Relaxes in solar air-current, first to last (7)
So I have lived to tell the tale, notably to Phil over a post-squash pint.
“And your last words were ‘oh, shit!’?” This seems to be the one detail that stirs Phil’s interest.
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Were you aware at the time that you were quoting Colin Flooks, AKA the great Cozy Powell?”
“What, the Rainbow drummer?”
“The very same. ‘Oh, shit’ were Cozy’s last words when he crashed his Saab 9000 on the M4. He was doing a ton in the fast lane, bad weather, no seat belt, somewhat over the drink-driving limit, talking to his fancy woman on the phone, when one of his tyres blew. ‘Oh shit’ were his last recorded words.”
“Sounds like you were attempting a frame-by-frame remake. I should stick to impressions of Bill Wyman, if I were you.”
“Well, luckily I was doing no more than fifty at the time, otherwise I might well have met the lorry or even the London train head on.”
“It must be a relief to know you’ve still got a few more weeks to live. How’s that big life insurance policy coming along by the way? You have made sure I’m the chief beneficiary, haven’t you?”
“You don’t take anything seriously, do you?”
“I’ve been taking your impending demise very seriously indeed. I’ve located the precise note of gravitas to strike at the Hyde Park gig. We will conveniently ignore your total inability on the guitar and recast you as the Brian Jones of the band, regrettably drowned on the eve of the concert. I’ve been mugging up on the Collected Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley …”
Phil fishes a copy out of his bag and thumbs through its last pages.
“If you’ve pegged out in a car crash we can use the last lines of The Triumph of Life.”
“Wasn’t that the one Shelley never finished? Written on the terrace of the Casa Magni?”
By now we are both a little more knowledgeable as far as the Romantic poets are concerned. It turns out that Shelley had not just lived in San Terenzo; it was his last abode. He raced his boat, the Don Juan, with Byron in the Bay of Lerici and drowned close by. But I can’t honestly say I like his poetry that much. Phil has found the relevant section.
“That’s right. Shelley was halfway through writing The Triumph of Life on the day he drowned himself. It would have been his masterpiece, I think, but it’s a real car-crash of a poem.”
“But cars hadn’t even been invented then!”
“Yes and no. Richard Trevithick’s Puffing Devil of 1801 was the juggernaut of its day and arguably the first car on British roads. Shelley’s triumphant chariot of life rumbles across the Earth like a puffing devil with no brakes, crushing all the poor souls in its path. The dead and wounded are left in its unseeing wake. Here, look at the last stanza he ever wrote, possibly on the very day he died. Shelley is talking to Rousseau, old and crippled, in the wake of this juggernaut …”
I take the book from him and obediently read out the lines:
‘Then, what is Life?’ I said … the cripple cast
His eye upon the car which now had rolled
Onward, as if that look must be the last
“I’ve got to be honest, Phil. I don’t think The Triumph of Life would mean much to a rock crowd, not even here in Oxford.”
“You could be right. He drowned just before he could tell us what Life is. And Shelley doesn’t even specify whether it’s a Triumph Dolomite or a Herald.” Phil laughs heartily at his own joke. “Where abouts in Italy are the Dolomites anyway? Perhaps he was pondering on that when he jumped into his rusty old clinker, the Don Juan, set the sails at warp factor nine and headed up the coast from Livorno to Lerici on that fateful day in July 1822? But enough of that. What did you make of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement this morning?”
“With the Income Tax threshold going up to £11.5K in April, you’ll be a bit better off. Old Philip has done you proud!”
Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, is a Univ alumnus and some would say a typical product of the college, a decent man, quietly brilliant in various top roles – but perhaps a teensy bit grey.
“One: I don’t expect to be alive in April. Two: on a college salary, I’m likely to be well inside that threshold anyway. Was there some equally thrilling news for people like you in the super-tax bracket?”
“What, on an academic’s salary?”
“So, what do you earn these days?”
“If I work all the hours God sends and take every bit of teaching and lecturing that’s offered to me, maybe £40K.”
“Does that include the royalties on your book sales?”
“Good point. £40,025 altogether. The average price of just a flat in Oxford last year was £320K. How can any of us get on the housing ladder?”
“But you did get on the housing ladder,” I remind him.
“Only thanks to the Bank of Mum and Dad. I’m just as skint as you are, Alex.”
I snort derisively, sup up and splash my way home.
And now the really spooky bit. I hesitate to share this with you because it’s just too weird…
In an effort to take my mind off the crash, the might-have-beens and the might-yet-bes, I decide to immerse myself in the weighty tome that is Bill Clinton’s autobiography. I’ve already skimmed through most of the Oxford bit, so I decide to start back at the beginning. And what do I find? On the very first page of his apologia pro vita sua, the old rogue tells the story of his father’s demise a few weeks before he himself was born in August 1946.
William Jefferson Blythe II was, by all accounts, just as much of a Don Juan as his more famous son. Dad was a sales rep who could not pass a pretty girl without trying to proposition her, succeeding often enough to have been married three times before he met Nurse Virginia Kelley in 1943. Inside two months, WJB II had cleared all his other girlfriends from the path to true love, married Virginia and headed off to war. It sounds as though Blythe Senior, like Shelley before him, had a few scary moments off the coast of Italy as the Americans waded ashore and began their triumphal march to Rome, trampling the Italians underfoot at Monte Cassino and prevailing in numerous other skirmishes en route. Billy Blythe was a tank-engineer, no doubt greasing the wheels of this invidious Triumph, bypassing the Dolomites.
Most conquering invaders in history have a sorry record of rape and pillage and there must have been many temptations for the testosterone-fired GIs on the road to Rome. It seems unlikely that Blythe would have let such a chance go by. Who knows how many step-brothers and sisters the ex-President now has, each into their seventies? In these days of ubiquitous DNA-testing, perhaps the truth will yet out. I digress …
Back home in Hope, Arkansas, young Virginia is anxiously waiting for her bridegroom and WJB II is duly demobbed some time in 1945. Pretty soon, she is pregnant with WJB III, but the young couple has no money and there are precious few jobs in hopeless Hope. So Blythe gets a job in Chicago and finds a house that he will share with mother and baby. We’re still on page one of the autobiography:
‘On May 17, 1946, after moving their furniture into their new home, my father was driving from Chicago to Hope to fetch his wife. Late at night on Highway 60 outside of Sikeston, Missouri, he lost control of his car, a 1942 Buick, when the right front tire blew out on a wet road. He was thrown clear of the car but landed in, or crawled into, a drainage ditch dug to reclaim swampland. The ditch held three feet of water. When he was found, after a two-hour search, his hand was grasping a branch above the waterline. He had tried but failed to pull himself out. He drowned, only twenty-eight years old …’
A year younger than Shelley, but a year older than Brian Jones, I note. My age, in fact. Of course, it’s that last detail that makes me catch my breath, the seizing of the branch above the waterline, the last grasp and gasp of an injured and drowning man. If I had been unable to open that car door or unwind the window in time, it could easily have been me clutching at such straws.
Yet here I am, safely on dry land. Have I dodged the bullet with my name on it? Can I, like Baldrick, stuff it in my breeches and look forward to pantaloon’d dotage?
All coincidence, you will say. I am not Cozy Powell or the exiled Shelley, nor am I William Jefferson Blythe II or even Brian Jones brooding by his swimming pool at AA Milne’s old house. Yet I am struck by these eerie echoes of drownings past. As fellow traveller Karl Marx put it:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
To which I say: what, only twice!? Once you have fallen past farce, what literary genre do you come clattering into the third time around? What depths of bathos should I aspire to as I plummet unmourned to the bottom of some unanticipated lake on December 30th?