Reading Carlos Santana's entertaining autobiography, I realise now where it all went wrong. And when. It was a long, long time ago.
At my advanced time of life, I suppose you start to look back on your life and think, What have I done with my allotted time? In my case, it's a matter of rather too much of this and not enough of that. I've lived my life like a bumble bee, really, flitting from one flower that looks interesting to another that looks equally interesting.
The only thing that I can say in my defence is that at least it kept me out of the civil service for any longer than the 15 years in which I served Her Majesty's ministers. Time enough, and rather a shame that they were probably the best years of my life. Still, if I'd gone on to be a lifer, then I really would be in trouble now. Looking back on a life of files and folders stacked on my irredeemably untidy desk. How awful. I suppose the only succour would have been a rip-roaring send-off, a gold tray and an index-linked pension with which I could have enjoyed the fraction of life that's still hopefully left to me.
I wonder how my brother feels. Apart from a spell as a waiter – the infamous epoch when he would keep his tips in a platform shoe that didn't fit him – he's been a plumber all his life. There's nothing at all wrong with being a plumber; they probably serve a far more useful function to society than I do as a well-read dilettante (or good-for-nothing misfit, if I'm being brutally honest). Even though his body is beginning to give up on him now and even though his mortgage was paid off many moons ago and financially he doesn't really have to, he still pushes himself hard. He tells me it's because he's just a guy who can't say no and there are too many clients out there who need him, but I suspect that he doesn't want to stop and look back at a life spent soldering pipes and installing bathrooms. He has measured out his life in grout and ceramic tiles and the knowledge must be somewhat unsettling.
For all that they fear our father's death and a time when they cease to be, in their own eyes, 'useful', my sisters are all right because they both fulfilled a worthy biological function: giving birth to a pair of sons. I'm all for childlessness in this asphyxiated over-populated world, but you can't say fairer than enjoying the fruits of their offspring's loins and making the grade from motherhood to grandmother-hood. Life in the 'hood. Being a grandparent must be a handsome compensation for old age.
I remember all my grandparents with huge affection, but obviously feel special affinity now for my two grandfathers. Both were quiet, seemingly simple men of few words. They spent their working lives in offices. My maternal granddad was an auditor for the civil service who travelled around to check that HM's books had not been cooked. My paternal granddad was a company secretary. I haven't a clue what he did, but remember that he used to travel by train to Waterloo every day once they'd moved to the commuter belt. Both of them would surely have looked back on their working lives as time consumed with files and folders. I doubt, though, whether it would have filled them with the horror I would feel. Times were different then, expectations were more humdrum and neither of them suffered in the slightest from any kind of artistic yearning – although who knows? My maternal grandfather played the piano (rather woodenly) and my paternal grandfather sketched on occasions – but surely just to keep my artistic grandmother company.
Both were very good at pottering in their retirement. Inveterate potters or potterers, if such a word exists. Which brings me back to Carlos... For all his time as a disciple of Sri Chimnoy, the meaning of his life was really quite simple. He recognised in his late teens that he had to stop messing about and dedicate himself to one thing and one thing only. The guitar. He decided that he had to put his body and soul into it or he would get nowhere. Pottering wasn't for that hombre. And that's where I went wrong. Too many interests, too many distractions, too little self-belief, not enough output.
When I listen to Carlos Santana take a guitar solo, I hear the result of that dedication. I hear what he calls the universal tone. That sense of a transcendent spirit gives me goose bumps (or the 'chicken skin' that he describes when listening to John Coltrane and other musical masters). It's rather too late to reach that kind of astral plane now. I know that the novelist Angus Wilson blossomed late in life – and I believe he might have been a civil servant – but such exemplars are few and far between.
No, it's decision time – and do I not like decisions. I have to decide whether to go on striving or to accept that I missed the boat and just give in to my innate capacity for pottering. I have to say, it's very tempting. But will I allow myself to potter? If I give up any ambition to be a serious writer or a late-blooming radio DJ, I can't see myself as someone happy enough – like my grandfathers were – to spend his time either in an armchair or in the garden. Perhaps, like the actor James Cromwell, I should become a senior environmental activist. But then again, no. Insufficient courage allied to a conviction that it's a lost cause.
Of course, any thought of pottering presupposes some kind of government subsidy. My application for French support is turning into a long-running saga without much prospect of resolution – rather like too many TV dramas that don't know when to stop, or the Jarndyce v Jarndyce legal stalemate in Bleak House. A new acronym has clambered out of the dense administrative woodwork. CICAS seems to be an organisation that comes under the umbrella of AGIRC et ARRCO. Please don't even ask. Suffice to say that they have sent me, not once but twice, an intimidating form – printed of course on one side of the paper only – to fill in. I was so intimidated by its initial appearance that I phoned up and made an appointment to see someone. They offered me a day next week. Then my mobile phone went off the other day and I spoke with someone intent on getting me to cancel the appointment. I said that I didn't quite understand what he was trying to tell me, whereupon he attempted to speak to me in English much poorer than my French. In the end, after many crossed wires, it transpired that I shouldn't have been sent this document because it was spewed out automatically by their computer. Because I was never truly salaried in France (despite the special agreement for writers), would I please return part of the form with big French words to this effect, plus signature and date?
I was only too happy to oblige. But then, a few days later, another copy of the monstrous document arrived, followed a few days after that by a letter acknowledging the cancellation of my appointment and a further document in a separate envelope – again printed on one side of the paper only – asking me to forward all kinds of documentary proof about my work situation. Then, soon after an e-mail to remind me of the appointment, another letter arrived to say that they couldn't continue with my demand because I was never salaried. Oh, the waste, the profligacy! It strikes me as a metaphor for the way our Great Global Leaders go about trying to reach some kind of decision about how to deal with factors that are anyway long beyond any retroactive concerted action.
Words fail me. So will you excuse me if I go outside and watch the bumble bees at work in our lavender bushes? The 21st June has just passed us by and we are now on a downward trajectory. It might brighten my mood if I study these endangered velvety little creatures busily going about their pre-destined toil, oblivious to the two-legged pottering giant, regarding at close quarters the way they move so contentedly from one flower to the next.