Elizabeth Kaye spent the Sixties thinking that she could change the world. Then she hit mid-life - and realised she still hadn't done it...
In the late Sixties, I dressed in torn jeans and floor-length Mexican dresses, wove scarlet freesia blossoms into my waist-long hair, took to greeting my mother with the words, "Hey, man," and, like everyone in my particular sphere, participated in the epic causes that characterised that exhaustively hectic era.

As you may have deduced, I was young then. And the adults who managed to attain the admiration of my peers tended to be cerebral Peter Pans, such as Timothy Leary and the poet Allen Ginsberg, who had succeeded in doing what we all yearned to do, which was to turn on, tune in, drop out, and become famous. Other older people - that is, those who were neither Ho Chi Minh nor Chairman Mao - were simply regarded as old, their usefulness extinguished, their experience "irrelevant". In our view, experience was merely a sort of virtual anaesthesia that served to render adults devoid of feeling.

But we, naturally enough, felt everything, every wrongful deed, every injustice. We brimmed with energy and conviction. There were no prices to be paid, no sleepless nights induced through ambivalence. There was only what we knew and what we were going to do: we were going to remake the world in the proper way, which is to say, in the way that we envisioned it.

That vision was fixated more on what it hated than on what it loved. "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" we would chant, standing as near the White House as helmeted police with clubs would allow. No one was more despised than Lyndon Baines Johnson and his family, the tacky Texan usurpers of Camelot. Chief among them was the elder Johnson daughter, Lynda Bird, a large, raw-boned Texas girl who spent the Sixties having her hair and make-up redone, an overhaul supervised by the movie actor George Hamilton (known for his suntan) whom she was dating.

Then came the Seventies. An early harbinger that my generation was growing older was the discovery by many of us that we wanted to be happy. This was a radical notion for people weaned on the drama of being pale and interesting, and on neurasthenic icons like James Dean. Thus began the move away from youth, which continued until finally a male friend pointed out that you know that you are no longer young when you watch Rebel Without A Cause and find yourself identifying with Jim Backus.

It is a syndrome that puts me in mind of a more recent film, Robert Redford's Quiz Show, in which a character describes his effort to avoid a Wall Street- job as an attempt to "postpone the inevitable". "The inevitable," wonders Ralph Fiennes's Charles van Doren, "is there a spot for me?" And the answer is, of course. Each of us has a spot waiting in that particular inevitable. Age and time and disappointment and growing tired and growing wise cause most of us to do what we are convinced we will never do - which is to compromise, to give in, to bend, to settle. We are supposed to feel good about this, of course, supposed to view it as a sign of our willingness to grow up, of an adult capacity for accepting facts.

I would not be telling you the truth if I did not say that I have gained much with passing time, most especially, in recent years, when I have been blessed with the devotion of a good English man, and the pleasures derived from his adult children. But I would also not be telling you the truth if I did not say that aspects of this alliance are bittersweet. I was reminded of this last weekend, when his daughter showed us a film made 30 years ago of the family on their various holidays. I have no children of my own and I could not watch that film. It left me wishing that I had not been so intent, in my twenties, on extending my adolescence indefinitely. I would have liked to have had a lengthy history, a shared set of memories, but I was too busy drinking tequila from the bottle and tie-dying my sheets so that they would resemble the ocean. If I feel a sense of sadness now it is simply the recognition that in trying to do it all, I missed a lot.

We had become caught in our own trap. Our youthful derision of material things made even responsible gestures seem like crass sell-outs; our insistence on never trusting anyone over 30 proved a tricky proposition for anyone over the age of 29. It was shibboleths like this that left my generation less prepared to become middle-aged than any generation since the jazz age. Clearly, the only adults who could possibly benefit from this state of affairs were cosmetic surgeons.

The problem was that we did not did not perceive youth simply as a condition of life. For us, youth had been a virtue, a moral state bestowing a special morality on those who possessed it. So, losing our youth was not merely an inevitable process, it was a moral failing. It was to be expelled from an enchanted Eden where all the nubile boys and girls have yet to learn that some things do not work out, that certain dreams cannot be willed into being, that some people fall by the wayside, and that life rarely proceeds as planned. Once you know that, some things get better, others get worse, but nothing is the same.

Now we no longer feel everything, and much of what we felt in the past has receded. Or so I found myself thinking not long ago, when I attended a party at which one of the other guests was Lynda Bird Johnson, now the wife of Senator Charles Robb. Her manner was marked, surprisingly enough, by a distinct graciousness and generosity, the sense that she was comfortable with herself. It was nice to see that she, too, had weathered the treacherous road that leads from being a girl to being a woman. Like most of the rest of us, she had survived. And you had to be older than any of us were in the Sixties to appreciate what her own youth must have been like. She had to endure the ridicule of a nation - the humiliation of being judged not attractive enough - at the precise time when she would have wanted what we all wanted more than anything - to be young and beautiful.

Elizabeth Kaye is the author of Mid-life, Notes From The Halfway Mark, to be published on April 10 by Fourth Estate

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