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February 5, 2021

One of my father’s favourite books was THE HAPPY HYPOCRITE, a short moral fable and fantasy by Max Beerbohm. It’s all about a Regency Rake who falls in love with a good woman who will only marry a man with the face of a saint which his isn’t.

So he finds a mask of the face of a saint and wearing it goes and proposes marriage to the good woman. He turns his life around and starts living the life of the man she expects him to be. His old lover comes to challenge this fraud, rips off the mask and that reveals the face underneath has become as angelic as the mask and the loving couple get on with happily ever aftering.

Sort of the inverse of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. Beware what you pretend to be because that’s what you’ll become sort of thing. I think Dad saw himself somewhere in there. I may still have his copy somewhere in the disorganised mess that is my flat.

Anyway, I find myself recalling the moral of the story as I get older and as I find myself more and more adopting the persona that the world finds acceptable to a gentleman of my age. I find myself doing the ‘slightly-batty-but-ever-so-polite’ aged gentleman a lot on those occasions when the world requires me to go out and do things: shop once a week, go to the pharmacy for prescriptions, visit the dentist, the doctor and what have you.

I’m a terrible old ham and I go too far sometimes: I fear I will turn myself into that parody of an English gentleman (retired and living off a pension) and not be a human being at all, just a series of mannerisms. I hear my father’s verbal habits in the mix as well. His manner was paternalistic while mine is (perforce) avuncular. I wonder if my brother David with his numerous brood finds himself doing Dad as well.

It’s better that, I reflect, than the moments when the pain and discomfort of being old gets to me and I snap. The mask of virtue and beneficence comes off and I’m rude, quite distincly and crabbily rude to people. I was downright harsh to a young woman calling from the dentists about three weeks back. I apologised before the end of the call which was to nag me into filling in an on-line form of immense pointlessness before my appointment the next day. But I felt it best to beg off the next morning by pleading my nose being a little bunged up and got the appointment delayed two weeks. I think that was wise: they might have decided that having me on the books wasn’t worth the wear and tear on their receptionists. Two weeks later all was smiles, which it might not have been if I’d turned up the next morning.

In a way though I’m quite glad that I can still lose my rag unreasonably. I have for years worn the mask of that good, wise and virtuous (in many ways, not in temperance or lack of gluttony obviously) man Cardinal Archbishop Theophilus of the Far Isles. If the idea behind THE HAPPY HYPOCRITE were true then he would long ago have wiped out the Old Adam, the Lord George Hell, the base and vile sinner beneath and that would create a real monster. It is somewhat comforting to know that Original Sin still applies its stain, creating an interesting patina on my soul that I hope will appeal to that great collector of knick-knacks God Almighty.

(Nothing in this essay should be taken as proof or even assertion of the real existence of a divine omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent being. Consult your professional theologian before believing. Terms and Conditions apply.)

Speaking of the pains of age and illness, I have two grounds to be happy. The first is that I’ve discovered that bunging the hot water bottle underneath my left thigh and my wonky left knee at night not only keeps the pain from bothering me in bed but also seems to reduce the discomfort I feel from it during the day. The other is that I finally gave in and went and found a chiropodist to take a look at my right big toe. I won’t give you details (because I do try to be kindly) but (touch wood) the things she did and the things she recommended have abated the problems I was having if not finally solved them. Let us hope. Maybe I will be able to wear fewer masks in the future.

One of the problems with trying to be virtuous. It teaches you patience and that means it can take months for me to think: ‘I’d probably best do something about that’. You think I’d know better by now but I overcompensate for my known and acknowledged hypochondria. Virtue is often its own punishment.

  1. I think it is by now reasonably documented that people who repeat untrue things often enough, even knowing that they are untrue, nonetheless come to believe them.

    My general feeling about annoying low-level people is that they are even more victims of capitalism than I am, their jobs are certainly far less pleasant than mine, and that is not their fault. (I do tend to think that telesales people should take up some more honest work, like prostitution, which at least has some reality to go with the proffered fantasy.)

  2. In my own defence I did feel ashamed of myself. I always do when I lose my temper with harmless people. But I was at home and the call surprised me when I was at my crankiest.

    I think avoiding the surprises is why I go into pre-rehearsed characterisations. It helps define the interaction.

    I too tend to ask people who want to talk to me about the accident I was in or about the possibility of applying for a government grant to insulate the loft I don’t have, whether they would kindly get themselves an honest job. Sometimes that makes me feel ashamed too, for being judgemental.

    I could shout at the various lame robots that ring up but it wouldn’t help.

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