Three Score Years and Ten

I find myself in reflective mood while writing this post. This is partly because, earlier in the year, in January to be more precise, I passed a psychological and biblical milestone: my 70th birthday. If I remember my RE studies at boarding school correctly, there is mention of three score years and ten somewhere in the bible. I forget the context, but I assume it refers to the span of a man’s life. (I don’t remember if the estimate for a woman is different.) I refer to my present state of contemplation also because earlier this month, my wife and I attended a 70th birthday celebration of a friend who lived next door to me while I was a postgraduate student at Birmingham University. It was a splendid event, which included a ride on a red routemaster bus and a cruise on the River Cam. Several flatmates from our house in Edgbaston and the house next door were also at the event, together with their partners.

My academic age, as it were, is a year ahead of my contemporaries, which meant that my 70th birthday was the first of the group of friends I keep in touch with from our university days and was also the first amongst other friends who I have known for many years. One friend from my boarding school days had his 70th birthday earlier this month. So it begins: I’m waiting for everyone to catch up with me now that I am in my 71st year.

I looked around familiar faces while we were cruising on the river Cam, taking in the reality of decades of lives led since we graduated, of children born and grown to become adults, of careers made and left behind, of aspirations and ambitions realised or left out of reach and wondered whether the so-called baby boomer generation of the late 1940s has been more fortunate than later generations. I remember a remark made by J, a friend who lives in Edinburgh: ‘We’ve never had to go to war; we’ve largely had jobs for life; it was relatively easy to buy a house. We’ve been very lucky.” J is right: we have been lucky. I’ll add to J’s list that we didn’t have to pay for our higher education.

I can still bring to mind the sense of optimism that I felt when I eventually finished my university studies. In my 20s and 30s, I expected society to actually make progress and deal with the major issues and problems of the day such as homelessness, racism, and war in the Middle East. It turned out that history tends to repeat itself and society hasn’t learnt from the past: we are still faced with these same issues today.

It is often said that we are, once more, living in an age of anxiety, a term used by W. H. Auden in his poem written in 1948 in which a group of characters struggle to come to terms with a shifting world. In the past 18 months, the world order seems to have shifted again. The rise of populism has resulted in an incompetent president of the United States of America and a majority of the population of the United Kingdom was persuaded to leave a mutually beneficial economic arrangement with Europe. Other trends and events have severely dented my sense of optimism. The aftermath of events in Charlottesville, in the USA, brought a counter demonstration to the streets. One poster read: I can’t believe I’m demonstrating against Nazism over 70 years after WW2. At least the rise of the right in Europe has been tempered to some extent in The Netherlands and in Germany. The past few years have also witnessed a rise in random acts of terrorism: another factor that can contribute to a collective sense of anxiety.

When I was in my 20s, I seemed to think that sitting around listening to The Grateful Dead and Dylan would somehow change the world. Whatever were we thinking at the time? I still listen to Dylan but for the way in which his words and music engage with me emotionally. After the carefree days of university, it soon became apparent that one actually had to do something to make a difference. I hope that I managed to make a difference to some of the undergraduates who I taught during my time as a university lecturer. Now that I’m retired from the academic life and am a little older and, I hope, a little wiser, it is clear to me that the baby boomer generation failed to bring about the global changes that we thought were possible. Rather than attempt to change society, I hope that I make a difference by setting my sights on more simple acts nearer to home, as it were, by being: a loving and caring husband; a good neighbour; a loyal friend; a kind and helpful uncle and great uncle. Since my retirement I have, at last, found some voluntary work that makes use of my teaching skills. I will have to leave the bigger issues to the next generations.

Despite the difficulties faced by many of our fellow citizens, which leave me feeling helpless and enraged, there is much to savour and take pleasure in to counter feelings of anxiety and concern: the happy sound of next door’s children when they arrive home after a day at primary school; the colours of autumn; the sound of the sea – to name but a few. Overarching these and other everyday delights is the undimmed love and companionship of my wife, which has sustained me for almost 45 years.

Perhaps it is merely coincidence but a couple of incidents this year have made me aware of a feeling of vulnerability. Earlier this year, I spent a long night in A & E following a minor fall when I slipped off a kerb in an attempt to get into a taxi. The funniest thing was reading my medical notes that were sent to my GP. Elderly man fell out a taxi. Then, last month I took a tumble off my bike and hit the ground headfirst. Saved by my helmet. My annual checkup at the Birmingham and Midland Eye Clinic shows that the vision in my right eye is not as good as it was. Conclusion: I must take my limitations into account. I intend to continue to ride my bike though but I’ve decided not to train for any more sponsored bike rides.

Our nail technician, L, said to me earlier this week while we were at our hairdresser: “Your age is just a number”. I think that she was trying to tell me something. Perhaps I’ll feel different when it’s my 71st birthday.

We were at Warwick Arts Centre recently for a brilliant talk and presentation by Gordon Buchanan, the wildlife photographer and cameraman. We were waiting in the queue for Mr. Buchanan to sign one of his prints, when I noticed a poster for the film Belle de Jour. I wandered over to the refreshments counter behind which the poster was displayed; the staff were packing up for the evening. The conversation went as follows:

“Can I help you, sir?’

“I’ve forgotten who directed Belle de Jour,” I said. “I can’t read the name from here.”

“Luis Bu …” She struggled with the surname.

“Ah, of course, that’s who it was, Luis Buñuel.”

“We’re showing it to celebrate its 50 year anniversary.”

“No! Fifty years! I saw it at university when it came out,” I said. “Fifty years, that makes me feel very old.”

‘You don’t look old,” she replied.

“Thank you very much, you are very kind,” I replied and rejoined my wife to see Gordon.

Dylan says:

The only thing I knew how to do

Was to keep on keepin’ on …

I plan to keep on keeping on for as long as possible. My mum often reminded me that I often told her that I wanted to become a tramp and live to be one hundred. I think I’ll skip the first ambition. Hang on though …

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