modest and self-effacing I am not." So I see in the final para: only your students are entitled to say that. A bit like me insisting I'm handsome.

    I'm not sure this deserves any further amplification. If there are areas in which others can wipe the floor with you, wouldn't you be better off doing flower arranging? True acerbity knows no bounds.

    Cut cut cut. Verb. sap.

  15. "...only your students are entitled to say that."
    They did say that! Often, unprompted and sincerely. I have evidence for my boasting!
    Anyway I don't think it's boasting if the facts demonstrate that a boast is actually a fact. What's wrong with stating a fact?

    "....A bit like me insisting I'm handsome..."
    Defining 'handsome'is highly subjective. Who actually follows classical guidelines - symmetry, proportion, youthfulness etc. when judging handsomeness? For example, I consider Humphrey Bogart much handsomer than Brad Pitt, and Jeremy Corbyn handsomer than Tony Blair. Who can say I'm wrong?

  16. I forgot to add that I don't understand this sentence:

    "If there are areas in which others can wipe the floor with you, wouldn't you be better off doing flower arranging?"

  17. Natalie: Students: Yes, but self-interest is involved and you could be fibbing. It isn't enough for you to say that's what they told you; someone, independently of you, must tell me direct.

    Handsome: All irrelevant. What matters is that I alone am not in a position to claim I'm handsome. Even more: to do so, even if there were external proof that it was true, would more or less disqualify me from normal human discourse. I'd be seen as a popinjay.

    Wiping the floor. Your words: "(some) others do it so much better in any case". I assumed you meant better than you; hence you stayed away from arguing about politics

    Cut. Cut. Cut. Verb. sap.

  18. This conversation could go on, pleasantly acerbic. But okay, cut.

  19. Natalie: You have a talent for misunderstanding what I write or, to put it differently as a gesture of chivalry, I have a talent for confusing you. Conceivably we are immiscible. This is the second time I have posted Cut. Cut. Cut Verb. sap. and for no other reason than to remind both of us that in exchanges like these more is less. However there is enough evidence to suggest this dialogue is dying of natural causes and that use of the captive bolt would be a kindness.

  20. I think it's a matter of language. Yes, you do have a talent for confusing me. Your turn of phrase is sometimes imponderable. I don't know if it's your normal way of speaking or a deliberate style reserved for blog commenting. But often it seems like it challenges your reader to a verbal duel, almost demanding to be contradicted. Or so it seems to me! So I contradict what I've misunderstood. I think I'm quite articulate but essentially I'm a simple soul.