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Growing Up and Old


A few years ago I read an interview with, at that time, the oldest man in the world, a 119-year-old Japanese fisherman. His longevity was ascribed to his diet of oily fish, rice wine and a spartan lifestyle.

He was interviewed in his home, a hut, by an English woman and at one stage he got into bed, which consisted of a board and a bit of straw, covered by a blanket. The young journalist was surprised when he rolled a cigarette and began smoking. Was he not concerned about damaging his health, she asked, and he looked at her, as if to say there were few enough pleasures in this life.

She asked him how long he had been smoking and he said he took it up when the wife died. What age were you then, she asked. Going on ninety-nine, he replied. He leaned back on the bed and produced a bottle of sake from one corner which he opened and asked her would she like a drink, as he was going to have some. She declined. Are you sure, he asked, smiling at her. And she wrote that when he asked her the second time she recognised in the sparkle of his eyes that old flicker of desire.

When we were young we thought that nothing could kill us, or stop us. We were invincible. When I was 19 I thought that someone over-25 was over-the-hill. I know differently now. I’m sure that people in their seventies look back enviously to when they were 60, and think how much younger they were then, how much more vigorous.

In 1986 I was travelling on a train from West Germany to Amsterdam when two girls not more than 16-years-of-age got on at Hilversum and sat in the same carriage. Not to sound paranoid, and I know I don’t speak a word of Dutch, but I was convinced from their laughter, the tone of their voices and their side glances, that the two brats were poking fun at me because I was an old fogey. It was the first time I felt old and resented the young, and yet I was only 33, still had dark hair, a dark beard, my own hips and teeth.

Years later I became younger – simply, through an attitude of mind. Why should youth be wasted on the young! We should be as shrewd as the Greek women in Homer’s time who counted their age from their marriage, not their birth. The French writer Victor Hugo said, “Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.” Isn’t Tom Jones still swinging it at 60 on ‘Top of the Pops’! Case proven.

Yet, in middle age, even though you can still party the odd night without sleep and still get the old chassis through the MOT, your mortality does raise its head in new aches and pains, and in go-slows. You start thinking about death – the wake, the obituaries, the size of your funeral, the ugly state of Milltown, will she re-marry. The tragedy of it happening to you, and what happens next to your neglected soul.

I feel so sorry for atheists; they believe that when you’re dead, you’re dead and that’s it. We lucky customers who believe in God believe that that’s only the start of the divine life. We have eternity before us. The downside, of course, is that we could be eternally happy or eternally miserable, depending on how we treated each other.

I understand that theologians have scrubbed the idea of Purgatory – an open prison somewhere between heaven and hell for people who were bad on earth but not as bad as Cromwell, Hitler, Kissinger or Thatcher. It used to be that by giving a few bob to popes or saying lots of Rosaries you could earn indulgences which shortened your sentence. But not anymore. The system was open to abuse by millionaires.

I also understand that theologians have scrapped the idea of Hell as being a place of infinite suffering, amidst burning sulphur and agonising screams, where a horny wee, wart-faced midget sticks a pitchfork up your bum if you aren’t shovelling the coal fast enough. I was certainly relieved to hear that because the chances of getting into heaven must be pretty slim when you consider all the does and don’ts. I must also confess to being a bit confused about the whole shebang. I mean, given that nobody has popped back from the dead to say what a fantastic time they are having, how does anybody know what really goes on. It’s all a matter of faith, I suppose.

I don’t want to die just yet, though I can’t see me being around to be interviewed by a pretty journalist when I am 119. But when I die I would like to be surrounded by the ones I love and a friend or two, just like Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer. On his deathbed he regaled his wife, Olga, and his friend with funny stories. He was 44 and dying of tuberculosis, but had a lifetime of achievements behind him. He sent out for a bottle of champagne, the cork was popped, he toasted life, emptied his glass, leaned back and died.