Richard Attenborough’s death at 91 is in the news but. I remember him bustling down the corridor, one of several sets of listening ears when I began at the year old Capital Radio. People keep talking about him as Pinkie in the film of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock but I preferred his unbeatable performance in Guns of Batasi (1964). And, although I haven’t seen him for some years and then only briefly, his energy made his age seem irrelevant.
Some years ago, I met a sympathetic programme maker and proposed a series about age, its drawbacks, its joys and freedoms, its incontrovertible evidence and its irrelevance, I wanted such a programme to talk to people out and beyond the small group of stars who are rowed in for such things, and I wanted it to be real and funny and moving. We already knew that this was the first time in Britain’s history that over half the population were over 60. Sadly, pigs might whistle and what we got was Grumpy Old Men and Grumpy Old Women, quite fun if you like that kind of thing, all the stereotypes neatly endorsed and all the usual suspects rowed in for another cheque.
Age only means what it means to you. But you aren’t going to beat it. If you’re psychologically well most of the time, enjoy reasonable physical health and can see yourself clearly, you still have hope of making the best of yourself and enjoying life. I wish you could teach people that by the time you hit your mid fifties, what you are will be writ large upon your face and if you have spent years being a miserable so-and-so, then that’s what you’ll look like.
Len (shop manager) is 61 but looks 46, spry, slender and elegant. He says I should admit to 55. Wal (interior decorator) doesn’t like to talk about age and lectures me “70 isn’t old, not nowadays.” I’ve quoted two men because men are as concerned about youth as women are. And it does seem as if the pursuit of youth has become so much part of all our lives that nobody wants to admit to being not so young any more. But I do because if you don’t tell yourself the truth, what hope is there?
Sometimes I feel old. You could rationalise it and call it tired or say I was a bit under the weather and God knows, this summer’s humidity has flattened me like an underdone veal chop (same colour), making me sweaty and bad tempered, absent minded and tired … tired. Half an hour of errands and I feel like a crone in a high wind – spent.
But I do like being a crone. I like being the old bat who knows that surgical spirit will refresh and brace your feet (or incidentally your white paintwork). Though I felt old the other day when I used a scented tissue on the bus the other day to clean my hands and the young woman beside me said “Nice smell – what’s that?”
“Eau de Cologne” I said.
“What’s that?” she asked again and I found myself explaining the origins of one of the earliest widely known scents from the German city of Cologne, its most famous label 4711 and how eau de cologne came to stand for a dilute form of perfume..
And I felt old when someone admired Milton Greene’s wonderful picture of blonde hair and exquisite legs on my notice board, asking “Who’s that?” “Dietrich” I said. “Who’s she?”
But human life goes nearly as fast as dogs’ lives nowadays. And that saying “time flies when you are having fun” deserves to be re-examined. That we all have bad times is a given. The job crashes, health fails, we are visited by death and destruction and loss, sometimes in painful multiples, and we have to find a way through. And just as you find hope in prayer or colour or music, a favourite comic or a favourite film, it’s worth remembering that quite a lot of what went before the bad times was wonderful fun. And fun comes round again.
My son married recently and I sat with his new wife’s parents. My kid isn’t a kid – he is in his thirties and so is his bride – so the wedding party was that sort of age, we were the oldsters and there was a sprinkling of young things.
The 50 people or so at that wedding charged the registry office with such love and good wishes, you could have warmed your hands on it, while the bride and groom shone brightly enough to light up the National Grid We were all just so glad to be there that age was irrelevant – theirs or ours.