Friday, 28 February 2014

The Grand Old Man


The Grand Old Man took a contemplative sip of his ale - something flat and fruity with a name suggesting it had been brewed by immigrants from the late seventeenth century - and continued his account of The Two Towers, specifically Peter Jackson's cinematic adaptation. He and his wife had just returned from Clapham Picture House and we'd met in a pub near their flat. I had missed a pause in the monologue whilst he didst sup from his most stout and hearty beverage. I could have interrupted, but I hadn't.

Perhaps I'd learnt something from that earlier occasion during which he spoke without pause on the subject of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. We had been in a different pub, and despite my two previous jovial attempts to change the subject, he'd continued to deliver his views upon the oeuvre of a film maker whose work I had never seen, and which I had no strong desire to see. I had looked at my watch, noting that the address had continued unabated for a record breaking forty minutes, and so as he paused for breath I had said:

'Go on then - push your spectacles up your nose and say as my producer said to me...'

This was a reference to the shaggy dog stories comedically delivered by Ronnie Corbett on BBC Television's The Two Ronnies. Perhaps it wasn't that funny, but it seemed a more diplomatic expression of dissatisfaction than put a sock in it, you boring fucker.

The Grand Old Man had glared at me from behind his circular wire rimmed spectacles. He'd cleared his throat of frost, and then resumed the speech in that same monotone, an even mumble amongst which not all of the words could be clearly heard, delivered at the slowest pace possible without conceding any gaps which might allow for interruption.

I had been put off Tarkovsky at art college by a profound dislike of the sort of people who tended to enthuse over his films. Tolkien was at least more familiar, but the Grand Old Man could reduce almost any subject to an endless, beige slurry of verbiage regardless of how exciting it may once have been under discussion by almost anyone else in the world. It was like having a conversation with a bee hive.

I'd already told him about how at school I had requested Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as my reward of choice in the school prize-giving. I'd done well in English, but typically there was a catch, namely that the school budget only ran to one volume, so I had to pay for the other two myself before they could be presented to me by Mr. Harpum, our headmaster. I read The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers when our family went on holiday to Anglesey, starting the third volume during the car journey back to Warwickshire; but I'd lost my momentum. The endless battles bored me rigid, and I'd forgotten who was fighting who and why. I never finished the trilogy.

The Grand Old Man fetched out his pipe.

Oh for God's sake, I thought.

He didst then stuff within the bowle a plug of tobacco most merrie and did light up, leaning back inst his seat to momentarilie savour the shag. This constituted another pause in the monologue, and I could quite easily have leapt in with a conversational detour of my own - what books I'd been reading, the living hell of working at Royal Mail, the myth of anthropophagy in fifteenth century Mexica society or whatever; but I was stalled, silenced by this pipe-smoking vision, freshly astonished by his slow transformation into a character from Last of the Summer Wine.

I had tried smoking a pipe myself at one stage. This had been back in my twenties when a casual observer might have justifiably opined that I was trying too hard. The fact was that I found my pipe very relaxing and conducive to contemplative thoughts, and when these thoughts cohered into something worth saying, it felt good to illustrate one's point by waving the pipe in the air for emphasis; and even better if one's statement concerned some distant object which could be indicated with a jab of the stem and described as being over yonder. Then, whilst resident in Chatham at the end of the 1980s, I attended a live gig by the duo Rocking Richard and Whistling Vic Templar. I vaguely knew of Whistling Vic as former drummer of The Dentists, and found myself impressed as he slammed out a rhythm on a minimal kit whilst calmly puffing away at his pipe. We discussed preferred brands of tobacco after the performance and, noting the elegant cut of Vic's suit, I realised I was an amateur and that I probably resembled a crazy person. Later my friend Carl would offer disparaging comments as I sparked up on the beach at Dover, referring to an acquaintance who had supposedly contracted oral cancer as the result of smoking a pipe, and so I stopped.

I'm not sure if it was health or more sartorial concerns that put an end to my habit, but clearly some were better able to accessorise with a pipe and a plug of tobacco than others. Vic Templar had been one such person, and sadly I was in the others category, and so immediately recognised that the Grand Old Man was trying too hard. As I considered this, I realised he had resumed his monologue. I'd lost track and tried to focus on the words and what he was saying.

'Sharon and I shall be returning it to the library within the next few days.' He spoke as though offering a Victorian urchin a shiny new sixpence by which to purchase the most splendid turkey for the Christmas table. 'If you like, we could reserve it in your name so that you may then read it for yourself.'

'Sorry. What are you talking about?'

He gestured unnecessarily with the stem of his pipe. 'The Lord of the Rings - Sharon and I shall be returning it to the library...'

He droned on and I now recalled enough to fill in the missing pieces. He'd been telling me about Tolkien's trilogy, specifically explaining means by which I might get to read the three books for myself, crucial elements of the plot I should look out for, and details I was sure to find amusing.

'You're talking about The Lord of the Rings.'

'Yes.'

'I've read it. Do you not recall me saying about half an hour ago?' It was a stupid question as I knew full well that for this Grand Old Man those interludes in which others spoke were regarded as time in which to compose the thrust of his next address. I'd spent ten minutes giving account of the circumstances of my reading The Lord of the Rings and how I hadn't found it sufficiently engaging as to inspire me to bother with the third volume; and somehow he'd still spent the last half hour regaling me with the revelation of that film with all the wizards and dragons being based on a book written by a clever man from Oxford as though I were about fourteen. He'd also missed the point that I hadn't even liked the film.

None of this was surprising to me, but it always came as a shock to have my poor impression of the Grand Old Man so rudely confirmed by some new idiocy, because I wanted to think better of him. I wanted him to surprise me by occasionally failing to be a dick.

One year, as I returned from a couple of weeks in Mexico City I called him on the telephone, vainly imagining that he would be interested in hearing how I'd got on in a country over five thousand miles away with a very different culture.

The phone rang three times before he picked up. 'Hello Lawrence - sorry it took so long for me to answer. Sharon and I were doing our exercises.'

'Right. So how are you?'

He chuckled, apparently indulging me. It clearly hadn't taken him a long time to get to the phone, but he needed to claim that it had in order to justify the next statement. 'You know when you get to our age, you really can't afford to skip your daily exercise regime,' followed by more geriatric chuckling.

I was lost for words, mainly because I knew it would seem rude were I to call the Grand Old Man a stupid wanker. I was forty-three years of age, and doing a quick calculation I reckoned that this would make him about thirty-seven. So convincing was his affected senility that it appeared he had forgotten he was five years younger than I. He worked in an office, filing and archiving. I worked in the pouring wind and rain, a six day week of carrying heavy weights around on my back, and yet somehow he still had so much to teach me.

'Well, I'm back from Mexico,' I said.

'Of course. How was it?'

'It was incredible.'

'We've also had some time away.'

'Yeah?'

He took the next ten minutes to explain how he and his wife had been to Norfolk, specifically to King's Lynn in search of a shop from which one could purchase a very specific type of tweed. Most of the monologue focussed upon the subject of tweed, its availability and so on. It would be hyperbole to say that it was the most boring monologue I had ever heard, but it was at least characteristically true to its author.

That evening in the pub, as I pointed out that I'd already read two thirds of the long, boring book that the Grand Old Man clearly believed I should read, and that I had said as much at length at an earlier point in the conversation, there ceased to be any purpose in my being there. I had to be up for work at five in the morning, and I may as well have spent the evening talking to the television screen, answering back to an unresponsive Jeremy Paxman, which I could at least have done in the comfort of my own home.

I left, walking the long road back up towards the library and East Dulwich. I thought of all the people I'd known for whom conversation was never anything more than a platform for the dispensation of their wisdom, all the people who tell me how much I will enjoy the art gallery I've already visited, and which they would know I've visited had they been listening, all the people who can't quite hear others over the sound of how awesome they believe themselves to be. Perhaps it is insecurity, overcompensation for a fear that their own views or even lives amount to much less than they would like, and so they take on the persona of some great orator, imagining themselves surrounded by admirers eagerly savouring each word as though it were a gift, something of more lasting value than just a practised bore talking about himself.

'Twas in the great snows of the winter of 1997 that I was given pause for thought upon the most fulsome brew that men do know as Jamie Theakston's Old Peculiar. Having fortified ourselves with a brisk stroll in the grounds of St. Dunstan's, we did then go forth to the alehouse...

Maybe such things would be best written down, or at least delivered with some basic awareness of one's audience; but if nothing else, such persons do at least give the rest of us something we should wisely fear turning into, and an illustration of how sometimes, when you have nothing to say, it can be good to just keep your mouth shut.

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