I went to the 70th birthday party of a friend recently. Since she has friends who are older than herself as well as friends who are younger, I was among the younger people there, but I’ll be 66 at Christmas, so I was very definitely part of the same generation as the people there in their seventies. I was in a group of old people with white hair, and brittle skin, and stiff limbs, and I was one of them.
It is a cliche, and only partly true, to say that I don’t feel old. In some respects I certainly do feel old. I have arthritis. I have health conditions which I’m now stuck with. I ache in the mornings. I have to pee at least three times every night. I have to make a effort to stand up from a sitting position. I am a granddad.
It’s not all bad, and that last is definitely one of the nice parts.
Another thing: my parents are dead, and have been for several years, which to be honest is also one of the nice parts. They were not bad people, and I felt affection for them, but all my life their neediness felt like a ball and chain which I had to drag around behind me . Latterly, neither of them wanted to carry on living and both of them deliberately hastened their own deaths. The fact that they no longer wanted to live was part of the burden, and now I’m free of it.
Another freedom I have now comes from having a pension. I don’t have to work unless I want to. This is obviously also a nice part (and perhaps especially so for a writer). I well remember, a few months after finally retiring from my last part-time day job as a university lecturer, suddenly realising how lucky I was to have an income until the day I die (not particularly high, but perfectly livable), and giving a little whoop of relief and delight at this new freedom which I have, whether or not I deserve it. The only downside is that it’s a reminder that I’m in the last part of my life, I am in the part of my life where society no longer demands anything of me.
The sense in which I don’t feel old – and I remember my mother saying the same thing- is that it feels like the same me looking out through my eyes as looked out through those eyes when I was 21, still grappling with essentially the same things.
My parents both lived into their middle eighties, and were pretty frail (and in my father’s case demented) in their final years. If I follow a similar path, I can perhaps expect another 15 years of reasonably mobile active life, though of course I may have more, or I may have less. Friends have already started to die. My wife and I have once or twice discussed the strange fact that almost certainly one of us will see the other’s dead body, and attend the other’s funeral -I have discussed this also with a couple of my friends- and, while of course this has always been the case, it’s starting to feel more real. I don’t fear my own death, not unless I’m doing an excellent job at repressing it, but I certainly don’t look forward to the losses that lie between now and then.
My oldest granddaughter, Aphra, who is getting on for two and half, and whom I help look after on a regular basis, I love with a piercing intensity that I had never anticipated. Loving her, and feeling loved by her, in her two-year-old way, is perhaps the sweetest of all the joys of being the age I am. But I’m unlikely to know her past the beginning of adulthood. (I know I will grow to love my second granddaughter Nina just as much -she is still a small baby- but each grandchild I have I will know for a shorter period of time.)
As to me as a writer. Being a writer is very central to my sense of who I am, much much more so than any other work I’ve done, and I would find it very hard to relinquish. But I’m aware that as time goes on my perspective and my concerns become more and more off to one side, compared to the perspective and concerns of most adults.
I would describe shift of perspective by using the analogy of my experience of being an employee of the same organization for long periods of time. The longest I worked for one employer was in what was once called the social services dept. of Cambridgeshire county council. I worked there for nearly two decades. Organizations like that frequently restructure. New bosses come in and have to make their mark, so they introduce a whole new way of doing things which moves everyone around, divides up functions in different ways, and gives people and teams new names. The rhetoric which accompanies these changes is typically very dismissive of the old ‘broken’ way of doing things, and very optimistic about how much better the new way will be. And it’s true there is a certain novelty and freshness about the new way, very often, and some value in changing things so as to sweep out cobwebs and let in air, but the fact remains that these restructurings never actually achieve what they claim they’re going to achieve, and pretty soon, usually in a year or two, each new structure becomes itself the old broken way that is holding us back and needs be cast aside to usher in the brave new dawn.
You get a bit cynical about all this when you’ve worked for the some outfit for a long time. You get a bit fed up with once again being told that the way you’ve been doing things is no good, and that you must bravely embrace the new way that will make everything better. After a time you even begin to see a cyclical pattern: ways of doing things what were dismissed several restructurings ago, and which perhaps at the time you were once reproached for seeing some merit in, come back into to fashion, and are presented as something new. The whole process comes to feel a bit like the elaborate games of make belief that children come up with –I’m going to be policeman, you’re going to be a nurse, you’re going to be a dog, you’re going to be a robber, this is going to be our house… etc etc- games which, by the time all the details have been agreed and settled, seem to have run their course already, so that instead of actually playing the game, the children move onto something else.
As I grow older, life in general often seems a bit like that. I’m warier than I used to be of the claims made for new things, and of the contempt that is directed at old things, because I feel that a lot of this stuff is cyclical, like fashion. (There was a time when I thought trousers that weren’t flared were embarrassing. Now it’s flares that seem absurd.) I suppose this is why old people are seen as more conservative than young people. I’m not conservative with a big C, but I have an increasing sense that a lot of what goes on in the world is just noise, and moving furniture around, and posturing.
I feel less engaged with the world, more focused on just being alive, 0n the feeling of being alive, I mean, which at some point will cease: rain, wind, sun, my wife’s kind, humorous face, my sweet granddaughter running to meet me… Life as I experience it now would perhaps lend itself more easily to painting or to poetry than it does to novels, which are more dependent on tension and movement and resolution, but I can’t paint and I know nothing about poetry, so I’ll have to find a way to make novels carry on working for me.