As long as you’re still learning new things yourself …
They tell me that the saying “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans” comes from a John Lennon lyric – a line from Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) from the former Beatle’s last album Double Fantasy in 1980 – but these days there are two principle means by which I tend to get reminded just how fast time is slipping by.
The first is when I find myself glancing at the ‘birthdays’ columns in a newspaper and, having marvelled or scoffed that X or Y celebrity is still plying his trade at his extraordinarily advanced stage of life, then appreciate that in fact I’m older than he is. It’s that human instinct to always regard yourself as in the prime of life irrespective of what vision of decrepitude looks back at you first thing in the morning when you stare at yourself in the shaving mirror.
The other is reserved to those of us fortunate enough to have had children for there is little more calculated to remind yourself of age and responsibility than becoming a parent.
We humans deal with most things by ‘fixing a view’ of a situation – e.g. a small child who needs to cross the road safely – and then working out a method of assisting or achieving said goal. It’s only when the child concerned is crossing the road dressed as a lout, smoking a cigarette with a baseball cap back to front on his head, or indeed offering to hold your hand in order help you cross the road safely, that you finally twig they’re not four years old anymore.
I like to tell the story of how I first ‘grew up’ as a parent when I accepted my daughter’s invitation to attend a sixth form play at her boarding school for which she was one of the four actors and had also directed the lighting.
Intellectually I knew those facts but it wasn’t until about ten minutes into the first act – at the point where she was engaged in some fast-action dialogue with her fellow thespians on the night – that the revelation or penny dropped: my own sweet, darling, seventeen year old girl was exhibiting a capacity for learning lines and performing on stage in front of an audience that far exceeded my own.
To that point I had been confident in certain knowledge that, whatever either of my kids might try to do or achieve, as night followed day I would be able to do it better.
As it happens, however, the height of my own acting career had been standing on a stage aged about thirteen, encased in a canvas representation of a wall, acting out the Pyramus and Thisbe segment from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And specifically reciting my entire contribution of four lines in a stultified automaton ‘speak-your-weight machine on the end of a Sussex pier’ drone.
In contrast to which, despite in all honesty not quite showing the potential of a Meryl Streep or Dame Helen Mirren, my offspring was actually acting in what one might describe as a recognisably ‘proper’ sense.
I reckon I managed about eight to ten years of maturing as a human being in the course of that single evening spent in a packed school hall setting.
About a week ago I was in email correspondence with my son who has just turned thirty-four. He’s been making his own way in the world ever since leaving school when – ignoring the university route partly because of his severe dyslexia – he went off at the tender age of nineteen to join a Russian theatre company that was touring the world.
He works hard and has had a succession of girlfriends over the years, some of them long-term but most not, and remains single to this day.
As only parents can, for some reason I had decided he might benefit from the advice of his parent on the subject of women. Careful prefacing my homily with the declaimer that, of course, I certainly wasn’t the world’s leading expert on the subject, I warned him against any sense he might have gained that at thirty-four he was ‘on the shelf’ and/or should be contemplating settling down and/or getting hitched.
Far better to hang on until he actually met ‘The One’ was about the sum of my advice, i.e. rather than he should succumb to any sense that, now in his mid-thirties, he ought to be ‘getting on with it’ and as a result simply then settled down with the lady he happened to be going out with at the time. I counselled that as a general rule it was probably better to remain single than get married to the wrong person.
[I should perhaps add here that I got married myself in the month that I turned 29 and that my parents – and circumstances were very different then, it was not long after the end of WW2 – were married at the ages of 24 and 25 respectively.]
A day or so later, back came my son’s reply.
He thanked me for my advice but then stated – as it were, for the record – that he was perfectly happy with his single status. In fact, he’d go further than that. Of all his mates, friends and acquaintances who had already married and/or produced kids, he estimated that over 60% had since broken up, got divorced, or remarried (in one case twice) and/or were generally leading fundamentally unhappy lives from which they wished they could escape.
I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or not, but I felt rather reassured at the news.