Charles Nevin: Age doesn't weary, so don't condemn

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The Independent Online

Observations on Sir Ming Campbell's spell in Brighton, although mixed in its success, have agreed on one point: the age thing is a problem. I'm not so sure. Those of us who have been around for a bit are detecting a significant, if careful, swing, a definite, if deliberate, movement from salads to desserts, particularly in the last few days.

Say what you like, for example, about Pope Benedict XVI, 79, but he does know how to create a bit of a stir, doesn't he? Not much of the supposed tempering caution of age there, I should have said. And he was followed by the undiplomatic doubts of Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, 74, and Lord Carey, 70, about Turkey in Europe.

Before there is a counter about old men in religion not being exactly a new phenomenon, let me point out some other recent evidences of antique liveliness. Virginia Ironside has set us right on senior sex and book clubs. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, at 67, is about to embark on another single-handed circumnavigation of the globe; Mr Jim Webber, 103, is still working as a gardener in Stoke Abbott, Dorset; false teeth and a Zimmer frame have been recovered from the Water of Leith; and in Bournemouth, a 95-year-old man has been arrested for kerb crawling, which would be my top clincher if it weren't for the two judges and the Brazilian cleaner.

These last are especially significant in that they demonstrate a lack of two supposedly inescapable facets of the ageing process: absence of energy and acquisition of wisdom, both of which were also missing when a burglar in Cordoba, Argentina left his false teeth at the crime scene, thus facilitating his arrest.

There you go, I anticipate you saying: memory. The unforgettable elephant in the room, the means of maintaining doubt and control by the younger of the older just as Joan Fontaine, or was it Anne Baxter, was always being driven slowly mad by her husband and his lover in old Hollywood movies. Well, I have to tell you that there was a survey last week showing that Britons of all ages complain about being forgetful, and I'm determined to find the exact figure even it costs me a joke: ah, there we are, a whacking 87 per cent.

This banging on about memory and age has robbed us of the delight of eccentricity: no one dares not conform any more for fear of being whipped off for tests and a consequent drug regime. Instead, there's all the placatory, undignified mimicking of youth, track suits, aerobics, yoga, and, whatever you do, don't fall asleep with your mouth open. It's as if, as the planet grows old at pace, the longing for and fetishising of youth grows with it.

So, Sir Ming: keep the spectacles, the suits, and the splendidly uncoached arm movements. And if one might suggest, perhaps a fringe performance next year as Maurice Chevalier in Gigi: "The Fountain of Youth is dull as paint, Methuselah is my patron saint. I've never been so comfortable before. Oh, I'm glad I'm not young anymore."

Splendid; and while we're on musical showbiz, this just in from Blackpool: Lionel Blair, 74, has talked a man out of throwing himself off the North Pier. Meanwhile, inland, his distant cousin awaits the arrival in Manchester of the new member of Labour's national executive, Mr Walter Wolfgang, 83. Any chance, I wonder, of a dream ticket Thai-style putsch with Tony Benn, 81?

They come here, take our forests

Goodness me, this country is becoming dangerously overcrowded. I know we're not supposed to use the swamp word, but really: in the last six years there have been sightings of 5,931 big cats, 332 wild boars, 51 wallabies, 13 racoons, 10 crocodiles, seven wolves, three pandas, two scorpions and a penguin. And that's as well as 7,000 parakeets roosting in the poplars at Esher Rugby Club, a pelican on the River Ribble and thousands of edible dormice living in lofts around Tring and making, according to one resident, "a terrific bumping sound all through the night".

My sympathies to threatened native species, obviously, but, as with all immigration, it does rather enliven things, doesn't it? Country walks certainly have a fresh edge. But you'll be wondering about the penguin. Spotted from a Brixham pub window in March last year. It was.

* A northern phrase I'm very fond of, calibrating as it does exactly the correct astonishment at any number of current events, is, "Well, I'll go to the foot of our stairs". Here is a selection: 1. A parsnip has come top in a National Trust ugly vegetable competition. 2. Gordon Brown couldn't name any of the tracks on the Arctic Monkey's debut album. 3. The Prince of Wales has seven eggs boiled for his breakfast to allow a choice of yoke consistency, according to a new book by Jeremy Paxman. 4. Clarence House has denied it. 5. Peter Cook and Tommy Cooper had dark sides, according to other new books. 6. And Mark Thatcher. 7. The new Saatchi exhibition is causing controversy. 8. Walter Wolfgang is has been banished to the balcony in Manchester. 9. Students aren't getting enough sleep. 10. Ah, yes, but it's because they're too busy drinking.