When I was a student I mourned the
fact that by the time the new millennium dawned I would be far too ancient in
my orthopaedic sandals to party into the 21st century. From where an
18-year-old stands, 32 looks like the distant peak of Mt Decrepitude. I did not
anticipate the mass rebellion against ageing, the commuters reading Harry
Potter and the businessmen with their Nintendo DSs.
Like Peter Pan, two entire
generations have simply refused to grow up. Although a study this week showed
that the average Brit believes you stop being young at 35 and start being old
at 58, I don’t know anyone aged 35 to 55 who gracefully accepts the tag
“middle-aged”, nor anyone between 50 and 70 who describes themselves as “old”.
When the patron saints of the baby boomers, the Rolling Stones, still cling to
their leather, it’s unsurprising that their fans are equally regressed. Linda
Kelsey’s article in The Daily Telegraph last week about how her 50-something
husband took a gap year, then left home altogether, is a parable for the age.
My husband will be 58 next year. I
tried to ask him if he felt ancient, but he couldn’t hear my question as he was
playing Florence and the Machine so loudly. In many ways my spouse is the most
grown-up person I know, but still he has a buzz-cut, a rack of T-shirts,
endless rock CDs, a soft spot for Torchwood, and is the father of two children
under the age of six. At the same age his father had retired to Scotland to
play golf, shoot and fish in sturdy tweed (he’d have turned the gun on himself
sooner than wear a T-shirt).
The contrast between my late mother
and me is even greater. I have a little square Kodak family photo from 1978,
when my mother turned 40. It shows a beaming, grey-haired woman in specs
standing on a rainy promenade at Brighton with her four older children. She’s
wearing a gathered skirt and camel coat, knee socks and Clarks lace-ups. My mum
did not age gracefully so much as wantonly, prematurely and utterly comfortably.
Here I am at 42, already raging against the dying of the light. My hair is
expensively streaked gold and red, I wear skinny Jamie jeans from Top Shop with
Converse. I dash from the school gate to London to go dancing with my girl
friends till the small hours. Not women friends, you’ll note, though none of us
will see 40 again.
The saying “mutton dressed as lamb”
is rapidly becoming obsolete. A leading sociologist this week cited “the Twiggy
effect” – named after the Sixties model who stars in Marks & Spencer’s
advertising – for inspiring older women to throw away their carries and buy
fashionable clothes. Professor Julia Twigg, who carried out the research, said,
“Women over 75 are now shopping for clothes more frequently than they did when
they were young in the 1960s.”
Jowly politicians heave themselves
onto the youth bus, too. David Cameron listens to Lily Allen and loves The
Wire, Gordon Brown prefers The X Factor to Strictly Come Dancing and, according
to Dizzee Rascal, Barack Obama’s victory was due to hip hop. And this week’s
hissy spat between Nadine Dorries MP and Esther Rantzen (PPC for Luton),
neither of them a stranger to a touch of lamb glam, reminded me of two girls at
a bus stop pulling one another’s hair.
The worry is when our desperate
clinging to youth becomes simple infantilisation: when everyone reads Heat and
no one reads Hume. But I don’t think we should be overly anxious about this
retrogressive trend: there’s much to be celebrated about the ever-growing band
of middle youth. I think it’s wonderful that a celebrated 60-something academic
and author like my friend Robert Irwin is equally a whizz on Rollerblades. I
love the fact that Vivienne Westwood is still a punk, that the late John Mortimer
was childishly enthusiastic about life until the day he died. Dylan Thomas was
surely right: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day” – just so long as
it’s not also dropping Es and wearing a boob-tube.