Defying Decrepitude: A Personal Memoir by Alan Peacock
James Stevens Curl enjoys the wry company of a kindred spirit
Sir Alan Peacock (born 1922), the distinguished economist, lists as his recreations “trying to write serious music” and “wine spotting”, activities which suggest something of the flavour of this wry bookette in which he describes, if not exactly with relish, aspects of creeping decrepitude and the indignities inflicted on persons of advancing years. Grisly visits to one’s General Medical Practitioner (Peacock calls them “MOTs for Old Bangers”) are recorded with a lightness of touch not normally associated with grim waiting rooms (the reading matter in which provides dire warnings concerning the Dangers of Being Alive at All). Something of Sir Alan’s puckish humour is suggested by the memoir he prepared for his old school in Scotland, which was rejected for publication as “pornographic”: one can imagine some purse-lipped figure taking exception to dispassionate accounts of not unique episodes of youthful exuberance (such as impressive feats involving peeing over high walls into the girls’ playground on the other side).
We are entertained with clear-eyed analyses of the “costs and benefits” (one phrase that chills the blood of this reviewer) of retirement, as well as with the various ploys open to us in the anticipation of lengthening life-spans (agreeable if one has some of one’s wits about one, and even better if one’s physical infirmities do not prevent a customary tendency to whizz about, eagerly sniffing out new things, like a dog with an infinity of lamp posts ahead). Tiresome sides of having to deal with medicos more often than was the case when one was younger are the perils of “healthspeak” and a tendency among some of them either to talk down to patients or to overload them with jargonese: fortunately, Sir Alan (like this reviewer) has no time for drivelling imbecilities and so, mercifully, his medical adviser (like mine) understands the need to give facts, straight, with clarity, precision and the avoidance of obfuscation.
As we hurtle towards the yawning grave (death being the only certainty in life, something the ancients well knew and dealt with more realistically than most manage today), the realisation that this is it, no rehearsal, gives meaning to Life itself. These days, when the Cult of Yoof is almost a religion, too many have become adept at fancy wordplay, so that the uneducated, the timid and the conformists confuse this with profundity. To others more perceptive, empty jargon and meaningless pseudo-language are unimpressive, deserving of contempt: cults invent their own liturgies, fraudulent claims and opaque language, designed to cloud rather than illuminate. Duds are duds, whatever their pretences of intellectual and moral superiority might be. The crabbed sacred texts of Modernism, Deconstructivism and the rest (and their ghastly physical manifestations) deserve to be analysed and unpicked: those of us with more telluric tastes are capable of doing so, and one might have wished that Sir Alan had gone for a few jugulars to further leaven and spice his entertaining memoir.
An admirer of François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac (1613-80), Peacock quotes from his Réflexions ou Sentences et Maximes Morales (1665 and later editions): we are reminded that “not many know how to be old” (this reviewer, and, I suspect, Sir Alan, find it difficult, too); that when one cannot find peace within one’s self, it is “useless to look for it elsewhere”; that “age makes men both sillier and wiser”; that we all come afresh to different stages of life, and in each of them we are “inexperienced, no matter how old we are”; and although he does not quote it, I am convinced Sir Alan would agree that it is sometimes puzzling how one makes enemies, especially if one has not done them a good turn.
An unabashed admirer of pulchritude, Sir Alan relates being questioned by a “gorgeous-looking” anaesthetist with a “beautiful husky voice” who enquired if he took any drugs: he admitted he did take one and, when asked what that might be, responded “alcohol”. As more than a “spotter” of fine wine and as someone who also attempts to write serious music, I hope it might not be too much to hope that the next time I prop up the bar at the New Club in Edinburgh, Sir Alan might be there to do some sluicing with me over chat. I suspect such an occasion might include a lively exchange, to judge by this publication.
Defying Decrepitude: A Personal Memoir
By Alan Peacock
University of Buckingham Press, 140pp, £10.00
Published 14 March 2013
Review originally published as: Old devil can still play best tunes (4 July 2013)
James Stevens Curl is a member of the Royal Irish Academy. His book Funerary Monuments & Memorials in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, which celebrates death, is published this month.