It’s a sure sign I’m getting old, according to a study the newspapers are carrying, that I fall asleep in front of the TV. I say “study”, but it’s no more than simple answers to simple questions collated by the insurance company Engage Mutual. So what am I doing reading stuff like this at my age? I’m waiting to see my doctor, that’s what. And when you’re waiting to see your doctor, you read whatever’s lying about. I can also tell you, for example, the cost of a six-bedroom, 25-acre property in Chipping Norton, and what Katie Price, or is it Katy Perry, or is it Katie Holmes, has for breakfast. Nothing. That’s what she has for breakfast, not the value of the six-bedroom property in Chipping Norton. Shaming to know such things. Why do we fritter away the hours we spend waiting to see a doctor – hours that could be our last on Earth – on flim-flam? Answer me that, Engage Mutual.
I’m angered by their ice cream study. Angry with myself for bothering to go through the 50 things that prove I’m past it. Angry with the quietist assumptions that always underpin lists of this sort, as for example that being angry is a sign you’re getting old, not that there’s something to be angry about. Why is dissatisfaction taken to be a mark of failing powers and patience, when it might just as easily be understood as a proper judgment on a foolish world? Since we know that to be young is to be in a permanent, albeit conformist quarrel with everything and everybody, why is the anger of the aged judged differently? Why is an old man’s anger invariably reduced to the status of querulousness?
Take No 15 on the list: “Finding you have no idea what young people are talking about”– far from being evidence of decrepitude, might this not be a) good manners, as in minding one’s own business; b) seasoned indifference to opinions still at the foetal stage; c) absorption in ideas of one’s own, as when William Blake’s wife told visitors her husband couldn’t receive them because he was in paradise? Absent-mindedness can often be another word for having better things to think about.
Ditto falling asleep in front of the television. I, for one, don’t do it because I’m old. I do it because I’ve lost interest. I never fell asleep during Borgen or The Sopranos. And when I did start to fall asleep during Curb Your Enthusiasm, it was because it had started to be unfunny. In fact, I have always fallen asleep watching television when it’s humdrum, which is much of the time. So why don’t I do something else? Because the sleep you get in front of TV is of a particularly high order in that it combines active criticism with rest. We speak of the sleep of the just; we should speak also of the sleep of the discerning.
No 22 of Engage Mutual’s 50 symptoms of senescence is “complaining about the rubbish on television these days”. Thus they have you either way. You’re an old fart if you let the pap send you to sleep, and you’re an old fart if you make an active stand against it. Which leaves the young where? Either too dumb to notice how dull most television is, or too pusillanimous to complain.
Although the signs of ageing we are told to look out for are of the pipe-and-slippers sort – hating noisy pubs, liking cups of tea, driving slowly, falling asleep after a single glass of wine (messy if you’re already asleep watching television), forgetting the names of bands, dressing according to the weather, not knowing any songs in the Top 10 – in fact, there is an implicit rebelliousness here against everything the young, in all their earnest conventionality, never dream of questioning. It isn’t retirement that bugs the authors of this study; it’s intransigence. The old simply refuse to play along.
Of the accusations devised by capitalism to make the no-longer obedient feel bad about themselves, this is the most heinous: that not agreeing, not accepting, not buying into the manufactured trends of musicolatry – not being good little consumers, in short – mark you out as grumpy old men and women. I don’t mean to turn this into a war between the generations. It’s miserable enough for the young already without old men like me pointing out their shortcomings, but it does them no favours to treat their slavishness to fads, received opinions, mass delusion, and every other species of regimentation, as manifestations of vigour. Only in body does youth triumph over age. And the old must never begrudge the young abusing those bodies as we enjoyed abusing ours. Thereafter, though, we must teach them to look forward to physical ruination for the consolations it brings: wearing clothes that fit, not being pissed every hour the devil sends, forgetting what you can’t be bothered remembering, falling asleep in front of the TV.
But youth and age are only superficially adversaries. In some we call old, youth remains vividly present, just as in some we call young, the fossil is there for all to see. It’s naivety, which is no respecter of age, we need to watch. To pass the time in the surgery I began composing a rival list of 50 things that show you are naive. 1: Watching The Apprentice. 2: Expressing shock that countries spy on one another. 3: Thinking there’d be no more terrorists if we addressed the causes of terrorism. 4: Having a favourite band. 5: Riding a bicycle in cities. 6: Assuming England are going to win the Ashes hands down...
The doctor called me in before I could finish. I mentioned I’d been reading a survey about old age. He got me to try touching my toes. “Now that’s what I call old,” he said.