Remembering our histories is part of the human condition. In a week or so, on 5th of November to be precise, people all over Britain will light bonfires, let off fireworks and burn effigies. As a nation we will once again commemorate the night in 1605 when the attempt by Guy Fawkes to burn down the houses of Parliament was foiled. Such institutionalised celebrations are commonplace and, like Guy Fawkes’ night, they are often just as quirky. How many of those dancing on June 13 will know that they are celebrating the death of St. Vitus, now the patron saint of dancers and actors, who was martyred by Romans in Sicily in 303?
Alongside these annual events, there are the more weighty occasions, which again society won’t let us forget. So this year in the UK we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta on the 15 June, on the 18 June, 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo; and in a few days time on 25 October it will be 600 years since the battle of Agincourt.
Added to all these are the many family anniversaries; some happy, some sad, but all serving the same important function of urging us to remember our past and, through such ruminations, to make more sense of the present, and possibly even to reconsider the future. And what a powerful arrangement this all is; it is, indeed, invaluable. Interestingly, as I have aged, the whole anniversary business has become more important.
This year I added two further events to my personal calendar. Anniversary Number One relates to a language endeavour; a decade ago, or so I reckoned, I started re-learning French. I decided to attend classes again after a break of nearly fifty years which, in the in 1950s, had culminated in my getting a very middling grade 3 at ‘O’ level.
I well remember my introduction to the French Institute one morning in February. Terrified, and dragging my feet like a schoolboy, I was coaxed towards the reception desk by my wife Rohan. Once there I was to enrol for a test of my competence. The result was embarrassing and it was decided by the powers that be that it would be best for all concerned if I started from scratch in one-to-one private lessons. I have been at the Institute ever since, and without a break. Indeed they often refer to me as one of their fidèles, one of the faithful. It has been a wonderful experience and now I am doing courses for students in classes classified as ‘expert to master’; a level that demands a degree of fluency way beyond my original expectations.
My French journey has involved a lot of hard work and single mindedness and, in February 2016, I had planned to celebrate the tenth anniversary since starting. To my mind, timing and ‘legitimacy’ is important, with significant numbers and dates classically coming in ones, tens or hundreds. But when I checked at the Institute, their accounts showed that I was mistaken, in fact I had missed the tenth anniversary by almost a year. Suddenly I had to consider celebrating eleven years’ endeavour, which though possible would be unthinkable! But if I don’t there is a problem – it won’t be till February 2024 that the next legitimate opportunity for celebration arises and the delay might be too long.
I shall have more luck with my next big date, Anniversary Number Two, which is in fact a bicentenary. Almost five years ago, on 3 December 2009 I published my first blog for Greyhares. It was entitled “On Being Older” and, more to the point, it happens that this particular blog is my 199th. The next one is the Big One! As with learning French, writing essays for Greyhares has been a wonderful journey, and this event I plan to celebrate on time. Perhaps over a coffee with my long-suffering editor, after a shopping spree at Waitrose. After all, that is how it all started.
And there is one other point. In that first article I concluded that “being older is fun, continually challenging, and part of a fascinating experiment. I am content in my new self, and am surprised to be discovering bits of me of which I was unaware. I would advise anyone to give older age a real try.”
It so happens that these are my selfsame sentiments now and, in this respect, nothing has changed.
Joe’s account of his return to school can be found here: The Child Within, 27th September, 2010.