the state of things
The Eager Nature Fit For A Great Crisis
by Elvis Shackleton - 08:33 on 09 March 2009
Douglas Lindsay is attempting to finish re-writing The Barber-Surgeon's Hairshirt. The following first appeared in his Letter From Belgrade on 28th May 2004...
In 1989 there was a summit of non-aligned nations in Belgrade involving the usual suspects, including Iran, Libya, North Korea etc. (Scotland would also have been there, but they failed to qualify, edged out by a last minute penalty in Burma.) The Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, was at the time on a strict diet of camel milk which, even now, is hard to source on the shelves of all the big new supermarkets in New Belgrade. So the man turned up in Belgrade with six camels on his plane. While Gaddafi travelled Business, the camels travelled in trucks, so that there were able to be driven off. He also brought two horses. Gaddafi then erected his tent in the grounds of the villa which he'd been allocated, milked the camels on the lawn every morning, and demanded to ride through the streets of the city on one of his horses to the conference. The Yugoslavs said no to the latter, could do little about the former. At the end of the conference, Gaddafi donated the camels to Belgrade zoo, where a couple of them still survive. Nowadays, if you hang around long enough beside the small enclosure at the bottom of the zoo, it is possible to be spat at by an animal which once had its nipples tweaked to give Gaddafi his breakfast. How cool is that? The horses went home to Tripoli.
So, I mention this little anecdote in passing because once again the Letter from Belgrade is going to completely bypass the issue of coming from Belgrade, and I thought I should at least pay it lip service. Instead, this week, crabbed age.
You may have had the misfortune this year to hear an atrocious new song by white-toothed, rock has-been George Michael called 'John And Elvis Are Dead'. (This may in fact be this year's most popular song in Britain and America, but I don't live there so I don't know.) The hook line goes, "If Jesus Christ is alive and well, then how come John & Elvis are dead?" a line which, by the end, has metamorphosed into, "If Jesus Christ is going to save us from ourselves, how come peace, love and Elvis are dead?" What is that all about? Is he 16 years old? It's the sort of complete and utter embarrassing mince that makes you want to curl up into a ball of Britishness and abandon all social interaction for an extended period of some hours. I won't ask what he's thinking, because it's not like it's a "George Michael In Trite, Embarrassing Lyric Shock" type of thing. If there was a potential list of people to come up with this sort of pubescent mince, he'd be up there with Sir Paul and Sir Cliff. Anyway, I digress, even before I've started. I mention this just as a way of briefly introducing John Lennon into the conversation.
They say life begins at 40. To take the three celebrities from George Michael's melancholic ditty, Jesus never made it, Elvis had a couple of years after forty, which were mostly spent eating fried banana burgers and trying desperately to go to the bathroom, and Lennon only had a couple of months of it before he was gunned down at the entrance to the Dakota. He died young. Yet, by the time he was forty, he had changed the direction of popular music, played his part in the biggest rock band of all time, sat in a bag in Amsterdam, thwarted the attempts of Nixon and J Edgar Hoover to have him deported from the States, played Shea Stadium and Candlestick Park and Madison Square Garden, been chased by angry mobs in the Phillipines, hung out with Elvis and Dylan and Jagger, and had still had time to take five years out to make bread and bring up his son.
If I was John Lennon I'd be due to die some time in the middle of July. I have hit forty, much in the same way as I have previously hit the finishing line in marathons. A tuberculosis-infected sloth, completely knackered and devoid of enthusiasm, and not really wanting to go through all that again. And how might my list of achievements read? Four not particularly successful books. Played to a crowd of seven at Waterstone's Birmingham New Street in 2001. Scored a hat-rick for the cubs in a 17-0 win over the 111th when I was eleven. Somehow managed to play my part in producing two good-looking kids. Chipped in from the edge of the green on the sixth hole at Millport once for just about my only birdie in twenty-eight years of golf. A sorry list, and that's about as good as it gets. So, yep, it's time for a mid-life crisis.
It's been coming for a while probably. More than likely that's what the marathon running thing was all about. When the Spanish or Italians have a mid-life crisis they get an eighteen year-old girlfriend and start driving a Ferrari. It’s much more British do something really grand and stupid like run marathons, climb mountains or sit in the basement trying to build your own spaceship. At some point you wake up and you realise you’ve achieved sod all, and the only thing for it is an act of monstrous and supreme folly.
A few months ago I woke in the middle of the night with a fleeting moment of epiphany, deciding that the thing to do would be to row across the Atlantic. Alone. That would seem to be a suitably monumental act of absurdity. When you look into similar acts of stupidity from the past, and read about the sort of people who have rowed across the Pacific or wind-surfed the Atlantic or belly-flopped across the Indian Ocean, they invariably turn out to be British. There was the fellow who a few years back took nine months to row across the Pacific. A few hours into his journey he realised he'd forgotten his tin opener. You're going to feel stupid, aren't you? What would you do in that situation? Row back in the middle of the night, hope there was a 24-hr supermarket in Peru and that no one recognised you? Find some other implement with which to open the tin, maybe a penknife or your teeth, and struggle through with that for the next nine months? Phone your mum and ask her to get one DHL’d? Or would you just save your embarrassment and go without beans and grapefruit segments for two hundred and seventy days and hope you caught enough fresh tuna to keep you going? That would be the British way.
Anyway, I can't row across the Atlantic. I'd be scared. I'd have too much imagination for the sepulchral darkness of night and for the horrible dark of the depths beneath the boat. And the minute a swell got up - and that happens in the Atlantic - I'd be scared of the big waves. Also, I believe, that after three or four months of solitude I would probably have gone decently insane and, should I make it, would pitch up in Antigua best friends with a tin of spaghetti hoops and saying 'wibble'.
So perhaps some other grand adventure is called for. Fly over the Himalayas in a basket made from toilet rolls attached to two hundred party balloons. Walk the Silk Road naked. Or climb all those peaks in China that no one’s ever heard of before, carrying five or six small children on my back. Invade Poland. Visit all the Scottish football grounds in one season. Something big and illustrious, something that I could write a book about and appear on Parkinson to discuss. Unless I died, of course, balloons punctured by a flock of seagulls or knocked down by a truck near Samarkand, tortured to death by the Chinese authorities for unauthorised climbing activity or shot the second I entered Poland carrying a loaded rifle, struck down by a dodgy pie whilst standing on a grassy knoll at Forfar or bored to death by a nil-nil draw in Aberdeen.
There must be something out there, big and bold and inspiring that's just the right thing. Anything of this nature which is designed to answer a mid-life crisis, to give some meaning to an otherwise seemingly wasted life, doesn't necessarily have to be dangerous - although that does add a certain glamour. Its principle attribute has to be one of downright stupidity. That's what separates the British from the rest of developed society. Such as when the Sofia marathon was brought to a halt last year, under clear and scorching skies, and everyone else jacked it in and leaped gratefully onto the bus, while I plodded round with neither water nor food, in complete and utter heat-exhausted misery for another hour, for no other reason than that I'd been born on our side of the Channel.
So one day I shall stumble upon it, kiss the wife and kids goodbye for who knows how long - a couple of minutes or weeks or months - tie up my big boots I bought for walking in the Atlas mountains eleven years ago, and head off to the nearest place where adventure and complete foolhardiness await. Until then, life will likely continue to revolve around tea and toast in the morning, and chasing after the kids in the afternoon, in a state of humour completely dictated by which side of the bed I've fallen out of that morning.
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