We try to be above babies in this column. We don’t dislike them exactly. It’s hard to dislike a thing that hasn’t yet had time to form objectionable political opinions or the habit of reading thrillers. It’s more that we’re afraid of them. What are they thinking, what do they know about us, why that uncanny scrutiny? Or it could just be with babies as it is with children in general – if you never much enjoyed being one yourself, you aren’t going to care for any manifestation of them thereafter. And I was a self-hating baby.
So I am as indifferent to the royal arrival as I am allowed to be, what with bells chiming, helicopters circling, fountains spouting blue water and the media’s ceaseless unctioneering. My indifference wavered for a moment, I confess, when Kate told the cameras she had found the experience of giving birth “emotional” and the baby looked at her with an expression much like his great-grandfather Philip’s. “Emotional! I should bloody well hope so!” He would no more have been expecting a treatise on the joy and pains of parturition than I was, but it must have crossed his mind to wonder, if “emotional” was the best his mother could muster, what sort of family he had been born into. This isn’t republicanism speaking. I am no more a republican than I am a royalist. We are all fools when it comes to what we believe, but few are more foolish than those who inveigh against royalty for being undemocratic, when the demos itself can’t gorge on it enough. If you have a problem with the Royal Family, brother, take it up with their legions of loyal subjects.
I don’t know whether republicans dream of removing the Royal Family by diktat, but as things stand they’re caught in the bind of believing in a democracy of which the people are manifestly unworthy. It’s the way the “people” let them down that turns every democrat into a dictator in the end. A paradox for Prince George to chortle over in later years at Eton or Marlborough when they’re trying to drill the word “emotional” out of him.
But enough with babies. While the rest of the country was waiting and wondering last week, I was at a party celebrating my mother-in-law’s 100th birthday. Thou met’st with things new born, I with things dying, except that dying was the last thing on the minds of my mother-in-law’s guests, only one of whom could match her in years, though others were coming up fast on the inside lane. Being 100 takes some getting your mind around, even if you’re more than halfway there. Think of it, reader – to be born in 1913, before the First World War had started, before women had the vote, before the Russian Revolution, Nazis, Twitter.
I used to fear the very old in much the same way I fear the very young. And for similar reasons. If we don’t know where the young have been, we don’t know where the old are going. Both can stare you out of countenance, make you feel you are of no consequence, reduce you to the role of bystander, as though the serious business of life takes place at either end, and you are caught between without a purpose. Isn’t that what they are meaning to tell you when they take your hand, the baby with its absent, unfathomable grip, the old with their Ancient Mariner-like urgency – that you are marooned in the middle way, having forgotten what you were, and ignorant yet of what you will be.
Now, as I prepare to join their ranks, I feel quite differently about them. They are, of course – this goes without saying – more fun to be with than the young. Yes, there is some repetition to get over, and a measure of conceit, because they know it’s no small achievement to have survived the wreckage of a violent century. They would like a little congratulation. I marvel that the 90-year-old woman sitting beside me swims in the sea every morning whatever the weather, and that she will be driving back to the Sussex coast when the party’s over. But it’s when she starts to turn on the charm that I move from admiration to fondness.
We are having an adventure, whispering into each other’s ear – I’m the deaf one – recalling a time that never was when we were very close indeed. “I didn’t think we’d get to enjoy another afternoon like this again,” she says, though she knows as well as I do that we haven’t enjoyed a comparable afternoon, or indeed any afternoon, before. I don’t have to humour her. She knows what’s true and what isn’t. She is enjoying the fiction, exercising her flirtation muscles, that’s all. Checking that they are still in working order. And they are.
A man of 101, erect, ironical and elegant in a fine Savile Row suit, inclines his head to every compliment. He knows he creates a flutter in the women of 90, while inspiring a no less selfish hope in the rest of us. “Touch me if you want to,” he says. “There will be only a nominal charge.”
Meanwhile, my mother-in-law Dena, as queenly as Cleopatra, receives salutations from those who love her. Life beats as fervently in her as it ever did. She greets her friends, looking deeply into their faces as though they share more than they could relate if they lived their lives twice over. So much narrative, so many judgements made and reserved, such wealth of human knowledge. Against the odds, it’s memory they try hardest to hold on to. It’s memory, they know, that keeps you beautiful. I love being in the press of them, and realise with a pang why it’s this beauty I care for over the beauty of a newborn child. Experience is lovelier than innocence.