Sunday, 15 February 2009

Birthday Blues

Nobody talks about Dylan Thomas these days much, except as a cautionary tale, but the teachers that taught me when I was small (several of whom were Welsh, as teachers often were) had fallen deeply under his spell, and we would be played a vinyl LP of Under Milk Wood (as broadcast on the BBC, a couple of months after his death and in the year most of the class were born) with due reverence on the one school record player. To hear, and appreciate, the difference between "slow black" and "sloe black" was deemed the height of sophistication; for a ten year old, at any rate. We would go round the playground, intoning "Bible black, slooooe black, slow, black, crow black, fishing boat bobbing sea" as meticulously as we chanted "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Words were more important in those days.

By the time I came to study Eng Lit at college, Thomas was so deeply unfashionable that it suited my rebellious mood to reference him at every opportunity, much to the annoyance of tutors for whom Geoffrey Hill's recently published Mercian Hymns or Basil Bunting's Briggflatts were the Real Thing, and DT a mere huffing, puffing shaman (ditto Ted Hughes, another school favourite).

Whatever his merits, certain lines of Dylan Thomas are as indelibly engraved on my brain as the TV advertising jingles of the 1960s ("You'll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent"). For example:
The ball I threw while playing in the park
Has not yet reached the ground.

(Should Lanterns Shine)

This week I turned 55, and I find I have now reached the stage where every birthday is a two-way street, a CBT exercise in "half full; half empty," a scuffle between memory and mortality. I have already described the way middle age brings a sense of narrative arc to a life (Pistachio Nuts); you also become very aware of the way the arc of some of those metaphorical balls thrown in earlier life can suddenly, bafflingly end before you in the grass: game over.

One such arc came to an end this week. Some 38 years ago, I made the mistake of smart-mouthing an Irish labourer in a pub, and lost two front teeth. Well, not quite "lost": a half broken central incisor and a snapped off lateral incisor. Until you've admired your new smile in the mirror of a pub toilet, you don't really know the meaning of the words "If only..."

Ever since, I have been plagued by the replacement crowns, which fall out regularly. The most pestilential has been the lateral incisor, a complete replacement tooth on a steel post that has been cemented back in at various jaunty angles by various dentists over the years. This time, however, I discovered (on my birthday) that it was finally "game over" -- the remnant tooth had broken all the way down, and would have to be removed. It was time to consider ... a denture.

Now, I think there can be few things more calculated to make you feel old than that. Dentures are a perfect metonymy for old age, and its frailties, its indignities, and its inconveniences. One of my last memories of my father, in a hospital bed after the operation which failed to prolong his life, is helping him struggle with his dentures so he could regain a little dignity. It's so much harder to rage against the dying of the light without your f-f-fucking teeth.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night)

So, I think I'm either going with the gap, or spending a lot of money on an implant. Oh, and if any of you young 'uns out there want the benefit of my experience: if you must offer impertinence to horny-handed middle-aged men with nothing to lose and a lifetime of regrets, always take one step back.

No comments: