Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

Matthew has suffered an absolute cataclysm: Johnny Rotten, icon of rebellious youth, is 50
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According to Matthew's parents, their son's fixation with ageing goes back to his 19th birthday, when he spontaneously entered a mid-life crisis on the presentation of the cake. But while there is no question that he has for many years been morbidly preoccupied with decay, it wasn't until last July that he developed a full-blown obsession.

Things shifted up a gear on the third and, it turned out, final visit of a personal trainer called Max. It was as Matthew was screaming in pain while attempting to vacate the exercise mat that Max, arms folded, one eyebrow raised, asked him how old he was. Matthew told him he was 41, and then fell back down on to the mat. Max bent down to help him up and said, "Your suppleness and range of movement are telling me you are 85." I knew then there was no way Max was coming back.

And so the obsession started. Not, sadly, an obsession with fitness, but with age - and not even Matthew's own age, but everyone else's. He says that concentrating on other people's march towards death rather than his own deflects his anxiety and brings him inner peace. Psychologists would probably call this transference; I call it any excuse not to get on the treadmill and, after dealing with all the turmoil brought about by the obsession, I can't get on it either and could now comfortably pass for a woman of 90.

Unhealthy obsession

It's 5.15pm, and we are in front of the television for the start of The Weakest Link. This is Matthew's favourite time of day because he is about to spend the next 45 minutes not just guessing people's ages but putting money on his guesses, thus combining age and gambling, his twin obsessions, in one merry package. Our son Louis and I are present so that Matthew can pretend he is engaged in an innocent family pastime rather than a worrying psychosis. We are also there so he can win money off us, although the stakes are, it has to be said, low, starting at five pence and working up to 50.

Matthew sits on the edge of the sofa, takes hold of the Sky+ remote, and as the camera pans along the nine contestants, he freezes the picture on each one to give us time to guess their age.

"I'm Janet, I'm a credit controller from Bolton," says the first.

"Fifty-seven." shouts Matthew, pressing the pause button. Louis and I mumble something wildly inaccurate (876, for instance), because we couldn't care less. Matthew presses the remote again so we can hear Janet admitting to no more than 56. Matthew, though, is happy with the result, and so it goes on.

"My name's Robin, I'm a customer services representative from Lowestoft, and I'm ..." "Thirty-nine," cries Matthew. "... Forty-three," says Robin. Matthew is not happy. He takes it very hard if he is out by more than 10 per cent.

Much later in the evening, when he has had time to recover from the highs and lows provided by Anne Robinson, who he says looks young enough to be his own granddaughter, he picks up the newspaper, opens it on the page with the birthdays column and then hands it to me. I am to read the names of the individuals out to him while he guesses their ages. He tries to get Louis to join in, always failing to comprehend why an eight-year-old may not know how old Professor Sir Christopher Howes, former Second Commissioner and Chief Executive of the Crown Estate is. (He is 64. Louis said 156, Matthew said 67.)

Downhill fast

Matthew has suffered what he is calling "an absolute cataclysm". It started with Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, whom he put at 76, but is in fact 68. He recovered slightly with Sir Eric Ash, Rector Emeritus of the Imperial College of Science (78 to Matthew's 74), but after a wild miss with Carol Channing (85 to his ungallant 94) it went rapidly downhill when he refused to accept that Norman Mailer (83) is a day over 75. It was Mr John Lydon, though, who finally sent him off down the garden to his office in the shed with a bottle of Remy Martin.

"Do you mean Johnny Rotten?" he'd said. "Bless his heart, it's Rotten's birthday. Now let me think. I was about 15 when the Sex Pistols emerged, so Rotten must be ... 46." "Nope," I said, "you are four years out, Johnny Rotten is 50."

Birthday blues

He's taken it personally. "What's the point any more?" he keeps asking. "If the greatest emblem of rebellious adolescence we've ever known is 50?" He has been forced into a radical rethink and now pledges to avoid the subject of other people's ages entirely. To celebrate we are dining out at a local restaurant.

The bill has arrived, Matthew has knocked back his second brandy and we are about to leave when two waiters emerge from the kitchen carrying two separate birthday cakes, which they deliver to two separate tables.

"Blimey, what are the odds on that?" says Matthew. "Actually quite short," says the man at the table next to us. "There is a statistic that says that on average, three people in a room of 24 will share a birthday." "Is that so?" says Matthew. "And what are the odds on them being born on the same day in the same year?" "I really couldn't tell you," says the man.

Matthew stands up, looks to the end of the restaurant where two separate parties are giving two separate renditions of "Happy Birthday." Then he sits back down and says to the man: "A tenner says he is three years older than her." The man stands up, cranes his neck, sits back down and says: "Five years at least." "You're on," says Matthew, hailing the waiter to order himself another brandy.