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What’s the best age to be?

Valerie Grove sets the scene and five writers look back to the past

Valerie Grove | September/October 2013

We live in a madly age-conscious age. Birthday mania naturally starts in childhood, with magicians and bouncy castles. But even grown-up birthdays have now ballooned into fancy-dress extravaganzas, often themed and sometimes refusing to be over in a single day. The artist Tracey Emin marked her 50th birthday in July in a French chateau with a party that lasted several days, culminating in a dinner for 100. Barn dances and boogie nights get even more popular at 60th and 65th celebrations, when ageing rockers bop the night away trying to ape Mick Jagger (now 70 himself). In September the nimble-footed, piano-playing Harvey McGregor QC, former warden of New College, Oxford (87), is hosting a ball for his friends John Davy (80) and Pippa Irwin (95). Dancing—to Coward and Gershwin—obligatory; carriages at midnight.

"Nothing has changed so much in our age as our age," as the writer Polly Devlin put it. "We don’t look like older people used to." Grandmothers once wore grey buns and sat nodding by the fire. Now they go out tangoing or tap-dancing. When another writer, Charlotte Hough, was given a prison sentence in the 1980s for aiding a desperately ill friend to commit suicide, there was widespread outrage that an "old lady" had been sent to Holloway. Hough was 60. Her daughter Deborah Moggach, now 65, flies around London on her bike, hair streaming, stilettos in her saddle-bag.

So ageing has been arrested by modern aids in hair dye and fashion, but the question of which age is the best remains highly subjective. Which of your successive selves do you look back on most fondly, with a sense of being most in harmony with the world? The novelist Dodie Smith recalled walking in white doe-skin shoes, hand-in-hand with two straw-hatted uncles, at the age of eight—which she declared "the best age in the world". At 80, writing her memoirs, she had never revised this opinion.

But Dodie never had children, and becoming a parent forces age awareness upon you, among other things. As Fay Weldon put it, "before you have children, you can still believe you are a nice person. Then you have teenagers, and realise how wars begin." It's interesting that two of our respondents here single out this phase of their lives, a favourite of poets but more often a source of remembered embarrassments.

Perhaps the most age-aware generation ever is that born in the 1945-48 baby-boom. After being blessed with orange juice and every advantage that peace, free education, near-full employment and enlightened law reforms could bestow, they are now in their mid-60s, zipping about with their freedom passes, destined to live beyond 80 in houses with far more rooms than they need. And as a daily reminder of their luck, they are reviled in newspaper stories about "rich pensioners placing an unsustainable burden on taxpayers" (a backlash long ago predicted by The Economist, in a 1987 symposium on Ageing Society). They try to recompense their own children, who have none of the above, and to pay back the state by being jolly good citizens: tending gardens, volunteering in hospitals, befriending theatres and ailing churches, supporting the arts, paying taxes, voting—and most importantly looking after the grandchildren. It feels as if most young parents now depend on this form of help. And grannies relish it. Grandmotherhood, as the agony aunt Virginia Ironside says, "is God’s reward for not killing your children".

But none of our writers has chosen the pleasures of very old age. Only one or two were in a position to, and perhaps they share the foreboding V.S. Pritchett expressed in his essay "As Old as the Century". He was 80 but still felt 50, sprinting upstairs to his attic study every day. This bravado was his "defence against our fear of senility and death". What would his 90s bring, he wondered. "Are we for the old folks' home?"

The sad truth is, he was. He lived to 96 but spent his last few years in a care home, suffering from dementia. Whenever a politician, especially a prime minister, declares breezily, "We're all living longer—and that's A Good Thing", we should chorus "Why?", and demand an answer. Who will care for the legions of the aged when they outnumber the rest?

For every still-productive octogenarian (Desmond Tutu, Freeman Dyson, E.O. Wilson, Emmanuelle Riva) or blithe nonagenarian (Diana Athill, Christopher Lee), there are thousands in that age group whose existence is a nightmare of bewilderment. I am the chief carer of an aged parent, a mother who is 93. If she could still use her brain, she would probably say her best age was 30. Her room is full of photographic reminders of those happy days. Nancy Mitford’s words—"I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups"—should be inscribed on all family albums. "There they are, held like flies, in the amber of that moment—click goes the camera, and on goes life."

Edward Carr 12

At 12, or thereabouts, you stand on the threshold between childhood and adolescence. In the room behind, the familiar furniture of early life has not yet been stacked to gather dust in some remote attic. In front stretches an expanse of unexplored landscape. It is a rare sensation: inchoate nostalgia spiced with novelty and the urgent need to step out into the world.

As the walls fall away, you know an adventure is about to begin. In "Treasure Island" Jim Hawkins leaves the Admiral Benbow Inn aboard the Hispaniola to cross the ocean in pursuit of pirate gold. Kipling’s Kim forsakes the lanes of Lahore to join a Tibetan Lama on a transcontinental journey in search of espionage and enlightenment. Huckleberry Finn flees confinement in his drunken father's cabin and takes to the great Mississippi, where he confronts white cruelty to black slaves.

Philip Pullman, the author of "His Dark Materials", has described the physical, intellectual and emotional processes of adolescence as the biggest change of all. His trilogy's heroine, Lyra Belacqua, quits Oxford for entire new universes as she and her friend, Will, discover how to pierce the fabric of their old reality. "Your life begins when you are born," Pullman told this magazine in 2007, "but your life story begins at that moment when you discover that you are in the wrong family."

I turned 12 in the long, hot summer of 1976. The grass was parched, and I never went to sea. Without Blind Pew to turn my life upside down, I stayed at home in our village. But inside my head I had glimpsed the world and it was so much wider than I had ever imagined. That summer Big Ben stopped working. There were riots at the Notting Hill Carnival. In a place called Entebbe, some brave commandos from Israel freed a plane-load of hostages.

The days seemed to stretch on for ever. I was in the wrong family and between schools. I had leapt out of the small pond and I was ready for the big one to be ten times deeper.

Four of us, best friends about to head in different directions, took our bikes and went camping by Romney Marsh. We cooked sausages and beans over the fire. We cycled in the sun and ate ice-cream. We smoked hay rolled up in leaves and drank too much Coke. If we'd been two years younger we'd have been kept at home. If we'd been two years older we'd have puffed Bensons and swilled Carlsberg, and that wouldn't have been half so much fun. Poised for a brief moment between innocence and transgression, we had it all.

Uta Frith 65-70

My husband thinks I should have chosen 70-75, as this is the age we actually are: what could be better than being happy right now? But I can feel my joints getting creakier and my brain sometimes groping for the right word, so the contentment comes with a certain amount of annoyance. At 65, by contrast, I felt an exhilarating sense of freedom. I had just retired, which freed me from the pressure to perform. I no longer had grant proposals to write, rejections to overcome, achievements to demonstrate to an insatiable bureaucracy. Impressed by the Slow Food movement, I decided that I could now do Slow Science.

I felt energised and took on new hobbies and causes, including doing what I could to encourage women in science to break the glass ceiling. Being retired gives you the freedom to say "no, thanks", which I thrived on. It also means being able to say "bye-bye until next time" to the grandchildren at the end of a visit, which makes their company all the more delightful. It’s not like middle age, when your children are your 24-hour responsibility, with all the anxieties this entails and all the doubts about whether you are doing the right thing. If you’re in a leadership position, then this is also true for work. In old age these worries fade and you can take some risksbe a bit irresponsible again.

There is another kind of anxiety that withers away: fretting about your flaws and limitations. You become more accepting of yourself, which in turn allows you to become more tolerant of others. Old people are often credited with wisdom, and I certainly aspire to being wise and nice. Actually, I think women over 65 can be very powerful, because they no longer need to prove themselves. At the same time, we have to accept that life will end, sooner rather than later. Another aspiration is that this should be a comforting thought, not an upsetting one. I’m working on that.

Robert Guest 18

At 18 your mind and body are as powerful as they will ever be, yet you have no responsibilities. That is a recipe for fun.

In many countries, you are old enough to drink legally. In Britain, the law is barely enforced, so by 18 you have discovered that Martini Bianco with orange squash is disgusting. This means you feel wise and mature as you gargle with Carlsberg Special Brew. 

At 18, you have no marketable skills and so are unlikely to land a good job. But who cares? No one expects you to have a career yet. You don’t have any dependants, so you don’t need much money. And dead-end jobs can be delightful if they are not your final destination.

I worked as a caddy the summer I turned 18. It was glorious: fresh air, sunshine and Mars bars in the caddy-shack. Another job that year involved selling dog food in Japan: setting up stacks of cans of Pedigree Chum at railway stations and barking out sales slogans at passing throngs of commuters. The pay was lousy, but I got to spend a holiday in Tokyo, learning how to flirt in Japanese while eating squid dumplings.

It goes without saying that sex at 18 is pretty good. Neither of you has the slightest intention of settling down—or of getting up early the next morning. So long as you take a few simple precautions, you can both enjoy the rapture of the moment without worrying a hoot about the future.

Another advantage of being 18 is knowing that you are immortal. Rationally, you know that you are not; but emotionally you are sure that you are. That means you can do stupid and reckless things, such as climbing on rooftops or learning to drive.

Or, in my case, backpacking through the roughest parts of Brazil, staying in fleapits on unlit streets. Thank God I had a sensible friend to travel with.

He was also 18. But whereas I looked about 15, he had a big beard and a broad-brimmed hat. So all the muggers assumed he was my father, and probably carrying the cash. They robbed him four times in a month; me, never.

Thanks, Nick, and rest in peace. He died in his mid-30s, of a heart attack, reminding us all to live each year with gusto, because it may be our last.

Ian Jack 16

I was lost at my secondary school—not particularly good at anything, not even at rebelling or behaving badly—until I changed classes in my fifth year and got two new teachers whose encouragement made me light-headed with the feeling of possibility. Both were women, though of very different kinds and ages. Miss Cairns taught art and owed her spinsterhood, or so we imagined, to the man-shortage after the first world war. Miss McCombes taught English and came fresh from teacher-training college in Edinburgh. The first encouraged me to draw, the second to write. I sat on country walls with sketchbooks and measured distant objects in a professional way by shutting an eye and holding out a pencil. An essay on a tenement building was read aloud to the class and I published some pieces in the school magazine that were noticed by the local newspaper.

At home, my much older brother (27 to my 16) had already provided early tuition in foreign films and Penguin paperbacks. Between them, these three people gave me a new idea of what I could do; perhaps even who I could be. "You were the most precocious boy I ever knew," a schoolfriend from that time told me 50 years later, but all I remember is my excitement and innocence.

The year was 1961. I joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and marched against the American nuclear base in the Holy Loch. Needing a summer job, I worked as a bag-carrier to the surveyors who were laying out the approach roads to the second Forth Bridge. It meant I could afford a holiday in London, where I spent a week in a Kilburn bed-sit and went to the theatre to see Albert Finney as John Osborne’s Luther and Tom Courtenay as Billy Liar. Entrancing.

I thought I might like to be a drama critic. "How do I get to be Kenneth Tynan?" I asked Miss McCombes, who didn’t know, but suggested I make a start by studying Honours English at Edinburgh University.

I never went. As the Peter Cook sketch has it of the miner who couldn’t be a High Court judge, I didn’t have the Latin. The next year my writer-and-painter dreams were dashed by the practicality of finding paid employment and I went to work in the local library, consoling myself that John Braine ("Room at the Top") had started that way; I didn’t know about Philip Larkin. Life narrowed again, but my euphoria had been wonderful while it lasted. I remember cycling home one day from a sketching expedition, a paintbox in the saddlebag of my old Sun Wasp, and sprinting hell for leather along a rare flat stretch of road. A car drew alongside and the driver shouted through his window, "Son, you’re doing 25 miles an hour."  It felt much, much more.

Penelope Lively 55

I’ll settle for 55. A mid-life point—stresses of youth done with, tribulations of old age not yet there. And I speak with the wisdom of an octogenarian; when you are past 80, a woman of 55 is a mere slip of a girl. Just you wait…

I am a diarist. A glance at the diary for my 55th year reveals someone extremely busy, working hard. "What a week! Felt like an exhausted racehorse lumbering towards yet another fence, as each day passed." That sounds like a moan, but I know that it isn’t. The point is that one was able to take on all that, in healthy middle age. I was writing hard, the idea for the next novel simmering before this one was finished. My children were grown-up, and no longer needed my time or attention—though actually a first grandchild had recently arrived, so there was a certain amount of willing and welcome baby-minding.

I found middle age entirely satisfactory. A calm, reflective sort of time. Gone the anguishes and vanities of youth. As a writer, you have arrived at an interesting maturity—with any luck a productive one also. You have probably found out what you want to write about, and how to do it. But the same applies in other walks of life: by the mid-50s you are through with the excesses of youth, you have worked out who you are and what you need, and can get on with being and doing. If you have children, you can enjoy their company without hovering over their A-levels and lying awake at night because you haven’t heard them come in.

You are stouter, you may have a few grey hairs, you are distinctly partial to a glass of wine in the evening. So? You are also rich in life experience, more equable, less fraught, up for anything going but uncomplaining if it doesn’t turn up. Don’t worry, you 40-somethingsthe best is yet to be. 

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