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20 May 2020

I have, over the years, resembled each incarnation of Dr Who, and how I wish I could turn back time

When William Hartnell took on the role, he was two years younger than I am now. I had to have a little lie-down when I learned that.

By Nicholas Lezard

By the time you read this I shall, God willing, have celebrated my harumphty-somethingth birthday, which this year falls on Rogation Sunday. My violent friend Ben – you know, the one who likes breaking his own bones if he can’t break anyone else’s – wants me to join him, his wife and some of his football hooligan friends and their wives on the beach for socially distanced margaritas, but he wants to start at eight o’clock in the morning, which means my getting up at 7am. If he thinks, I tell him, that I’m getting up at 7am for any other purpose than having a pee before going back to bed again, then he must be barmy. Besides, Rogation Sunday is a time for prayer and contemplation; and, of course, rogating. 

The prayer I will probably skip, on the grounds that I really don’t think my word counts for much Up There, but I am sure there will be a lot of contemplation. There isn’t an awful lot else to do, and harumphty-something is widely recognised as the age when you can’t kid yourself any more, when you finally realise that the sands of time are now very much more in the lower half of the hourglass, and that it if you are going to make anything of your life, you’d better get on with it. 

The traditional benchmark for achievement is the age at which Jesus died (there seems to be quite a bit of religion in this week’s column; what’s all that about?). That age is now invisible in the rear-view mirror. I used to say to myself, “Hey, no rush, Samuel Beckett didn’t achieve fame until he was in his late forties,” but my forties have come and gone, and I have precious little to show for them – although a friend did drop me a line the other day saying she’d been doing a clear-out and had found an old copy of the school magazine with a poem in it by me. It’s been downhill ever since, I suppose.

Meanwhile, I grow old. It is much better than the other thing – ie, not growing old at all because you’re dead – but still… My great-uncle Julien died on the operating table at the age of 56. Thirty years ago a beautiful woman in Warsaw read my palm and said that I would not reach old age, and that really spooked me, for everyone knows that fortunes told in eastern European accents are considerably more accurate than fortunes told in any of the variants of native English speech. (Unless, of course, they are threats made by Cockney gangsters. Those always come true.) 

I’m still friends with her, as it happens: a couple of years ago I brought up her prediction and she laughed, saying she had no recollection of it. Well of course she didn’t, she wasn’t the one being told she was off to an early grave. (Talking of graves, today I learned that the Church of St Thomas à Becket in Box, Wiltshire, has a grave with a pyramid-shaped tombstone on it, designed so as to prevent the deceased’s wife from dancing on it.)

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But if I really wanted to be punched in the solar plexus by tempus fugit, I don’t think I’m going to do better than a recent discovery. As I might have mentioned long ago, sheer accident has contrived to make me resemble, in certain respects, each incarnation of the Doctor since Christopher Eccleston. In his day, I favoured a leather jacket a bit like his; when David Tennant slipped into his Converse trainers, I was already in mine, the gift of a lover who wanted to dress me; my children put me in a fez and bow-tie when Matt Smith came along; and I was a grumpy Peter Capaldi lookalike bang on time for his turn in the police box. 

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But now, as I look at my growing, greying locks in the mirror, the Time Lord I now see is William Hartnell, the first Doctor. I have very dim memories of him from the first time round; no one, I thought, could possibly be older. He was certainly the most decrepit person I had ever seen on a television screen. Even my grandparents, I thought, looked younger than him. I did a little checking, and here is my discovery: when Hartnell took on the role, he was two years younger than I am now. I had to have a little lie-down when I saw that, and whenever I think I’ve got over it, I find I haven’t and have to have a lie-down all over again.

But at least, touch wood, I am not lying down permanently. I have been displaying quite a few of the symptoms of Covid-19; the worst being some explosive diarrhoea, which I didn’t even realise was a symptom until our own excellent (real) doctor, Dr Phil Whitaker, told us so in this very magazine a couple of weeks ago. I’ll probably never know for certain if I’ve had it or not, but if I had then I suspect it would have carried me off by now. Anyway, three more days to go, as I write, until my birthday. Now, if you will excuse me, I have some serious rogating to prepare for. 

This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show