Growing pains

Pimples disappear and maturity begins? Who admits to being a proper adult? Rose Shepherd takes soundings.
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Clare Short, politician

One of my brothers rang me up recently and said, "Clare, if I'm now 45, and you're 50, we must be grown up" - and he's quite a senior lawyer. There are seven of us, and your childhood is very much in your relationship with your brothers and sisters, because that is when you bonded, and all the memories, all the jokes, are framed around it.

The other thing I would say is that, when I was a young adolescent and started to get the odd pimple, people said, "Oh, when you're mature, they'll go." Yet I still have blackheads on my chin; I'm still waiting.

More seriously, something profound happened to me that is to do with growing up, when my father died. He was the first of my parents to die. Before that, I knew intellectually that everyone would die, but I became mortal then, and I knew my life was finite and something big had shifted. I probably became grown-up then. My brother and I aren't too sure, but we think we must be.

Nigel Williams, author and BBC television executive

To be honest, I don't really feel grown-up at all. I think people have an age that they think they are. I was about eight until the age of 30, and, now that I'm nearly 50, I feel about 18. I've been defiant about telling people I'm nearly 50. I'm 48, I'll be 49 next year, and I'm a bore on the subject: "Oh. I'm nearly 50." It's just a way of trying to get control of it, really.

My wife was away making a film earlier this year, and I was sitting in my office at about nine o'clock in the evening when Jack, the second of my three teenage kids, came in with his girlfriend. I was going, "Nobody likes me. Who can I call?" and he was really sympathetic. Not that I ask for my kids to look after me, but I think they could relate to the question.

There are times, in a meeting of squabbling executives, say, when I think, "My God, I'm the only grown-up in the room!" That's a function of having children, which does, from the day they're born, completely condition our responses. I sort of feel mature until I open my mouth.

I think children have a lot of innate maturity and wisdom. I feel passionately that those hotels and restaurants that exclude them on the grounds that they are little monsters are usually run by people who themselves have not coped with the children within them in some way. And, just because we put on suits and things, it doesn't mean we're adults.

I'm very anti keeping cool - I'm very down on fronts. I think the point about a front is that we invent these ways of coping with the adult world, but very often our own behaviour is far from adult. I was on Wimbledon Common the other day, and there was a little boy who'd been left behind, he was really annoyed about something, and his mum and dad and the other boy, who was a good boy, holding on to his dad, were walking away. The little boy was screaming and stamping his foot. But who was the child in that situation? The mother - because women are more mature than men - kept saying, "Well, you go on, I'll sort this out," and Dad was saying, "No, no, he's got to stay there." He was six foot two, but he was being a lot more childish than the little boy.

I think middle age is starting to crawl up the road towards me. It's when people say, "You know Gordon, who's married to Veronica - he's not that old: he's about 60." That's when middle age starts.

Marina Warner, writer

As I've now entered an age when I'm expected to be an adult, I have discovered that it's actually very different from how I had thought it would be. I think adulthood has connotations of sobriety and mature restraint. It rather goes back to some sort of philosophical idea that one should have one's passions under control - that a true, wise person lives in a state of moderation, self-control, discipline.

But, having reached that sad point when friends are dying, I find that, actually, what adulthood means is not at all sobriety or restraint, but a desperate, passionate desire to make the moment speak, to have the moment at its fullest, because suddenly people whom you'd expected to see for the rest of your life, or to have lunch with next month, are no longer there. This, in the years that are meant to be the adult years, has actually returned me more to a kind of sense of urgency that you have when you're young, of not letting things drift or deferring them too much, because they may not be there again.

Jeremy Paxman, broadcaster

It was depressing being 20 because one imagined that all those neuroses one had in one's late teens would have somehow been sorted out, and they weren't.

By the time one got to 40, one realised that one was never going to get the answers to any of the big questions, and, therefore, it didn't matter at all - there was no reason to be depressed by it.

The big thing about adulthood is the realisation that the die is cast, and one can be regretful about it but there's really not much point. I think the character of adulthood is encapsulated by those lines in TS Eliot's Four Quartets, where he says: "Footfalls echo in the memory, down the corridor we didn't take, through the door we didn't open, to the rose garden." That's middle-age, that's adulthood - realising you didn't take that corridor, didn't open that door, and that there might have been a rose garden on the other side of it, but equally there might not.

Roy Porter, historian

I got stuck at being an undergraduate, which I think is probably quite common amongst people of my background. That was a spurt into consciousness, getting away from home, getting away from school, getting away from the locality. Suddenly, you were somewhere different, and studying, and autonomous. It's a sense of being a little fish in a big pond, or a small person in a big world; it's a feeling that it's still a world run by other people who set you tasks, where, in a juvenile way, you are still looking for approval, or at least feeling that you're on probation.

I've always tried to get away with life by behaving as though I were still 18. It's that sense of, as it were, trying to avoid wearing a mask. I don't know if I just got stuck like that, if it suited me, or if it just seemed as good a way as any of making one's way in the world. It's quite an agreeable role to carry on playing, because people are quite tolerant and forgiving if one seems to be a sort of honest inquirer.

I certainly still have much the same sorts of feelings of new joys and explorations and uncertainties as I remember feeling in my teens and early twenties. I didn't learn to drive a car until I was 50. I learned to drive in Los Angeles on the freeways, and I felt 16-and-a-half. As soon as I passed my test, every spare second I got into the car and drove around with the Beach Boys on loud.

I wondered if the day would come when I'd stop feeling like this, when I'd be bored or blase. But I still have the pleasure I had when I was a teenager, finding a new author, reading heaps of new books - it really excites me, and in a way t's totally schoolboyish.

I think if one becomes a parent, one has to adopt new roles. I spent eight or nine years bringing up a stepdaughter, and one could always say, "Well, she's not really mine," and therefore I could almost be a companion to this child rather than a father. I imagine if I'd been in other life situations, if I'd had lots of children and become a bank manager, I would have had to behave differently, but whether I would just have been wearing a mask I have no idea. Being an academic, I am in a line of country where you can go on being undergraduate-like all your life, wear what clothes you like, keep your own hours, and be approved of for being a free spirit.

The woman I live with is 20 years younger than me, and all her friends are 20 years older than she is, whereas all my friends are 20 years younger than I. Whenever I go out and see her friends, I think: "God, how old these people are!"; then I think, "No, they're just a little bit younger than me." Then, when she meets my friends, she says: "What are you doing going around with those students? You're old enough to be their..." - it used to be "their father"; soon it will be "their grandfather". It's not their youth that I like, because I don't particularly find young people attractive, but there is a sort of freshness that I find agreeable.

I still think it will be appalling to be middle-aged. I know this sounds silly but, if I started losing my teeth, I should begin to feel old. I don't mind about losing my hair, because that seems sort of trivial, but teeth feel like bits of me. And I'm still at the rather juvenile stage of resisting wearing glasses. It's very silly, but there is a symbolic transition: I think wearing glasses would be the beginning of the end.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley, poet

I don't think I've ever felt the age I actually am. When I was a very small child, I felt about a hundred. There's a story called "The Changeling", where the fairy child sees somebody boiling beer in an eggshell. She says: "I'm as old as the oldest oak tree, brewing in an eggshell I never did see", and then flies up the chimney. I had something of that feeling when was a kid; I identified with that story very strongly.

Then, once I reached the age that's supposed to be adult, for ages I thought I was under 16. Several times I filled in competitions for the under-16s and then thought, "God, no, I'm 30!"

From there, the age that I felt crept up gradually. I'm pregnant now, and that's made me feel slightly older. My real age is 41, but I feel more in my twenties, really.

Kathy Lette, novelist

As I continue to use my hairbrush as a microphone to croon along to pop songs in the bedroom mirror, give truck drivers with questionable bumper- bar stickers the finger, and avoid my veggies, I console myself that I'm just like a fine Hermitage - good wines take the longest to mature. But with two kids, a mortgage and FOSBS (Fear of Saggy Bottom Syndrome), I suspect I might be reaching the decanting stage.

The trouble is, it's terribly hard to tell when you've grown up. I suspect the fact that I've become the bewildered recipient of those weird envelopes with cellophaned windows is probably a sign; as is refusing to go on a romantic camping trek into the wilds without my manicurist, personal computer and Good Food Guide.

Actually, I don't think there are all that many adults about - just good adult-fakers. Take Clinton, Dick Morris and practically the entire Tory Party. They may pretend to have pin-striped morals, but these are men who went straight from puberty to adultery