Be with people who let you simply be

Once, quite a few years ago when I was much younger, on a Saturday afternoon in summer, while walking from one place to another to do something or other, I stopped beside the road to watch a group of old people playing bowls. It was a lovely bright scene: the white clothes on the flat green, the smart white hats with crisp brims, the soft wooden click of the bowls, the muted cries of anguish or pleasure. In their slow movements and coalescings and drifting from one side of the green to the other, it looked like the scene in a tidal pool or the lee-side of a reef. There was a slow, peaceful dance, all the elements in an inscrutable harmony. In that scene, somehow, for reasons I couldn’t really understand, I saw signs of something I wanted. I decided on the spot that I would join the club and learn to play bowls.

I went so far as to call up the club and ask about membership and was briefed on procedure and applications and fees and dress codes and league matches and suchlike, and somewhere in the process I felt my enthusiasm wane. It suddenly seemed a terrible chore, and of all the many things I am looking for in life, a chore is not among them, so I excavated reasons and excuses for not going through with it. But I have often wondered: what was it that first attracted me to that scene, and what was it that made me pull back?

Some years later, in a small town in Provence, I brushed up against it again. Waiting for a possibly non-existent bus from St Paul-de-Vence, not far from Roger Moore’s house where I’d walked in the yellow sunshine in a kind of embarrassing pilgrimage, I watched several old French gents play petanque on a sandy square. Two of them wore cravats and one of them sipped from a glass of rosé and another had thunderous brows and a nose like an eagle and sat often on a bench and leaned his chin broodingly on a cane. The sun was setting and cast a pink glow around them all. They didn’t speak much but I imagined this same group of gents meeting every weekend for the last fifty years, and I wondered if there had been others and if they had already started dying away. I often think about those French gents, usually on Saturday afternoons when I am watching sport alone on my sofa, dreading some social engagement later, and something nameless nags at me.

It was only this week that I realized what was calling me, and also what was pushing me away. It was the perfect coincidence: I was sitting in the café where I sometimes spend an afternoon, and I was reading Daniel Klein’s Travels With Epicurus, in which Klein – a man in his mid-70s – travels to the Greek island of Hydra with his favourite books of philosophy to work out for himself an idea of what might constitute a good old age.

He was just suggesting that one of the pleasures of age – the contemplative old age that if we’re lucky comes before the horror of old old age – is the rediscovery of play. We play when we are children: we do things with no agenda but the simple self-contained pleasure of doing them. But when we’re adults we make our recreation double up: it has to have some sort of purpose, it can’t just be a waste of time. We’re working on business contacts, or maintaining old friendships, or improving our handicap, or improving ourselves, or staying fit, or losing weight, or trying to relax. In old age we can let go of that doubling up: we can simply play again, and playing is a state beautifully close to simply being.

And as I was reading that, I looked up from my book at a scene almost identical to the one he was describing. There’s a table at the café that each day is occupied by a group of older men. They walk there from their homes and pluck wild flowers or sage or thyme along the way and tuck them behind their ears and take them out and sniff at them thoughtfully from time to time. None of them is there every day, and no one is there all the time, but some one is always there, except when they aren’t. Sometimes there’ll be games of backgammon, other times cards. Someone will read the newspaper and offer his commentary for whoever wants to listen. There’ll be conversations about this and that that go until they’re finished, or that drift off while they stare out to sea or enjoy the sunset, and then gently pick back up again. No one needs to talk, no one needs to do anything. No one has to contribute or account for themselves or ever be “on”. Nothing is asked of anyone but the simple, non-instrumental pleasure of their companionship. Simply being is all anyone asks of anyone.

That’s what I longed for, that afternoon many years ago when I saw the old people playing bowls, and that’s what my heart understood wasn’t truly on offer. The people on my island live a very long time, and I’m starting to see why.

Times, 3 May 2018