Portrait of the Artist in Middle Age

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Like many men now in their seventies, I have suffered from Sudden Accidental Reflection Syndrome. It can be upsetting. Most men have, until their first exposure to it, lived with the easy and comforting assumption that inwardly they remain about thirty-five, even if they are twice that age. They keep reasonably fit, they don’t smoke or drink too much, or dress their age; all the things their fathers did before them. Day by day they discount the erosions of age hinted at in their shaving mirrors: those, that is, who have not adopted the comforting hedge of a beard. But one fateful day as they advance confidently along the pavement and wait for a lull in the traffic, there comes an awful collision, not physical, but none the less shattering: they cross the road and see advancing towards them an irritatingly undodgeable old fool, and realize this man is their unsuspected, horribly real self reflected in the plate-glass window of a shopfront.

To the novelist Evelyn Waugh, such a moment helped to precipitate a mental breakdown and to inspire his autobiographical novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. It came very early: he was only 50 in 1953, and at the height of his fame as a bestselling and critically acclaimed novelist, but he was also a man who preferred to live in almost Victorian seclusion in his country house with his family.

In that year he celebrated – if that’s the word – Christmas at home. He had been unwell and depressed for some time. Chronic insomnia was only partially alleviated by drugs and alcohol. The tax man and rheumatism plagued him. His memory had begun to play alarming, vividly detailed tricks. But let Waugh’s account, only

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About the contributor

William Palmer is currently finishing a study of twentieth-century alcoholic writers entitled In Love with Hell. He is as paranoiac as the next writer, but not yet to a Pinfoldian extent.

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