ONE EQUAL TEMPER OF
ET* was seriously deficient in romantic rhetoric, although his speeches were no doubt as sincere as the bark of a dog, the cawing of an amorous rook or the thin music of a mandolin (he always fancied himself a guitarist).
Of course, I should have known what to expect. There was an eerie moment early in our relationship when, dining à deux in some hostelry or other, I looked deep into the beloved’s eyes and tenderly enquired what he was thinking. Instead of receiving the delicious reassurance that every woman craves – ideally something along the lines of a sonnet to my lips or eyebrows – ET replied (no word of a lie): “I’m calculating how many people I’d have to kill if we needed to fight our way out of here.” (Naturally I wasn’t too keen on use of the first person plural!) Something of a conversation stopper.
Part of the problem was that ET had a Hero Fetish. To be fair, so do I. My heroes, however, are all Douglas Bader types capable of uncorking a bottle of champagne with one hand while piloting their spitfire with the other. Above all, their gallantry is stamped by that magnificent understatement which is without doubt the finest element in our national character. Certainly it invariably features in the reminiscences of my father (another hero) when describing life in the Parachute Regiment. Pa is guaranteed to come over all misty-eyed when recalling his training (“Up A Tree Go!”). One of his favourite anecdotes features the instructions given by an RAF “Dispatcher” to a platoon of recruits about to enter the plane for their first jump.
The drill proceeded roughly as follows:
“Number 1 – Before you jump, Hook Up.
Number 2 – If your main chute doesn’t open, pull your Reserve.
Number 3 – If your Reserve doesn’t open, cross your legs left over right ’cos it’s
easier to screw you out on a left-hand thread.”
But I digress. Suffice it to say that my heroes are in the Dambusters or Battle of Britain mould – resolutely unshowy and doing exactly what it says on the tin. At the apex of my heroic pantheon is Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the Antarctic – for his indomitable courage and spirit of scientific endeavour, of course, but even more for the laconic postscript of his last letter home when he was at the point of death: “Make the boy (his son) interested in natural history if you can,” he recommended, “it is better than games.” His companion Captain ‘Titus’ Oates went one better in an unintentionally hilarious letter to his mother about the South Pole Expedition: “Points in favour of going,” pondered the Old Etonian. “It will help me with my army career as if they want a man to wash labels off bottles they would sooner employ a man who has been to the Pole than one who has only got as far as the Mile End Road. The climate is very healthy, although inclined to be cold.” These two stalwarts richly deserve their place in any heroic mythology for the sheer insouciance with which they perished. “How can man die better than facing fearful odds, For the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his Gods."
So our heroes were – forgive the pun! – poles apart. ET didn’t care at all for my Macaulay-esque devotion to coves like Scott and Oates (altogether too pukka sahib). No, his idol was the Lone Ranger par excellence, Clint Eastwood, and he never tired of watching Dirty Harry and other classics of the genre. In a bizarre variant on the midlife crisis, I came to suspect that his mind was endlessly replaying spaghetti westerns and other vigilante-style dramas like Death Wish and Harry Brown (if only Michael Caine had stuck to Alfie!). It reached the point where I half expected his morning salutation to be “Do You Feel Lucky, Punk? Well do ya?” In tandem with this celluloid loop went an unhealthy interest in cowboy costume drama, so that I worried I might be required to tog myself out as an American frontierswoman in an offering to connubial unreserve. Happily my sturdy Britishness proved impenetrable to all such yeehaw blandishments and any potential as a Wild West Woman went mercifully untapped.
Alongside ET’s partiality for what I can only term bushman culture there lurked a dark suspicion of The Arts. “Emperor’s New Clothes,” he scoffed every time I towed him around an exhibition or gallery, in the process demonstrating at least a passing familiarity with the demotic of Hans Christian Andersen. Matters came to a head when I dragged him along to a performance of that supernatural thriller The Woman in Black at The Lowry Theatre in Salford. Having managed to ignore his contrapuntal complaints about the entire production being “bobbins” (Northern patois for “rubbish”), I watched with bated breath as the heart-stopping climax approached. Cue a groan from ET who suddenly slumped forward in his seat giving a very good impression of a man in the throes of a heart attack, stroke or, conceivably, both. To my intense mortification, the spectacle in our part of the auditorium easily rivalled the entertainment on stage. A fellow theatre-goer shrieked and a stifled hue and cry ensued – sotto voce appeals for first aiders etc. – much to the delight of a neighbouring party of school-children who gawped at the possible fatality unfolding under their rapt gaze. With murder in my heart, I was obliged to shuffle out as theatre staff formed a stretcher party to whisk ET away. Exit Pursued By Paramedics.
ET subsequently confided sheepishly that he had “come over all peculiar”. Suspecting him of having tried to sabotage my cherished outing, I regret to say that my sentiments were of a most unChristian complexion. Indeed, I felt I could happily have helped “this corruptible to put on incorruption” (as the Good Book says). As it was, I snidely pointed out to ET that there was nothing very heroic about a fit of the vapours. Even more nastily, I told him that he should remember “Nothing in a man’s life becomes him like the leaving it” (naturally he loathed the Bard with a passion).
Heroism is a pretty rum thing. Did Pitt The Younger expire lamenting “Oh my country! How I leave my country!” or was he ruminating “I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s meat pies”? With ET, the Sublime never won out over the Ridiculous.
* ET = My elderly inamorata or Elderly Termagant