Stuart Reid Charterhouse
‘Like Peter Pan, two entire generations have simply refused to grow up,” wrote Rowan Pelling in the Daily Telegraph last week, commenting on a survey purporting to show that the average Briton thinks you stop being young at 35 and are old at 58. “I don’t know anyone aged 35 to 55 who gracefully accepts the tag ‘middle-aged’,” she declared, “nor anyone between 50 and 70 who describes themselves as ‘old’.” That’s pretty much my experience, too, but is the refusal to grow up anything to celebrate? Many old people – and I do not exclude myself – dress like babies these days, and waddle around in plimsolls and sandals and baggy shorts licking ice cream cones or sucking at the teats of Starbucks cartons. It is perhaps a happy thought that in some cases these oldies are wearing nappies, or “continence pads” as they are called in the care business.
Youth is for the young, along with the high spirits and optimism that accompany it. As the server says at the beginning of Mass: Ad Deum, qui laetificat juventutem meam (“To God who gives joy to my youth”).
Martin Mosebach, who is 59 this year, associates the cult of youth with the liturgical revolution. In his magnificent defence of the traditional Latin Mass, The Heresy of Formlessness, he notes the baleful consequence of that cult: “...while the ageing process cannot be stopped, the ageing human being is not allowed to mature and is condemned, until his life’s end, to play the long-dead games of his youth”.
We grow old, but we do not grow up, in other words. I’ll think about that when next I listen to Diana Ross and the Supremes singing “Baby Love”. Much as I agree with Mosebach, though, I do get irritated when teenage scribblers start whining about my generation. For the past 40 years and more the Sixties has been blamed for all the ills of modern society. To be sure, the Sixties was a destructive and revolutionary decade, as I observed last week, but those of us who were having such a good (ie, bad) time in those days were mere foot soldiers. The revolution itself was directed by older people.
Timothy Leary was 46 when he told the kids to “turn on, tune in and drop out”, and Frank Colton was 37 when his invention, the contraceptive pill, was made commercially available in 1960. John Mortimer, doughty defender of the permissive society, was 47 when in 1971 he appeared for Schoolkids Oz; Anthony Crosland was in his mid-40s when, as Education Secretary in the first Wilson government, he reportedly said that he would “destroy every ******* grammar school in England”; Kenneth Tynan was 42 when Oh! Calcutta made its debut in New York in 1969.
And so on. The counter-culture was sold to the young by what the Americans call the “Greatest Generation”, the men and women who defeated Hitler. “Is this what we fought the war for?” old people ask whenever something displeases them. The answer is: yes, this is precisely what we fought the war for. The Second World War made the world safe for the Swinging Sixties.
The children of the Sixties were victims – willing victims, certainly – of the sort of anti-social capitalism that Pope Benedict warns us against. The Decade of Decadence was a triumph of marketing and the false god Choice. It began with the Pill and ended with abortion. The Flower Children went on to vote for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and in the fullness of time brought us the crash.
My interest in this subject is perhaps especially keen at the moment because last week I marked – but did not celebrate – my 67th birthday. To describe my mood as one of self-pity would be to understate the case by quite a bit.
Sixty is sort of OK – 60 is the new 40, after all; 65 is livable with, just, because you still have one foot in the labour market; 66 can be endured because it is more or less 65; but 67... 67 is when you have to admit that it is winter.
A few days before my 67th birthday I had to renew my Freedom Pass – my free rail and bus card – which meant having passport pictures taken.
I have the pictures before me on my desk as I write this, along with a packet of pain-killers, a packet of beta-blockers, The Heresy of Formlessness, the March 20 issue of the Tablet, a lotto card, my Douay Bible and Made Redundant?, a pamphlet I picked up at my health centre the other day.
It is not true to say that the camera never lies, but this time the camera has not even tried to be economical with the truth: I see button eyes – small, black, suspicious, frightened – and a forehead decorated with what the dermatologists refer to in private as “senile keratosis”. My upper lip is longer and more simian (or Scotch-Irish) than it used to be. My ears have grown.
I had hoped for something rather more soothing for my 67th birthday. I had rather hoped to be like those men and women in the holiday advertisements in the back of the Oldie: you see them sitting confidently astride a mountain bikes on the Amalfi Coast, jumpers around shoulders; they have firm jaws, white teeth, confident smiles, straight backs, and their eyes do not water.
Alas, I am the man in Sainsbury’s in an overcoat covered in dog hair, looking both confused and resentful, as the nice girl in the hijab takes the debit card from my hand and puts it in the pin reader the right side up.
God is not mocked.
Mea culpa corner: a reader rebukes me for having describing homosexuals as “a rich and privileged minority”.
“Often the opposite is true,” he writes. “I, for example, am not rich. I live a rather empty and lonely life, never fully able to be who I am, for, yes, I encounter prejudice often (especially at church). I will never have the privilege of fathering children, or of having a loving relationship... Many ‘gays’ such as myself go to church and try to lead a good (and chaste) life. I try to live by the precepts of the Church I love.” My correspondent adds: “I’m assuming, of course, that you, Mr Reid, are a heterosexual, only it’s hard to tell by your photo in the Herald!” Good point. What a pantomime dame I am!