Watch out - the age of living dangerously has not passed me by

My knee suddenly swelled up to tell me - absurdly, in my view - I should no longer be playing football
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The Independent Online

By a peculiarly unfortunate piece of timing, the New Scientist has announced the discovery of the darkest colour that has yet been created, in the very week of my birthday. Catching sight of one's name in a headline is normally a joyful business, but the news that, as one newspaper put it, "Scientists turn future blacker than ever" has not really helped my mood.

By a peculiarly unfortunate piece of timing, the New Scientist has announced the discovery of the darkest colour that has yet been created, in the very week of my birthday. Catching sight of one's name in a headline is normally a joyful business, but the news that, as one newspaper put it, "Scientists turn future blacker than ever" has not really helped my mood.

The new black, invented by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington, to the west of London, is apparently something of a breakthrough. It will probably not be used in minimalist art or on the walls of teenagers' bedrooms since it costs £500 for two square inches, but it will be of invaluable use in the design of telescopes and surveillance machinery for outer space. While the best matt black paint will absorb no more than 97.5 per cent of light, NPL Super Black takes out 99.7 per cent. In its presence, virtually all light and colour simply disappear.

How very like my birthday mood that is. The grown-up way to behave on these occasions it to raise a cheery glass to mark the passing of another year, put up with some good-hearted ribbing and then pretend that nothing has changed. Mysteriously, none of these things actually appealed to me on what should be an unexceptional mid-fifties landmark.

I had just completed a story that I had been working on for some time and had sent the manuscript off to the publishers, a weirdly melancholy moment. My left knee suddenly swelled up as if to tell me – absurdly, in my view – that I should no longer be playing football. The love of my life suggested out of the blue that a butch, manly approach to hair loss (the Independent reader who sent an e-mail to me headed "wispy-haired twat" was at least 50 per cent right) would be to shave the lot off and go around like the bullet-headed thug in EastEnders.

The newspapers, meanwhile, have marked the launch of a television series called 20 Things To Do Before You're 30 by asking a number of smartarse opinionists what their list of obligatory pre-30 experiences would be. Much of what has been suggested – ideas such as growing facial hair, catching a skin disease in embarrassing circumstances, trying hard drugs, sleeping with a member of your own sex – are things that I never managed by the age of 50, let alone 30.

I suspect that Paul Theroux found himself caught up in a similar mood of age anxiety when he set off for the overland journey through Africa that he has described in his latest book, Dark Star Safari. His rationale for the journey was characteristically grumpy – he wanted to become less available to those who wanted something from him – but, as he gamely makes his way south, it becomes clear that the age thing is nagging away at him. He is delighted, repeatedly, when Africans assume that he is in his forties and proudly records instances of girls in their twenties making passes at him.

When Theroux eventually reaches Uganda, where he lived when he was young, what is really bugging him is suddenly made explicit: he is approaching his 60th birthday. "I did not want to be the classic bore, the reminiscing geezer, yet I now knew: the old are not as frail as you think, they are insulted to be regarded as feeble," he says.

"They are full of ideas, hidden powers, even sexual energy. Don't be fooled by the thin hair and battered features and scepticism. The older traveller knows it best: in our hearts we are youthful, and we are insulted to be treated as old men and burdens, for we have come to know that the years have made us more powerful and certainly made us more streetwise. Years are not an affliction – old age is strength."

You tell 'em, grandad. Indeed, Theroux's journey and the book that resulted from it are an effective kick in the teeth of advancing years. All the same, there was something unsettling about Dark Star Safari. Unlike Paul Theroux, I was not shocked to discover that he was 60; I had always thought that he was older. Ever since I read The Great Railway Bazaar, I had assumed that he was well ahead of me on life's great highway. Now I discovered that I was catching him up, that he was just around the next bend.

Perhaps, like eyesight, perspective begins eventually to go awry. When I am with friends who are in their mid-30s, I feel that I am effortlessly part of their generation, and that the 20 years between us might as well not exist. Yet someone who is two decades away from me in the other direction seems to belong to another universe of ageing.

So I am probably not the person to write a sequel to the new TV series, called 20 Things Not To Do After You're 50, knowing that, apart from the truly embarrassing idiocy of driving a sports car, I am still trying to do most of them. But if I did, I would advise against too much introspection, particularly around the subject of age – and in favour of ignoring birthdays.

terblacker@aol.com

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