Pumpkins and poppies

Pumpkins and poppies

On Saturday morning I was sitting in a coffee shop with the music from John Carpenter’s Hallowe’en playing on the sound system. Here in Folkestone we have an annual Zombie Walk, where people dress as zombies and parade through town (raising money for charity) and so there were a few around in preliminary versions of their fancy dress while the café staff too had been decked out in bloodstained shirts and some basic makeup (nothing that was going to scare the children of of course).

The fancy dress was just part of the background but I found the music strangely disturbing. Part of the genius of Carpenter’s original film is the way it injects threat back into what in the US has been a thorough normalisation of the grotesque, of our worst fears of death and monsters. Because music can be so powerfully evocative, can (if you know the film, and I’ve seen it many times) transport you to specific scenes, for a few moments it seemed possible that the cappuccino in front of me might become a prop in an extraordinary turning of events. Then again you can think of the joke in Shaun of the Dead, that for a while nobody really notices the zombies in Crouch End because they look, well, normal enough.

When I was child Hallowe’en was barely acknowledged. We’d do some apple bobbing perhaps, but that was about it. Everything’s changed in the last ten or fifteen years, to the point where I think it’s fair to say Hallowe’en now completely overshadows “bonfire night”.

That’s not necessarily something to regret. Raised as a Catholic (and instinctively republican) I’ve never been particularly keen on celebrating the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, and the consequent butchering of Guy Fawkes. I’m not suggesting that a Catholic ascendancy would have been any better, but it’s always seemed to me a depressing reflection of our respective prevailing cultures that in France (and even the US) people publicly celebrated the historic overthrow of an oppressive regime, while here in the UK we celebrated its survival.

I digress. The likely reasons for the new ascendancy of Hallowe’en are not all pleasing. It must be partly and simply the influence of US TV and cinema, but it’s probably mostly the fact that Hallowe’en offers more of a merchandising opportunity to retailers. Bonfire night opened the door only to fireworks, and even there the migration of firework displays from back gardens to larger more public events has probably reduced potential sales. From pumpkins to skeleton masks Hallowe’en promises more profit.

Its origins of course go much deeper than the imaginations of retailers, and from a tenable perspective what it highlights most is how far we’ve banished death from our normal experiences. Before the second half of the last century death was a regular physical presence. When people died (and they generally died younger) they often did so in a more visible way, rather than locked securely away in a hospital or care home. Disease and death were on the streets, in your bedrooms. I don’t suppose that made death any less frightening but it demanded more acknowledgement.

Creative work, including the street traditions of Hallowe’en and related celebrations like the Day of the Dead, has proved a natural way of handling that acknowledgement, and to some extent the fear. At the end of Plotted, Robert Lowell echoed Wittgenstein writing “Death’s not an event in life ― it’s not lived through.” It’s a tricky moment, the end of a poem which has been thinking about how art and the imagination influence our experience, how they affect our sense of meaning. Death ends those efforts, but the poem’s ending is not our ending, and it needs to be said that in a sense Wittgenstein did not mean, we do live through death, if only other people’s.

Religion plays its part here, and it seems it has more power to comfort us in the face of others’ loss than it does for the prospect of our own death. It seems decent to think of those we’ve loved “in a better place”, but religion gets more contrary when it comes to the confidence we could have in our own future bliss.

It’s interesting too that in our generally non-religious society the zombie should have come to the fore as our most disturbing monster, (while vampires have been romanticised and sexualised into safety).

Zombies were little more than a footnote in the horror canon till George Romero came up with Night of the Living Dead (though Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies, released in 1966 arguably anticipated it). Zombies morphed from the victims of dark magic into something more fundamental and chilling, a gruesome parody of our natural desire to survive death; better surely to be properly dead than be like that, which becomes a strange comfort.

The new zombie myths are not just about death. In Romero’s hands particularly they’ve become metaphors for mindless consumerism, and (in Land of the Dead) for a kind of righteous rebellious decency. In a surprising, ironic way they line up with the Jack O’Lanterns, witches’ hats and glowing skulls to normalise and neutralise our terrors.

This seems to be how institutionalised metaphors and symbols are supposed to work on us, and I think it explains why I’ve never felt comfortable with other big public symbol of this October/November period, the poppy.

Let me stress that I think it proper and important to honour and remember the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in war. My problem is with those who dishonour that memory while standing solemnly before the Cenotaph. My problem is with the hypocrite politicians and other Establishment representatives who will intone their pious platitudes about death, sacrifice and honour while cheerfully continuing to embrace murder as a legitimate means to advance notions of national interest.

The use of symbols and informal ritual matters here because, like the the trappings of Hallowe’en, it distances and sanitises. It also absolves. In the same light I struggle with the way that recently all members of the armed forces are routinely called “heroes”. This diminishes real heroism, but it also (and ironically in the name of charity) pushes the military into a special space, a space beyond our normal experience, a space which might involve sudden and brutal death. It renders this aspect of life or policy extraordinary and so marginalises moral issues which ought to concern us more.

Last year Folkestone’s Conservative mayor tried to stir public outrage against the Zombie Walk, and happily failed. Apparently not a thoughtful person she argued that dressing as the undead was somehow twisted and disturbing, when it’s part of a tradition which is the exact opposite, a benign impulse to live with the reality of death in our lives. I’m sure she’s got a poppy in her lapel right now. I wish wearing a poppy was as simple and decent as the fun and games of Hallowe’en, but as long as the likes of Blair and Cameron sport them, I will not.

The good old days

The good old days

As I write my father is in an operating theatre having a pacemaker fitted. I’m a little worried of course, but I know it’s a straightforward operation, and promises him a new lease of life. He’s 83 and for much of the last year has been struggling to catch his breath, increasingly incapable of any exertion. He was diagnosed with an enlarged heart, which they have already treated successfully with drugs. The pacemaker should be the last step towards a full recovery.

He’s been lucky. He’s smoked heavily since he was a teenager, drunk too much, eats what he wants and hasn’t done any formal exercise since he finished his National Service. And yet this is the first bout of serious illness he’s suffered in his life.

Maybe it helps that he hasn’t worked for thirty years. He was the deputy borough architect in Medway when Margaret Thatcher decided local authorities didn’t need any retained expertise in building design, and so was made redundant. He had a good pension and has lived on it ever since.

It can be hard watching a parent age. About twenty five years ago after the end of his second marriage Dad became depressed and suffered panic attacks. He’d come to visit us in London and had an attack just after we’d all gone to bed. He was sitting on the edge of the bed in his underpants, struggling to breathe. It was the first time I’d seen him looking vulnerable, and the shock of it is vivid to me even now.

Still he’s kept his good looks. He’s shrunk a bit, his hair thinner and white, but he’s slim and is instantly recognisable from his younger self. He came to see me last week (he’s still very mobile) and though his heart problem meant there was little point in going to the pub to drink beer (he can only consume a litre and a half of liquid in a day) we stayed up late as usual, drinking brandy, arguing about unimportant things.

Age creeps up on you. Like most people who’ve ever got this far I don’t feel much different from the way I was in my 20s. My eyesight has deteriorated, my hair gone grey, and a knackered knee has stopped me running, but otherwise I feel ok. It’s only when you look around that you realise that life is filling up in your wake, that the ads built around stories of young families and nest building represent a stage you’ve already passed through.

Courtesy of my long time friend Emma on Facebook yesterday I watched a music video featuring an 89 year old Dick Van Dyke dancing vigorously, trying to coax his 43 year old wife from the stove to join him (which she does). I went through a predictable gamut of responses, thinking he looked great, that it was heartening to see his refusal to slow down, wondering what a woman 46 years younger was doing with him.

Such responses reflect an uncomfortable conjunction of realism and prejudice, prejudices that we should all be letting go (me included). Although male film stars frequently have much younger partners we tend to assume that the attraction of power and money probably has something to do with it. Moreover, when younger people marry the very old we will assume (with some reason) that they’re looking forward to the reading of the will. I went on to read an interview with the newish Mrs Van Dyke, and she told a different, convincing story. Though I was never a fan of his screen persona (least of all in Mary Poppins) seeing Dick Van Dyke in the video, like my father still very recognisable from his younger self, it was easy to believe he could still be charming and delightful, and that she might simply have fallen in love with him.

At one point in the interview a different sadder reality kicked back in. She spoke of her hope that her husband might live to be 110, but in truth every year they have together now has to be counted a bonus. Perhaps he could last another ten years, but it’s more likely he won’t.

When you’re young it’s natural to fear death. It seems remote, impossible even. Age can bring some consolation here, especially if you have children and they themselves have grown to maturity, a feeling of the biological job being done. Death becomes a more reasonable presence in our lives. All the same I suspect that one of the defining differences between my current middle age and older age is that death moves from being an increased possibility to become an ever-present probability, a probability you have to learn to live with.

The possibility forces itself on you. As a teenager there were a few contemporaries around me who died, killed in accidents or in one case by illness. But these things register as exceptional, freakish even. Last week I learned my old BT mate Alan Brough had died from oesophageal cancer. He was only a few years older than me, and though I can tell myself that he smoked a lot, while I never have, I know in reality that this kind of fatal illness is no longer freakish in my age group.

We need realism. Patterns of mortality might have changed in the developed nations, but they still define the arc of our lives in one way or another, and it’s good if we can adapt to the changes brought by age with dignity. But we also need to acknowledge how much has changed, and look critically at the prejudices about ageing that are themselves unrealistic or misplaced.

We are living longer lives in good health. The median age has moved upwards. This has happened in the space of a generation so perhaps it’s not surprising that cultural attitudes have not kept pace. We still live in a culture that routinely venerates youth and undervalues experience. There are better ways of looking at all of life’s stages. Finding new pleasures in maturity, as I have with music performance, cannot sensibly be understood as a mid-life crisis (I’m a much better player now than I was in teenage bands). We need a corresponding shift in our attitudes to working lives (I’ve written about this at greater length here), and for the sake of our general well being we need to enjoy whatever we can do, for as long as we can do it. Perhaps the Van Dykes’ marriage will prove a relatively short one, but dear God if you’re lucky enough to find love you have to take it for all it can be.

I’ll end this with the lyrics to a song I wrote last year. Its roots are in an Irish air I’ve known since my teens, a lovely melody called The Lark in the Clear Air. The title inspired the words, though they demanded a different complementary tune, which I duly wrote. My father hated most of the music his teenage children brought into the house, but he liked this Irish stuff, perhaps because it spoke to him of his own childhood and he would whistle the Lark melody as he went about his chores.

When I was just a dreaming child
I’d rise with the light, the warming air
I felt as clear as the brightening day
Untouched by doubt or faith’s despair.
Older now I hold my ground
The earth beneath my freckled hands
The sky still hangs like hope above
The dream of distant untouched lands.

A bird can rise and sing, its song
Is not like words but beating wings
It comes from something out of mind
The call of unimagined things.
And now I know I’ll never fly
Will never reach what seemed so near
It’s only time that beat me down.
As feathers thicken the falling air.

In my dreams if I clenched my thoughts
Shut out the world, and closed my eyes
My feet would leave the earth
Breathing the skies.

I don’t suppose he’ll ever read this because he doesn’t do computers, but I’ll dedicate it to him now with love: be well again Dad.