One of the weirder aspects of “being of one’s time” is the phenomenon I readily admit to – I don’t know whether other Rusters have similar thoughts – that, human nature being what it is, beyond the age of about 45 one’s perception of how old one is becomes progressively more at variance with the facts with every year that passes.
Don’t get me wrong, by no means am I an age-denier. I’m 70 and not frightened of admitting it to anyone who needs to know, just as twelve months ago I was happy to admit being 69.
It’s just that – without consciously doing it – I think of myself as (okay) somewhere in middle-age, but ideally on the lower end of it because I’m still interested in sport, music, and other leisure pursuits and feel that my opinions upon such matters are as valid as the next man’s (or woman’s).
Rather, I’m referring to a fundamental and natural human frailty, namely the fact that most of us assume that ageing is something that happens to others … but not to ourselves.
Let me give an example.
I was born in 1951.
When I was aged 10 or 11, I worked out that when the Millennium came along (for present purposes only, let us take it that this would be on 1st January 2000 – we can argue about whether technically first 2000 years AD wouldn’t have actually occurred until the end of the year 2000 or not, if you see what I mean – I worked out that I would be 49.
Try as I might, I couldn’t get my head around that. At the age of 10 or 11, nobody can imagine themselves ever being anything more than (at worst) a fully fit and functioning twenty-something adult male.
Well, I certainly couldn’t.
I regularly find myself reading in the media about an actor, or sportsman, or musician who is now not just past the first flush of youth, but (for example, in sporting terms) is in the twilight of their career at say 35-plus and still plying their trade … and feeling sad that they’re still playing at all … and that’s me aged 70 holding this view!
I had another stark example of this over the weekend.
For reasons which need not concern us here, in our neck of the woods an advertised feature of the Platinum Jubilee weekend had been a Spitfire display on a nearby beach.
In the event, on the day, it didn’t happen because the weather conditions made it difficult and it was called off – but not before a crowd of over 500 had assembled in anticipation … and the news that it was not going to happen didn’t begin filtering through until at least 20 minutes after the advertised start-time.
The experience caused me to look back in some old books of mine to remind myself of a notable Battle of Britain fighter pilot who was chairman of a company that I worked for in the 1980s.
His war record was exemplary. He’d joined the RAF at 19, was one of the youngest-ever squadron leaders at 21, a group captain at 23 and had flown as one of Douglas Bader’s wing men.
When I knew him, he was a tall, slightly stooped, easy-going patrician of a man, with a powerful presence and a natural air of command.
In my middle thirties I was once with him and several others in a difficult legal meeting with our lawyers over a dispute with an advertising agency – at the end of which he summed the position up as “Well, In my view, chaps, they’ve got us by the balls …”
When I spoke with our company secretary afterwards and remarked upon his degree of sang-froid, the reply came back “Well, when you’ve been risking life and limb, flying three or more sorties every day during the Battle of Britain, from each of which almost always you returned having lost one or more of your mates at the age of 20 or 21– frankly, whatever the rest of your life throws at you doesn’t amount to more than a hill of beans, does it …?!”
I had huge admiration for the gent. Even though he belonged to a generation and more before mine, he’d “been there and done” plenty that I never had.
Lastly, and inevitably, whilst researching his life again, I came across the date of his death and the age at which he died.
It stunned me slightly.
In four years’ time – if I survive that long, of course – I’ll be older than he ever was!