Who is the Prime Minister? Apparently, that’s one of the opening questions doctors use as a test for dementia amongst their patients, though most of the country would probably have struggled to answer it following the last General Election, to be honest. Anyway, I don’t know if my grandmother was asked that particular question during her last illness, but I do recall being told she couldn’t correctly say what year it was when asked. The ongoing debate over care for the elderly is, I’ve no doubt, largely motivated (on the public side, at least) by genuine concern that senior citizens are almost discarded as an expensive embarrassment; but I think it also reflects a consensus of fear over the fate that awaits us.
Larkin’s notorious poem, ‘The Old Fools’ is – as with his other most infamous offering, ‘This Be The Verse’ – often misconstrued; sometimes perceived as revulsion when confronted by the elderly, it couples lines such as ‘Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines’ with ‘Do they suppose it’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools, and you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember who called this morning?’ As with much of Larkin’s output, it is devoid of sentimentality and looks at an uncomfortable aspect of life with brutal honesty. The chilling closing line, when after having posed a series of questions on the topic of ageing, Larkin says ‘Well, we shall find out’, is a more accurate barometer of what the poem is actually saying.
A man not known for celebrating the joy of life, Larkin’s melancholic pessimism was present when he remained a relatively young man, something fairly unusual outside of Goth and Emo subculture; then again, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters was aged just 29 when he wrote the wistfully bleak Larkin-esque line in ‘Time’ on ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ – ‘Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way’. Both Ray Davies and Morrissey have, at different times, contradicted the eternal adolescence that has been a hallmark of the genre they sprang from by shining a light on the neglected perspective of the elderly outsider, something Paul McCartney did even more successfully with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ before addressing ageing in a lighter tone with ‘When I’m 64’. He was in his mid-20s at the time.
At its most extreme, fear of growing old – at least manifested in its physical form – has led to the horrific cosmetic surgery industry and Hollywood’s plastic parade of deluded veterans that battle against the ageing process to extend their acting careers. Conversely, renowned actresses that have resisted the surgeon’s knife – such as Charlotte Rampling or Helen Mirren – tend to be celebrated for the fact their beauty has matured like fine wine and has been allowed to mature free from visible vanity courtesy of the same medical men who butchered the face of Michael Jackson.
Speaking to a friend the other day, she commented on some programme she’d seen on TV about a murder case in the 1990s; the documentary was accompanied by archive footage of the time, and even though the 90s feels extremely recent if you were actually there, she was still struck by how different things looked on said footage. The way in which technology has transformed all our lives in such a short space of time post-1999 has relegated certain sights that had always been commonplace on our streets to the same cultural landfill as gas lamps and public toilets, and I suspect those streets as represented by news archive of the time in this programme perhaps showed what already appears to be a different world.
I only have to cast my mind back twenty years to recall one of the numerous downsides to living in a neighbourhood with a sizeable student population was when the fresh intake of scholars needed to ring home after a week or so in their new homes. A queue of a good four or five people would be a familiar sight outside a telephone box in early September; but this is one of those ‘numerous downsides’ that has now completely vanished from the landscape – along with most of the phone boxes. Of course, to say ‘casting my mind back twenty years’ is in itself an admission of ageing that bears little relevance to the majority of the same university’s current crop, few of whom were a twinkle in the milkman’s eye twenty years ago – when we probably still had a few milkmen left.
In a sense, that’s part of the problem. I have been an official legal adult now for almost 32 years, and I find in my memory that everything I recall from that point onwards still doesn’t seem like that long ago. By contrast, anything from my childhood decade of the 70s feels incredibly distant and may as well be a hundred years ago for all the bearing it has had on my lengthy spell as an adult. At times, 1987, 1997 and 2007 appear almost interchangeable despite the superficial changes in fashion, music, pop culture et al that separate those years; I was an adult during all the years listed, and whilst I’d like to think a little acquired wisdom separates the person I was in 1987, 1997 or 2007, the core composition of the time-stream I inhabit doesn’t seem to have altered. It all feels ‘present tense’.
When we have family or friends we don’t see that often who sire offspring, we recall said offspring being babies; then we maybe see them again as toddlers or little kids; and the next occasion in which they’re mentioned, we learn they’re at high school or in higher education. In our heads, they remain frozen as children, but the rapid maturity that takes place elsewhere can remind us how time is passing more than what the mirror on the wall might tell us. Sometimes, it’s easier to measure time by the change in others than the change in our ourselves, which can be as difficult to observe as the movement of hands on a clock-face.
Four months from now I hit one of those ‘landmark birthdays’ that we all, whether we care to admit it or not, dread the arrival of. I guess we each have our own different take on what they do or don’t mean and if they hold any significance at all. For me personally it’s not a question of wanting to cling to a youth I didn’t especially enjoy or revel in, more a question of inevitable summarising of the story so far, the kind of self-assessment I’d rather avoid due to the fact that on paper I appear to have achieved nothing and have become everything I hate. Despite the anticipated bombardment of reminders I’ll receive from well-meaning well-wishers, the only real element worth celebrating is that I’ve actually made it this far. Being English, I expect I shall hang on, though I suspect the desperation won’t be so quiet; I remain determined to rage against that dying light. Thank God for a little bit of Celtic blood.
© The Editor