Wednesday 4 February 2015

The consoling power of favourite quotations

It is sad but true, as William Hazlitt famously observed, that “The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings.”

Given my privileged opportunity to comment on any of the huge issues facing the world today, from climate change to the electability of Ed Miliband, it seems rather pathetic that the only thing of really gripping interest to me is today’s appointment at Wansbeck General Hospital to learn the outcome of some recent tests.

But there comes a tipping point in all our lives when death ceases to be a distant and theoretical concern, mainly affecting others, and comes to command our attention with the same sort of force as an oncoming juggernaut, careering madly towards us on the wrong side on the road.

It seems like yesterday that I was constantly making forward-looking suggestions and being frustrated by an older generation’s shrugging acceptance of the status quo, usually with the words, “It will see me out.”

Now I am firmly in their camp, my short-sighted selfishness tempered only by a sense of duty to my two sons, who could easily still be around in 90 years time. If anyone is.

Although constant awareness of the Grim Reaper’s stealthy approach is unnerving, age does have its compensations over and above the Senior Railcard. Perhaps the greatest of these is a sense of perspective, and the growing realisation that the Tory Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was right when he declared that “Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all.”

A.J. Balfour, nephew of Lord Salisbury: "Bob's your uncle!"

We are just moderately intelligent monkeys clinging to a rock spacecraft as it hurtles around a dying star. Our stay aboard is remarkably short and the best we can do is to make it as enjoyable as possible, both for ourselves and for our fellow travellers.

I have already tuned out the long-running general election campaign as so much white noise. It doesn’t look as though anyone can win it outright and it is hard to see any of the possible permutations of coalition making a material difference to our lives.

Particularly when you consider that many of the things Labour attacks most bitterly, such as the growth of private provision within the NHS, are simply the continuation of policies they themselves pursued when last in power.

We should always beware of anyone who presents us with a big plan to change things for the better. Socialism, communism and fascism all did that, and look how well they went.

The creation of the European Union and the euro were similarly billed as vehicles to prosperity and peace. Those of us who argued that they were likely to create just the opposite were cried down as reactionary fools.

Now that the continent is economically stagnant and mired in debt, with extremist parties on the rise across it, it is interesting to note how little we hear from those who screamed that Britain would be massively disadvantaged if it let the euro train leave the station without us on board.

Though they are the self-same voices issuing dire warnings of the fate that will befall us if we are mad enough to vote to leave the EU in a referendum, if we ever elect a Government so foolish as to hold one.

I’d like to think I might live long enough to vote for my country’s independence but I have to accept that the country I fondly remember has vanished forever, and no vote is going to bring it back.

So I’m off to see my consultant resolved to try and be a bit nicer to my fellow human beings for as long as I am spared; and I will endeavour to stick to that resolution even if what he mainly diagnoses is a bad case of hypochondria.

At the very least I will have had a salutary warning that should inspire me to try harder. For, as Dr Johnson observed, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

While if the worst comes to the worst I can always console myself with another favourite quote from Evelyn Waugh: “All fates are worse than death.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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