la force de l’age

Christopher’s wing-back armchair is floodlit by the low sun – so much so, that every wispy strand of his white beard and short-cropped hair stands out around his head like the flux lines around a graven, magnetic rock. The whole effect is intensified by the way Christopher restlessly bobs up and down as he talks, as if all the things he’s ever read and written and thought about are violently buffeting the chair, and only the wings on the side of it are stopping him from being pitched out onto the carpet.

To his right is a tall bookcase crammed with old books, famous writers of philosophy, history, economics and so on, and then a selection devoted to T.S. Eliot; to his left is a plastic garden chair with his meds, a magnifying glass and a packet of extra strong mints.

Christopher’s been speaking without interruption now for five minutes straight – or possibly fifteen, it’s hard to keep track. The level of detail is overwhelming, from the slave colonies of Martinique to the Nanking massacre, via Stalingrad, Putin, the Mau Mau in Kenya and the perceived indiscretions of certain members of the cabinet – everything merging into a great flood of ideas, whose focus seems to be (as far as I can tell), the deep and pernicious roots of the establishment. What makes things even more difficult is that he often slips into French, his second language, quoting from writers and social movements I’ve never heard of, in particular, Aimé Césaire. But eventually his monologue slows enough for me to ask him whether after all he’s read he considers himself to be an optimist or a pessimist.

‘Oh, optimist, most definitely optimist. How could you be anything else? It’s merely a question of perspective. As a species we’ve only just begun!’ he says, grasping the arms of the chair, rocking from side to side. ‘You see, infinity is a jolly long time! You only need ask yourself – what will life be like in a million years time? A billion! Quadzillion? Especially with all the developments in robotics and artificial intelligence. I’m absolutely convinced humans will eventually live for ten thousand, FORTY thousand years! And they’ll be fluent in every language. Geniuses, all!’

He pauses for breath, and relaxes back in the chair.

‘Although I’m not sure I’d want to live much past forty thousand,’ he says. ‘I’d probably have had quite enough by then. But you see, that being the case, I could get together with all my friends and have a Socrates party, and we could all take poison!’

It’s tricky saying goodbye to Christopher, like disentangling myself from a giant, conversational octopus. I think I must have shaken his hands a dozen times but only made it halfway to the door. I’ve tried every gambit I can think of, from subtle changes of position to explicit statements of fact, but nothing stops him from talking. Eventually I’m forced to say goodbye and open the door whilst he’s still in full flow – except, as soon as there’s a sudden rush of cool air from outside, he does stop, and nods his head affirmatively a couple of times.

‘Ah! La force de l’age!’ he says. ‘A bientôt!’


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