It was my birthday recently. I am in the last year of my mid-twenties (anyone suggesting I am more superannuated than that will be wrestled to the ground and then irretrievably strapped to a zimmer frame, just to make the point crystal clear). So I am not yet facing the catastrophic decrepitudes of old age, although from what I understand, aging is not dissimilar to updating iTunes: once it’s done, there’s no going back, even though some things may no longer work in the manner to which you are accustomed (or at all), and even though you preferred the earlier version, which was easier to use. Fortunately, all that is in the future (I’m not happy that that is what awaits me, but better later than now). For now, the only real differences between me and my fourteen-year-old self are that I am taller, my voice is deeper, and I am rather better at kissing.
I still tend to think about the same sorts of things. Of course my opinions have been modified by my (slightly) greater maturity, but the subjects on which I hold opinions are more or less the same subjects I used to think about when I was still a teenager. I was forcibly reminded of this a couple of days ago. Just before Christmas, I was in a car accident where someone skidded into the back of me, damaged my car (and me – ouch), but immediately admitted liability, so all repairs and so forth are being paid for out of his insurance. This is great, but inevitably, there are terms and conditions attached. Now, the woman on the phone who called me from his insurance company to go over the details did read through them, but about halfway through her discourse I got distracted, got confused, and consequently zoned out of the conversation almost entirely. I was only brought back to it when she concluded, saying “So, Mr. Browne, is that clear to you?”
I’m afraid I chickened out of acknowledging my ignorance. What I actually said was “Yes, thank you, that all sounds entirely reasonable.” Had I been entirely honest, what I would have said would have been “Actually, I missed the last half of that explanation, because I was trying to decide who would win in a fight between Batman and James Bond.”
I may be 6’4″ with greying hair, and therefore look like an adult, but a significant proportion of my disposable income still goes on toy trains, for heaven’s sake. I’m not grown up, I’m just tall, and it’s astounding the number of people who listen to me talk pish and assume, on the basis of appearance or vocabulary alone, that I know what I’m talking about. Partly it’s because my life is circumscribed by academia, which as a vehicle for one’s career is not dissimilar to a balloon, insofar as it is mostly supported by vast amounts of hot air. Partly it’s because I know longer words than the average teenager and therefore can give an entirely spurious impression of erudition. But mainly it’s a question of bearing, and that is something teenagers don’t have but that you develop as you get older.
But even here I may be deluding myself. I’m not sure that what I have is ‘bearing’. What I may in fact possess, given the aforementioned 6’4″-ness, is an ‘ability to loom’. That’s not presence; that’s just size.
It’s like the deal with teachers and authority. If a class realises that there are thirty of them, and only one overworked and harried adult supervising them, then that class will very quickly take control. It doesn’t happen because the class usually doesn’t realise just how tenuous that teacher’s control really is. Exactly the same thing happens in society at large. The estimated 2009 population of the UK was 61,113,205 (a suspiciously precise figure, but there you go). The number of police officers in the UK at the same time was only 165975. Even if you add a rough 140,000 support staff (including special constables, traffic wardens, community officers, etc.) you still are left with a mere 306,000 law-enforcement officials. Which means they’re outnumbered nearly 200 to 1. Were there to be a revolution in the UK odds like that would pretty much guarantee victory to the civilian population. Civil authority is a remarkably tenuous thing, but it happens because we, who are under that authority, choose to invest it with sufficient command to enable it to enforce its domination. But heaven help the police officer who screws that one up. There’s a great scene in the film ‘V for Vendetta’ where a policeman shoots a young girl and then tries to hide behind his badge, only to realise that the symbol is not going to protect him against the gathering mob armed with shovels and pokers.
I guess my point is that as I get older I become increasingly aware that ‘control’ or ‘authority’ is an increasingly theoretical and intangible commodity. I have written about this before, in discussing why it is that so many people enjoy building model railways, and I have touched upon it elsewhere, when discussing Fantasy literature – the common thread being that of building secondary worlds over which the creator (author/modeller) has unquestionable authority (there is a bigger debate to be had about ‘the unquestionable authority of the author’, and I’m aware that my phrase is demonstrably untrue it most contexts, but not this one – I will return to this at some point, and we can have the discussion then).
I didn’t intend this to be a morbidly self-deprecating post, and I hope it isn’t, but more and more I understand the overwhelming sense of loss that Yeats felt when he wrote that ‘things fall apart, the centre does not hold’. Of course Yeats was almost pathologically obsessed with growing old – an obsession I like to think I do not share – but birthdays, especially when they follow fifteen minutes from the end of New Year’s Day, do force one to consider how things are changing, and whether they are falling apart.
I don’t think I am, and on that upbeat note I will finish this post. I leave you with this thought – getting old encourages these sorts of recollections. Failing to grow older doesn’t encourage any sort of reflection at all – it’s hard to be introspective in a pine box. So overall, if you’re reading this, you’re winning. Why not celebrate?
Your moment of zen for today, combining the old with the new: