As I approach sixty, I’ve realised I know very little about anything but myself

I don’t really have a subject I could tackle with any confidence on University Challenge without making an utter disgrace of myself

Jenny Eclair
Monday 23 July 2018 16:33
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It’s not the black hole in my quantum physics that gets my goat, it’s things like not being able to identify a certain flower by the side of the road
It’s not the black hole in my quantum physics that gets my goat, it’s things like not being able to identify a certain flower by the side of the road

I went to the hipster godfather William Morris’s house the other day. It’s a National Trust gaffe tucked away in Bexleyheath, in deepest south London.

I love a trip out – I’ve reached that age where I seem to have a permanent sticker on my top proving I’ve just paid an entrance fee into somewhere that might also sell potted plants and flapjacks.

At 58, I’ve entered the ceramics and tapestry years, the houses of architectural interest and notable gardens.

I’ve even started to listen to the guides in these places, because you know what? They know stuff, they are experts in their fields, they have all the facts and get fired up over things like wallpaper and design – they are enthusiasts.

I’ve decided being enthusiastic is cool, knowing stuff is cool, because having an interest and knowing your stuff is what saved those Thai boys in the caves – it wasn’t money that got them out, it was expertise.

Knowing stuff is sexy. The other night on Love Island, Jack (the original and best Jack) was bird watching. I’m not sure he really knew the difference between a swift and a swallow, but the fact he was sharing his enthusiasm for nature with the other islanders was heart melting. It added another dimension to the boy – Jack isn’t just beef-cake, he’s bird-loving-beef-cake.

Increasingly I’m frustrated by the gaps in my education. It’s not the black hole in my quantum physics that gets my goat, it’s things like not being able to identify a certain flower by the side of the road, or who painted that really familiar picture or understanding what an etching actually is.

I worry that as I approach sixty, I don’t really have a subject I could tackle with any confidence on University Challenge without making an utter disgrace of myself.

Is there a critical period for language learning?

This never bothered me when I was younger. I thought people who knew facts about their pet topics were boring. Now I find anyone who has a specific field of interest, who can talk about it entertainingly, just as impressive as meeting someone who can sing or dance or do a surprisingly perfect cartwheel, which is oddly enough, something I can do.

(Not really.)

My partner is vastly more knowledgeable than I am. He is an anorak about huge chunks of history, but not only is he is an expert on battleships, he can also identify any car on a motorway within three seconds of seeing it in his rear view mirror.

He’s also an art buff and I reckon I could trust him to do a decent PowerPoint presentation on at least three 20th-century artists, one of whom would be really obscure.

By comparison I am a dolt. I’ve been so wrapped up in myself and my career, that I’ve barely bothered to look beyond my own navel.

If I had to give a talk on anything that wasn’t specifically about me for more than 10 minutes, I would really struggle.

I’m not even that knowledgeable about comedy. I’ve been in the business for 33 years but I don’t think I’ve watched more than a handful of other comedians’ stand up DVDs, I missed out on Seinfeld almost entirely and sometimes I lie about early influences so as not to sound like an imposter.

Fortunately it’s not quite too late to turn this big thick old ship round. The great thing about not having a proper job is that I’ve got time to look stuff up, I’ve got time to learn things and indulge in new hobbies.

We are all living longer, we might as well live longer and better educated. And excitingly, technology is on our side.

I find the classics really hard to read but Dickens on Audible is another matter; I can’t afford one-on-one watercolour tuition, but I can watch Youtube videos; and I promise my Twitter followers are loads better at identifying flowers than any plant app.

So I’m embarking on a program of re-education. I’m going to store up nuggets of information and if they float my boat, I’m going to delve deeper.

For example, after this weekend’s visit to Morris’s Red House, thanks to the friendly house guide, I suddenly want to know more about the Morris gang. Until my visit, I didn’t realise that Rossetti and his Mrs, the tragic Lizzie Siddal, had stayed with the Morrises in Bexleyheath and painted murals of “the gang” on the bedroom wall. I didn’t know that Morris and the pre-Raphaelites were so inextricably linked.

Now, I don’t think the pre-Raphaelites are going to be my University Challenge cup stealing subject, but I’m going in. I’m going to learn some stuff and I’m going to start by downloading the TV series Desperate Romantics that I missed back in 2009, which will tell me everything I need to know about the movement courtesy of Rafe Spall, Tom Hollander, Aidan Turner et al. Now that’s what I call research.

Call me a lazy cow, but God I love living in the nowadays.

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