Thursday, 31 July 2014
I'm finding that being 60 is oddly like being 16 again. Not, unfortunately, in the good ways (although the main down-side of being 16 is that you are incapable of appreciating what these are). It's just that, after a long period of time when somebody's age seemed the least notable thing about them (for most of my life I've assumed that anyone vaguely adult must be older than me) I find that embarking on this new phase of life means that small relative differences in age have once again become significant. So, a 55-year old and a 65-year old are as different to me now as an 11-year old and a 21-year old were back then. After all, the first may be a whole decade or more away from retirement, and the second will probably already have retired. In one of those moments of revelatory stupidity*, I have just realised that these would be exactly the same people, then and now.
I read someone saying somewhere recently (sorry, whoever you were, I didn't make a note) that it seemed they had spent their entire life preparing for something -- reading books, acquiring skills, accumulating stuff -- without ever quite figuring out what it might be, and now felt the time had come when this constant preparation should probably stop. I feel much the same.
Once, for example, learning Russian seemed like a really useful thing to do; now, much less so. I can safely close the door that once led to an alternative universe, the one where I became a Russian specialist in the late 1980s, just in time to catch those Interesting Times when the Soviet Union was collapsing and re-emerging as a kleptocracy. Though, ironically, that was also precisely the time when most Russian departments in British universities were being closed down. Not so much the "end of history", then, as the end of languages, both ancient and modern. So, with some relief, I need never again concern myself with the accusative form of animate nouns or the use of verbs of motion. Asked, "Do you speak Russian?", I will now answer, "No, not really".**
Similarly, I may soon give up noodling on the guitar. Not because I don't enjoy it, which I do, and not just because it's beginning to hurt, though it certainly is, the penalty for being left-handed and self-taught on a borrowed instrument strung for a right-hander. It's also because, like learning Russian, it's a broken link to a path not taken, the one where some promising rehearsals with a band back in the 1970s led to a performing and songwriting career. I can finally stop preparing myself to step out on stage and delight an audience with my rich back-catalogue of witty, original songs, not least because it seems I never got around to writing any. Oh well, Richard Thompson can stop looking over his shoulder, now.
There comes a point where such half-finished, could-have-been-handy things become useless baggage, holding you back and slowing you down. In youth and even in middle-age this didn't matter. In the chaotic, improvisatory business of building a life, there's plenty of room for shelved dreams and alternative, "Plan B" strategies; it's as if you're on some major expedition, with space on the ship for absurd but plausible junk like collapsible canoes, cleft sticks, and maybe even a few spare pianos. The contemporary regard for openness, multiplicity, diversity, and resistance to closure is perhaps one of the ways in which the worship of open-ended youthfulness has worked its way into the culture (never mind philosophy, check out the Lytro light-field camera). No need to decide now, keep your options open!
Which is fine, until the truth begins to dawn that old age will not be an easy descent into a lush green valley in an air-conditioned, all-terrain vehicle with a convivial crew of companions, but a solitary climb on foot into a high rocky place where the air gets awfully thin. Better leave that collapsible canoe behind. Shame about the pianos. A couple of those cleft sticks might come in handy, though.
Which brings me to the books. All those books. "Have you read all these books?" our more unlettered visitors often ask. Well, yes, or rather, more yes than no. But how many of them will I ever read again? How many will remain unread? Difficult questions, but at some point there will have to be a great reckoning in a little room.
But, listen, I'm nowhere near that old yet. There's an important difference between a decluttering exercise and a house clearance. I will certainly be needing some of those books in the coming years. Though perhaps not the ones in Russian. And How To Write Popular Songs That Sell is definitely going to Oxfam.
* There surely must be a word for these moments -- the opposite of a revelation, an epiphany or satori -- when one realises, "By Simpson, I'm such an idiot...".
** Still, I will always be able to amuse Russian speakers with my paradoxically fluent excuse for why my Russian is so poor: Po slovam Chekhova, znat' tri yazyka nenuzhnaya roskoshch' (In the words of Chekhov, to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury), something I mined many years ago from the rich lode of illustrative quotations in the Oxford Russian-English Dictionary.