Friday 7 June 2024

The New Old

This business of becoming old has occupied my thoughts lately, for obvious reasons. It must always have been a tricky adjustment to make, but may be especially so for a generation that, rhetorically at least, hoped to die before enduring that grim fate, or at least to remain eighteen until the bitter end (ridiculous and misguided, obviously: I'd settle for thirty-six).

Of course, what "old" means in 2024 is rather different from what it meant in 1964, say, when I was ten and very far from old.

Back then, the elderly seemed to belong to a single tribe. At least, that was the case where the older people of my acquaintance were concerned. They dressed alike, all seemed equally at odds with modern life, and lived quiet lives on the periphery of our everyday concerns. They were old; nothing more. Although it's true that they were also old working-class people: short on schooling, unambitious, and after retirement in their mid-sixties terminally tired and seemingly devoid of purpose; sitting out their final years like flight-delayed travellers stranded in death's departure lounge. A coach trip to the seaside, a few drinks and a nostalgic singalong was about as good as it got. Really? No thanks! Cue up My Generation...

Famously, those post-war decades were the years when a heady rush of aspiration, opportunity, and youthfulness was coursing through the veins our tired old country. To be old, or to adopt the values of the old, was to be on the wrong side of history: for a light-hearted take, watch A Hard Day's Night. Almost overnight, it seemed to have become the elderly, not children, who were to be seen and not heard.

This was a child's perspective, obviously. In those days it was quite normal to know almost nothing about your grandparents; even, sometimes, their first names. Mine, certainly, existed behind an impenetrable wall of polite indifference, unable to help with school work, incurious about books or music, and seemingly incapable of sustained conversation, not least with an annoying and exhaustingly bright and bookish young grandchild, the very embodiment of the Brave New World in which they had found themselves adrift at the end of their lives, like first generation immigrants from a very foreign country. After all, back then, even plastics and television were still mind-blowing novelties, never mind the imminent prospect of actually flying to the moon. It must have been overwhelmingly strange.

Tom and Ivy (my maternal grandparents)

But, enough about them, then; what about us, now? We are the New Old, many of us gifted the likelihood of a decade or two more life than even our parents enjoyed, due to easy living, good diet, and modern medicine, although this prospect is given a certain edge by an inheritance of genes finally set free to express themselves in all sorts of good, bad, and random ways that evolution has not had time (and may never have cause) to catch up with. For the luckier ones among us, it can seem that death's grim departure lounge has lately been expanded and transformed into some sort of well-resourced holiday camp (not necessarily an attractive prospect, of course: see The Prisoner...). On the other hand, for the less lucky ones it has become the very grim prospect indeed of a lengthy stay in some cut-price care home.

One of our particular distinguishing features, I think, is that we are the first couple of generations of older folk who acquired various niche tribal identities and loyalties in our youth, often based on nothing more than our taste in music. It is important, at least to each individual's sense of self, that Paul was once a punk, Steve was a stoner, Harriet was a hippie, and Gail was a goth. These identities may have become submerged by adult life, but always persist at some level. Other, less frivolous youthful identities may have remained at the surface: Fran will never have abandoned her radical feminism, for example, and Robbie is still anticipating a revolution of some sort as the cure for all social ills. But such serious-minded orientations are very different from the sort of tribe mainly characterised by fashions in hair, clothes, music, drugs, and vague philosophies of life based on hearsay and song lyrics.

I think it's true to say that this sort of elective "lifestyle" identity had previously only been common among those living on the colourful fringes of society, where the bohemian and criminal classes found common cause in their rejection of conventional lifestyles. But our post-war safety nets had become sufficiently capacious for the young to "cosplay" as colourful outsiders for a while without suffering the consequences. And many did, especially during that time out from real life endowed by free higher education, or by a period of unemployed creative idleness financed by state benefits. You could choose from a whole dressing-up box of identities for a few years, then in most cases put away childish things (not to mention dangerous things) in the interests of family, career, and generally "fitting in".

True, increasingly from the 1960s you could continue to have your rebel cake and eat it, too [1]. You no longer had to buy into the whole conformist package to have a professional career, for example. At least, up to a point. It's one thing to refuse to wear a suit and tie or a skirt and heels; quite another to turn up late for work looking like you've spent the last few nights in a shop doorway. The line dividing "acceptable" from "unacceptable" behaviours is constantly moving – just look at all those Senior Sirs with their designer stubble and smart-casual open collars – but it will never move fast or far enough to accommodate the bone-deep rebel or misfit.

You, like me, probably have friends who have managed successfully to evade a lifetime of conventional employment. Result! (I suppose?). But in the more extreme cases (I think of my recently-deceased friend Tony) there can be a heavy price to pay for a refusal to "fit in": poverty, failed relationships, homelessness, and even prison terms and mental ill-health. There's an enormous difference between looking like an outsider and actually becoming an outsider. There's really no coming back from having "FUCK OFF" tattooed onto your forehead, whether literally or metaphorically, is there?

As for the rest of us, those latent tribal identities may sometimes start to emerge again in old age, like some treasured article of clothing kept in the back of the wardrobe for years, or pulling the tarp off an old motorbike stored in the shed. After decades of conventional life, no matter how "bourgeois bohemian" in style, some of us in our retirement years will choose to raise again the pirate flag of our ancient youthful affiliations. Why this should be is an interesting question. Perhaps it's to show presumptuous young 'uns that it's all been done before by the true pioneers (see my ancient post You Can All Join In)? Or perhaps it's just a way of signalling that you are finally free of wage slavery, living the life you had always meant to live?

Whatever the reasons, this sort of reversion is doubtless just an outward manifestation of the eternal nostalgia for lost youth, and only appears to be something new because there had previously been nothing much to revert to for previous generations of old folk, who had mostly left school at fourteen and immediately had to start looking for work: no extended educational opportunities or state benefits in those days! As is often pointed out, the "teenager" is very much a post-war invention.

Although it is true that my father did rediscover himself as "WW2 veteran" in his old age, donning a regimental blazer and medals at Remembrance Sunday services, something he had conspicuously avoided doing for all of the preceding five decades. But that was an identity earned the hard way, and not one freely chosen off any pick 'n' mix teenage rack: "Hmm, maybe I'll spend the next five years overseas in uniform, doing whatever stupid and dangerous things I'm told to do while dodging bombs and bullets? Hey, sounds great!" It has to be admitted, though, that despatch riders did have a pretty high quotient of cool, and it must have had its moments.

Dad in Calcutta, en route to Burma, 1944

Our own later-life declarations of affiliation to lifestyle packages abandoned decades ago are not necessarily false-flag operations. The legendary "fifty-quid bloke" who sustained record stores for many years always remained loyal to his music of choice: the rest of the package was fun, formative, but secondary. You simply can't work as a doctor or lawyer, for example, or teach classes of thirty-plus adolescents while nursing a hangover or stoned out of your gourd (don't ask me how I know this). But retirement means "fun" can come back into the picture, however defined, delimited, or constrained in old age. And why not?

A shorthand for all this might be "old men with ponytails". It can take many other outward forms, of course, although it does quite often seem to involve a leather jacket, shades, and a "characterful" hat of the sort favoured by musicians. Thin, grey, balding hair is not a youthful look, though, and it has to be conceded that the phenomenon is more often than not a male thing, women generally being more aware of when something is making them look ridiculous. Perhaps "ram dressed as lamb" is an expression that should be in wider circulation. [2] But then not caring that you look ridiculous is all part of the fun, isn't it?

Some old idiot, Xmas 2021

Talking of which, if ever I need cheering up I find that a guaranteed source of mirth are those ubiquitous documentaries on the streaming services about "classic" rock and pop, usually cobbled together from very brief clips of actual recorded performances, generously padded out with "talking head" interviews with a rogues gallery of venerable musicians, ex-musicians, journalists, and record producers, all now well into their seventies and eighties. Who are, naturally, usually kitted out with a leather jacket, shades, and a characterful hat, despite sitting indoors under studio lights.

That the once slender, shaggy-haired guitarist of long-forgotten band X – seen wrestling with a Stratocaster in a clip from The Old Grey Whistle Test ca. 1972 – now looks like a paunchy plumber (something he may well have become out of necessity in the intervening decades), or that the flamboyant lead singer now resembles a wizened shrunken head on a stick, ought not to be surprising: the depredations of age and excess on the male body are as sadly predictable as male-pattern baldness. Neither, indeed, should it necessarily be hilarious. But it almost invariably is, in a Schadenfreude sort of way.

But the hilarity is double-edged. To laugh at these guys togged up to re-live their brief days of glory as minor deities of rock half a century ago is also to laugh at one's own vanity, at the tragic absurdity of the New Old wanting to be forever young.

Eighteen 'til I die? Ridiculous... As I say, I'd happily settle for thirty-six.

Forever young in Swanage, ca. 1960

1. "You can't have your cake and eat it, too"...This is one of the more curious English proverbial expressions, usually directed at someone who doesn't realise or can't accept that they're faced with a binary choice. As a child, even as a native speaker with an interest in language, it took me years to work this one out: how could you eat a cake without having it? But "to have" here means "to still be in possession of" your cake, having eaten it, an impossible wish. That is, assuming (a) having it inside you doesn't count as "possession", (b) you only had just one small cake, or (c) weren't eating a large cake one slice at a time... Do you still "have" a partially eaten Victoria sponge, for example? One for the philosophers...

2. A play on another curious expression: "mutton dressed as lamb". Quite apart from the sneering misogyny, it's interesting how the original sense of "dressed" (i.e. "prepared for the table") has been lost, resulting in the curious idea that sheep should always be seen wearing age-appropriate clothes.

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