A sculptor looking for a subject to capture the spirit of metropolitan Britain in 2013 could do worse than “Marr on a Rowing Machine: A Study in Motion”. It would feature the famous Andrew Marr, a lithe, trim figure, his reedy shanks straining as he heaves gamely on his pitiless machine, going nowhere. Life, death, ageing, ambition, futility: all of early 21st-century life, for a certain kind of person at late middle age, is there.
Like all self-respecting works of art, “Marr on a Rowing Machine” would have a dark side. The broadcaster and writer, who is 53, was on his way to suffering a major stroke. “I’m frankly lucky to be alive,” he said in a post-recovery interview this weekend.
In a mortality-obsessed culture, this narrow escape has received wide coverage and, in the context of recent events in this area, must count as good news. A famous writer has announced that he has terminal cancer. A rock star, given a year to live, has been on a farewell tour. A poet has analysed his final physical decline in print. The death of a Prime Minister has caused a great debate about mourning, respect or lack of it, and the way the dead should be treated by the living.
Already anxious about pretty much everything, the British have discovered the big one; culturally, we seem to be on something of a death-kick.
Marr has blamed what happened to him on the regime of sharp, violent exercise widely recommended by fitness coaches. The truth is that between the late 40s and the late 50s, all sorts of pressures can lead people to some kind of systemic collapse or freak-out. At that dangerous age, they have either reached where they wanted to go and have found they need to go farther, or they have fallen short and, like Marr on his rowing machine, are groaning and sweating yet remaining in the same place. Either way, the body, the brain and soul are likely to find the strain is all too much.
Spring is a hippyish time of the year when the change from grey to green can extend into daily life, and so it seems a good moment to offer the generation synonymous with exercise regimes, skinny lattés, stressed-out home lives and dangerously wired careers, some gentle, guru-ish advice about how to avoid the meltdown of late middle age.
Treat people kindly at work. What on earth has happened to you recently? Even apparently decent people, working for respectable institutions, have begun to behave like pint-sized Robert Maxwells. The recession is not to blame for this behaviour; you are. Medical experts have proved recently, or at least they should have, that professional nastiness can cause clots of bile that will eventually reach the shrivelled remains of your heart and finish you off.
Reply to emails and telephone calls from human beings. In this age of communication, not communicating, even to real people with real conversation, has become a disease. Failing to talk, you add to the cold core of loneliness in our world. One day it will freeze you, too.
Cut down on affairs. Obviously it is tricky, because everyone else seems to be at it but you have reached the stage in your life when it really is time to give fidelity a go. It is true that affairs can be good for the health, providing exercise for the body and keeping the mind agile with all those lies and fake story lines, but you are likely to end up looking as old, shifty and randy as Alan Clark, at which point you will be dumped off the sexual merry-go-round.
Go to the countryside. There’s a reason why people in the country behave better towards one another than those in towns. Look at nature and remind yourself of what really matters. Walk, run, chop wood, turn compost. Taking exercise to get something done is more beneficial than pointless sweat in a gym. Appreciate what you’ve got. Don’t compare yourself with others. They are probably heading for a stroke like you. Think about those who are less lucky than you. Resist bitterness, global and particular.
And give up that ridiculous rowing machine.
Master of cliché
There are times when it is difficult to take our great actors quite as seriously as they would like. One theatrical knight, in particular, seems intent on single-handedly confirming every unfair cliché about the precious, loved-up world of show-business.
In a new interview, Sir Ben Kingsley has complained in time-honoured fashion that his parents didn’t love, praise or acknowledge him enough. Fortunately, being knighted made up for all that, providing the approval and affection he had missed throughout his life. “To be embraced by Her Majesty... I felt like stopping people in the street, saying my mum loves me, you know,” he has confided. “Because that’s what it felt like to me. The filling of a vacuum in the universe.”
What Her Majesty the Queen thinks about being a much-needed loving “mum” to the 69-year-old, four-times married actor can only be imagined.