Here comes trouble: from left, Kevin Ireland, Tony Stones and Robin Dudding, up to no good and looking extremely sharp on Queen St, one night in 1955.

“Old age,” writes Kevin Ireland, 86, ahead of tonight’s launch of his latest collection of poems, “is a bastard.”

Some people set about getting old as another goal to achieve, yet another badge to wear on their hats, but for most of the people I know lasting the distance is just something that has happened accidentally. We’ve become elderly without quite knowing how to explain it.

A lot of old friends and acquaintances didn’t make it and in many cases it now seems quite apparent that they didn’t intend to. I look back on some friends’ ends and it seems now as though they actually embraced death. I can remember discussing its possibility very occasionally with friends who’ve lived on well into their eighties, but none of them possess a seriously morbid streak – and I’m sure that has helped sustain us.

The essential thing is simply that we have never congratulated ourselves on being survivors. We certainly do feel fortunate, but in a reverse way to those who win Lotto – for it has never seemed to us that Fate has singled us out for a prize; it has just completely overlooked us, for the time being at least.

But we have also learnt not to make a song and dance about living on, just to thank our lucky stars, and to raise another glass quietly while we can get away with it. I learnt very young, from my maternal grandfather, as he wobbled into his seventies, that “Old age is a bastard.” I’ve never heard it put better in the seventy years that have followed his death, and you only need to repeat it to yourself silently every now and again to know you can cope. It sums it up, wraps it up and disposes of the matter altogether. Finito.

Until coronavirus came along, I used to lunch regularly with long-standing friends, three of whom are well into their eighties and the other is only into his mid-seventies and, of course, instead of talking about parties, scandals, sex, adventures and thrills, we now detail our aches, operations and our ills. But we do so, not in an agony of complaint, but always with a disrespectful and amused concern. All of us have had episodes that have threatened us in some way or another, but a theatrical grumble always helps, then we find we never fail to end up laughing yet again.

I don’t believe people who boast they never moan about advanced age, and they’re always happy. There’s nothing cheerful to realise that your is body turning against you like a traitor – after you’ve spent a lifetime indulging it with treats whenever you had the opportunity and the cash. And what about all those many times when you should have been flogging it to get more work out of every bone and muscle, but instead what happened? You took it off to some beach, out of the goodness of your heart, and let it flop down in the warm sand and enjoy an undeserved loaf while you patiently filled in time reading a book?

Among the over-eighties I know fairly well, Vincent O’Sullivan tells me that he doesn’t always feel on top, yet he turned up to lunch in Auckland recently and was very chipper. Just getting on with it and making the effort seems to help solve half the problem – for sharing your woes with others forces them to wait till you stop so they can impress you with a litany of their far more terrible complaints. It’s almost enough to make you die laughing.

Karl Stead can’t fly off anywhere anymore. He’s been warned of all sorts of appalling things that can happen to him. So he goes for a long swim out to the yellow buoy and back, at Kohimarama, and so far this has provided him with a perfect camouflage for his condition.

In her latest email to my wife, written just a week ago, Fleur Adcock describes reading one of my poems while looking at the moon and eating sourdough toast. That’s also an act to guard against a malign Destiny – a bit elaborate, perhaps, but definitely and wonderfully adequate to get missed off the list for yet another night.

And there’s Bernard Brown, just recovered from massive heart surgery, who makes me laugh out loud every time I read his four-line poem on his wife’s Alfa Romeo car and recalls when he was her alpha Romeo.

And Peter Bland is especially gifted in moving shadows around in his poems so that Destiny gets unsighted and the bad moments just slip by. Poetry is a tricky business and old hands at its subterfuges can get away with anything.

“What’s it like being old?” the grandchildren ask, and I repeat my grandfather’s mantra: “Old age is a bastard.” It has nothing to recommend it, yet my friends and I are glad to be living witnesses to that fact – and still to take pleasure in each other’s company. It’s a kind of cussedness. There are no better supports to your continuing existence greater than that – apart from one other absolutely essential component to your character. In a single word it is: fortitude. Grinning fortitude.

Most of the poems in my latest book were written to or in some way while thinking about friends and what they’ve said.  I first met Maurice Gee 70 years ago – so I’ve owed it to him for ages. It’s a little bit about the comings and goings of our lives, and the latest stage we have to face. But it’s also a sly celebration. And I hope it ends with a grin. That’s how Maurice and I got here.

Poem for Maurice Gee

I don’t know why I haven’t sent you
a poem before, Moss, so here goes, this one’s
for you at last, in hearts, with knobs on.

I remember talking in Te Atatu at times
then Chelsea – or maybe it was somewhere else –
but anyway it’s there forever – as though

it’s set in concrete – and, unforgettably, of course,
we bought two tickets to that bloody awful
bullfight – also a solid fragment

of a recollection long since overlaid
and it must have been in Spain. Then there are
bits of this and that in places where both

of us had background parts as though
we’d happened to be hired as extras for a day.
That’s the kindest trick of faulty memory:

if we can recall our ever-ready whatsoevers
and whatevers with a retrospective grin
things must have turned out right.

And one of the excuses about being
both a reader and a writer is that you can’t
avoid mixing up your words and meanings

with the contrivances of plot. Things took place
between those times I stayed with you
and all the family that sometimes they connect

through pure invention. Perhaps that means
that we could end in walk-on parts
as comic characters in someone else’s fictions.

Shape of the Heart by Kevin Ireland (Nationwide Books, $25) is available from all good booksellers, or directly from the publisher. The book will be launched this evening on the Zoom machine and available to watch on dear old YouTube.

Kevin Ireland is a legend of New Zealand literature as the author of 25 collections of poetry, and as a bon vivant of wonderful stamina and wit.

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