Culture Writing

It’s About Time

by Warwick Cairns

The gist of it, I think, is that we exist in a world of constant flux, and there is no permanence to be had anywhere. That everything must pass.

The temptation here is to illustrate with some sort of proverb or parable or piece of exotic wisdom. You know the sort of thing: No man may step twice into the same river, as Heraclitus of Epheseus puts it. This would have been back in the days before technology when Heraclitus was speaking, before the invention of many of the things we take for granted today, like Wellington boots and vulcanised rubber waders, which allow a man to comfortably step into the same river - or into any number if rivers - as many times as he damn well pleases, all without getting his toga wet. Heraclitus would have countered here, no doubt, by pointing out that it’s no longer the same man, and no longer the same river. However, if that were the case, then the least you’d want to know is whose bloody boots they were, then.

I digress, though: the point I was driving at, about proverbs, is that there seems to me something more than a little smug about people who go in for that sort of philosophising. Something more than a little irritating about people who say things like “There’s an old African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child.” Does it indeed? From there, it is but a short step to The sages say, do not despise the snake for having no horns - for who is to say it may not become a dragon?. It probably won’t, though: I think we’re safe to assume that snakes don’t tend to do this. And horns? What’s that all about? Why not legs, or – I don’t know, eyebrows or trousers. But this particular piece of cod-mystical statistical improbability, spoken in the voice of an ancient Chinaman, was what started each episode of the dreadful and badly-dubbed 1970s series The Water Margin, based on a 14th-century epic novel about a band of virtuous Robin Hood-style outlaws fighting tyranny in Song Dynasty China.


We were talking about time, and about change, and having said how insufferably smug it is to use parable, I have one for you. More than one, in fact.

Here’s the first one.

A long time ago, in India, the former prince Siddartha Gautama, who had become known as the Buddha, was out and about preaching, when he came to a village where there was a great weeping and wailing and lamentation. It turned out that a baby had just died and the mother was deranged with grief, tearing her hair out and rending her clothes asunder, and suchlike. He went to her to offer her comfort, and she seized her chance: “You say you’re a holy man,” she said, “Well, in that case, I beg you to prove it by bringing my poor baby back to life.” Buddha thought about this for a moment. “Alright,” he said, “I’ll do it. On one condition.” Well, the mother was overjoyed, as you can imagine, and she said that she’d agree to his condition straight away, whatever it was. “Very well,” said Buddha, “Bring me just one single mustard-seed. You must fetch it from a home untouched by the shadow of death. Do that, and then I will bring your baby back to life.” And of course the woman could not do this – this being in the era before Barratt Homes and new-build housing estate show-homes that no-one has even lived in yet, much less died in. And so, the story goes, she came to see that death is part of all human life, and came to accept the death of her baby. Rather than, say, screaming abuse at Buddha and boxing him round the ears for falsely raising her hopes and wasting her time.

I have another story for you too. This one comes from the old Norse book Gylfaginning, which is one of the Eddas, the records of the myths and legends of the Northern peoples.

In the story, the god Thor went a-wandering. Being Norse, he did this not so much to preach – as Buddha did – but to drink and fight and carouse and to do all of the other things that he so liked doing. Anyway, as he went on his travels, Thor came at last to the hall of the giant Utgarotha-Loki. The giants were bitter enemies of the gods, by and large, and this one was no exception. But because of the customs of his people in relation to travellers seeking hospitality he welcomed Thor into his home - with gritted teeth, one should imagine. And once Thor was in his hall, he took every opportunity to humiliate him there. First he challenged the god to a drinking competition, which he won by trickery, giving Thor a bewitched drinking-horn connected to the seas, and Thor would have had to drink the lot to empty it. He had a good go, but ultimately failed – as he was bound to do. But it is why, they say, the tide comes in and out each day to this very day. But Thor was angry at being thought a weakling, and so he challenged the giant to a wrestling-match. The giant declined, saying, in effect, that Thor was too puny to trouble with, but if he was determined to wrestle he could do it with the giant’s old nurse Elli first, before troubling him or any of his men. Upon this, a wizened old lady hobbled into the hall and stood there, waiting for Thor to come out to her. This he did, and no sooner was he on his feet than the old woman grabbed him and, for all his strength, forced him down onto one knee on the ground – at which point the giant called a halt to the match, saying that since Thor was obviously not nearly so strong or brave as he thought himself to be, there was clearly no point in taking his challenges any further.

It was only later that Thor, strongest of all the gods, found out the identity of the woman he had been fighting against and beaten by: she was Old Age.

Which is something that has been on my mind of late.

Now I know that there are all sorts of things going on in the world: wars and stuff, and people dying of disease and starvation and the like, but we have to get things in perspective here. If global warming, or Aids, or any of those things trouble you at all, then consider this: today I woke up with a slight backache. And what’s more, I have done for the past couple of days. And as if that weren’t enough, I also have a slightly twisted ankle that’s taking a bit longer to heal than it ought. Other people’s famine and poverty be damned – I have more important things on my mind.

What’s more important to me, these days, is that after five decades of being immortal I feel like I’m beginning to get the first intimations of the old lady entering the room.

And by a strange coincidence my symptoms are the same, it seems, as those suffered by the tennis-player Andy Murray: the back problems, the ankle and joint problems, brought on by exercising too hard for too many years, and like him I’ve taken to wearing an ankle-brace for sports these days.

It is no exaggeration to say that for me, Andy Murray has become a symbol for the changes brought by the passing of time. And not just physically, but emotionally, too, and for what he represents in terms of changing social mores, with him behaving like an old woman when he loses a game.

Because you tell me this: when did it become acceptable, or even praiseworthy, for a sportsman to start blubbing in public when he comes second in a tournament?

Me, I was sitting there shouting disparagement at the television: “Pull yourself together, man!” I shouted, and “What are you, some kind of pansy?”

My daughters looked on me with pity, as if I did not quite understand the nobility of Murray’s emotions.

I did have a moment of self-doubt there. I did wonder, for a while, whether I might have been a bit harsh on the man, given his hopes and dreams and given how hard he’d trained and all that, so I thought I’d take a second opinion.

From the letters page of the Daily Telegraph.

There I found this letter, from Mr. NM Pugh, of Donhead St Mary in Wiltshire.

“Sir – I regarded Mr Murray’s tears on Centre Court as unedifying, I wonder if he ever read Rudyard Kipling’s If: If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two imposters just the same youll be a Man my son!

There’s something so wonderfully, reassuringly Telegraphish about that letter. From the choice of words (‘unedifying’) to the reference to Rudyard Kipling, those few words sum up to me an outlook on life, a set of assumptions, a set of cultural references that I just feel comfortable with, that just feel like home to me. But I get the sense that not everyone feels the same these days. I get the sense that times are not just changing, but have already changed on this particular way of seeing things, and did so quite some time ago.

These days, I sense, people are more at home with the kind of public emoting that, as it happens, the Ancient Greeks went in for back in Heraclitus’s day and before. Read the Iliad and it’s full of aggrieved heroes flouncing around in a strop, and Patroclus in tears about the outcome of a battle, and Achilles and Priam weeping on each other’s shoulders over the fate of Hector, and it’s all very histrionic and theatrical and continental, if you know what I’m saying. It should come as no surprise to a Telegraph-reading Englishman to discover what the Greeks got up to amongst themselves. And this, apparently, is the theme of The Song of Achilles, the Orange-prize winning novel – which is a sort of Brokeback Mountain in sandals, by all accounts. Which is a whole other area I won’t go into here, except to say, blimey, haven’t attitudes changed? They’re even talking about extending courtesy titles to the same-sex civil partners of knights and dames now, so that Sir Elton John’s gentleman-friend Mr. David Furnish won’t be a plain Mister any more, but – well, I don’t know what, exactly. But something. Not ‘Queen,’ obviously, because that would be a very cheap and ignorant joke to make. But on the subject of actual queens, the way that title is awarded looks set to be changed soon in this country, so that the eldest child of the reigning monarch will be next in line to the throne, whichever sex they are.

Times change. There is no permanence anywhere. Everything must pass.

Oh, and as time passes you develop an increasing tendency to ramble and stray from the point. Or at least, this is what I find.

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