Text of speech given at Wivenhoe House on June 3rd 2023, on the occasion of my 80th birthday.
Reasons to be Cheerful : that so many people managed to actually get here despite no trains, traffic jams and all the other impediments to everyday life .
Reason not to be so cheerful: we had to cancel the band and the big birthday bash due to the strikes . So I am afraid its strictly not come dancing tonite
Still there is gladness in being able to spend more time with fewer people, many of whom I haven’t seen for a long time
But also sadness that quite a few people I would have loved to see were not able to make it for varous .mostly health, reasons
Of course birthdays are a moveable feast and I have plenty of other reasons to celebrate : becoming a great grandad. for one . My grandson Casey, who converted to Islam as few years ago has got it together with young Muslim lady and they have just co-produced a beautiful little girl called Amira. So I now have both Jew-ish and Islam-ish elements in my family culture . Another cause for celebration is that my son Ned and his family have been able to join us from Northern Ireland-I don’t see nearly enough of them.
Then of course there is my long time partnership with Jean. Who after all these years is still trying to teach me the names of the plants in the garden she so lovingly cultivates ,as well as how to do the washing up properly and generally look after and value things more .
Its also the tenth birthday of Livingmaps which I started back in 2013 with John Wallett; after a difficult start it is now flourishing to the point where I can happily retire from active service to let a younger generation take over while I concentrate on other projects , including writing .
I certainly feel like celebrating the publication of Things Aint what they used to be- its my 13th book , a hopefully lucky omen and a new departure for me. Tree years in the making, working closely with four visual artists from Wivenhoe, including Jean and John . So I hope you will join me tomorrow , for the performance launch event.
Coming of age at 80 is quite a complicated business , full of mixed emotions and metaphors , bitter sweet but then so is coming of age at 18, in a somewhat different way.
Something happened to me the other week which dramatized the link between these two moments: so I’d like to tell you the story…..
Once upon a Saturday morning while most of my neighbours were out on their drives polishing their evil polluting SUVs I was to be found on my back in front of our porch trying to fix the wiring on Jeans electric bike (cue virtue signalling). Out of the corner of my eye I saw a young man, wearing a hoody, walking past our house , when he suddenly stopped , shouted something I couldn’t hear , raced towards me, and before I could say whatdyamean he jumped on top of me, straddling my chest and vigorously pumping down with both hands. TBH my first thought was that I was being mugged – not that Wivenhoe is known for its street crime , and it certainly isn’t on the country lines map as far as I know.
What was weird though was the look of concern on his face. The thought struck me that perhaps he was a new kind of caring mugger, who nicked your phone or wallet and then asked you how you were feeling . At one point I thought he was going to give me the kiss of life, which might not have been an altogether unpleasant experience, but he was too busy pumping away.
Then of course the penny dropped. He had been walking along, listening to music on his phone and minding his own business, when he saw this old geezer lying on the ground. Obviously this person had had a heart attack, a stroke or perhaps just fallen over.
I managed to get a few words out and tell him to stop. And once we had got disentangled and he had brushed me down , he explained that he had just done a life saving course.He wanted to be a life guard at Clacton , and he saw the chance of practising something he had just learnt on me.
It turned out this something was called the Heimlich manoeuvre – it was devised by a American doctor called Harry Heimlich as an emergency way of stopping people choking and getting them to breathe normally again . In my case its application had obviously had the opposite effect – the young man nearly succeeded in choking the life out of me . But I realised that what he had done was in fact an amazing act of kindness to a stranger, an incredibly generous act of -inter-generational solidarity , all the more so since the generational contract – the idea that us oldies should leave the world in a better shape , and our children and grand children with better life chances than we had inherited from our parents.. that contract is well and truly broken., though maybe for quite complicated reasons that take some unravelling. Cue for another book .
The story made me think of my own personal version of the Heimlich/Heimlig manoeuvre . As an angry young man I was a great fan of Sartre’s La Nausee , I spent a lot of time like his hero Roquentin, sitting on a park bench contemplating the meaningless of existence and , in my case, bemoaning the high cost of fags. From Sartre, I learnt that Hell is other people. L’enfer c’est les autres,,sometimes ‘les autres’ were my friends , but mostly they were my parents. In fact leaving home at 18 , dropping out of university ,running away to sea and getting involved in squatting and the counter culture of the late 60s all this took me to some pretty strange and unheimlich places . 144 Piccadilly was not exactly a home from home, or a walk in the park , and some pretty weird things happened there..
Yet on the way I met people who became and have stayed friends. Some of those I have lost touch with I have re-friended recently . And I am so happy that some of there are here tonight and others will be coming tomorrow. Friendship I discovered is a way of growing older, gracefully or disgracefully together . En route Home or Heim has become other people, including people that you will miss and who will one day miss you.
So this gives me my first two Heimlich manoeuvres. Around friendship and home . The third manoeuvre I owe to my dad and his habit of lifting a glass or two or three of Scotch whiskey and toasting himself with the words’ Loch Heim ‘. As a kid, not knowing any Hebrew I had no idea what it meant. I did know he had a boat called ‘Loch Alsh’ – so I assumed he was toasting a lake in the Trossachs that had somehow become home to a group of Hassidic sailors or fisherfolk – it struck me at the time as an unlikely combination, though perhaps not given the recent exodus of Hassidim from Stamford Hill to Canvey island. Much later , of course I realised that ‘Loch Heim’ means ‘to life’, or as I would prefer: to long liveliness .
My friend Nira Yuval- Davis, told me that in Hebrew the nineth decade is known as the age of Gvurot ( pronounciation? Jonathan) – or heroes. Quite a few of my friends are indeed being incredibly brave in the way they are handling their various afflictions . But I am not sure I entirely like this idea of heroism as a general description of this stage of life , because where there are heroes , villains are never far away. I would prefer to think of it as an opportunity to burn your bridges only after you have crossed them,, all the while keeping an eye open for possible twists in the plot. It so happens that’s also a pretty good description of what you have to do to write a poem or a story. . So in that spirit and to finish with, I have taken a leaf out of the books of Ogden Nash , whose outrageously rhymed and witty limericks made me laugh and cheered me up as grumpy teenager sitting on that lonely bench: So with apologies to Ogden Nash and with just a nod to Stanley Holloway and his comic monologue about Albert and Lion here is, not to mention Theodore Reik’s theory of the birth trauma , here is my toast to the Heimlich Manoeuvre:
A breech baby who was born by Caesarian
When asked what it meant by a grammarian
He replied ‘Well being topsy turvey may not last
But wherever the die is cast, I and I
Is not eating humble pie
We are never too old
To not do what we’re told
And become anti-establishmentarian !