Thursday 26 May 2011
Julie Burchill: Maturity means letting go of ambition, and embracing the joys of invisibility
Was kicking back with my favourite young friend the other day, and she asked me to list, in order, the top five things that made me happy. It went like this: (1) my marriage, (2) my faith, (3) getting trashed, (4) going on holiday, (5) my friends.
There was a spooky silence, and then K said, horrified: "BUT YOU DIDN'T MENTION CAREER!" Oops.
"Well, what if you give me six options, and I'll put career AFTER going on holiday but BEFORE my friends?" I ventured.
But the damage was done, and K looked at me the way that Kevin McCarthy looks at Dana Wynter towards the end of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers when he realises she's gone over to the dark side.
Ambition drove my life from the age of 12 – heck, I even had a No 1 bestselling novel with that title before I was out of my twenties – so to see it fall away is an unanticipated about-face which makes this afters-life seem exotic, like permanently being on holiday in some mañana-ruled land. Socrates is alleged to have described losing one's sex drive as being free after a lifetime of being chained to a lunatic, but that's a loony I'm hoping to keep hold of for some years yet. No, it's being free from ambition that really gives you a new lease of life.
Of course I want to keep my job; no one wants to be thrown on the scrapheap for some dreary youngster who couldn't crack a joke to save their perfect skin. But the idea of striving to be better at my job than I am, or to put in the extra time it would take to be so – which you do when you're young; that's ambition – seems completely ridiculous to me now.
That's why I view the recent sightings of the Alpha Boomers (term coined in the USA to describe well-off 55-to-64-year-olds, and also the 50-plus market over here which will soon become the biggest and richest in the UK) and of the Amortals (the have-a-go heroes of a new book by Catherine Mayer, more likely to be found on a ski-lift than a stair-lift) with as much trepidation as admiration.
My ideal mid-life combines the irresponsibility of youth with the carelessness of age. (And for the very rare reader who hasn't caught on yet, unlikely I know considering how intelligent Independent readers are, this is an opinion column rather than a reportage page – hence the photo of the pie-eater at the top, as opposed to a drawing of a pie-chart.) I reserve the right to pootle on with my cushy little part-time gig – but if staying forever young includes anything to do with pulling up one's socks, putting one's shoulder to the wheel and/or putting one's nose to the grindstone, count me out and let me nap.
Of course, you will find those over 50 who are still straining at the leash, with fire in their belly (tellingly, all the descriptions of ambition could double with those for a variety of embarrassing ailment, like piles), but witnessing it is, for me at least, like happening upon some unfortunate soul engaged in the act of self-abuse. One of the reasons I moved from London to Brighton at the age of 35 was to chase a man (got him), but another was that I wanted to avoid the fate of the middle-aged female celebrity who a friend saw in a fashionable restaurant yelling at her agent "I WANT TO BE IN THE GAME! I NEED TO BE IN THE GAME!"
Frankly, the only game I'm interested in being in these days is Bingo; moving to the South Coast in one's thirties is unreservedly opting out of any races, rat or otherwise, which obsess so many Londoners.
With the need for the game comes the desire for the game-face. Middle-aged women have always mocked men who attempt to hold on to their youth with tight trousers, slashed shirts and comb-overs, but tight faces, crepey cleavage and violently dyed hair are simply more of the same, only more costly. Any woman who mourns the passing of her youthful beauty and who seeks to compete with young women on the looks front is doomed to failure, and only creating needless sorrow for herself. Lots of women my age complain of being "invisible" to men, but as someone who got a lot – a tedious amount – of male attention when young, I relish being able to move around unharrassed. Invisibility was always the superhero gift we wanted as kids – don't diss it!
Being ambitious is like being thin. It's nice to have in your youth – but hold on to it into middle age, and you're going to end up with a sour little face on you. Let yourself go – it's later than you think.
Sex, secrecy and the American way
I'm hardly, despite my advanced years, what you could call a mature person. (My nickname for my husband, who is 13 years younger than me, is "Dad".) This being so, I can easily see through other people's bogus claims of maturity to what lies beneath.
The attitude of the French towards the sex lives of rich and/or powerful men is mature in the way that the Victorians were mature – that is, rich and/or powerful men do what they want, and women put up with it. This seems to me more mucky-minded adolescent masturbatory fantasy than mature, considered adult behaviour, but what do I know?
If the British were always considered the inferiors of the French when it comes to sexual maturity, then we in turn looked down on the USA when it comes to the law. All those elected judges! Black, female, Hispanic, state-schooled – bloody anarchy! But how very immature, in turn, US privacy laws have made our archaic, ancient, unelected judicial gang look this week; like kids sticking their fingers in their ears – and attempting to stick them in ours – while chanting "Na, na, na, CAN'T HEAR YOU!" at the deafening chatter of the blogosphere.
Like Twitter, Wikipedia is based in San Francisco, and this week its founder Jimmy Wales pledged that he would not be censored by bogus British laws: "In the UK, I think the system is going to have to change... people are going to get sick of the rich and powerful being able to suppress things they do not want to get out." Who's the Daddy now?
Funeral regrets? I can think of a few
Apparently the two most popular songs at funerals are Edith Piaf's Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and Frank Sinatra's My Way. The way I see it, there are two wildly different sorts of people who would go for either one, even though both songs seem quite similar on the surface. And to keep it neat, I'll use singers as examples.
BetaBoomers are those laid-back souls totally at ease with themselves – they may screw up as much as anyone else, but they won't turn a drama into a crisis by beating up on themselves. They find regrets utterly pointless and somewhat self-important; Sade, Kate Bush and Adele appear to be like this.
Then there are the Alpha Angsters, self-loathing and narcissistic, who never let up, are horrifically humourless and treat the creation of a three-minute pop song as though it is a task as gruelling as giving birth to a Grammy award without benefit of anaesthetic. Madonna, Lady Gaga and Lily Allen are like this.
I know which type I prefer. And I know which type will have the most mourners who weren't on the payroll of the dear departed when that funeral song finally plays...
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