Nel mezzo del cammin. Dante meant that he was thirty-five when he started his great journey. But what about these days? When Dante said it he was thinking of the Book of Genesis, which said that in the ideal world (of the Book of Genesis) a man should normally make threescore and ten. But how many of them did in Dante’s time, or in the time of the Book of Genesis for that matter? Even poor Signor Alighieri only had twenty-one years to go after his mezzo.
I’m not over-optimistic. My father got caught cold by cancer in his early fifties, and I remember passing a dull train journey, shortly after his death, by making pointless calculations. I came up with a start, however, on working out that, if I were to live as long as he had, I was already two weeks into the second half of my life. I was twenty-six.
But now I had reached an unarguable mezzo, in the form of a half-century, however unimpressively nudged and nurdled. True, I had no great prospect of the ton; drink, diabetes and divorce had considerably lengthened the odds. But, I thought, these days my chances are as good as Dante’s: I might just match his twenty-one.
It was in the faint hope of shortening those odds that I donned woolly jumper and (ludicrously virginal) walking boots and yomped off through the Oxfordshire countryside with my trusty Ordnance Survey map. For some time I’d had my eye on the village of Sutton Courtenay, with its inviting PH promising two-pennorth of wassail which, five miles in, I could just about do with.
But before reaching the PH, my attention was arrested by the village church. It takes a lot to divert my attention from a PH, but a proper church with a proper churchyard will do it. And so I entered, and did my bit of looking around the tombstones, calculating ages, and who was related to whom, and how the power relationships might have worked in the village, and so on and so on (as in Coming Up For Air by George Orwell).
I was just about to leave and slake the noble thirst which had been so piously whetted, when I tripped. My usage of my gleaming walking boots had been too sparing to walk them in properly, and it was hardly surprising that I lost my footing on a tussock. Down I went, putting out both arms to break my fall, in stupid defiance of experience, which has provided me with four broken bones in this way. However, this time I was lucky, if you can call it that given what followed. I fell into unresisting earth, and kept on falling. And lost the plot for a while.
I awoke to find myself covered in mud. Which was fine, I reflected, as far as my hitherto pristine walking boots were concerned. But once I realised how far north the infestation had stretched, I was less chuffed. However, my attention was swiftly diverted by the clench of a bony hand on my shoulder.
“Aaaaarrrgghhh!!!”, I shouted, being related by blood or marriage to several people who watched horror films. My apprehensions were swiftly dispelled by the reply “Get up, you silly sod”. I swivelled round on the more functional of my elbows.
No, it wasn’t a skeleton. But almost. The figure was enormous, or at least looked so from my recumbent position. There was still some flesh on the bones. And the grip on my shoulder seemed strangely ill-coordinated. The spectre was obviously no real physical threat. Relaxing somewhat, I remembered my obvious lines: “Wh-wh-who are y-y-you?”
“You know damn well who I am,” said the towering figure. “Who the fuck did you expect to meet in a graveyard in Sutton bleeding Courtenay? Sorry, that should be ‘whom’. Except that it shouldn’t, because ‘whom’ would sound barbarous. Unless you’re some kind of linguistic pedant? ” And here the figure took on a frightening aspect for the first time.
“No,” I said tremulously. “I mean would you prefer to be Mr. Blair or Mr. Orwell?”
“George will do,” he replied. “It took me long enough to get used to it, after all. And I understand that the name Blair has…a bit of an overtone, these days.”
“Well, what do you think?” I said. “A pint or two at the George & Dragon?”
“We’ll deal with the dragons first, if you don’t mind. Besides, I found it difficult enough to cope with ordinary working people in pubs back in the day, what with being an Etonian and all. How I’d cope with the sort of people in there these days I can’t begin to imagine.”
“So what do you suggest?”
“Let’s get straight down there,” he said. “You need to see what’s what.” He produced, from within some interstice in his decayed graveclothes, a pouch of tobacco, and rolled himself a cigarette. “If we’d gone to the pub, you’d soon have found out what’s what,” I said to myself.
“You know damn well where,” he said. “Just need to sort out the transport.”
I indicated, by a gesture of abandonment and impotence, that I was in his hands.
“And so we’re off to Hell,” said he, “by transethereal steamer!”
“The baddest guys these days,” I told him, “get there in a Beamer.”
“And, just to warn you, George,” I said, “I can’t do terza rima!”
“That’s because your generation is thick as mince,” he said. “I never got an Oxford First, but I’d still read two-thirds of English Literature by the time I was eight. And I may not have read anything they told me to at Eton, but I sure read a hell of a lot of other stuff. Terza rima? Cyril Connolly and I used to do that as a displacement activity.”
“Touché,” I conceded.