Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Of swollen fingers and blurred vision

IT’S my age, you know, dear. Not a mid-life crisis – I’m highly unlikely to reach 110, and anyway I had my crisis nearly two decades ago. But things are happening to me that wouldn’t have seemed plausible back then.
For instance, the constant discomfort and inconvenience of an arthritic finger. Only one finger, but you’d be surprised how awkward it can be.
Carrying a mug of tea, wielding a fork, tying my shoelaces – all these things have become occasions of difficulty and pain.
And the doctor says I just have to live with it. Either that or go on taking anti-inflammatory drugs for the rest of my natural, which, frankly, I’m not prepared to do.
Any genuine suggestions of a third alternative will be gratefully received and seriously considered.
And then there’s my eyesight.
As I sit typing this I’m aware that I keep moving my head unnaturally up and down and from side to side in a mostly vain bid to keep the words in something like focus as they appear. And I’m beginning already to feel something very like motion sickness.
I know new glasses always take a little while to get used to, and this is my first morning with this pair, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like this.
My family and friends are going to have get used to a new me as well – one who wears glasses all the time, not just for reading and writing.
I’ve had specs for close work since I was ten. And pretty much all that time I’ve been used to slipping them down my nose to look over them at anything much more than arm’s length away.
But now I’ve had to concede that my distance vision is no longer better than nearly everyone’s.
In fact, these new glasses make me suddenly aware how much fuzziness has been gradually creeping in. Looking through them, instead of over them, at things in the middle distance is like switching from an old telly to a new HD screen.
For the first time in my life I’m going to be wearing prescription glasses for driving. I may find some benefit at extreme close range too – I might even be able to thread a needle easily, for the first time in years (if the arthritis lets me).
But it’s in the stuff I do most – reading, writing, using the computer, all the things I’ve always worn specs for – that these new varifocals are already threatening to drive me mad.
Have patience, you and the optician will say. But my brother has a pair of varifocals in a drawer while a nice old-fashioned pair of bifocals sits on his nose.
And if this seasickness doesn’t abate soon, I can see myself going the same way.

IT’S my age, you know, dear, Part Two

That outstanding broadcaster Nicky Campbell was talking on Radio 5 Breakfast the other day about all the things he had resigned himself, at 51, to never doing.
On my own list might be:
·         Never climb Everest
·         Never play professional football (actually I gave that one up at about age ten, around the time I got my first pair of specs)
·         Never appear on University Challenge (though my old college did win last year’s “former students” mini-series, so maybe there’s still just an outside hope).
I don’t recall most of Campbell’s list, but one item leapt out at me. He has resigned himself to never reading Tolstoy’s War And Peace.
Big mistake, Nicky. And there’s no reason whatever why you shouldn’t go back on it, either.
I know, because it just so happens that on the morning you said that, I was about three quarters of the way through the book. I’ve now finished reading it – for the first time, but very likely not the last. And I’m four years older than you.
Two things had always put me off reading War And Peace – probably the same two things that put off Nicky Campbell.
One: it’s very long. At well over half a million words, it’s the length of six or seven “normal” novels.
Two: it’s routinely described as one of the best books ever written – often enough as “the” best. And that’s enough to put anyone off.
What no one tells you is what a fabulously good read it is. Apart from an unnecessary rambling essay at the end on the nature of history (chop that off and you’ve got a better book, 40 pages shorter), it’s as close to unputdownable as anything I’ve read.
Once you’re over the early confusion of who’s who in a vast cast of characters, many of them with similar names, you find yourself absorbed in a world that takes you from city to country, ballroom to battlefield, with equal conviction and realism.
My sister, who studied Russian at university, claims to have read it from cover to cover, in the original Russian, on a train journey to Moscow. Must have been a long journey. But what an absorbing and compelling one.

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