In general, I must say that I honestly
enjoyed life slightly more when I was younger. I loved the 1970s. I left school
at the start of that decade and got married at the end of it, while the years
in between were filled with all sorts of adventures, including political
campaigning and first steps in journalism. I relished the 1980s, which took me
as an Army wife to the then-divided city of Berlin. There, by the end of the
decade, communism was crumbling and in 1990 the ghastly Berlin Wall fell,
hacked down by joyful people celebrating freedom.
I spent the nineties and the noughties
being busy and getting books published and rushing about doing things which
were sometimes useful, sometimes not. Now it’s 2011 and I’m edging into the later
stages of middle age.
Perks? They include sitting quietly in a
pub reading. I remember being told, categorically and firmly, as a young woman
that I really shouldn’t go into a pub alone and order a drink. It Just Wasn’t
Done. On the whole, I think this was wise advice: I didn’t like hanging around
in a pub on my own waiting for someone, and I am grateful for having been
brought up to believe that I didn’t need to do so. Boyfriends arrived on time,
or met one at home or work beforehand, and accompanied one to a pub. Or, if it
was a girly evening, it tended not to happen at a pub but at a chatty
restaurant or pizza-place, or some one’s home. It all sounds old-fashioned now,
but it was fun and it worked.
As a young woman, when I was on my own and
needed somewhere to sit for a while, I went to a cafe or a coffee-shop, a
library or a park or – well, anywhere pleasant, but not a pub. Now I’m
middle-aged my options have expanded. The other day I was in a town some
distance from home, with an afternoon meeting behind me and an evening event
that didn’t happen for another two hours. I had some revising to do for a major
project, and a stack of material to study. I was hungry and I needed a drink. I
went into a pub, ordered a beer-shandy and some fish-and-chips, and settled
down comfortably at a window table with a pleasant view.
Middle-aged women don’t attract attention,
unless they are being annoying, drunk, argumentative, or complaining. We merge
into the background. I sat and studied with quiet pleasure. The bar staff were
efficient and pleasant, the fish-and-chips were good. I was sorry when the two
hours were over.
Being middle-aged means memories: some
months ago, on going through my elderly mother’s shelves as we organised her
move into a residential home near me, I found the log-book kept year on year
for family holidays. What a poignant pleasure it was to re-live some of those
trips and picnics, damp barbeques and searing hot seaside days, idiotic family
jokes and long chatty evenings over wine and snacks…all written up in my late
father’s dear handwriting, all coming alive as I turned the pages.
Being middle-aged means friendships. The
old ones matter more than ever, and new ones are a delight. Nephews and nieces
who were small children not so long ago are confident young adults: “Auntie –
why not come over for a meal?” “Auntie – you must see this play!” They will disagree with you and explain where
you are wrong: “Oh, stop worrying about that, Auntie…” They make you laugh
and give you joy, and challenge your ideas and enlarge your mind.
There are some things about being
middle-aged that I don’t like at all. I am saddened by the thought that history
gets distorted according to who writes it, and that each new generation tends
to forget, or twist, or ignore much of the good that has gone before.
Will people remember just how glorious it
was when a Polish Pope called out to the world “Do not be afraid!”, or the joy
that erupted as he visited Poland, and people strewed flowers in his path, and rediscovered
the public affirmation of a faith that they had never abandoned? Will people
remember how good it was when ecumenical friendships began to be the norm in
the 1970s and 80s, and Christians of different denominations started to have
Walks of Witness on Good Friday and joint carol services at Christmas, as a
normal part of the local scene in towns and suburbs around Britain? These
things now seem quite ordinary, but at the time they were innovative, and
joyful, and they achieved something important.
Being middle-aged brings a sense of
absurdity. Young people can’t imagine what it was like to grow up in a Britain
where not many houses had central heating, most suburban shops were closed at
lunch-time and after 6pm, and all sorts of now-standard foods (avocados,
different pastas, Italian sauces, kiwifruit, to name just a few) were unknown.
I find myself explaining that it was normal to have a disused WWII air-raid
shelter in the garden and to use it as a bike-shed.
Being middle-aged makes you wistful. Of
course a computer is useful – I am writing this on one – but I mourn with
anguished parents whose children have become addicted to Facebook and vicious
gossip, or whose attempts to get the family together for a cheery meal have
been thwarted by the endless ringing of mobile phones or must-read incoming
emails. I am worried by the horrible loss of personal freedom and dignity
involved in people secretly filming others and posting the results on YouTube,
by the gross reality of internet pornography, by the loss of community values
in the “anything goes” world of sex-saturated and violent material available at
the click of a mouse.
The perks of middle-age include greater
knowledge of all sorts of things – history, religion, politics – and an ability
to place things in context: “This too will pass”. The sorrows include a
realisation that what is achieved by one generation can be lost by the next,
that people are not always fair to their predecessors, that there is a lot of
injustice in the world, and that some – too many – problems do not admit of an
And the next stage is old age. My mother is
90 now, and a great-grandmother. On her shelf, crowded with mementoes, pictures
of her three brothers, all now dead, jostle with pictures of grandchildren who
are now parents themselves, a commemorative plate from the silver jubilee of
Queen Elizabeth II in 1977, and a papal flag from the visit to Benedict XVI
just last year. Sometimes, she’s forgetful and confused, but then there is a
sudden crystal clarity: “I do love all you so much,” she said at a family
gathering the other day. It is reciprocated. There are perks to old age, too.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.