My friend Cosmo Landesman and I recently thought of an idea for a toilet book over lunch. Called ‘You Know You’re Getting Old When…’, it would be a compendium of all those moments when you suddenly get a whiff of mortality. By the end of the meal, the table was littered with paper napkins, all covered in our spidery scrawl.
For instance, under the heading ‘Men and their bodies’, we came up with the following: ‘You know you’re getting old when… you let out an involuntary fart when you bend over.’
Not funny? OK, try this. Under ‘Around the house’: ‘You know you’re getting old when… you’re yelling at the radio. But the radio isn’t on.’
OK, OK. Last one, I promise. Under ‘Language’: ‘You know you’re getting old when… you say “-wicked” or “awesome” instead of “thank you”.’
You won’t be surprised to learn that we shelved the idea almost immediately. Even the publishers of toilet books have standards. Our best hope is to turn it into a Christmas quiz for the Indy (total fee: £2.50).
Cosmo and I often joke about how old we feel, swapping anecdotes about some appalling, age-related indignity. The stories are usually exaggerated, and not just for comic effect. I think it’s a way of coping with our incipient fear of old age. We’re not actually suffering from advanced decrepitude, but we will be soon enough and pretending that we are already is a way to prepare for the coming storm.
I suspect this was the impetus behind the launch of the Oldie 20 years ago. Richard Ingrams, 55 at the time, said the magazine was supposed to be an antidote to the cult of youth that pervaded the media. But that was only part of the story. It was also a way of readying himself for the years to come.
As a coping strategy, I’m curious to know whether pretending to be old before your time actually works and I’d be interested to hear from readers on this point. (My email address is email@example.com.) My hunch is that it doesn’t. Indeed, not only does it fail to prepare you for the horrors of the shade, it may actually accelerate the process. That’s -certainly the view of my wife, who doesn’t find jokes about ageing remotely funny. She sees it as a form of giving up when she would prefer me to rage, rage against the dying of the light. The reason is that she’s 11 years younger than me and doesn’t want to become my nursemaid. Having devoted the last ten years of her life to wiping bottoms and cleaning up drool, she doesn’t fancy spending her twilight years doing the same.
But what’s the alternative to the Young-Landesman-Ingrams approach? Another part of the rationale for the Oldie, I’m sure, was to cock a snook at ghastly, middle-aged Peter Pan types who wear the latest designer clothes and say things like ‘40 is the new 20’. If you’re going to refuse to act your age, then it’s surely better to exaggerate how old you are than err in the opposite direction? There’s no sight more pathetic than a trendy dad in Queen’s Park, racing along on his skateboard with his nine-year-old son trailing behind. I’d prefer to be on a mobility scooter.
Is the answer to just do what comes naturally and not worry about whether it’s ‘age appropriate’? It’s not exactly rational to constantly dwell on the suffering that awaits us because it poisons the life we’re experiencing at the moment, when we’re in possession of all our faculties. Trouble is, it’s involuntary. As Martin Amis once observed, when you’ve passed the age of 45 you really have no choice what to think about when you wake up in the middle of the night. Or when you start daydreaming in the middle of the afternoon, come to that.
I dare say that coming up with ideas for toilet books over lunch is a sure sign that two weather-beaten hacks are approaching retirement. Once it was comic screenplays that would set Hollywood on fire and make our fortunes. Now it’s lavatorial humour. Having said that, even if we had succeeded in writing Oscar-winning movies, we’d probably still be prone to the same gallows humour. Ernest Lehman, the writer of Sabrina and North by Northwest, once remarked about his declining career: ‘It’s gotten to the point where I’m afraid to shake hands with a studio executive for fear of being picked up for child molestation.’
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.