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Senior Moment

Fri 18th May 2012

This month (May 2012), I turn 65. If you know your musicals, my naming Eliza Doolittle Day as the date in question will give you the day that this event takes place. If indeed it is An Event.

Certain birthdays do have a resonance and a number of implications in our culture as well as in our body of English law. The very day of one’s birth, of course, goes on resounding throughout one’s life. One’s 13th birthday marks the start of those difficult, momentous teenage years. A number of changes in one’s legal status kick in on one’s 16th birthday and more at 17, the two most significant of the latter being the eligibility for a driving licence and the freedom to give blood.

In my day, you formally became an adult at 21 and there was a great fuss about reaching that milestone. “Key of the door” was the cant phrase and frequently the greetings card icon that went with turning 21, signifying the freedom to come and go like an adult. The general election of 1966 was the last at which 21 was the qualifying age to cast a vote and my generation missed out. Since then most of the rights that we could not enjoy until 21 have been granted on the 18th birthday which hence became “the new 21”.

There are just three joys still denied to those younger than 21: the rights to supervise a learner driver, to drive a bus and to adopt a child. Everything else applies at 16 or 18.

After that, “significant” birthdays are really only made so by their heralding new decades in one’s tally, the most sonorous, I suppose, being 30 and 50. For women 60 and for men 65 have traditionally marked one’s formal induction into the status of Old Age Pensioner but these transitions are losing their power, much as 21 lost its relevance, because the age at which the pension kicks in is to change. After 65, every five years carry the threat of being celebrated as another earnest of staying alive, until the Queen adds her greeting when one makes 100 (I don’t imagine that, if I become a centenarian, it will be the present monarch from whom I hear, determined to stay on the throne though she evidently is).

If you manage to survive to your late 90s, I imagine that a primitive desire to achieve “the ton” must kick in, if you haven’t completely lost your marbles by then. The great songwriter Eubie Blake, celebrating his centenary in 1983, declared “if I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself”. He died five days later and maybe he knew it was coming because it then emerged that he was in reality only – ha! only – 96.

I don’t obsess about my age. One may as well accept that, from the moment of birth to the moment of death, one is perpetually the oldest one has ever been. Where’s the use in getting to 45 and wishing you were 35 again when, ten years on, you’ll just wish you were still 45? Better to live the present to the full, whatever the number of rings through one’s core. The only time my age really hit me was when I turned 33 and I remember reflecting to myself: “I never thought about being this old”. The killing of John Lennon in December of that year felt deeply like a symbol of the end of my generation’s youth.

As presenting a moving target seems a good philosophy in most of life’s endeavours, so avoiding a sense of being hemmed into a particular age group feels like a smart way of fending off the curse of age – any age. I’m pretty incompetent, in any case, at accurately guessing people’s ages. The passing of the years leaves its mark in so many varied ways. Superficially at least, some people seem to alter hardly at all over long periods. Others metamorphose into someone who appears to be wholly other. The rock star Jack Bruce, for instance, bears no discernible trace of his 28 year-old self who was world-famous as part of Cream and yet he remains a remarkably spruce-looking 68, certainly not the Falstaffian ruin that the yet unmistakeable 70 year-old David Crosby has become.

An old friend told us recently of how she renewed acquaintance with someone she had not seen for 40-some years. He became uncomfortable at the way she was gazing at him and elicited from her this unguarded explanation: “I’m trying to find the face I remember”. The rest of their reunion was understandably marked by a certain froideur.

Anxious not to acquire, with Congreve’s Lady Wishfort, a “face like an old, peel’d wall”, increasing numbers of both men and women go in for cosmetic surgery and other drastic interferences with nature.This is always and without exception a mistake. Plastic surgery and botox turn one’s face into a more or less immobile mask and rob it of character, which is predominantly the very quality that made it attractive in the first place. In any case, attempting to pass off one’s face or one’s figure as that of a younger person is only ever a partial denial of the years. There are so many other clues to one’s true age: one’s hands, one’s eyes, one’s skin, one’s bearing, one’s walk and – perhaps the greatest giveaway and the most difficult to rejuvenate – one’s attitudes.

To appear younger is widely thought to be the next best thing to actually being younger. It’s a myth. I write as one who, for years, has routinely been taken to be younger than he is. I suppose my features have not changed all that much. I have kept my hair, the greyness of which is only really apparent under certain light. Like almost everyone except the ill, I weigh rather more than I did at 17 but I could not be termed, I think, in any way obese. I like to say that, though Mark Lawson is fifteen years my junior, he looks fifteen years older than I do.

But if ever someone rather ruefully remarks this Peter-Pan-ishness, I swiftly head it off at the pass. There is a down side too. Whereas I might be said to be a 64 year-old who is in fairly good shape, I am instead inclined to be taken for a 50-something who has let himself go. You decide which is preferable.

Not that everyone has found me so young-looking. One time I was striding up the stairway at the National Theatre. I could hear a woman calling “Michael, Michael” behind me but knew of no reason to turn. However, the calls got nearer and more urgent and I stopped and let her catch up whereupon she presented herself, rather flustered, and said: “Michael!” But already, before I could disabuse her, a pleat of doubt had crossed her face. “It is Michael Frayn, isn’t it?”

Now, Mr Frayn’s resemblance to me extends no further than our both being fair and bespectacled. He is at least half-a-foot taller than me. And – and here I found my pursuer losing my sympathy – he is not only balding but fourteen years (fourteen years!) older than me. And – I hope he will forgive – he rather looks it. Still, Mr Frayn is both an admirable writer and an admirable man. Rather more credibly, I fear, I have more than once been mistaken for the voice-over actor Enn Reitel, not a resemblance I would eagerly seek, even though he is a few years younger than me.

The changes that the years bring are a matter of endless fascination and not a little emotion, the main reason (I am sure) why I am so looking forward to 56 Up next Monday. Initiated by Denis Forman’s Granada Television back in the days when that ITV company had the programme-makers to challenge the BBC’s creative and intellectual clout, 7 Up gathered a group of seven year-olds chosen primarily in the expectation that the class differences between them would prove to be unassailable – a very ‘60s preoccupation. Reuniting most of them at seven-year intervals ever since has been one of British television’s most potent and stimulating projects, generating spin-off versions in several other countries that do not seem to have lasted the course (or at least are no longer shown in Britain).

It will be instructive to discover whether the Granada guinea-pigs have found traversing their 50s as revealing as I did. The element that I had not anticipated was the extent to which one became so aware of the ageing process. Any kind of exertion, even the mildest, began to take considerably longer to get over than hitherto: while I could still run for a bus – and, up to a point, can still do so – it would take the whole bus journey to recover. What’s more, I found myself making the identical grunting and wheezing noises to accompany almost any physical action that my father used to emit in his latter years. Perhaps this is the most disheartening aspect of being a quinquagenarian: one becomes one’s parents.

In one’s 60s,I have learned, the evidence of physical deterioration that is surely going to preoccupy and even overwhelm one in old age begins to define itself (unless, of course, one has had the misfortune that such conditions made their presence felt rather earlier). The heft of the phrase “one’s declining years” begins to be rather more apparent.

And the view of society adds to this awareness. If I get myself knocked down by a car or arrested for a drunken affray in the street, the local newspaper will doubtless now describe me as “an elderly man”. I have no friends or acquaintances under 80 whom I think of as remotely “elderly” but the language has settled on its distinctions. Even more bizarrely, people probably need to be at least 45 before the demeaning adjective “ageing” – and it is meant to be demeaning – is used of them. Show me someone who isn’t ageing and I’ll show you a corpse. You may as well make “alive” a term of scorn.

The OED locates the late ‘60s as the time when the term “ageism” first appeared; it is now certainly part of everyone’s everyday vocabulary. Doubtless, the aggressive self-confidence and presumption of my generation, the baby boomers, has reinforced the notion that to be past one’s youth is not in some mysterious way a sin or failure or disability. Nevertheless, there is clearly an unexpressed prejudice against older workers in the employment market, if only because employers believe that they can get away with offering lower rates of pay to youngsters.

When it comes down to it, though, every phase of life has its pluses and its minuses and the clichés about those phases remain potent: “young and foolish”, “to be young was very heaven”, “youth is wasted on the young”, “Youth is full of pleasance,/Age is full of care”, “older and wiser”, “anecdotage”, “the lean and slipper’d Pantaloon”. And, curiously enough, the most banal of such saws may be the most penetratingly pertinent of them all: you’re as old as you feel.

(Photo courtesy of Barbra Flinder)
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