the old courtier & the pug

Even Jenny’s pug makes me anxious. There’s something about the way he trolls over to me, waggling breathlessly from side to side like an antique footstool that’s somehow learned to walk. And when he finally arrives at my feet, he’ll stop and slowly look up at me, panting in his tight fleece waistcoat, like he’s expecting me to do something, and if I don’t do it soon he’ll explode, and there’ll be pug everywhere, and it’ll all be my fault.

I pat his head (which isn’t what he wants), and I wait.

Jenny comes striding over the hill, waving.

To be honest, I’ll often try to avoid Jenny. She’s nice enough, but like her dog, she makes me anxious. And I say that despite having tried over the last year through meditation to understand that’s it’s not other people or events that make me feel anything but how I react to them. I suppose it’s the difference between accepting that spiders are essentially harmless, that it’s an irrational fear rooted in family experience & conditioning, and actually picking one out of a box and putting it on my head. So even though I fully understand that wanting to avoid talking to Jenny is really just an indication that I’ve a lot more work to do on myself, still I can’t help looking for the exit.

One mistake I often make is to try to preempt the pessimism. It’s the conversational equivalent of bending down to pick up a box you think is full of books but turns out only to have a duvet and a pillow, so you end up throwing it in the air and falling over backwards.
‘Hey Jenny! How are you? What a lovely day it is today! So Spring like! Everything powering up! God – we’re lucky…’
Jenny stares at me through her lavender tinted glasses.
‘Did you hear about the boy in the high street the other day?’ she says.
‘Boy? What boy? No…’
‘Carrying a machete.’
‘A machete? Oh my god…’
‘Look,’ she says, opening Facebook on her phone and showing me the picture – a weapon that looks more like something a Klingon would use in a ceremonial fight.
‘Bloody hell!’
‘I don’t understand kids these days,’ she says, putting the phone away again, carefully, so she doesn’t cut herself on the picture. ‘I mean – we never had half the things they’ve got. Ferried around from place to place like little princesses. They have the best clothes. The best shoes. I suppose it’s all these violent games they play. But you see they just don’t have any respect. And they seem so angry all the time.’
‘Well. They certainly get a lot of peer pressure on social media. I’m glad I didn’t have that when I was growing up.’
‘I worry about the future. I really do. I worry for the world my grandchildren will live in.’
‘Knife crime’s terrible,’ I say, struggling to stay objective. ‘Horrible. Really awful. But one thing struck me the other day. You know some kids think they have to carry a knife because the other kid’ll have one? Isn’t that the same as our foreign policy? You’ve got to have nuclear weapons because the other country’s got them? I mean – aren’t they just doing what the government’s doing?’
Jenny pushes her glasses back onto her nose.
‘They’ve been smashing car mirrors,’ she says. ‘For no reason. Car mirrors. Just walking along and smashing them off.’
‘That’s terrible.’
‘And I tell you something else. I’ve had my car ten years, and last night the alarm went off! Twice! It’s never done that before.’
‘That’s worrying.’
‘I mean – these kids. They’re so angry!’
‘It’s interesting that all this comes at a time of reduced public spending. Do you think that’s got anything to do with it?’
‘I don’t know about that. All I know is, I’m glad I’m not a child growing up in this world…’

The conversation splutters on like this for a while. She’s not enjoying it. I’m not enjoying it. It’s like we’re wrestling with the controls of a little plane that’s stalling over a chasm. I’m tempted just to embrace my fate, put my arms in the air and try to relish the plummeting – except – I can’t afford to let myself think of life this way. It’s too bleak and soul-sapping. It would feel like surrender.

I look around for Lola. She’s way up the hill, heroically silhouetted against the sky, staring down at me with an expression that – even from this distance – I can read as pity.

Back at university we studied an early Renaissance book by Castiglione called ‘The Book of the Courtier’. Written at the beginning of the 16th century, it was an early kind of How To guide for members of court, but it digressed lightly and beautifully into conversations about social philosophy, religion and so on. The book was surprisingly contemporary in feel. I remember one bit in particular, where the subject of ‘it wasn’t like this in my day’ came up.

“I have often considered not without wonder whence arises a fault, which, as it is universally found among old people, may be believed to be proper and natural to them. And this is, that they nearly all praise bygone times and censure the present, inveighing against our acts and ways and everything which they in their youth did not do; affirming too that every good custom and good manner of living, every virtue, in short everything, is always going from bad to worse.”
(from the beginning of the second book)

He wrote that over five hundred years ago. But despite all his balance and courtly wisdom, all his sprezzatura, I bet even old Castiglione would’ve changed direction when he saw the pug.

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