Mark Steel: Life begins at forty*

*though if you believe that, you'll believe anything
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The Independent Online

I've always been suspicious of the lifestyle crisis. One of my first jokes when I began as a stand-up comic was about how a "mid-life crisis" was only possible if you were comfortable enough to afford one, because you couldn't imagine a peasant in Vietnam traipsing through a paddy field with a wooden plough and telling his mate, "Do you know, Li Wong, I just don't know WHERE my life is heading these days."

It's clearly not a disaster, by itself, to turn 40. But that doesn't mean it's altogether healthy. For a start, once you're 40 everything's finite. If you average one foreign holiday a year you've probably got about 35 left. It's the same with books. You've got to be selective now as there's time for only about another thousand or two. Even bananas – at, say, two a week, you're down to roughly your last 3,600, so a disappointing banana now carries a poignancy that didn't apply at 19.

Also, and I don't think this is being paranoid, the older you get the nearer you are to dying. I noticed that whenever I saw the obituary page in a newspaper, I'd automatically look at the deceased's date of birth first. If it was some old geologist born in 1919, that would be quite comforting. But anything later than 1950 would be disconcerting, so then I'd check what they'd died of, and maybe gasp, "Oh thank Christ for that, he was a junkie. That doesn't apply to me then."

One sign that, despite being 40 or over, you're still in touch with today's youth to a certain extent, is to realise you're not in touch with them at all. For example, because I have some flimsy knowledge of contemporary rap, I conducted this conversation with the teenager who works in my local grocery shop. "Ah, you listen to hip-hop, don't you? Have you heard the latest Lowkey album? And the first Plan B?"

"Man, I never knew you play that shit, right. Yeah Lowkey bruv, he's sick. He was wiv Doc Brown's crew init, but you feel Lowkey man, you must know Cuba Ranks you get me, you know who had beef wiv Fat Joe?"

"No. No, I don't know Cuba Ranks."

"You know bruv, he produced for Kalashnikov, used to MC at the Brix Club init."

"Eh, oh I think I know, no I don't."

"You don't know him? Bruv you must know, he left Asher D's label saying he didn't check for him when he mixed wiv Skinnyman's crew."

"I'll just have a box of Weetabix and some hummous please."

On top of these problems I had an extra one specially designed for someone in my time and place. I grew up confident that I would be part of the generation that would change the world so that people would matter more than profits. Such was my success that, around the time I reached 40, it seemed to be universally accepted as a fact – as undeniable as gravity or Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo – that nothing can be built or made or done properly without someone making a huge profit.

Libraries, prisons, schools, sports projects, transport, everything depends on attracting business. Any route through a school, even a primary school, takes you past adverts for Sainsbury's and posters proclaiming that the computers were generously provided by Tesco. Maybe next the lessons will be pay-per-learn, so the first five minutes are free but after that you have to pay a pound or the teacher goes all fuzzy. Or they'll be sponsored, so science teachers will announce flatly, "In this experiment, we're, um, going to try to see, ahem, how much of this green, er, green liquid, is displaced by this object here. And the liquid we're using is, er, Lilt, with the totally tropical taste that puts the fizz back into physics. It's tangy, it's cheery, it proves quantum theory."

The multinationals certainly haven't vanquished all opposition, however. If anything, the numbers opposed to their onslaughts are greater than ever. Naomi Klein's No Logo was an international bestseller, Noam Chomsky could sell out vast theatres in a few hours; there must have been some bemused clerks at Ticketmaster who assumed he was an offshoot from Radiohead. And this was all before the prospect of war in Iraq brought millions into the streets to try to stop it happening.

This revulsion against the ethics of big business reached so far beyond "the Left" that I would find myself enthusiastically agreeing with an angry voice decrying the effects of globalisation on the radio and discover I'd boomed "bloody right, mate" at an ex-field marshal or chairman of the British Mustard Marketing Board or something. It was now mainstream to hold a rebellious attitude towards war and big business – properly mainstream, like Des Lynam or The Lion King. And yet there was something else at the heart of this resentful attitude, which was confusion.

If the number of people who wished for a more humanitarian order was enormous, hardly anyone could articulate what they thought ought to be done about it. Even the millions who'd marched against the war – maybe especially them – felt no one was listening, so what could they do. Indeed the confusion extends so far that hardly anyone among this disgruntled number is even sure who they should vote for in a general election. So where was it all going to, this vat of discontent? If it were possible to set up a party with a manifesto that stated: "We're sick of big business running everything for its shareholders and wish we'd never had anything to do with George Bush and his wars but we're buggered if we know what to do about it," it would stand a good chance of winning millions of votes.

In this situation, you might imagine, the far Left should be doubling its membership every week. But it hasn't. In fact, left-wing groups have shrunk, and seem more distant than ever from those they ought to attract; including the Socialist Workers Party, of which I'd been a member since I was 18. And so, for the first time in my adult life, if someone asks me what I reckon we should do to stop the grubby people wrecking the world, I find myself saying, "I'm not really sure."



But for all the fear and anxiety that accompanies this age, at least there ought to be the compensation of certainty in my personal life. The one thing the person in their forties doesn't envy about teenage life is the instability. There can be trauma, but not usually the same agonising confusion of being 19; you shouldn't fall in love with three different people in a day, one of whom is the mother of one of the others. Not if you're 40. Nor should you refuse the last possible lift home from a party on the grounds that someone you fancy smiled when they passed you the corkscrew so you reckon you're in with a chance;the result being you have to walk home on your own five miles through the snow.

If something appears stable, however, when it collapses the impact is much greater. I realised this when my domestic life fell apart and I found myself sleeping in the living room on a settee. Obviously this entails a great deal of emotional upheaval, but one of the most uncomfortable aspects is that you find yourself thinking, "I shouldn't be sleeping on a settee in the living room – I'm FORTY."

Lying awake pondering, I'd take advantage of the modern world and watch the variety of all-night digital channels. One night there was a documentary on Bravo about a man who was convinced he was a zebra. He even had stripes tattooed across him. And with the birds beginning to tweet, the main thought in my head was, "Not that serious about it are you, mate, or you'd fuck off and take your chance in the Serengeti with the pumas." Quiz channels, oodles of soft-ish porn, reruns of The Sweeney, and a programme called Britain's Roughest Pubs which included an interview with a landlord of a decrepit lap-dancing bar saying earnestly, "One bloke got a bit overexcited, whipped it out and splodged on my upholstery. Well, I banned him for a MONTH." And on the shopping channel, a programme called Curtain of the Day. And this camp bloke going for it – "Now we've seen some curtains today but this IS the one – oh my goodness, just look at the drapes." The drive of business to make a profit had reached so far it had found a way to exploit the discomfort of my marital breakdown at three in the morning. I was in my forties and more confused than at any time since I was nine – and more confused than I'd expected to be again until I was 86.

So many people infuriated at the way big business pokes its tentacles into every orifice – and yet so hard to get many of them together in a room to do something about it. One way some of the old Left respond to this, is to put on events that couldn't possibly attract anyone who hasn't been part of the organised Left for at least 30 years. For example, I arrived at one anti-war meeting to find I was speaking after a socialist choir, whose big closing number involved the front row singing "There's a rumble in the air tonight", while the back row sang "Oh no it's an imperialist bomb".

You develop an instinct for knowing how an event is likely to turn out just from the way you're asked to take part. I was once asked to perform, and get other comics to perform, at an outdoor gig for a campaign, at about three days' notice. "To be honest," I said, "I'm a bit worried it could be a fiasco." And the organiser came out with a sentence that I'm sure has never been said at any other time in the English language: "Oh no, it won't be a fiasco – Pete Doherty's going to be there."

As the Americans approached Baghdad, I was asked to appear on BBC1's Question Time. There's something splendidly British about being on Question Time as the panellist who is not a professional politician. The viewing audience gives you no points for being an actor or a comic, even a well-known one. Tom Jones could be on, and his reply would be studied with the same weight as the agriculture spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. And if Tom gave an incoherent reply to a question about House of Lords reform he wouldn't be able to rescue the situation by belting out a chorus of "What's New, Pussycat".

So when you say the words "yes, that will be fine", agreeing to be on Question Time, your stomach immediately tightens and you feel a fizzy anxiety as if you've drunk a dozen espressos. I was aware of the pressure of being the voice of the Left on the week's programme, because I'd watched it often enough while either cheering "Go on, yes that's stuffed them" or wailing "Oh no-o-o-o you idiot, don't say there's some good things about North Korea for fuck's sake." When the panellist representing your views starts gibbering nonsense, you feel the despair of watching your football team give away an unnecessary penalty.

And it's never like an informal conversation in a café, when you're on a programme like that. Because if you start an answer with "Well, this can be complicated, because it's true, right, that you can't, well you can but in a sense you can't, er, sorry let me start that again," two million people think, "Who let this twat on?" And what if they started discussing something I hadn't seen? Imagine that. Sitting there when Dimbleby says, "Yes, this is a question about yesterday's announcement that the Germans are no longer to recognise the part of the GATT agreement that relates to British cauliflower. What do you think, Mark Steel?"

This week, however, the programme would obviously be dominated by the war. Then an hour before we went on air, the Americans took over the main square in Baghdad and pulled down the statue of Saddam standing there. Immediately it was portrayed as a glorious event, a day of universal joy that you could no more oppose than you could an announcement that someone had found a cure for cancer.

As my heart thumped, the audience in Southampton fidgeted, all of them eager to speak, or clap or call out abuse. The timing was perfect to cause maximum nerves. It was as if the Americans had deliberately scheduled their arrival in Baghdad town centre to ensure high viewing figures for that week's Question Time. As the sound man attached my microphone, I ran through my arguments in my mind. David Willetts, Conservative spokesman for something, sat next to me. "No need to be nervous," he assured me.

"Once it starts it will fly by. You just make sure you get stuck in and enjoy yourself."

Even in their brief moment of triumph, the supporters of the war were on the defensive. Mike O'Brien, a minister in the Foreign Office, was Labour's representative, and at one point he was asked why, if Saddam possessed these terrifying weapons, he hadn't used them. And O'Brien said, "Because it was made very clear to him that if he did use them there would be very serious consequences." Right. So, as the Americans circled Baghdad, Saddam was sitting there with weapons of mass destruction he could launch in 45 minutes, thinking, "Hmm. I'd better not get those out or I'll be in real trouble."

As the recording went on, the audience seemed to cheer every statement against the war, while supporters of the war remained hesitant. And this was supposed to be their night of glory. They weren't helped by David Willetts, who insisted Saddam was a threat because of the weapons programme he'd been nurturing. What an open goal. His party, in its last years, had been shamed by an inquiry that revealed they'd spent years selling piles of weapons to Saddam Hussein. When I said this to him he actually blushed. It was almost enough to change the balance sheet of the war: on the one hand, an entire country was subjected to horrific carnage, but, on the other, I got to make a Tory go red.

At the end, as the signature tune was playing and the sound man arrived to take off our microphones, David Willetts said to me, "There you are. I told you there was no need to be nervous."

"Sorry," I said.

"I told you. I said if you just got stuck in you'd enjoy yourself."

"I just called you a Tory idiot in front of millions of people," I said.

"Yes, that's the spirit," he said, like a public school rugby coach. Then he added, "Well, I think we jolly well deserve a drink after all that hard work."

So we went into a hospitality room, where there was a bucket full of bottled lager. I handed him a bottle and looked for an opener but couldn't find one. He placed his bottle by a shelf and shoved off the top with the bottom of his hand. I've always been useless at that, and tried opening mine by a ledge but it kept slipping; then I banged it to no effect except causing me to yell, "Ah bollocks!" as I jarred my wrist. I made a pathetic Stan Laurel-esque effort to use my heel, and Willetts said, "Come along, give it here."

He took my bottle, expertly banged off the top and handed it back to me.

"Look," I said, aware I was becoming dangerously jovial, "promise me you'll tell no one. Because if word gets out that I relied on a Tory shadow minister to open my bottle of beer with his wrist, I'm fucked."

"Yes," he said, "I rather see your point. Cheers."

George Orwell wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London that the worst part of being a tramp was the celibacy. I remember thinking as I read it that he must have got that wrong. Surely the grubbing around for food in bins is more horrible. But after the settee period I knew what he meant. After a few weeks there are days when it's simply impossible to concentrate on anything. It's surprising, given today's obsession with staff efficiency, that someone hasn't done a time-and-motion study on the effect of having a wank on levels of productivity. Obviously you lose a certain amount of time for the act itself, but that must be quickly made up by the fact that you can think straight for a while. I'm sure we'll read one day about a scheme in Japan whereby on hot days everyone pops into a special cubicle for 10 minutes, and that since it started profits are up by 37 per cent.

Sometimes I'd worry these thoughts were taking me over completely, and without realising I'd write a newspaper column that was supposed to be about the council election results, but just went "Oh for God's sake the woman off Newsnight's doing the local round-up on BBC London in a short skirt, I'm going round the BEND here." This obsession is even more all-encompassing in your forties than your twenties, because back then there's a stringent upper age limit on who you find attractive. But the 40-year-old libido stamps right across that barrier. I was almost on the point of seeking medical help when I lay on the settee watching Question Time, as a Conservative politician called Julie Kirkbride twittered on about something or other, and I suddenly realised I hadn't been listening at all, just pondering her sexuality. Aaaagh! I did a horizontal jump of horror. It was like the moment in a film when someone realises they're turning into a werewolf. I had a vision of sitting in the doctor's office, shouting, "NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT? SHE'S A TORY FUCKING MP." How bad would this get? In another month would I start getting tingly at the thought of Melanie Phillips? Or the Queen? Would I get so demented a mere glance at a stamp would have me thinking, "Well, if I ever was offered an OBE . . ."

Sowhat should we do and who should we vote for?

A key part of this debate is clarifying who "we" is. Most discussions concerning what should be done are really asking "What should they do?" So we debate whether Gordon Brown is better than Tony Blair, whether the Democrats are better than Bush, who should be in charge of the BBC, the FA and the United Nations. Columnists in newspapers say, "The US government needs to re-engage with Europe" or "The select committee on benefit reform should reconsider its proposals . . ." And while I might agree with the point they're making, I find myself shifting slightly as I read it. The reason, I think, is because their solution is to suggest what they should do. It's part of the culture of believing only they have the power.

Whereas what we do determines what they can get away with. The vast march against the war in 2003 defines our times, partly because it showed what is possible, but also because it led many who participated to conclude there's nothing we can do. But there must have been many people who marched behind Martin Luther King who, six months later, said, "We had our march and they still didn't listen – there will never be an end to segregation." Maybe the next answer to "What can we do?" is recognising that opposition is far more effective if it's organised collectively.

The sentiment against war and big business is so disjointed. It consists of a vast number of local groups, websites, gigs, individuals producing posters, poems and postcards, and many more quietly seething. It's an opposition that would be so much more effective if these actions were, even loosely, connected. At least then people could seethe together.

But the first and most important answer to the question "What should we do?" is to take the monumental leap to do "something", to participate in the continuous rumble against injustice, to donate the pound, respond to the bullying remark, write the letter, harangue the woman with a clipboard who's shut down the tea bar, draw up the petition against the next Tesco Express, boycott the fruit or decide to stop a war.

This article is an edited extract from 'What's Going on? The Meanderings of a Comic Mind in Confusion' by Mark Steel, to be published on Monday by Simon & Schuster, price £12. To order your copy at a special price (including free postage and packing) call 08700 798 897 or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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