Freed from the pretence of optimism, we can get up and dance away

We are all associated with a process of loss. And somehow, because we've got to live, enjoying it
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Start a new year with a good book, I say. How about Lady Chatterley's Lover? No code-breaking, I know, no secret societies, Knights Templars or magicians, not exactly what you'd call a cross-over novel either - a cross-over novel being one that stops you feeling bad about having the mind of a child when you're pushing 40 - but it might make you nostalgic for the days when novels were for grown ups.

And it begins well. "Ours is a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes ... We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen".

Doesn't do any harm, a little quaking convalescence early in a novel. And Lawrence convalesces as well as anybody.

I was in a grand hotel on the East Sussex coast when the news of the earthquake under the Indian Ocean broke. Not exactly convalescing. More fending off another Christmas. But there is a suggestion of a sanatorium about the place - if you substitute champagne for medicine, and sommeliers for nurses. They look after you, anyway. Wheel you in for an aperitif, sit you down to dinner and put a party hat on your head.

In a few years, the East Sussex coast will probably be as much a danger zone as anywhere in Asia. Mark my words: it will be the high ground or nowhere by 2020. For the time being, though, we felt safe from tsunamis. But not baffled or complacent. Because of our age, we weren't so remote from the idea or experience of cataclysm that we needed to scratch our heads and wonder how such things could be.

It always amazes me that people are amazed when the savage laws which govern our earthly existence are enacted. Of course such things can be, and the more beautiful the show nature puts on for us, the more there is to fear. That's what beauty is - the imminence of danger, the brief, illusory suspension of threat in the promise of exquisiteness. Sharks swim in the loveliest of oceans. Snakes await you in the garden. What else is a seductive smile but an invitation to lose our heads? And even if the snake doesn't get us in the garden, God is there, waiting to shut us out. No one with the Bible in his bones should be surprised by calamity. And if you don't have the Bible in your bones you shouldn't leave the house.

This is not to say that guests in this grand hotel were not appalled by what they read. Nothing of the horror of the event was lost on them. But they were old. My sort of age and then on a bit. So their lives were congruent with tragedy. It's why I like going. No one is so impertinent as to be verdant. No one is pretending that life's a panto. Most of us are there because we are ill a bit, or even dying a bit, or we are in the company of somebody even older who is past spending Christmas on a ski slope or a surf board, past queuing in an airport, or simply past wondering what else to do for a good time. We are all, whole or otherwise - falling apart at speed or disassembling slowly - associated plainly with a process of loss. And somehow - because we've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen - enjoying it.

Myself, I love the company of people who are past it. Doesn't matter what the "it" is, particularly. Being past anything is enough. The commonality of self-irony is what I like. The absence of any of that competitiveness that mars the lives of the active. Sometimes, it's true, one or other of us wants to show we are more past it than everybody else, by collapsing into the Christmas dinner, or falling on the ice six inches from the hotel entrance; but mainly we understand that such ruses are as pyrrhic as being carried out of the dining room horizontally.

The point of coming here is not to win but to experience the futility of victory in one another's company. To which end, we tell one another the stories of our lives, stories which at first look suspiciously like victories but which belie themselves, else we wouldn't be sitting here telling them.

You listen to the early triumphs, the achievements in business, the prosperity, the proliferation of family, the soaring careers of the children, the even more spectacular raids on wealth and fortune effected by the children's children - progress, you see, the teetering pyramid of family success - and all the time you know the sad bit's coming. An illness, a bankruptcy, an alienation, a death.

I keep the palm of my right hand raised in readiness at all times to apply the touch of commiseration. I pat a hundred people a day. They do the same to me, though I have no story to tell as calamitous as any of theirs, unless being a writer of long sentences in an age of short ones can be counted a calamity. I bear a sad expression, anyway, and that's enough to bond us. You don't always have to divulge your tragic secret. The only rule is not to pretend you don't have one.

And then a wonderful thing happens. Freed from the pretence of optimism, we get up like skeletons on the Day of the Dead and dance. Your muscles remember, that's a wonderful thing about dancing. Your body dances in spite of you. And because we are old, our minds associate in spite of us too. Not for us the sudden discovery of dance because we saw it on "Strictly Celebrity Whatever It Was". We remember Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Maybe this is what I like - the being with people who weren't born yesterday. The acceptance that we are among the ruins.

Happy 2005, by the way. It can only bring trouble, but hey ...