Who wears hats now?

Jenny Diski

  • Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost and Where Did It Go? by Michael Bywater
    Granta, 296 pp, £12.99, October 2004, ISBN 1 86207 701 0

Almost everything I’ve ever done has very rapidly become normal. It’s the way human beings tend. ‘Adaptation’, they call it. Once I lived with a heroin addict in a kitchen. Every morning he went out for the day to score, kissing me on the cheek, and I pulled the candlewick bedspread – gold – over the mattress opposite the cooker. I washed his used syringe in the sink, squirting out the blood left in the barrel, getting it nice and clean. It seemed ordinary at the time. It was. Somewhere out there, I understood, suburban housewives were dusting and polishing, making the beds, clearing the breakfast table, and I thought they were really weird. How could anyone live like that, I wondered. It takes no time at all to get used to whatever we are doing. Something to do with the amygdala complex in the medial temporal region of the brain, I believe. It’s why cats lose interest in chasing a piece of string after a while. Some part of the amygdala stops firing, or starts, and the novelty becomes merely repetitive. Become a junkie’s moll, a psychiatric inmate, a teacher trying to get the attention of a class of adolescents eight times a day, a parent, a writer – all of it, after a short while, is just what you happen to be doing. Habit, arguably, is more powerful than liking or hating your circumstances. You get used to everything in the end.

I know only one significant exception. I’ve been getting older for quite some time now – I mean older as in no longer young, too old to die young – but it doesn’t seem to be one of those things you get used to. On the contrary, the older I get the less used to it I seem to be. The past stretches away from the present, elongating behind your back (and almost certainly making an insolent face at you). Now ought to be always like now, always, but the more time passes the more now seems to be a shadow of then. It makes some kind of sense. So much of then, so little of now, and ever decreasing quantities of to come. A progression of diminution with a tailback like the M25.

I know this happens to everyone (if they’re lucky) but if the young must always come of age as if no one has ever done it before, I can’t see why the old shouldn’t bang on their increasingly saggy drum about their astonishment at what is happening to them for the first time ever in history. Actually, what is happening for the first time ever in history is that it is my generation, the 1960s mob, which is ageing, and there never was such a generation for giving voice to their experience. So books moaning and bemoaning our lot have begun to appear. Fair enough, really, in the light of all those books by women who happen to have had their first baby and insist on sharing their amazing and unique experience with the rest of us.

Loss is the name of the ageing game. And loss is, after all, a big and sexy subject. Malleable, too: it can be as slight or profound as you like – it’s still loss, and therefore what we’re all about. Michael Bywater knows this. His Lost Worlds regrets the passing of Beans, Grandpa (‘My maternal grandfather is four ways lost. He is dead. He was a man of Monmouthshire. He was a steel man. He was an industrial craftsman. You don’t get much more lost than that’); Democracy (‘Democracy is the ultimately unarguable good . . . Do you have that straight in your mind? Or would you rather be . . . persuaded? Repeatedly? By dogs? Through a hood?’); Gloves (‘It is not elegant to have your gloves looped up through your coat-sleeves on elastic. Better to lose them altogether’); God (‘How wonderful God was when we first shuffled, thinking, onto the ancestral savannah! How clearly He had made the world, and made it for us, because he wanted us, and wanted us to be happy!’); University, the Idea of the (‘The idea that there may be a ravishing beauty in simply knowing – or better still, finding out – that Dr Donne’s horti conclusi and fons signati are from the Song of Songs is about as acceptable now as pederasty’); Septum, the Nasal (‘For countless millennia, the humble nasal septum was the must-have facial accessory . . . Then came cocaine’); Look-See, a Proper (‘You knew you had a proper doctor when he suggested opening you up for a proper look-see’); Ronco (‘The Veg-O-Matic, the Buttoneer, the Outside Inside Window Washer . . .’). After a while the relative weight of the alphabetically ordered losses is the same: heavy. The pang at being reminded of Mr Pastry, and then recollecting along with Bywater that he was crap but that we spent much of our childhood laughing like a drain at him, is quite as painful as recalling the lost Idea of America (‘our hope and our enchantment’) and knowing all the while that it never was and never really could have existed.

I’ve seen members of my generation’s grandparents saunter or teeter towards oblivion burbling more or less consciously about the playthings of their childhood. And, of course, there was Rosebud, that icon of before-when-everything-was-simpler-well-nicer-well-my-time. I supposed those old ones to be suffering either from brain cell depletion or necessary (if sentimental) artistic device syndrome. Both are true, and the naked power of long-term memory plays its part, but it turns out, as I dare say it turns out for each younger generation, that things aren’t going to be the slightest bit different for my self-aware, sophisticated age group. We’ll all go down babbling about some Rosebud or other. We’ve started already, at first with our signature irony, but increasingly like the old farts our parents and theirs used to be. We’re all old farts now. There might be some relief, at last, in this. You’ve just got to look at it in the right light. Twilight. The time when Mr Pastry and the loss of the idea of democracy both signal equally: ‘Come in, baby boomers, your time is up.’ Hey, remember boating on the pond in the park?

But there’s another problem about loss. Do I mean lost in the sense of something I once had and don’t any longer, or lost meaning missed out on altogether, as in: damn, they had the 17th century without me? Increasingly, I am pissed off in this second sense. They did everything without me from the primal soup until July 1947, and it makes me crosser and crosser. The loss of all that happened before me without me is beginning to look suspiciously tragic, almost as if it had something to do with all that will happen after me without me. In the same way, some of Bywater’s losses predate him and were always already long lost to him. All those books that were lost in the destruction of the library at Alexandria are mourned in Books, the Terrible Flammability of; he feels cheated by the loss of possibility caused by Paul Schliemann’s bogus artefacts purporting to come from Atlantis; more recently, but still, I think, before his time, he, like me, can’t help but long for the period when you could be assured of Throat, Cigarette Smoke that was Kind to Your (‘Unlike ordinary cigarettes, Juleps sparkle up your mouth, refresh your throat, keep your breath clean, inviting’).

Me, I long for the days when you went to see whatever the new movie was at the local and it was Singin’ in the Rain, or My Man Godfrey, or Laura, and I know all the words to all the songs written in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ is the only song ever written that has the word ‘deride’ in it. And don’t the lyrics of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ make you want to throw your hat in the air and cheer? If you wore one, which they did, always, all of them. But who wears hats now?

Dancing in the dark
Till the tune ends
We’re dancing in the dark
And it soon ends
We’re waltzing in the wonder
Of why we’re here
Time hurries by
We’re here and we’re gone . . .

My parents’ best time, of course. I remember the war as if it were yesterday, though it was two years after it ended when I arrived on the planet. That bomb which landed just feet away from the flats, but no one stopped playing chemin de fer. Oh, for God’s sake, I tell myself, but . . . the dress was satin, I think, full length, a one-shouldered affair. Photo? My mother’s wardrobe – mothballs . . . tissue paper? On Ginger Rogers in one of those movies? The experience never happened to me, but the memory lingers on. We could call it nostalgia. You don’t have to have had something in order to be nostalgic for it. Perhaps nostalgia is at its most powerful when it concerns a time immediately before your birth. It’s yet another argument (I can’t let it go entirely) in favour of Lamarck and Lysenko and the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In any case, any self-respecting offspring ego will want to appropriate as their own that time mother and father are so misty-eyed about, when you weren’t there.

But nostalgia is a treacherous thing. It can make you teeter dangerously as you walk that thinnest of lines: on one side a clear-eyed assessment of how it was for all manner of people, on the other the pit of sentimentality. Merry Christmas everyone, and bless us one and all. The older I get, the less certain which side of the line I am on. Even less certain which side of the line I should be on. There’s something about nostalgia and its close cousin sentimentality that gives me the horrors, but also something that makes me suspect it needs a lot more serious attention than I’ve been prepared to give it. It’s a Wonderful Life enrages me – it’s not a wonderful life mostly, and James Stewart’s character is tragic, offered a simpering view of the good he has done to make up for never having got away from the town he longed his whole life to leave. A kind of Judeo-Christian-Islamic afterlife instead of, rather than after, life. Then again, while I rage at the movie, tears stream down my face. Got to get this sorted out before the last of the brain cell bubbles finally bursts.

Bywater walks the same line, but wobbles a bit, I think, in his response to the passing of The Golden Age:

The Golden Age is always, really, us. It’s the memory of our own childhood. Not that it was necessarily wonderful; just that it was simultaneously us, and yet entirely foreign. Nobody can recapture how they thought as a child; how the world felt; how alert the senses were; how the world seemed to offer endless opportunity, unalloyed promise under the sun.

I’m not sure how unalloyed, how endless, how alert. That is, I can remember it like that, but I’m not sure that’s quite how it was. If I peer down the years a little more closely I remember how much I wanted to be grown up. How I longed for all the opportunity and promise that not being in the charge of others seemed to hold. How frustrating it was being a child, because all those alert senses were wasted in the mire of knowledge without power. Maybe I did see with as much stark clarity as I thought I saw, and was as right about it as I thought I was, but there was sod all I could have done about any of it. I could see that grown-ups could be helpless and ineffective, but it seemed to me that they at least had a chance not to be. Naturally I was only half right; but I was, I still think, only half wrong. I couldn’t see anything good about being a child that wouldn’t be improved by being a grown-up. Also I wanted to stop wearing short white socks.

I have the feeling, reading Bywater’s book and monitoring my own fond memories of the long gone, that I have started to walk backwards towards the future – I used to ice-skate, and I’m much better swimming on my back than on my front, so progressing backwards doesn’t seem too problematical. There may be nothing to be done about that, perhaps that is how it has to be. But who’d have thought it?