"A Song At Sixty", or, "It's Just Coming Up To Tempus Fugit"
"When the skin upon your hands and face
Begins at last to wrinkle,
And when it takes you ages
Just to do a little tinkle,
And when the gentle summer breezes
Start to feel so cold,
Then, my friend, you're near the end,
The sad truth must be told:
OK, so how the hell did I get to this?
Well, I suppose the most straightforward answer is that I have succeeded for sixty years in the ancient martial art of 'No Dai Ying'; although - as regular readers down the years may attest - it was a close-run thing at times.
I remember saying to a school friend when I was about ten years old - and with the knowledge of my heart problem weighing somewhat on my thoughts - that I doubted that I would live to sixty. He was quite shocked that I should say such a thing at such an age, but I think I was just trying to be melodramatic.
(It did, however, foreshadow a hopeless inability to predict events accurately which was to feature so strongly in my adult life; like with the election forecasts I've given here over the last fifteen years or so).
But sixty? It seems unreal. I mean, when I were a lad, a man of sixty was old (I made an exception for my own father, who was fifty-one when I came along). A man of seventy was a comparative rarity, bearing in mind that ours was an area dominated by heavy industry - coal and steel - for all their their working lifetimes.
(The women, of course, seemed to go on forever, doubtless the result of a life enriched by regular calisthenic mangling and 'making ends meet'; the reason that Terry Pratchett's Lancre witches resonate so strongly with me is that there were women like Gytha Ogg and Esme Weatherwax on the other side of every second garden fence or hedge on our estate when I was growing up. The same applies to Norman Evans' character Fanny (her surname varied from 'Fairbrother' to 'Lawton' depending on the occasion), forever engaging with her neighbour over the garden wall, as in this classic sketch).
It's just that sixty years sounds like a long time, and yet I have easy access to memories and feelings from nearly all of it, and it's discombobulating in the extreme for me to think of something I clearly remember doing or experiencing in, say, 1969 and then realise with a jolt that that is as far away from me in time now as that moment was from the Battle of the Somme.
Perhaps the topology of age is different, in that any one part may be accessible retrospectively from any one other; or perhaps it's a bit like an old-style mechanical hard drive in that respect.
(Alan Coren touches on all this in his superb and thought-provoking piece "Good God, That's Never The Time, Is It?" from 1973 - itself nearly a half century gone now - when he describes similar shocks of recognition on turning thirty-five).
Either way, just as I am a product of all that I have done and been, so also are my thoughts a product of all that I can remember experiencing. Having a retentive memory - at least, until comparatively recent times - means that I can not only clearly remember various quotidian incidents of my life (especially the embarrassing ones), I can see the locations of them as clearly as if I had last observed them a mere week or two previously. This is a source of some melancholy, not merely through recognition of the passage of time since, but in many cases the sight in my mind's eye of people who have long since departed this world (or at least from my tiny part of it), or of places which have been permanently and irrevocably changed or even erased from the landscape. I will never, can never see them again, and this induces a sense of unease so deep as to throw me off balance for hours or days at a time (which is the main reason I've never been back to my alma mater, for instance; too many ghosts, my own probably amongst them, and I have no particular desire to meet him again anyway, thankyousoverymuch).
I try not to look in the mirror very often, as there is seldom anything to be seen which stands to my advantage. But when I do now, I find myself thinking, "But you don't look sixty!". But then I check myself and think, "Don't you just mean that you don't look how you imagined sixty would look?". And it's true: this is not how I thought it would be. Yes, the hair is now grey, but I still have it; the wrinkles - despite what I claimed in the verse at the beginning of this rumination - haven't really taken up residence yet; the tendency to look considerably younger than I actually am - a huge encumbrance when I was trying to get served in pubs in my youth, to the point where I had to carry my birth certificate around with me until I was about twenty-one - now shows its advantages, not least in that when I tell people how old I am, they tend to respond with that expression of surprise which is quite life-affirming to the recipient. As my long-time friend, former colleague and almost exact contemporary Carl stated when we were discussing this whole question a few years ago, I have difficulty thinking of myself as being much older than, say, twenty-three. And I have to say that, so far at least, being sixty doesn't feel in any way different from being, say, fifty-nine.
But then again, what for many would be an eminently noticeable decline into dissolution has been more of a gentle gradient to me rather than a precipice due to the fact that I have been used to physical decrepitude from an early age; I mean, the congenital heart defect, the chronic sinusitis, the neglected teeth, the bedevilling short-sightedness, my pancreas logging off in 1991 (with its own attendant annoyances and inconveniences) and the mercifully mild episodes of clinical depression which have joined the party in the last decade or so; all of these have combined to ensure that I can never miss rude health as my health was never anything more than somewhat impolite in the first place. This isn't a claim for any fortitude on my part; it's simply the way things have always been, and being now Decrepit By Decree will mean merely a slow continuation of the same tendencies as heretofore. Or at least nothing more than a marginal speeding-up of the process.
One thing that I am not doing this time in contrast to what I did at an earlier significant fingerpost on the way to oblivion is reflecting on what might have been. I really don't see the point; if a man has the face he deserves by the age of fifty, he has the fate he deserves at the next significant mark beyond that, and there's no point in moping about it because there is nothing which can be done to change that state. The Guardian may have regular pieces by smug middle-class people telling the world how they became tightrope walkers at seventy-five or published their first novel at eighty, but it scarcely seems worth such an effort to stave off The Great Advancing Inevitable. My biggest achievement nowadays (apart from, as I've said, mere survival) is to tackle the dizzying peak of the chilled food section of Sainsbury's via the notorious South Col.
Which is probably for the best, because I have spent nearly all my life as an observer rather than a participant and such a jolt into mindless 'joining in' would possibly prove fatal. So I shall content myself with continuing to watch.
Of course I am aware that there is an ever-decreasing amount of time left; when I consider that ten years have gone by since my previous whinge on the subject and that there is a significant (though not, I hope, substantial) chance that I will be able to spare You, The Reader™ from the expression of my views on being seventy by virtue of not being there anymore to tell you; when, as I say, I consider that, then I can get a bit pensive. But what will be, will be when it will be, and it's far too late to fret about it now. 'Iidha sha' alqadar.
I rejoice in a small way at now being Officially Old. It will undoubtedly have its blessings: my bus pass turned up yesterday (although I didn't have the cheek to try to use it then), saving me at least £4.60 per week; my 'gold-plated' Civil Service pension and its attendant lump sums should kick in this month; and I may consider taking advantage of the great Quentin Crisp's dictum that - as it is 'near the end of the run', as it were - you can overact appallingly.
I can't classify my state of mind at this point as being one of 'serenity', though; such a thing would not only annoy the hell out of others but sit very irksomely with me. In any case, although there may be, "...good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen" (and Chesterton should have had his poetic licence suspended for the ahistorical nonsense with which he begins that poem; the Roman had left Rye and had strode back from Severn several hundred years before the English were ever invented), too many things both near and far are still happening - and will happen - to militate against such a state of mind. 'Acceptance', perhaps? 'Resignation', even?
As Dafydd Iwan might have put it in his classic song which has received a whole new lease on life of late, forty years on from its composition, "Dw i yma o hyd!".
File under: Me, Yay!