Do you get more scared as you get older? I’m increasingly worried by the prospect of accidental death or serious injury.
Whenever I used to hear of an acquaintance being killed or injured, I once thought, “Poor them!” I still think that but now, shamingly, I very quickly think, “It could have been me.”
For 30 years, I biked round London at night, without lights, in a dark suit. Now I always wear a hi-vis jacket, even in full daylight, and sport two rear lights and a front light.
Martin Amis said he never thought about dying until he was 40; after turning 40, he thought about little else. I’m 47.
I was bicycling down Regent Street at the weekend, in my hi-vis jacket. Threading through stationary cars, I found what it was that was holding up the traffic – a pro-Brexit march.
The protest was tiny – barely 100 people; much smaller than the Remain march in October, when tens of thousands took to the streets. I put that down to Brexiteers’ confidence that Brexit would eventually take place – for all the chaos of Theresa May’s implementation of it. If Brexit is stopped, I imagine Regent Street will be much fuller of Brexiteers.
The marchers were – like me – dressed in hi-vis, imitating the gilets jaunes in France. I don’t think the imitation will catch on; partly because it’s a secondhand idea but also because there are already so many people dressed in hi-vis.
Hi-vis clothing was first worn by Scottish railway workers in 1964. It remained – forgive the pun – fairly invisible for 40 years. And then, over the last decade or so, it has exploded in use: from every single road-digger to every poor child on a school trip round the British Museum.
The gilet jaune message won’t take off here if you can’t tell who’s a protester and who’s a neurotic bicyclist.
My gilet jaune may save my life but, like all hi-vis, it looks hideous. So it goes right against my New Year’s resolution, which is to dress better.
As I get older, fatter and balder, I can’t afford to dress badly, too. Mrs Thatcher – in an apocryphal story – said, “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”
I would add that any man, beyond the age of 46, should never wear a T-shirt.
Stuck for something to say at a party? I was given an ideal conversation-opener at the weekend, staying with a journalist friend in Gloucestershire. “Who, at your school or university, seemed most likely to succeed?” she asked. “And who ended up being the most successful?”
I’ve been asking people those questions ever since. Without fail, the person who seemed most likely to succeed never did. And the most successful person was always an unlikely figure.
The two most dazzling figures of my youth are now dead, victims of drink, drugs or wild misadventure. And the ones who made it to the top were perfectly decent and hard-working but free of flair, originality or distinction.
How do the Fates work these things? I asked one of my old teachers whether he could predict the dazzlers and the tragedies. “No,” he said. “Too many unpredictable things can go right or wrong for anyone.”
I’m sure he’s right about the unpredictability of the tragedies: if they’d given up the booze and drugs, they’d be alive now. But you can identify the characteristic that, more than any other, leads to success. It’s a mixture of worldliness, energy and gumption that harnesses your talents, however mediocre, and produces the best possible result.
That doesn’t mean having to be crooked, or ruthlessly ambitious like Kenneth Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time – the urtext in these questions of how youthful characteristics develop in later life. But it does mean understanding the way the world works, the way you work and the best way of combining the two. It’s far from being a brilliant ability – but it’s extraordinary how many brilliant people don’t possess it.
This week, I heard a friend say something was esoteric to someone who didn’t know what esoteric meant.
It made me think that “esoteric” is itself an esoteric word – and then it made me think of other words that describe themselves. I find “icky” an icky word, and “enchanting” enchanting. I have now invented a Greek word for these self-describing words: “autographic”.
Then there are words which are the exact opposite of what they describe. “Nice” isn’t a nice word. “Relaxing” isn’t relaxing. In my new dictionary, these terms are “anautographic” – quite an esoteric word, come to think of it.
Harry Mount is editor of The Oldie Magazine
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