THE ILLUSION OF AGE
It is a comical fact that almost everyone over the age of 30, starts to moan about putting on the years, and growing old. I remember my brother Bryce being most concerned at turning 40 in 1984, as if it was the start of a lifetime’s creeping senility. In fairness to him, and me being 33 at the time, I thought yes that is bloody old, and he does right to be depressed. Now that I am 64, 40 seems like a stripling’s second childhood, as well as a first one, the second childhood representing the cloud cuckoo land of being such a carefree 4 decades old adolescent. Not that long ago, 40 was classed as decidedly middle-aged, whereas these days you are not regarded as middle-aged till you are at least 60, if that. I can witness it all well enough in the port here in Kythnos. In late June it is often full of foreign yachties, and many of them are couples who are patently 70-plus. They hold hands tenderly as they wander the length of the harbour, just as if they were 15 each. In fact they hold hands a damn sight more than any 15, 25 or 35 year-old couples. I imagine their love lives to be rampant, avant-garde and noisy, rather than restrained and decorous, the reason being they wouldn’t cling to each other’s mitts in public as addictively as they do, unless there were some crackling electrostatic tension between the sheets.
My wife Annie had a smart rejoinder to anyone complaining about putting on the years. She had primary breast cancer in 1998, and then, seemingly in the clear, was sadly diagnosed with secondaries in the bones and liver 10 years later. She would say matter of fact to the moaners, that they should be glad they were adding another year on, as some people didn’t have that enviable luxury. It wasn’t that she was feeling sorry for herself, as much as noting with indignation that some people in perfect health, weren’t even grateful for that miraculous gift. Had she had their endless lifespan to look forward to, she would probably have explored every last possibility of her specialism of Organisational Transactional Analysis and written the authoritative books to match.
I turn 65 in October, which is pension age, and which even now seems monstrously old. I know these days they pay your pension direct into your account, so you don’t have to stand in the Post Office alongside the unemployed, to reveal your appalling status. I know also upstanding respectable types like Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton are all well past 65, and it is astonishing to reflect that Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones born 1936, is now 79. But the problem is the term ‘pensioner’ still lingers with a whiff of cheap tea (Pensioner’s Tips it used to be called at 1/2d a quarter pound in the Coop…and I don’t even drink bloody tea, unless it’s the best Assam or Broken Orange Pekoe) together with the Brampton, North Cumbrian pub that used to offer a ‘Pensioner’s Special Lunch’ of Fish and Chips and Cup of Tea for only £5.50. I love their bloody nerve, don’t you? There are plentiful bargain pubs in Workington and Cockermouth down west, where anyone, pensioner or not, can get fish and chips for either £2.99 or £3.99, the logic being that they will spend another £5 minimum on drinks, so it’s an amiable win-win for all. Doubtless the North Cumbrian pub thought that dealing with senile dupes all happily reft of brain cells, you could persuade them that cheery sleight-of-hand extortion was a bargain.
As for age and existential relativism, the more I think about it the more it is a joke. The accepted parameters have all been shifted so drastically in the last 30 years, it is like a variation on one of Nobel winner Saramago’s remarkable parables, in which people manifestly age, but never get sick, and never die. The real life variation is that most of the folk I know, including close friends and family, appear not to age at all, and if any of them do fall sick, it seems freakish and completely out of character. Let me illustrate with my own extended family, starting with my 3 siblings. I am the youngest of 4 brothers, and the others are 70, 73 and 75 respectively. To me, and this is not biased flattery, they look middle-aged rather than old, they all have more hair that is less grey than mine (you try being a writer of comic extravaganzas, some of them half in Cumbrian dialect, and possibly your teeth and your brains will fall out too), and all of them are still working very hard, in the main because they need the income. The 70 year-old is still self-employed as a financial consultant working in 3 alliterative venues: Cumbria, Cambridgeshire and Crete, and guess which one is his favourite (as he puts it, in Crete you can walk around the garden in your underwear on Christmas Day, exactly like you can in good old Kythnos, I reply). The 73 year-old is a retired prof of Chemistry in Australia, who is still teaching and supervising and examining all over the globe, to the extent I don’t think anyone has noticed he is retired. The 75 year-old is a retired physicist who spends a lot of time doing complex and artistic house renovation.
Between them they have provided me with 7 very fine nephews and nieces, who by now are nearly all in their 40s. This is a fact which truly amazes me, as mentally I envision them as they were aged 6, between the limits of 1978 and 1981, when I was 27 and 30 respectively, and they all very accurately, saw me as their youngest and daftest uncle. Two are in Australia aged 43 and 40, three of them are in Cumbria aged 46, 42 and almost 40, and one in London is also aged 40. Whenever I see them in the flesh it is not only a delight, but instead of looking 6 as they do in my mind’s eye, they all look 25, and that includes the two with young families, which as you know is supposed to age people more than playing with the occult or using heavy drugs. On that scale my daughter Ione who was 26 yesterday, looks about 17 to me, whenever we meet up, and has in fact been looking 17 since she was 21, and I expect her to still be looking that age until she is about 35. She has a single cousin about her own age, because of one brother’s second marriage, and she, brainbox and polyglot that she is, succeeds in looking a permanent 15.
I hope you can see the point I’m getting at. What matters is not crass and uninformative chronological age, but apparent age, and the latter, be assured, cannot be won by costly cosmetic surgery, but has to come from the animate spirit within. On paper my brothers are all ‘active pensioners’, to use that risible shorthand, but what the hell does that mean when the Australian one is a world expert in his Inorganic Chemistry field, and what does it signify whether he is 73, 83 or 103 when he practises his world expertise? Meanwhile at the other end of the scale, I have only 2 elderly relatives left on my mother’s side, an uncle turning 87 in September and an aunty turning 97 in November. My very old aunty was lugging heavy bin bags down for the dustmen from her upstairs Workington flat, until she packed it in as a chit of 90. Their spouses died aged 85 and 86 respectively, and all four of them hadn’t smoked since their early 20s. Both my own folks died young of cancer, my mother at 74 and my father at 76. They both smoked all their lives, though the causation might be more complex than that. That said, I’m sure that we can delete the variable of diet, as all 6 of them, parents, uncles and aunts, more or less ate/eat the identical things all the time, with lots of red meat and lots of grilled breakfasts, and not a lot in terms of fresh fruit and vegetables.
My parents rarely touched alcohol and certainly never red wine, and perhaps in different circumstances they should have taken this infallible tonic, if not indispensable elixir. Apropos which, I once asked my own UK doctor, if drinking half a bottle of red wine every night as I did, was perhaps excessive and injurious. He laughed at what he took to be my little joke, and seriously suggested I should perhaps endeavour to drink a bit more.