|Rumpole of the Bailey, all dressed up for court.|
You know, a couple of years ago, I was feeling depressed about getting older and being middle aged and all that sort of thing and I happened to pick up those books by John Mortimer about Rumpole of the Bailey. Maybe you know the Rumpole character? He's an old British defense lawyer, always complaining, always angry, but always struggling to get his client off and somehow always conveying a kind of interest in the important things in life.
The genius of Mortimer is that he makes you think Rumpole is an appealing guy with a kind of nice life, even though the list of particulars is staggeringly grim. Rumpole -- or so he says -- doesn't like his wife. He likes his kid, but his kid lives a million miles away in America. He's not a very successful lawyer. He is overweight and has health problems. It sounds like the grimmest thing ever.
But it's not. What Rumpole loves is a glass of cheap red wine -- or well, let's say three to four glasses of cheap red wine. He drinks in a pub after work where he often jokes around with his colleagues -- both the ones he likes and the ones he doesn't. He also obviously loves his work, and is proud as a peacock when he pulls out a surprise win. And he has a kind of ... I don't know but a kind of honesty. Rumpole is actually a man with integrity, who says what he thinks and fights for what he thinks is right, usually against forces of inanity, bureaucracy, superficiality, and petty-mean-spiritedness. He doesn't usually win, but so what? He goes and has his cheap red wine and then goes home.
This cheered me enormously. Because I thought Oh yeah, whatever else you got, as long as you got a glass of wine after work with friends and some people to joke around with, that's an OK life all on its own. You don't have to be optimistic, striving, struggling to improve, to live the good life. You just have to find some stuff you enjoy and enjoy it. If what you enjoy isn't really good for you health-wise, well, big deal. You're going to die eventually anyway.
Healthy Living and a Positive Outlook on Life, it turns out, are also overrated. As Susan Jacoby points out in her new book, it's a myth that by healthy living we're somehow guaranteed to have a healthy active time in later years. Lots of people get sick for no reason, and by the time you really get old, odds are excellent you won't be in good shape whatever you do. All the sacrifice? not worth it.
Astonishingly, even the church of A Positive Outlook on Life is crumbling. Actual empirical research showed that the people who live longest aren't the happiest most positive ones; they're the conscientious ones. That's right: worry, and don't be happy. Happy people took risks and died. Worryers made plans and stayed alive.
I was listening to BBC comedy show The News Quiz the other day and the always awesome Sandi Toksvig (she's Danish and a lesbian! With a commanding voice and a dry wit! How cool is that? I love her) said that her father always carried around a copy of a Punch cartoon in which two old guys are sitting around doing nothing in some old-guy-chairs and one says to the other, To think that if we hadn't given up drinking and smoking we'd have missed all this!
Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to go have some wine, waste some time, and do some quality worrying.