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On Ageing – Ten Thoughts About the World Without

December 18, 2015
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The Seven Ages of Man – Justice (Robert Smirke)

What does it mean to feel old? Do you feel old because your joints start creaking and bits don’t work as well as they used to? Do you feel old when you hit 30, 40, 60 or 70? Is feeling old a state of mind, body or both?

There are times when I wake up in the morning feeling very ancient. It’s nothing to do with hangovers – I don’t drink. Some days it might be a lack of sleep. Other days I might be recovering from long-haul travel. But there are also mornings when I leap out of bed full of the joys of spring (which this year seems to have come in December). Off for a nice run through the neighbourhood. Not.

That feeling of being old can hit you at any age. I know someone who is 29, and dreading becoming 30. No matter how much I tell her that decades are artificial milestones of no significance, she doesn’t listen to me. Her reality tells her otherwise.

How often do we feel old because we invent our own criteria for age, or because our culture does so for us?

So this – and the post to follow – is about ageing from the perspective of an English male in his early sixties living in a town close to London. In lots of ways I have it good. As a baby boomer in the UK the cards are stacked in my favour. I’m shamelessly bribed by my government with benefits that are more generous than those in most European countries. My health is reasonably good. I get to travel a lot, both for work and on holidays. Nobody is forcing me to retire – I work when I want to and not when I don’t. And I’ve been married to the same person for over thirty years, which is more to her credit than mine.

But one of the things that happens when you’re lucky enough still to be around after three score years is that you think about the future in a different way, because you’re running out of time.

You see people you know dropping off their perches. Not just your parents, but the occasional friend who’s close to you in age. And little by little, changes in your behaviour and attitude to the world creep up on you, imperceptible unless you take the trouble to think about then. Occasionally, or often if you’re so inclined, you look back on your life thus far as if from high on the side of a mountain, with your memories and experiences nestling in the valley below. Easy to see but not to reach.

There are so many ways to look at age, and most of them are not positive. Physical and mental decline are the obvious aspects. Regrets about things you did and didn’t do, and perhaps festering bitterness about what the world has done to you. And a feeling that it’s too late to start over.

I won’t say that those clouds haven’t occasionally blotted out my sun, but never for long. I feel pretty good to be the age I am. I’ve learned plenty and I’m still learning. What’s more I’m able to share what I’ve learned with other people in the work I do.

I look at ageing in two ways. The world within and the world without. The world within is stuff that goes on without reference to other people. The world without is how you react to it and how it reacts back.

This post is about the world without. When I talk about “you”, I’m not assuming that everybody of my age would agree with what I’m saying. Which is a good thing, because if we sixtysomethings have a saving grace, it’s that most of us are less gullible and probably more diverse in our opinions than we were when younger. You don’t find too many sixty-year-old jihadis and stormtroopers. The downside is that we do get more irrational bees in out bonnets, and after years of experience, many of us are masters of the dark art of manipulation.

Most advertising is not aimed at you. There are two aspects to this. As most of us know, the more we do online, the more advertisers know about us, or at least have the information to make intelligent guesses about where we might like to go, or what we might want to buy. So I don’t find personally-targeted ads too intrusive or objectionable.

But ads on TV or in the newspapers aimed at “my age group” or my perceived economic profile miss the mark. Big time. I am not a bloody silver surfer. I have no desire to spend six months of every year gazing out at yet another ocean view from the balcony of a cruise ship. I don’t want to join a wine club, or have facials. I have no need for a stair lift or a bath with a seat. And I have no intention of buying a retirement home. Those kind of ads are as far from my perception of my own needs as offering a pension plan to a ten-year-old.

On the other hand, I find it quite flattering when I’m offered Viagra, and the opportunity to have meaningful online conversations with women half my age. Not sure Mrs Royston does though.

Most entertainment is not aimed at you. These days I increasingly find that so much on offer – especially movies and TV series – insults even my fast-diminishing intelligence. This is stuff that I might have watched twenty years ago when I was of an age that spanned the generation gap. I could appreciate drama aimed at twenty- and thirtysomethings, yet I could also appreciate stuff that my elderly parents would have enjoyed. Nowadays boy-meets-girl and has relationship problems, ultraviolent street drama, or endless reality shows, bore the arse off me. Bake-off? Yes indeed, bake off somewhere else.

The fact is that precious little TV content, or movies for that matter, are designed to appeal to people who can’t stand to watch physical or mental cruelty (having witnessed enough in real life), destruction, rites of passage and all the stuff that appeals to people because it offers a mirror to their own neuroses and fears. And crime. So much bloody crime. This stuff is not produced for my generation, and God help the people who consume it so voraciously – or vicariously.

Having said that, I do enjoy Games of Thrones. Can’t think why – must be something to do with the wildlife.

You’re the only person you know who hates Kindles. I bought one once. I travel a lot, so I thought it would be a good alternative to bringing heavy books wherever I go. Didn’t work. Sorry trees, but Kindles, Nooks and IPads will never match the joy of having a paper book in the hand – being able to go anywhere you want with the flip of a page. Of having a library, where you can scan the titles and pull something out to lend a friend.

It’s funny really, because I have a library of CDs I never browse. They’re all on my laptop and IPad. Perhaps the difference is that to look at the CD titles, you need to be a few inches away from them. But books broadcast themselves from yards away. They seduce, they shout, they reproach you for not revisiting them.

With ebooks, less is definitely not more. It’s less.

You don’t get smartphone apps. It’s not really a matter of not being able to use them. More that you can’t see the point. Facebook, Twitter – OK. But Snapchat? Instagram? Why would you want to spend all your leisure hours posting inane photos of yourself, your friends, a cat with three ears and a wonky donkey?

Is the world around you so boring that you have to sit around on holiday at an exotic location chatting with your distant friends or posting pictures of your exotic lunch or an unexotic glass of champagne?

And what of places you won’t visit, books you won’t read, movies you won’t see, unless a hundred people have reviewed them? Have we lost the ability to think for ourselves?

Tinder? Well I can see the point if you’re a sexual athlete looking for practice, but until someone invents a similar app for oldies looking for a game of scrabble, forget it.

Let’s face it, for my generation a phone’s a phone. We get texting, even if the act of tapping the screen reminds others of an elephant playing hopscotch. But the rest? Just an antidote for boredom and a conversation killer. A narcissist’s paradise.

You don’t worry about switching off your phone. I know people who would feel that they had lost a limb if their mobile phones weren’t talking to them at all times. I remember what life was like without them, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest if I leave mine at home, or even if I lose the damn thing.

If the next deal, the next party or the next romance depends on your being welded to your phone, good for you. But for me, the world can wait. Not being available makes you the master of your own time.

You pretend to be excited by anniversaries. The more birthdays I reach the less I look forward to them. And when I celebrate them it’s more for the benefit of the people celebrating with me than for me.

I suppose one should celebrate the achievement of making it through to another year. But I haven’t yet got to the stage of people saying – within earshot – isn’t he marvellous, he still does the garden (which I don’t, by the way), he still has his memory and he can go to the loo unaided. I have all that condescending rot to look forward to.

But right now I work, I play, I eat without the aid of a straw, and I don’t need a bunch of people congratulating me for the miracle of another year’s survival.

Wedding anniversaries? Ah well, that’s sacred ground, isn’t it?

You read obituaries. More and more. And when someone dies at an age younger than mine, which happens more and more often for obvious reasons, I read their obituary with the feeling of there but for the grace of God. Or rather, there’s another bugger gone, I think, and for all his achievements what would he have given just to have been still upright like me?

I do find many obituaries inspiring, especially when the subjects manage to do great things in their seventies and eighties. The idea of retirement, linked to a specific age and defined by the state, is a curse. It’s almost as if society expects you to flick a switch and suddenly transform yourself from a wage-earner into an inert drone struggling to find something useful to do.

It was never that way before the welfare state and it doesn’t have to be so now.

You suffer fools less gladly, especially the self-satisfied. I don’t argue the toss with people who strike me as idiots. I just walk away from them. The older I get, the more I encounter people of the same age or older who are pompous, opinionated and deeply satisfied by their achievements thus far. Yes, I know they’re not really idiots, but there are many people who have spent so much of their lives running things that they’ve lost the capacity to listen to others.

I put most politicians who have been in power for more than ten years in that category. Also businessmen (and yes, it’s almost always the men) who’ve made their piles and are sitting complacently on top of them. Those whose company I most enjoy are people who are curious, humble and driven to learn. Those whom I most admire keep learning until the end of their lives no matter how long they live.

Having said that, there is one fool I suffer gladly. And that’s myself.

You realise that senior means junior. I laugh sourly at the corruption of the word “senior”. When I was at school, older boys were referred to as senior, and in the workplace seniority implied knowledge, privilege and power. Then suddenly as you get into your fifties and sixties, people start substituting the word senior for old – as in senior citizens.

Seniority stops being about status and power. It’s about being worn out, on the scrapheap, a burden on society, unproductive. A whole section of society is only of interest when the time comes for politicians to seek their votes. At which point they are shamelessly bribed, and, when the election is over, forgotten for another five years.

Senior citizens, thanks to their relative passivity and ultimately their geriatric apathy, are actually the opposite of senior – patronised, manipulated and exploited for whatever wealth they have managed to accumulate and can be persuaded to part with.

Whoever invented the phrase senior citizen is probably dead or, as Shakespeare said, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”. Serves them right.

You accept compliments with grace. Even the ones I know are blatantly insincere, as in “Steve, you’re looking well. Have you lost weight?” The inner troll wants to reply “no I haven’t, you smarmy toad, and you know it. And by the way you’re looking as wasted as ever.” But no, I reply in kind, because I know this is a game.

And when people pay me real compliments, I don’t curl up in embarrassment or brush the remark away in false modesty. I try to smile, look the other person in the eye and say thank you without feeling the need to reciprocate. The sincere compliment is a gift. It reminds you that you should be doing the same, not for effect but when you feel a person deserves it.

But then I suppose that benevolent lies are the prime lubricant of successful social interaction, and God help us if we all told the truth.

Having said that, I’ve met a few people in their eighties – mostly women – who say exactly what they think, regardless of the consequences, because they know that there will be no consequences other than those around them buttoning their lips and thinking what cantankerous old bats they are. A prime example of the species is Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey.

I have that pleasure yet to come. I look forward to being the cause of much accidental hilarity.

So, for what it’s worth, that’s a little look into my external world. Next up, we’ll look at the murky world within.

From → Books, Film, Media, Social, UK

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