A hilarious, horrendous, and ultimately helpful memoir about hitting middle age and trying to hit back.
William Leith, well-known for his jaw-droppingly candid columns about his dysfunctional and dissolute life, is no longer young. Given what he used to put his body through, before he gave up bingeing on drugs and drink and bad food, he is in fairly good shape. There is no getting past it, though: he’s getting past it. And bits of him are falling apart.
What is happening to him? And what can be done about it? In his extraordinary chronicle The Hungry Years, Leith turned his merciless eye and magpie mind on his addictions and the chemistry, psychology, and philosophy behind them. Bits of Me Are Falling Apart is an even more ambitious and mordantly funny book, in which an unflinching memoir of his own, unique voyage into later life becomes an examination of the aging process in all humans - what science tells us about it and might be able to do to arrest it.
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William Leith has written about subjects as divergent as kings in Africa, political tension in Palestine, nightlife in Bangkok, and teeth in Britain. He writes regularly for The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, and The Spectator.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I wake up, middle-aged and cranky, on an old mattress. Half of my life has gone. I piece the facts together. I’m on an old mattress because I’m sleeping in my office. I’m sleeping in my office because I always sleep in my office. I always sleep in my office because my office is my home. My office is my home because my relationship has broken up.
My relationship has broken up because . . .
I look at the sky. It is a terrifying pale sky with streaky clouds. I must have fallen asleep without closing the curtains. As I look around, my gaze is followed, and sometimes overtaken, by a shoal of vitreous floaters, shadows cast on my retina by broken-off bits of my inner eye. Bits of me are falling apart. Bits of me are starting to return to a previous life, of being even smaller bits, and those bits, in turn, are preparing to break into smaller bits yet.
It’s a Billy day – a day I will see my son – which makes me both joyful and terrified, the joy of seeing my son tempered by my fear of what will happen when I see his mother. When I see her, the quality of my thinking, always variable, can collapse into a form of dementia I had, until recently, never known. And I just can’t seem to think my way out of the problem. Other middle-aged guys tell me they have similar trouble with their golf swings. Something familiar, like the ability to hit a small, dense ball, or to talk with authority, or even coherence, to the mother of your son, just goes, just . . . goes, and if you try to think about it, you can make things a lot worse before they get better.
And now I remember it’s the last time I’ll see my son for two weeks, because he’s going on holiday; he’s going on holiday with his mother. But I’m not going.
I was supposed to go, but things didn’t work out.
So today I will be saying goodbye.
I pull myself into a sitting position, something I’ve got a lot better at since I started doing Pilates several months ago. Now I can sit up almost perfectly, because I have regular sessions with a coach whose job it is to teach me to sit up. I spend maybe two full hours a week practising sitting up. I can sit up better than I’ve been able to since I was a kid, when everything came naturally. Now that my body is failing, some things do not come naturally. They come unnaturally, which is a lot better than nothing.
I’m doing everything I can to halt the ageing process. No overeating. Regular herbal tea. Lots of water. A particular kind of porridge in the morning. Very little bread, but masses of fruit. A great deal of brisk walking. I walk an average of 15,000 steps per day. And, although a lot of research seems to show that a single glass of red wine in the evening would be beneficial, I’m teetotal.
Maybe I’ll give drinking one more chance. But not soon.
Also, I quit smoking and I don’t take drugs. I used to do these things when I was younger, when my brain and body needed them less; now that my withering and corrupted tissues cry out for these stimulants, I can’t have them. There’s a book next to my bed: Gary Null’s Power Aging. I borrowed it from my father. He’s eighty, and there’s not much he can do. But me – I can do something. Sure, I’m ageing. But what sort of ageing am I doing?
Science tells me that if I avoid bad things, and do good things – and if I’m not one of the 10 or so per cent who get hit by something nasty in middle age – I can be healthy, in a physical sense, for quite a while.
Psychologically I’m not so sure.
If you want to know the truth, I’m not feeling good right now. I’m tired and depleted, declining and falling, listless, indecisive. I feel like a footballer in his sad final season – playing through pain. I feel like the Dennis Quaid character in Any Given Sunday, one of Oliver Stone’s several movies about male inadequacy. Quaid is the ageing quarterback – injured, slow, worried about the younger guy who might take his place, more worried still about the unknowable void that is just beginning to come into view. The first time you see it, the first time you see the void, it looks really close, like a full moon on a warm summer night; you just turn a corner and there it is. You can almost touch it.
I let go of my sitting position and then – boof! – I’m back down on the mattress, looking up at the stippled paint on the ceiling, which depresses me.
I’m forty-seven. I didn’t want to say that. I wanted to wait a while before I said that. In fact, I have an urge to say something else: I don’t feel forty-seven. But this is not strictly true, is it.
I feel forty-seven physically, and I feel forty-seven mentally.
What else is there?
Anyway, four years ago, when I was single, I felt like a superannuated teenager, and now I feel like a divorced, middle-aged dad living in an office. It’s all happened so fast. You spend the first half of your life learning how to make things move quickly, and you succeed, and then you wake up in the middle of your life and you feel like Rip Van Winkle.
In the Pink Floyd song “Time,” Roger Waters – I think it’s him – sings about letting your life slip, as if you’ve missed the starting gun. When I first heard those lines, at the age of sixteen, I thought: I’ll never make that mistake. I’ll never miss the starting gun. I’ll hear it, loud and clear. Bang! How sad and pathetic, to miss the starting gun.
Whenever I think of this, I remember a teenage English lesson. We were studying a poem by Philip Larkin about a sad old man – autobiographical, I suppose, in that Larkin always seemed to be a sad old man, even when he was quite young. The teacher asked us to sum up our feelings about the man in the poem, and one boy wrote that the man was “hanging on in quiet desperation,” quoting the Floyd song. And the teacher said, “What a brilliant line – you’ve captured it exactly!” And we all laughed inwardly, thinking we’d somehow hoodwinked him, because everybody knew that Pink Floyd was the opposite of Philip Larkin – Floyd being for young people and Larkin being for sad old people.
Later in that same lesson, we looked at another Larkin poem about a man who throws an apple core at a wastepaper basket and misses, and then realises that he was always destined to miss, even before he started eating the apple.
I thought: I’ll never feel like that.
Now, if anybody put me on the spot, I’d say it was my favourite poem.
So when I say I feel forty-seven physically, and also mentally, but in some other, elusive way I don’t feel forty-seven, I suppose I mean that I’ve only just started feeling anything like my age; nearly all my memories seem to be those of a young man. I’ve only just crossed the border. Until very, very recently I did not feel like the man in the poem. And now, when I look at my former self, I can see that former self clearly out of the corner of my eye. But when I try to get a better perspective, the image blurs.
Occludes, I think is the word – a word I feel able to use with less embarrassment now that I have reached this great age.
I’m meeting a lot of estate agents right now, and I’ve become familiar with the way they look at me when I talk about needing a garden and a room for my son, who will be living with me at the weekends. I have, in fact, just made a low offer on a house that would be ideal. I’m terrified of getting caught at the top of the market, a real possibility. The market looks poised to drop right now. In fact, I’m in danger of being skewered in the worst possible way, because while lenders react fast to a jittery market, prices take longer to fall. So I might end up paying sky-high interest on a falling asset. On the other hand, I’m terrified of missing out on the house.
That aside, what I was talking about was the look estate agents give me. It’s that divorce-nod, that slight wince, meaning “I understand your pain.” It’s not a bad look. It’s sympathetic.
I’m at a certain stage in life, it says.
It happens to most guys.
More than half of guys.
So I’m not alone.
If I see a film these days, or read a book, I always identify with the divorced guy. Sitting up again, on my “sitting bones,” as my Pilates teacher calls them –“right up on the sitting bones, William!” – I think of a film, not even a very good film, with, I think, Billy Crystal and Paul Reiser as divorced guys, meeting in a car park, with a shopping mall or fast food area in the background, and they were smiling; I think they were smiling.
For lots of guys, this – smiling through the tears, with other divorced guys, in car parks – is what middle age is. This is it. This is life. It’s normal to be falling apart among hatchbacks and station wagons. It’s normal to be alone. People want to be alone these days. Or, rather, they want to be together, but they can’t bear the compromises involved. For instance, I keep reading about the death throes of monogamy. And it’s not just monogamy – it’s the whole thing.
The death of monogamy is part of a pattern, a network all across our culture.
Money, work, love, education, sport, happiness – they’re all getting old.
This is what I’m thinking about, as I wake up on a mattress in my office, which is my home, because my relationship has broken up.
It’s not just me is what I’m thinking.
But maybe it is. Maybe it is just me.
One of the...
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Book Description Bond Street Books, 2009. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. First. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0385664559