I have recently written about him my old school friend, K.B and his present health problems and I phoned him up the other day to see how he is. He is so seriously ill that it would be dangerous, the medics have told him, to perform the operation he needs. I said, as we talked, that we would lke to drive over and see him and his wife in the near future. He thought that it would be a good idea, ‘but I’m afraid we won’t be able to invite you for lunch’, he said. It sounded like a final statement of just how bad things really are for them. A shared meal, a sign of friendship, is no longer possible.
Marina Benjamin – author and journalist – has an article in the current edition of’ New Statesman’ about getting old. She is soon to have her 50th birthday and dreads joining ‘that most undesirable of clubs, the middle-aged’. I can remember the sobering experience of my 40th. birthday which marked for me the advent of age, middle or otherwise.
My eyes were becoming a problem and spectacles were prescribed for me by the young man at the Optician’s, and he actually said with the detached superiority that seems to go with that particular profession, ‘deterioration begins when you are forty’. ( I remenber thinking, ‘you’ll be forty one day, mate’ ).
But apparently fifty is Marina Benjamin’s worry. She reflects in her article on the significence of a recent accident when she fell out of bed and hurt herself quite badly. She recites all the active things she can still do but is still haunted by the thought that ‘one season of my life has ended and another begun’.She is impatient with people older than herself, such as Penelope Lively, who write books full of relentless good cheer about being old. They seem to have signed up to the delusional idea that you are only as old as you feel.
She has friends who are as aghast as she is that instead of gently drifting into midlife,’ midlife has rudely flung itself at them, exploding like a bag of flour’.
Alan Bennett has been celebrating his eightieth birthday. He was interviewed on television at the weekend by Nicholas Hytner who has directed several of his plays and films. Bennnet, if not full of the relentless cheer Marina Benjamin objects to, was calm and thoughtful and was able to recall and celebrate people he and written for and worked with. There is no one quite like him. I’m not very well read’, he said at one point, ‘but one of the advantages of being eighty is that I lnow there’s nothing I can do about it, so there we are’.
Perhaps he was feigning resignation, but accepting that one’s options are limited when you are old or railing against them, could mark the difference between regarding old age as a gift or a curse.
I am somewhere between the two.