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Leading Article: Sir John displays wisdom beyond his years

GROWING old is, as the main actor in that touching Belgian film Toto le Heros remarked, the best method yet discovered of not dying. Everyone copes with its ravages in their own way, but few have done so as gracefully as Sir John Gielgud. The great actor, who will be 90 tomorrow, says he does not want a celebration 'because you only make stupid speeches, bow and become covered in confusion'.

Sir John speaks not as someone borne down by the weight of his years but as a working actor still capable of carrying off the title role in King Lear - as in last Sunday's Radio 3 production. He is surely right to think that altogether too much is made of anniversaries and the like.

Newspapers are among the worst offenders. Every day they list not just birthdays of the living, but anniversaries of births and deaths on that day. Yesterday, for example, we discovered not only that Lionel Hampton, the great vibraphone player, was 81, and the soprano Montserrat Caballe 61, but also that on that day the footballer Bobby Moore was born in 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in 1945, and the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made the first manned space flight in 1961. Interesting in its way, but the temptation must be to cry: so what?

Charitably seen, the British preoccupation with anniversaries derives from a sense of history and from the pleasure that many Britons gain from contemplating this country's many past glories. To more critical eyes it will be interpreted as yet another example of the national tendency to look backwards in nostalgia and celebrate what has been rather than what might be.

Given that national weakness, to ignore the 90th birthday of a treasure such as Sir John Gielgud might seem churlish, however grateful he might be. No such pressure attends the 40th, 50th and 60th birthdays of lesser mortals, which family and friends are often far more anxious to celebrate than those who have reached such milestones.

The victims would generally prefer the relentless passing of the decades to go unmarked. Above all, they may pray inwardly, let me be spared a 'surprise party', with its overtones of This is Your Life. If anyone has arranged anything similar for Sir John, they should stand by for some Lear-like maledictions.