Howard Jacobson: There is nothing to fear when you reach the seventh age of man. On the contrary

Leave aside their proximity to death and the old have the best of it. They know what they know
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The Independent Online

The south coast again. Not as mild as in previous years. It's my custom, after hokey-cokeying at the bandstand on Boxing Day (I don't participate: I just observe in horror), to go down with sunstroke. Not this time. It's winter proper: a stone-dead sky, a needling wind, the sea irked, snapping at the groynes. Fewer people on the promenades. No one sufficiently steady on their feet to risk the swaying pier. But an atmosphere of the miraculous abroad, for it is nothing short of a miracle that we should be on our feet at all. Another elderly Christmas in Eastbourne.

This is, I think, my sixth running. So I must like it here. I'm catching up with the old, that's part of the fascination. Soon I will overhaul them. Then people will be shouting in my ear and helping me across the road. And I will have known every stage of being a human being.

Leave aside their proximity to death and the old have the best of it. They know what they know. They are not swept by sudden passions and irrational alarms. I'm not saying they aren't in a state of almost permanent terror, but who isn't? And at least when they feel all's ill about their hearts there is sound physiological reason for it.

They laugh a deeper laugh, regardless of the condition of their teeth. A more individual laugh, not determined by the cadences of the comedian of the hour, at which the young laugh like so many Pavlov's dogs, regardless of the content. Their own peculiar experience of existential absurdity is what sets the old off. Death-rattle laughter, which is the best kind.

They sit more still in their chairs than the young. They look deeper into whatever it is they're seeing, never mind that what they're seeing is no longer there, and probably never was. But their attention, once you find it, wanders less. They tell you their best stories several times in one evening, which is useful if your own attention strays. They possess a more truly philosophic attitude to their bodies. They wake surprised, like the Trickster gods of early societies, to discover there are parts of themselves in working order. They don't have ruined nostrils, they don't kiss everyone they meet.

In London I kiss a hundred faces a day, many of them I don't recognise. Women, men, cats, dogs - whoever comes up looking for a lick. Here, in our soft-carpeted Eastbourne hotel, we kiss sparingly, and even when a kiss is the only appropriate greeting we as often as not miss the cheek we aim for. We are the same with one another's Christian names. Because we know we'll get them wrong, we don't use them.

That isn't the only reason. We don't use Christian names because we are not well enough acquainted with one another. We haven't earned the right. Decorum, you see. A sense of what distinguishes occasion from occasion. I go to weddings where the young pay less attention to their tailoring than we in Eastbourne give to deciding what to wear to breakfast.

The last time I was a wedding guest I wasn't just the only person wearing dancing pumps - for it clearly said dancing on the invitation - I was the only person in a tie. What sort of epithalamium is an open-necked shirt? What way is that to mark the grand ceremonial of marriage, to show that you feel differently towards it than Arsenal away to Spurs?

Don't tell me that a day out is a day out. Refuse to distinguish between events, refuse to make an outward show of separating the sacred from the profane, what is serious from what is trivial, and that's the end of us. Differentiation is everything. If Tony Blair is an execrated figure today, that is because he asked us to think of him the way we think of the person to whom we take our dry cleaning.

Forget the Iraq war. Politicians survive bad foreign policy decisions. What has sunk Blair in the national esteem is the disesteem he went out of his way to cultivate. "Call me Tony," he said, taking off his jacket; so we did, taking off ours. And Tony he remains - unattired, deformalised, a fool to his own ideology of disrespect.

There is not an old person in my hotel who does not know to his bones the folly of this egalitarianism. Let their fingers be howsoever gnarled with age and crippled with arthritis they will struggle with their bow ties until they have them knotted as they should be for Christmas night. Thus do they give regard, not to Jesus, not to God, but to to the principle of discrimination.

Yes, they too were young and unindividuated once. But youth is never better represented than in those who bear its trace. There is a fine-looking woman of a certain age here whose face I'm sure I know. I will not, of course, ask her who she is. That would be ill-mannered of me, not least as what I would really be asking is who she was. A famous fashion model, one of our party thinks, by virtue of how she dresses still.

Exciting to think we have a once famous fashion model at the next table. An illogical excitement I concede, since if she were a famous model now I would not, on principle, look twice at her. I don't go much on models. Don't care for how they look or the company they keep. So why does her having been one (if she was) hold an allure that her being one now (if she is) wouldn't? Because the past is sanctified in the present, that's why; because youth is made interesting in age.

Sequestered on a faraway island recently, I found myself at a party with an infamous porno pin-up of long ago. Bold, horse-faced, with an uppity, Cheltenham Ladies' College air, she showed my generation things we had not seen before. We knew her well from the way she smiled down on us (actually she smiled up at us but it felt down on us) from between her legs.

Not exactly decent company, had we met her with our mothers and aunties in her heyday. But now, with all that behind her, a deed done, a hazard survived, she commands the sort of respect due to someone who has single-handedly circumnavigated the globe. When I catch her eye I even find myself inclining my head, showing that deference to position which our Prime Minister fatally declined.

Worth remembering at the turn of another year: it's not where you're going that counts, it's where you've been.

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