Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Burns Night turns into dark night of the soul for grumpy old man

Home Truths column in The Australian, in which a bit of Robert Burns leads to an existential crisis and a lousy turn as the Serial Killer of Glebe

O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as ithers see us! 
It wad frae mony a blunder free us, 
An' foolish notion: 

Robert Burns
To A Louse, On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church

Never mind the Haggis. It’s the first two lines of the last stanza of Burns’s great equaliser that packs the knockout punch, nails the human condition and bears frequent repeating whenever one is in danger of developing airs and graces.
     It’s a perfect puncturing of ego, a skewering of delusions, a dousing of the bonfire of the vanities, and a delousing for swelled heads everywhere. It’s pure existential nitty dread. For nothing screams ‘unclean’ like a head full of lice and I still recall the appalled horror the first time the fine tooth comb was dragged through my flowing 70s primary school locks to reveal dozens of the wriggling translucent little ticks manque. 

     Some 200 years before that moment, the great Scottish bard is sitting in church when he observes a louse - an impudent, crowlin ferlie, plump and grey as any groset, struntin rarely over the gauze and lace of a fine lady’s bonnet. 

     I don’t make any great claims about my own Scottish roots, any more than I do about my Italian, Irish, English, French or Danish ones. But I have always felt an affinity with the strange, compelling and sometimes indecipherable verse of Burns, and not just on New Year’s Eve, soused with single malt and Auld Lang Syn. (I also felt an affinity with the early, brilliant works of Irvine Welsh, before he fried his brain and went silly. Between the weird words and abstruse vocabularies of the pair, I grew to understand the guttural utterances of my Scottish colleagues after moving to work in newspapers in Hong Kong).

    The immortal lines popped into my head the other day as i was striding (well, limping) along the high and low roads of Glebe, on a glorious, crisp, blue-skied spring day, feeling about as perky as a soon-to-be-50-year-old racked with assorted afflictions had a right to feel. There was a spring in my gimpy gait, a twinkle in my eye and a magnanimous smile twitching at my lips. If I had a Tam O-Shanter, I would have grabbed its big red pom-pom and doffed it to each passer-by. 

     But then the giftie gie’d me a big reflective plateglass window to glance into as I strunted past. And all of a sudden I saw myself as others no doubt saw me. My smile of goodwill was a twisted grimace, the twinkle in my eye a crooked, baleful squint (perhaps from the sun’s glare off the chrome bits of flotillas of designer prams the size of SUVs pushing to and fro), my greying buzz cut was textbook grumpy old man, and my stride was a herky-jerky hobble, a few stutter-steps removed from the legion of walking-stick wielders, the Robert Zimmerframes, Lean-hard Cohens and assorted poet laureates of pain, decay and decline. 

    The joy went out of my moment, squashed like a crawlin ferlie on the tip of a comb’s tooth. All I needed was a hook in place of one hand and a long black trenchcoat, and I could be the evil serial killer of Glebe. Perhaps little children already cowered behind curtains that twitched as I shuffled past. “Mum, look, it’s that weird old grumpy guy”.  

     I know what they did last summer. The hills have eyes. I consider dropping into the make-up effects store on Broadway to secure some props, grow into my role, still dazed at how my inner ebullience could outwardly manifest as a worn, torn fellow I barely recognized. 

    Since that day, for it never rains but it pours, Slife has been a litany of doctor, dentist and physiotherapist appointments, pipers due to be paid after ignoring their calls far too long. 
     We are all falling apart and hurtling towards the great unknown. The best we can do is keep our dignity, allow our pain and suffering to increase our compassion and understanding, and retain an ability to laugh at life’s absurdities, infelicities and great gaping injustices, while waving a middle finger in the direction of one’s higher power occasionally.

     Oh, and keep your hair clean, and your fine tooth comb handy. For as the great bard warns: 

O Jeany, dinna toss your head, 
An' set your beauties a' abread! 
Ye little ken what cursed speed 

The blastie's makin:

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