I happen to live on a side street, which has bollards half-way along, prohibiting through traffic. Due to the bollards, we get very few cars turning into, and out of, the street. As a result, on warm summer evenings – like those we’ve been having in the recent heat wave – I can look out onto my street and see a parade of (mainly young) pedestrians, strolling around and lazing in the sun. It was one such evening, a few days ago, that inspired the poem “Old Man”.
Coincidentally, I’d been reading a fascinating book – “The Death of Sigmund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism” by Mark Edmundson – which had mentioned the story of Oedipus’ Riddle. When I came to write “Old Man”, I realised I could use an image from Oedipus’ Riddle to express exactly what I was trying to convey.
For anyone not acquainted with it, Oedipus’ Riddle goes as follows: What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? If you interpret morning, noon and night as metaphors for the times in a person’s life, then the answer is: A man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and walks with a cane in old age.
The heat wave continues; another evening, on my street.
Kids playing, girls displaying, exulting in the heat.
But sun so intense, constant, is not kind
to the elderly, the infirm of body or mind.
In the midst of this parade, this array of lissom limbs,
comes a reminder; symbol of more sombre things.
A strange figure, straight out of Sophocles’ pages.
Oedipus’ riddle; its comment on man’s ages.
Stooped, raddled; so stricken, no longer free.
Deviation from the riddle: walks on four legs, not three.
Hobbling, so slowly. Gazing straight ahead.
Ignored by all; beyond their ken. Good as dead.
He’s a neighbour, I’ve seen, ageing, through the years.
Now, he’s changed utterly, re-charging all my fears.
Stark contrast with his former self; so sad to see.
He’s only ten years – if that! – older than me.
I want to protest: I won’t end up like that.
I won’t let old age use me as a doormat!
An inner voice says: “Listen. That sounds really lame.
Why lie to yourself? You know that you’re just the same.
You can’t prevent it; you know you’ll go the same way.
Ageing, senses failing, decaying, day by day.
Fantasising, dreaming, wishing you were re-born.
Grudgingly accepting the gift of each new morn.
Re-living, re-inventing “golden days” of your youth . . .”
I shudder; recognise the inner voice of truth.
Back on the street; the old man no longer there,
denizens continue their lives, without a care.
An ice-cream van arrives. Young couples preen and laze,
golden limbs enveloped in a shimmering haze.
Young boys play football, giggle and joke.
Appetising aromas of barbecue smoke . . .