Time’s Feathered Arrow
14th December 2019
I feel a vague duty to write something about the general election. However, since everyone else has written almost everything about it that can be written, this is a duty that I will shirk. I will write instead about a subject I have always found of compelling interest – that is, about me.
The week before last, I had my sixtieth birthday. I glared at my women when they insisted on presenting me with birthday cards, and was glad to receive only two other cards through the post. I made sure not to put them on display. I made sure to tell none of my colleagues or students that I was now officially old and past it. However, Keir Martland – a most wicked young man – knew the truth, and has arranged a series of flattering appreciations published on the MisesUK Blog. You can see them here, here, here, here and here.
How do I feel about being so old? My first answer is that Keir leaves me with no choice over getting past the first D in DABDA. This being done, I might as well pass to the final A. I will observe that my life has gone by very quickly. I am blessed or cursed with a powerful memory. My earliest datable memories go back to when I was just one. I remember lying on my back in the pram. I remember being shut into my playpen. I remember being turfed out of the pushchair and told to walk – something I did with great reluctance. I remember watching a news report of the Queen’s tenth year on the throne. This must have been two months after my second birthday. I remember a discussion of my age two days before my third birthday. When I was twenty-one, I wrote an entry in my diary lamenting how fast time was moving. I did the same when I was thirty. All these memories are clear and distinct, and are accompanied by full context. They all seem as if they were from just a few months ago. There is no period in my life lost in mental fog, or when time appears to have stood still. Instead, it has raced like an arrow at noon towards my present seniority. I have little doubt it will continue racing towards the inevitable mental and physical decay and the final darkness.
I have a number of regrets. The first is that I have never been much good at making money. I always make enough, but I hardly count as rich. The second, and this is a cause of the first, is that I did not focus until I was gone forty on what I really wanted to do in life. I have always wanted to be a decent writer and a respected scholar of the Ancient World. I should probably have written much less than I have about libertarian politics, and I should have spent less time than I did teaching Law and Economics – subjects in which I am fully competent, but for which I feel limited enthusiasm. I also wish I had learned to play the piano better than I do, and that I had made a much better effort as a composer. It is not perhaps too late for a partial remedy to these derelictions. But I do need to accept that I have missed my real chance with music.
On the other hand, I have not entirely wasted my time. I have written somewhere between five and seven million words. Many of these I might, on consideration, not have written, or not have published under my own name. But I have written them, and some of the books are rather good, and a couple of the novels appear to be first rate. If my political writings might, to my advantage, have been fewer or more judicious, I cannot deny that I have had a reasonable effect on the English political debate. My Candidlist Project, around the turn of the present century, did something to move the Conservatives from their commitment to staying in the European Union. My writings on the nature of our ruling class have become part of an emerging political consensus.
More important for me, the obsession I conceived at seven with the Ancient World has never left me. It has allowed me to write a dozen historical novels that may be my most significant achievement. It has also allowed me, now I realise that these novels are unlikely to make me rich, to go back to teaching in a niche where the outspoken political views that limit my appeal in Law and Economics have no effect on my employability. I do not think any of the managers at the schools and universities where I teach sees my proposal to shut down the BBC as other than insane. We always agree not to discuss the European Union. What people do appreciate is my often inspired teaching of the Classical Languages and the full contextual knowledge that I can bring to any ancient text.
I will add that, if I am prone to mild hypochondria, my health has so far been excellent. Here, I feel a superstitious reluctance to exult. I accept that I may tomorrow have a heart attack or a stroke, or find that I am dying of some terrible cancer. I may fall under a bus or downstairs. But I cannot deny that I have managed to avoid dying young. Many of my friends were not so lucky. Chris Tame died at fifty-six, David Botsford at forty-seven, Stephen Eyres in his early forties, Walter Allen at fifty. I could fill a page with the names of people I have known who were dead or dying before my present age. Again, this may change tomorrow – but all the various parts of me work about as well at sixty as they did when I was twenty. I have had a bad upper back since I was seventeen, and a bad left knee since my early twenties. I had a painful strangury in my late twenties that needed surgery. I nearly died of a sudden leg infection three years ago. Because I like eating more than I do exercise, I have a tendency to stoutness that I only occasionally overcome. I have a congenital problem with my left hand that may need surgery in the next ten years. My teeth might easily be improved by a few dozen implants. I worry more than I should about the volume and colour of my hair. I sometimes wish I were four inches taller. But, compared with many other men of my age, I have very little to complain about.
And I can rejoice in having been born an Englishman. I might have been any number of lesser nationalities. Instead, I was lucky enough, without any effort of my own, to win the jackpot in life. England is not what it was, or what it might have become. But it is still England. I think and speak and write in one of the two great human languages. I live in a country where an issue of supreme national importance was an ulcerated sore in our life for a generation, and was then a constitutional stalemate for three years, and that has now been sorted to common agreement as these things always are in England – by a general election where votes are freely cast and fairly counted. I might have been an American. I might have been a Russian or German. I might, God forbid, have been a Frenchman. But I am an Englishman. The very words give me a warm and happy feeling. I can look back on a thousand years of material success and reasonable civil liberty. Our last civil blood was shed nearly four centuries ago, and was as nothing against the ordeals of many other countries within living memory. We have undoubted problems. At the same time, England has an inner luck that has never failed us yet, and that, I have little doubt, will see us muddle through all present difficulties, We survived the twentieth century, rich and free and respected or envied. We shall surely survive the twenty-first.
Do I look forward to my seventieth? I suppose I do. Even if the scientists are slower than I would like them to be at rubbing out those use-by dates, I can think of worse. Later today, I will go out for a haircut. While out, I will buy my Senior Travel Card for the railways. Come to think of it, I could ask for a discount on the haircut….