Alles in der Welt läßt sich ertragen,/Nür nicht eine Reihe von schönen Tagen. “Oh, God, here we go again,” I hear you saying. “He’s started in German this time.” My apologies but I don’t know how to translate this into an English couplet, even though it’s been bobbing about in my head since a German lesson in 1977 or 1978. It’s by Goethe and it means, more or less, “You can put up with anything life throws at you, except for a row of beautiful days.”
I remember being sort of impressed at the time, thinking, “Yes, that’s just the kind of clever-clever thing a poet would say, but give me a row of beautiful days and let’s see how much I mind it, OK?” I also suspected, uneasily, that there may well be some truth in there. A few years later I came across Francesca’s lament in Canto V of Inferno, the one beginning, “Nessun maggior dolore . . .” – “Nothing worse than recalling happy times when you’re in the shit.” (I give you the gist.) This amplifies the signal of Goethe’s lines but at the risk of losing their paradox.
All of which is my tortuous way of saying I had a bloody good time last week and I was sad when it was over. The B arrived from Sweden on Thursday evening for my birthday, which was a couple of days later; the weather in London was perfect; I had a nice dinner with her, my daughter (who had turned up to deliver a card) and a couple of friends; no one mentioned Nigel Farage. Then the B had to leave on Monday and there was a rather poignant scene of us waving goodbye to each other, with her only dimly visible through the heavily smoked glass of the Heathrow Express and me being yelled at by not one but two platform personnel for standing too near the train. “Step back from the train, SIR!” Whether it spoiled the mood or enhanced it I am still not sure but I do remember thinking: “I’m 51 years old. I know how close I can stand to a train by now.” It certainly didn’t stop the eyes from prickling a bit and a few deep breaths being needed to steady the self, on the mile-and-a-half walk back to the Hovel.
Well, one lives and there are worse things. At least I don’t have to go around lying on dating websites about my height and age and teeth and deep misgivings about almost every area of human activity in order to attract a mate. But this living alone business is getting to me. There was an article a few weeks ago in this magazine by a woman who had one of those deeply unsettling falls when getting out of bed; luckily, her husband was there at the time and was able to help. I was deeply affected by this detail. If I had some kind of stroke or heart attack, who would know? You have to get taken to hospital rather quickly in these circumstances and even if I was in a condition to be able to use the phone, there is a good chance it would be in its regular place – that is, nestled somewhere comfy but inscrutable among the books or the bedclothes.
It’s the kind of thought that has me making a nice cup of tea to distract and console myself. Then, when I put on the radio while waiting for the kettle, I find it’s You and Yours – which is bad enough news already – telling us about yet another study that says people who live alone die younger.
Time to pull myself together. I am prey to a degree of grass-is-greenery when it comes to certain concepts and situations, to the point that my own experience is distorted or sometimes flatly ignored. So, for example, when I encounter the words “my wife” or “my husband”, I get, in some dark moods, a choking sensation beneath the breastbone, for what I hear is “my helpmeet, my lover, my lifetime companion and the wind beneath my wings”, when, as I should know, “wife” and “husband” don’t necessarily mean any of these things.
To cheer myself up I think of all the people in dreadful marriages. (One does hear about some shockers.) I make tea (checking to see it’s not time for You and Yours or Money Box Live) and exercise the mind by wondering whether, if I shaved according to the principle of lawn-mowing – one stroke up and one down – I’d end up with an interestingly striped face. I also reflect on a mind-bending piece of information I learned the other day: Nigel Farage is younger than me. So really he has no excuse.