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They All Shall Wax Old

On age.

I do not have much to do with my old schools. One has vanished entirely, as if blasted by a curse. The large village or small town where it stood has entirely forgotten about it. Local people, interrogated vigorously, say they have never even heard of it. But I recall it in detail, especially a girl called Carol, with whom I fell in love without ever speaking to her, having no idea that I would then be hurried away to another part of the country and not see her again. So I never have spoken to her. I was perhaps five, possibly six. It was an intensely old-fashioned establishment. I was astonished to be given tomato soup that had been made from tomatoes quite recently rather than emptied out of a tin. There were even prizes for deportment, a virtue which no longer dares to speak its name, many sums and much writing of cursive script. Some of my exercise books survive. I owe it a lot. But the wind blows over it and the place of it shall know it no more. 

Another institution, which I attended in my middle teens, still causes me to wince when I recall it. Sometimes I walk hurriedly past its bleak bricky buildings, which always looked to me like a cross between a water works and a lunatic asylum. I am perhaps afraid that someone will rush out and tell me that I must go back and complete my full sentence. 

Only one of my old schools has any real claim on my affections, as I now realize that I was happy there, something I would never have admitted at the time. So when the head master finally retired, perhaps thirty-five years ago, I drove two hundred miles to say goodbye to him. I was curious. There were a lot of former pupils there. The place seemed to be flourishing, its setting as beautiful as ever, bounded by a fast-flowing river and encircled by woods. Yet I was surprised not to have my heartstrings (whatever they are) tugged very much. My schoolfellows had aged quite predictably, and were much as I had expected them to be. I did not have much to boast of myself, and my contemporaries probably looked down on my unrespectable trade, scribbling on the backs of advertisements for a little-regarded newspaper. Some of the teachers, who had seemed in my childhood to be impossibly old, still flourished in healthy middle age. 

But then I took a private stroll around the grounds and chanced upon the wooden carpentry shop where we had all been taught woodwork, rather well, by the stern military figure who also forced us to climb ropes, run about the place, and jump over large and awkward things. It had been new in my time, with the bright look and clean scent of fresh timber. Now it was sagging, grey, and musty. I was almost choked by the sensation of passing time and loss. The same thing was happening to me. I drove home soon after, reflective and dissatisfied with a life that already seemed half-gone. Kingsley Amis, in his first-rate full-length ghost story The Green Man describes a similar sensation when the central character, Maurice Allington, actually meets God Almighty. Nobody but Kingsley Amis could have made this astounding scene credible. The Ancient of Days, on departure, gives Allington a beautiful sixteenth-century silver crucifix which suddenly twists itself from his hand, dwindles and vanishes. When he at length digs it from beneath the floorboards it has become instantly ancient, tarnished, “speckled, worn and stained almost black,” as if by many centuries. The first time I read this, I felt an actual sense of loss, and again that choking sensation which (in my case) accompanies any brush with the speed and ferocity of time.

I only came to know the classical myth of Tithonus through Aldous Huxley’s clever, snide novel After Many a Summer about a wealthy Californian potentate’s search for immortality. The title is a line from Tennyson’s poem about poor Tithonus, granted such immortality—but not eternal youth—by his lover, Eos, the capricious and careless goddess of dawn. She of course retains her youth and immortality and can do nothing as he shrivels and fades. His life is a misery:

Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream

There is a deeply painful echo of this cruel inequality between the one who ages and the one who does not in a poem by the late Priscilla Napier. But in this case the reason is quite different. She lived on for almost sixty years after she was widowed in 1940. Her husband (captain of a Royal Navy destroyer) literally died of exhaustion after long months defending Britain’s coastline against a terrifying enemy. He was carried ashore desperately ill and died three days before the birth of his third child, in the midst of a desperate war which must have made the world unusually indifferent to this small tragedy. I include these details because I think they will make it easier to understand the brief and desperately sad lines I am about to quote. The complaint that killed him, septic endocarditis, would a few years later have been easily treated by penicillin. Fifty-eight years afterwards Priscilla Napier was still quietly grieving for this irreparable loss, waiting for her husband’s impossible return. She wrote a short fantasy beginning “When you come back it will be Tuesday morning; arriving at the station on the hill and walking down because there were no taxis. . . .”

And so the longed-for moment arrives, the young officer in his warlike glory, strolling, full of health and youth, across the familiar square, little changed since the last time he saw it: “And you, the man in prime, home from the sea, with lengthened stride crossing the marketplace, ‘I wonder, now, who that old woman was?’ So he would muse. “I seem to know her face.’”

As a contrast to this, here is another memory, of how as a child I watched busy men tear down the Victorian railway station of a town where I lived, solid, handsome, heavy. And then they replaced it with a sparkling, angular, airy structure of new concrete and great sheets of glass which I did not much like but which everyone said was progress. I recently revisited the spot. The new 1960s building, six decades on, was dingy, decrepit, stained and ripe for demolition.

In the decay of mere things, and also of beloved men and women; in the different ways and different paces at which things age, there is a great deal of grief and heartache, and there always will be. The longer we live the more we are struck by such things. Perhaps this is why the passage from the 102nd Psalm, quoted almost word for word in Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, glows like old gold when it is read on Christmas Day, as prescribed by the 1662 Prayer Book, and why it is so comforting: “And, Thou Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundations of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands: they shall perish, but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed; but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail.”