Wisdom doesn't change with the passing of the years

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I AM about to become invisible. It hasn't quite happened yet, but bit by bit, step by step, year by year, I am ceasing to exist. On buses, on trains, in the street, people already walk passed as if I am not there. In queues, in shops, in restaurants, people look straight through me. Those who know me, know me. Are aware of my existence. But strangers are no longer seeing me.

When I come across groups, outside William Ellis school after my walk on Hampstead Heath, or catching up other football supporters on my way to White Hart Lane, they don't stand aside, don't move to let me through. I do not enter their consciousness. And why should I. At the age of 62, I am neither a threat, nor an attraction. I am not a force to be reckoned with.

The young and the young middle aged, male or female, are noticed. They are eyed up, fancied, liked, disliked, criticised, rated, graded, feared, or just noted. Never ignored. Someone out there has always registered their presence.

But with age, we all begin to fade. In every sense. In three years time, if and when I get to 65, I will probably have completely disappeared.

That could be fun. I'll ring MI6 and offer to be a spy. One of the pluses of being over 60 is that if you look reasonably clean, appear reasonably civilised, you can walk in and out of anywhere. Because you are not seen, you are not stopped.

You can go into the poshest of hotels, use their facilities. Float past the security desk of a major company, have a meal or drink in their subsidised canteen. Oldies are not suspected. If MI6, in their stupidity, have an age limit, and turn me down, then a burglar. Burglaring could also be fun. We should all be prepared, so we are told, for career changes.

If, please God, I do get to 65, though my knee is awfully sore today, and my arthritic toe is giving me gip, and I keep going to, say, 75, then 85, then wow, I could reach the age of 90. Something strange is then likely to happen. I will become visible again.

Over the last two years, I have been talking to people aged 96, 97 and 98 for my book, Born 1900 (Little Brown, pounds 16.99). Remarkable, even today, to reach that great age, but even more remarkable to be fit and well, mentally and physically.

Most were in their own homes, usually with a son or daughter near by to keep an eye on them. Two were even driving their own cars. One was still working. They had survived two World Wars, seen many things. All of them had a presence.

My father-in-law, who had inspired the project, because he too had been born in 1900, never told people his age until he got to 90. From then on he boasted, as I would. He spoke his mind, told people off. In the nursing home, he would tell nurses they were getting fat, or had a spot on their chin, as if they didn't know. They would laugh at his cheek, amused by him, tell others about him, and his age. He could get away with anything.

In his sixties, he'd probably become invisible. Now, in some ways, he was not just visible, but larger than he'd been in his life. He demanded, he was attended to, people were aware of him. He had become a Character.

I'm looking forward to that. I have gone through life hardly ever giving offence, rarely speaking out, never having arguments, which of course is suitable and fitting for someone of my age now, about to disappear. If and when I re-emerge as a real Oldie, I hope to become a Character - to be reckoned with.

On the other hand, I will probably start moaning about the Modern World, which I haven't done, so far. Almost all of the 25 I interviewed, born in 1900, didn't think much of what we like to consider progress. They didn't like the speed of life, the stresses, the traffic, our materialism, our greed, our lack of courtesies, our cruelty, our obsession with sex.

The latter particularly upset them. When I tried to get on to their own sex life, they refused to answer. A shame, really, but that was the age in which they lived, when such things were not discussed. I was surprised to find they had all come from large families, but went on to have small families. Just like the Queen Mother, also born in 1900. She was one of 10, but had only two children. The average for my 25 was 1.6. Contraception was hardly known in the Twenties, when they were giving birth, so what did they do? "Withdraw," so one old bloke told me. Then he took it back, not wanting such a thing mentioned in the book.

They did admit modern medicine was a good thing, as several had had new hips and other bits, and yes, they did enjoy the radio and TV. But apart from that, they could see little else in modern life which was a definite improvement. Cars, computers, Concorde, the Internet, have they really increased the sum of human happiness?

Human aspirations, so several explained, had stayed very much the same. We want to find a partner, be happy, have a roof over our heads, enough to eat, bring our children up decently. These are the concerns most people had in 1900, and will in 2000. Yes, all pretty obvious, but still pretty wise.

One of the women, Mary Ellis, once famous in films and on the West End stage, didn't even think our morals had got worse, not even sexual morals. In every age, there are moral standards. They do change, but most people try, roughly, to follow those standards, whatever they are. And the proportion following them, or not following them, is probably much the same. Which means you should try not to condone or criticise standards from another age.

"People don't change," she said. "Only the music changes."

I had to think about that, but decided it was jolly wise, probably even true. I do hope I become wise, as well as visible, when I get into my nineties.

Independent Christmas Appeal for the elderly: Review, page 8