The French have a phrase, L’esprit de l’escalier, describing that moment on the stairs, as you’re leaving the scene of a confrontation when you think of exactly the right witty riposte, just 10 minutes too late.
These delayed reaction ‘wish I’d thought to say that at the time’ moments, a mixture of self annoyance and regret, are familiar friends. I file them away as a subheading marked ‘what I wish I’d said’ in the vast mental filing cabinet bearing the title ‘bitter regrets and missed opportunities.’
Wise after the event’ may be the closest English version. Missing the moment, thinking of a witty or cutting retort when the moment has passed, is invariably accompanied by regrets, self recriminations and a desire to turn back time.
In Germany they say ‘treppenwitz’ to describe this belated repartee.* The moment has gone. Opportunity well and truly lost. Every writer suffers from this affliction. I try not to read my older published books as I want to rip out or add whole passages in a futile desire to improve them.
Too late, much too late. What’s done is done.
*German is one of the very many languages in which I am resolutely illiterate, I’ve never previously written this word and am reliant on a faltering memory for context so if it actually means ‘testicles’ or something equally inappropriate, please forgive me.
A while ago now we were ‘escaping’ from an unspeakably dull social event. The hostess called it a Dinner Party even though it took place in the afternoon with ‘finger food’ on offer (her definition, not mine as sausage rolls, vol-au-vents and various stuff impaled on sticks aren’t what I call ‘food.) it wasn’t dinner, it wasn’t even a party, just a group of expats gathered together by reason of speaking a common language and with little else in common.
We barely knew this ‘merry band’ as more than one person had (inaccurately) described the group and there were many other expats whose company we cherished, but none of them were present on that day.
Okay, it wasn’t all dull, but as Big Steve disrobed and threw himself into the pool after his twentieth beer at every single gathering not even that could raise the enjoyment level. Big Steve was larger than life in every sense. Morbidly Obese Steve would have been more accurate and Excessively Flatulent Steve even more so.
One of the guests came staggering after us. ‘That was a right good do,’ he called out. ‘Plenty to drink.’ This may give some idea of the expectations of some of our fellow Brits on social occasions.
‘I thought you would have picked up on Norman spouting his rubbish,’ he added. ‘What with you knowing about all that.’ I nodded sagely and glanced at Marigold. No, it appeared she hadn’t any idea who Norman was or what rubbish he’d allegedly been spouting either.
As he left us to drive home - not much attention was paid to the drink driving laws in Spanish mountain villages - we both tried to recall which of our fellow celebrants was called Norman. We finally narrowed it down to a very thin, tattooed chain smoker who’d not stopped talking for several hours, but we’d kept well away. He announced at one point he ‘did a great Elvis’ and justified this claim by singing a few lines of ‘In the Ghetto. Marigold said he’d sounded more like Basil Brush than Elvis.
The only part of his racist, sexist, homophobic and resoundingly solipsistic diatribe I could recall was him referring to Germans – he wasn’t a fan – as a hypo-aggressive nation.
It would have been pointless to interrupt him in full flow, but I could and, at the time thought I perhaps should have disputed his usage of the word hypo-aggressive by interjecting, ‘I’m not familiar with that word. Surely you mean hyper-aggressive?’
As we toddled off home I thought, ‘I could have added, ‘surely the best word for aggression, relating to nations as a whole would be belligerent.’ I said this to Marigold as an example of L’esprit de l’escalier which we had been chatting about to another drunken group who suspected anything said in a foreign language to have sexual connotations.
She gave me one of her well practised looks. ‘Yes, you could have said that if you’d thought of it at the time, if you wanted to look as if you were as big a prat as him.’
She’s absolutely right. The poor man’s Elvis never stopped spouting offensive nonsense all afternoon yet the only thing I regretted not picking him up on was a single example of clumsy sentence construction and an unfamiliar word. Who’d be the prat then if I’d challenged him over something nobody else would have even given a moment’s consideration?
What would I do without her?
This period of theoretically enforced lockdown has affected people differently. Some can’t wait to get out there into the big, wide world again; some are (often understandably) nervous nellies who have lost all self confidence.
It’s not dissimilar to people who have spent time in controlled environments. I’m thinking of the armed forces, prison, even boarding school. Some people blossom when they leave, others struggle to acclimatise to a newly unrestricted world.
Of course it’s all a lot more complicated, just as the threat of the virus is still out there. Throwing open the door, casting off the (hopefully) metaphorical shackles and dashing to freedom isn’t quite so easy.
I’ve been contacted rather a lot lately by well meaning people wondering why I stopped writing novels a decade ago and settled for writing something as trivial as a blog. I like contributing to the blog, even if only writing nonsense and the amount of actual work involved is infinitesimal in comparison to the gestation period of a novel.
It’s the difference between pleasure and duty.
I almost feel guilty about being happy. Even in lockdown. Possibly, especially in lockdown. ‘Hell is other people,’ according to Jean-Paul Sartre and only the other day someone I’ve known since my childhood asked me if I was still ‘obsessed’ with the great man of letters.
Obsessed? No, but it’s true I went through a ‘Sartre’ period in my late teens. As a philosopher, novelist and playwright that was understandable for a 6th former with English Literature as one element of my A level studies. I don’t remember having any problem in blithely disregarding his rather inconveniently obvious Marxism.
He was French though and reading his works in his own language was way beyond my capabilities. I think the reasons for my fascination with Sartre had only a little to do with his novels. A leading existentialist, he explored the nature of ‘humanity’ and the underlying structures of human consciousness.
As the leading light of French café society where the Intellectual Movement was, and remains, an essential part of that nations’ psyche, Jean-Paul Sartre was a colossus. He refused the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, at a stroke cementing his legacy as a free spirit even though I found his rejection of such an honour more than a little baffling.
My own ego, dampened down significantly over the years, was at its peak at that time of my life. Awards, prizes, recognition, isn’t that what everyone wanted out of life? Strutting past the assembled ranks of my fellow students to accept a mere book token from some distinguished former pupil who none of us had ever heard of on School Prize Day may not have been a Nobel Prize but I don’t imagine I ever considered declining to accept them.
Jean-Paul Sartre would have been an inspiration in the midst of a pandemic. Some of his sayings resonate very strongly in these difficult times.
‘If you're lonely when you're alone, you're in bad company.’
‘Better to die on one's feet than to live on one's knees.’
‘Freedom is what we do with what is done to us.’
‘We are our choices.’
Maybe my friend was right, I was obsessed.
Lavoisier was guillotined in the French Revolution on May 8th 1794. I know this because my diary, yes I do have a diary not that I use it to record events for future generations to marvel over, it’s just so I can remember when my car insurance is due or how much I weighed in 1975, told me so last month in the ‘on this day’ tailpiece at the bottom of the page.
This is the man who discovered the existence and properties of Oxygen and Hydrogen, neither of which were known about until 1778 and 1783 respectively. His major contribution to Science didn’t save him from a populist mob baying for an end to elitism and his head was chopped off, number 4 among 28 prominent citizens of Paris deemed to be surplus to the mobs’ Revolutionary ideals on that day.
The eminent mathematician, LaGrange, commented, ‘a whole century could not produce another head the like of that one they have made to fall in a second.’
Marie Curie died in 1934 from prolonged exposure to radiation, specifically Radium-226, and was buried in a lead lined coffin directly alongside a matching one containing her husband. Her name lives on, but maybe not for for as long as her contaminated laboratory equipment, furniture, clothes, books and everything she ever came into contact with will remain lethal. Those ordinary objects will be dangerously radioactive for another 1,600 years.
If people of their stature die before their time the World notices. It’s thoughts like this that get me through the day. I’ve done nothing of note to compare with such notable figures and won’t ever rate an ‘on this day’ entry, but I’m already way beyond the ‘taken too soon’ threshold so am winning hands down over Marie Curie and Lavoisier.
‘You can have your DNA tested,’ another well meaning friend said. ‘Would you be interested?’ I’m not sure whether she meant we could share her own kit or whether they’re on 3 for 2 special offer in Boots, but I just can’t get worked up about the subject.
Leonard Rossitter once asked, ‘if ignorance is bliss, why aren’t more people happy?’ It’s a very good question, but on some subjects I am happy just to remain ignorant.
Where I came from, how I got here, all that was set in motion before my birth. Nothing to do with me at all, so why bother about it? I used to come across DNA testing in one of my former jobs, although it was very much in its infancy then and was both prohibitively expensive and long winded. Nowadays anyone can send off for a test.
I might see if Poundland stock them, not willing to risk any more than a quid. I will probably learn my origins are 98% Aborigine and the various ethnic percentages will add up to 312.
That’s as useful as the proper test, ie not at all.
Oh well, I suppose it gives people with too much free time on their hands and not much idea of doing anything else to fill the hours of daylight something to get excited about.
A few months spent in quiet contemplation, sans distractions, it’s like winning the lottery, isn’t it? Well, no, not really. We miss ‘stuff,’ but most activities can survive a few months abstinence. No more dressing up to go out, no obligation to conform to the expectations of others, it’s okay to be selfish as a byproduct of lockdown.
We never got the stage of thinking, ‘what’s all the fuss about, our lives are exactly the same’ like we imagine many of the people we know have experienced. We’re both sociable, gregarious people who love talking, meeting people and exploring our world, but it’s a few months deprivation, not being banished to a Gulag.
We can cope, are coping and will continue to cope with this temporary restraint. Like cockroaches, we’re in it for the long haul. They haven’t changed much in several million years – why strive to improve on what works? Nothing about that analogy is appropriate, apart from the essential truth therein.
It certainly didn’t find much favour with Marigold.
There are men working on a roof over the road. Three of them. One is prising up roof tiles, another is stacking them into neat piles and the third member of the triumvirate is throwing something small, (peanuts? M and Ms?) into the air and catching them, or more often not, in his gaping mouth. I’m unsure of his actual role in the roof renovation process, but I certainly can’t fault his diligence.
There’s no evidence of health and safety equipment or practice. Quite the reverse. I’ve had occasion to do roof repairs from time to time on our various renovation projects. I didn’t go in for much in the way of safety equipment either, but relied on a knowledge of the the practicalities and dire results of falling off.
We once employed a roofer, unlikely to forget him as his van had Fiddler on the Roof blazoned on the side. No, Fiddler wasn’t his real name, but he told us it brought him a great deal of business.
Mister Fiddler, or whatever his real name was, clambered across our slippery slate roof, in pouring rain, to examine the lead chimney flashing. This was a three storey house, so a very long way down, but he wandered up and down for several hours, finished the job and only slipped twice.
Fortunately not off the edge.
‘Aren’t you worried about falling off?’ Marigold asked.
‘Nah,’ he scoffed. ‘Been falling off roofs all my working life. Here, feel that.’
He offered his bald head in evidence which bore an enormous scar and a significant bulge.
‘That’s a metal plate, that is. Sets off the detectors at airports every time. Can’t even remember getting it. My wife says I should be more careful, but I tell her it’s just part of the job.’
We decided he was in the wrong job.
The tile remover over the road, quite a hefty frame for a roofer, is bending over, displaying that essential attribute of the building trade, a ‘builders’ bottom.’ The medical term for this is intergluteal cleft, should you ever wish to offer it as a conversational titbit at a dinner party or similar tedious function.