A princess of Hanover wrote in her diary: ‘My 30th birthday. There must be some mistake.’ Substitute 30th for 80th and you have how I feel this week. But age is all relative, being dependent on your genes, immune system and how it was primed in childhood; on your location, your income and luck. I had long-lived grandparents on both sides; had measles, rubella, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough and scarlet fever before five; and in spite of semi-permanent tonsillitis was 20 before any antibiotic entered my body. I spent the years until 16 on the north-east coast of Yorkshire, through bitter snowbound winters, my lungs loaded with fresh sea air. Attitude and expectations are important too. In the north Cotswolds, where I spent 25 years, local men and women had been farmers and vegetable pickers for generations, working in all weathers, bent double, earning pitiful wages. Fresh air doesn’t compensate for prematurely worn-out bodies, where 40 is the new 60, not the other way about.
My oldest friend turned 80 before me. We entered kindergarten holding hands, aged four, then walked to school across the bridge overlooking the sea, eventually followed at an interesting distance by a boy pushing a bike. Margaret made me check if he was still behind us, which he always was, until he peeled off to the boys’ high school. They have now been married for 58 years. She is the friend who reminds me that I was made to sew and re-sew my Girl Guide badges on until they passed muster, and that I was suspended for eating chips in the street in my GG uniform. We have had entirely different lives and meet infrequently, but when we do we can pick up anywhere. If family come first, those old friends who know you inside out come close behind.
The pleasure of re-reading favourite books is that they come up fresh every time. They haven’t changed, but you have, so you discover riches you missed earlier, because with age come new perspectives and deeper understanding. I know Dickens’s Bleak House, Little Dorritand Great Expectations so well, yet always find something new in them, and the same is true of more recent loves. I am having another Elizabeth Bowen jag this year, and finding Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse even better than I remembered. That’s also the case for the trilogies by Olivia Manning and Evelyn Waugh set during the second world war. Then there are the books that never fail to cheer. If I could still laugh aloud during two lockdowns, reading the scene where they paint the bath red in The Diary of a Nobody, or get lost in the Hampton Court maze in Three Men in a Boat, or where Davey tells Uncle Matthew his precious mineral stones are all diseased in The Pursuit of Love, then those books are more precious than rubies.
Being unable to bear cruelty to children or animals in fiction, as in life, is nothing new. But I can still take pretty much anything in book form on the chin. The live arts are different. I can no longer endure, let alone enjoy, some plays, films and even music. Deep seriousness, pessimism and lengthy contemplation of mankind’s woes and travails are better suited to one’s youth. I was within a whisker of accepting tickets for a much lauded production of King Lear until I realised that I could simply never go through all that again. Nor could I bear hearing another Bach’s St Matthew Passion or Britten’s War Requiem, or watching Schindler’s List or, from the sublime to the ridiculous, Bambi. I have always loved frivolity and froth, so long as it is of high quality, but in youth, I was embarrassed to admit that I loved Gilbert and Sullivan, especially Iolanthe, and would travel miles for Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun. Since my sixties, I have only watched films like Gosford Park, Notting Hill and The Devil Wears Prada, until I have the dialogue by heart.
After our beloved border terrier died, it was more than a year before I could even think of having another. But a house without a dog was not a home, so in April along came a new puppy. He is a joy, with all the character and intelligence of the breed, plus their stubborn streak. He loves everybody in the world and they (almost all) love him in return. You can tell a lot about a person’s age, background and upbringing by how they react on learning his name, which is Biggles. There are either whoops of delight and reminiscences of childhood reading, or blank looks. I did encounter a couple on the coast path who said: ‘Oh dear — not a very woke name.’ There’s a lot to be said for 80.
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