The £3m age discrimination claim launched by the 73-year-old broadcaster John McCririck against his former employers, Channel 4, has attracted even more attention than is usual for these celebrity legal spats. Perhaps it is to do with the colourfulness of Mr McCririck's character, his extravagant get-up, flamboyant gestures and cornucopia of facial expressions. Perhaps it is to do with the suggestions of bigotry and sexism which Channel 4 has brought in their defence to the employment tribunal. But whatever the explanation, Mr McCririck has been held up by certain commentators as a distressing symbol of the perils that lie in wait for even the sharpest media operator once he, or she, has reached pensionable age.
On the one side of the table sits a man who believes he has been superannuated. On the other lurks an employer who, according to Channel 4's commissioning editor for sport Jamie Aitchison, believed that its employee was "unappealing and irritating" to that vital constituency, the viewers, in addition to being "seen by many as a comic act rather than a serious horse-racing journalist". The case, as they say, continues, but quite as irksome to Mr McCririck as the imputations of bigotry and sexism, or the prospect of financial meltdown should the judgment go against him, will be the suspicion that certain other seventysomethings luxuriating in the media glare are proceeding on their career paths with the vigour of men, and women, half-a-century their junior.
Take, for example, Sir Paul McCartney. In the past week, the 71-year-old Sir Paul, his latest album New shortly to hit the CD racks, has been practically ubiquitous. He can be found on the cover of the New Musical Express, a publication aimed squarely at the younger pop fan, maintaining that he doesn't feel old. He has granted a lavish interview to Mojo, whose considered opinion was that his creative juices seemed to be flowing as freely as ever. And to Sir Paul's constantly expanded lease of professional life can be added this summer's Glastonbury appearance by the Rolling Stones (collective age now some way north of 260), the news that Fleetwood Mac, whose first album was cut in 1968, have reformed, and pictures of the metalwork gates fabricated by Bob Dylan in his spare time strewn all over the features pages of The Guardian.
And so rock and roll, against all tradition and precedent, and despite an extensive back-catalogue of songs about teenage rebellion and kicking it in the head when you were 25, is an old man's game, where U2 are relative newcomers and 30 years in the biz is simply not enough. Curiously enough, this tendency extends to wide areas of the modern arts. British literature, when I began scrabbling in its foothills in the mid-1980s, was dominated by such novelists as Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. With a few minor additions, these are the names who still crowd out the books pages several literary generations later. It can also be seen in television drama, where such gnarled veterans of the trade as Lord Fellowes, Stephen Poliakoff and Andrew Davies are still reaping the rewards of the BBC and ITV's largesse.
There are several reasons for the extraordinary longevity of these arts world behemoths, and it would be an unusually idealistic onlooker who supposed that they were all to do with an enduring talent. When, to particularise, did the Rolling Stones last make a decent record? 1978's Some Girls? The smart money, alas, would probably be on 1972's Exile on Main Street. Ian McEwan, naturally, is one of contemporary literature's most distinguished ornaments, but it would be an exceptionally brave critic who argued that Sweet Tooth (2012) had the edge on The Cement Garden (1978). No, what keeps all these people in the forefront of the public consciousness is a kind of sempiternal lustre, a reclame which is mostly attributable to the unprecedented conditions in which they began their careers. In each case a prodigious talent collided with an element in whose absence talent rarely prospers – an industry in a formative stage of development, whose rules are being devised more or less as the participants go along.
Thus the Beatles arrived at a time of enormous commercial and technical innovation which they were astute enough to commandeer for their own purposes, with the result that their principal survivor, Sir Paul, is in the unusual – and enviable – position of being a piece of living heritage. In very much the same way the collection of British novelists who began writing in the early 1980s did so at a time when large amounts of foreign money had begun to shake up what had formerly been a rather staid endeavour, new publicity methods were coming into fashion, book prizes were better promoted and the "literary novel" achieved a vogue that it has rarely aspired to either before or since. Like McCartney, the survivors of this spangled decade of six-figure advances are welcomed as much for who they were as who they are – living reminders of a golden age at whose attractions we, their degenerate heirs, can only pause and wonder.
Inevitably, there will come a point when all this has to stop, when Sir Paul, let us say, finally puts down his Hofner bass and Sir Salman casts his pen or his laptop aside. But what will happen then? The generations of musicians and writers that seethe beneath them don't have the same audience or the same sense of artistic resolve, let alone the financial security acquired in a pre-digital world where the royalties always arrived and there weren't cyber-pirates merrily downloading your stuff for free.
What, you sometimes wonder, will they find to put in Mojo and Uncut and all the other publications aimed at the senior music fan when Macca is gone? None of this, sadly, will be much consolation to Mr McCririck or the lady newsreaders quietly – or sometimes not so quietly – replaced for younger and more photogenic models. If there is one thing that the current state of the arts teaches us, it is that longevity works in mysterious ways.