Terence Blacker: Keep on truckin' to the end of the road

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The Independent Online

Where have the Zimmers gone? Not so long ago, the group of pensioners who had recorded a reedy-voiced version of the Who's rock anthem "My Generation" were everywhere. Their single rode high in the charts. They flew to Hollywood and met George Clooney. Since then, it has all gone a bit quiet. Could they have been corrupted by Tinseltown? Perhaps old Herbert has been out clubbing with Paris Hilton while Doris and Frieda have been up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire with their fellow pensioner Warren Beatty.

But even if the Zimmers' "My Generation" goes the way of "The Birdy Song", "Y Viva Espana" and other mercifully forgotten novelty hits, their moment of celebrity this year has pointed up a new attitude towards old age. There was a time when a rare public appearance by some old dear - George Burns, maybe, or the Queen Mother - would reduce audiences to a state of gurgling sentimentality. People would begin to act like Michael Parkinson interviewing Dame Edith Evans, simpering affectionately with a daft expression on their faces, laughing intemperately at anything approaching a wheezy old joke.

The old were, quite rightly, not going to put up with being patronised like that into the 21st century. These days they are flying around the world, burning a hole in the ozone layer and the savings their children might have expected to inherit. Like Noël Coward's Mrs Wentworth-Brewster, they have discovered, in the nick of time, that life is for living.

So the news that the Department of Transport is looking for way to crack down on irresponsible driving by those over 70 is likely to go down very badly with this new generation of dynamic pensioners. Just as the Zimmers believed they could sing rock'n'roll, so ageing drivers are convinced that they are utterly safe behind the wheel.

Many of them, of course, are not. In his eighties, my father, never the most patient of men, decided that he was spending too much time dawdling behind other motorists on country roads. He wanted something that could nip past them and, with the help of an equity release scheme on his house, he acquired a new turbo-charged Subaru Impreza of the type said to be used by bank-robbers as getaway cars. When a jealous yob knifed one of his tyres while the car was parked in the local village, he was curiously proud.

Had he not died of natural causes shortly after his new car, he would almost certainly have taken some unfortunate road-user with him. He was not a bad driver, but he was impatient and over-estimated the speed of his reflexes. His driving a souped-up Subaru around narrow lanes was like asking a child to take a Derby winner out for a canter.

His friend Henry - a kind man but stone deaf and decrepit - was delighted when, at the age of 93, he had his driving license renewed. A week later, he drove into a ditch but, thanks to a local farmer with a tractor, the police were never informed.

There is a problem for the old in the country in that, without a car, many would be forced from the houses where they live. Some sort of test for the over-70s is sensible, so long as an outright ban is only used in cases like that of Henry. An L-plate for the old - an evergreen "O" perhaps, or a "Z" in tribute to the Zimmers - would warn other drivers and keep the more ancient off motorways while allowing them trips to the village. There, the only problem would be getting their tyres slashed.

It'd be funny if it wasn't so dishonest

"I'm in luck," said the TV adventurer Bear Grylls encountering four horses while in the Sierra Nevada for his new series Born Survivor. "A chance to use an old Native American mode of transport comes my way. This is one of the few places in the whole of the US where horses still roam free." Intrepidly, our man lassoed one of the mustangs and rode off.

How confused the luckless animal must have been. It had just been brought there by trailer from a nearby equitation centre and released. Elsewhere, Bear's "survival skills" involved spending nights in a motel when he was meant to be trapped on a desert island. A Polynesian raft he "assembled" had been put together by experts.

It is all quite funny but deeply dishonest. Bear, whose real name is Edward, should be laughed out of the adventure business.

* In certain offices, people turned up last week dressed up as Harry Potter characters. Others queued for hours, days, to get an early copy of the latest and last book. There were hysterical scenes when at last they were able to get their hands on it. And these were adults - nice, apparently normal people in their twenties.

It is tempting to be cynical and see the Potter phenomenon as another example of the strange merging of the childish and the grown-up, but something extraordinary, we should admit, has been happening.

Asked why he had called his group Harry and the Potters and based his act around the stories - "Save Ginny Weasley" and "This Book Is Awesome" are their most popular songs - a 28-year-old from Massachusetts has said that it was "a good way to introduce kids to rock'n'roll."

For years, pop, TV and computers have been used to promote books. Now a series of stories is helping out our poor old, unfashionable rock'n'roll. It is quite a reversal.

terblacker@aol.com

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