Mid-Cliff crisis

David Aaronovitch
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:43

The outward signs of male mid-life crisis are far more apparent than the luckless sufferer usually imagines. There's the man in his early forties who turns up at the body-piercers workshop and asks to look at the catalogue, pausing wistfully at the page on nipples and navels. Or the fellow whose hair, thinning fore, suddenly sports pigtails aft. Leather trousers on a sagging rear, waistcoats patterned with nudes from the Sistine Chapel, a gleaming Harley-Davidson (plus discreet mounting ladder) and a habit of coquettishly inviting young women to guess his age - these are all signs of an aging chap in trouble - and just begging to be ridiculed.

Who better to embody this absurdity than that former clean teen idol, Sir Cliff Richard, in his determination to metamorphose into the violent and smouldering Heathcliff, in the forthcoming musical adaption of Wuthering Heights? Not since Florence Foster-Jenkins made the ultimate vanity appearance at Carnegie Hall (paid for by her doting but tone-deaf husband) has the cruel sect of journalistic assassins anticipated such enjoyable bloodletting. It is irresistible.

And since I am no better than anyone else, I cannot resist. Are we, I wonder, to be treated to Heathcliff gatecrashing the wedding of Catherine to Edgar Linton and bursting into a bitterly ironic rendition of "Congratulations"? Or perhaps silencing his tortured lover with the viciously misogynistic "Living Doll"? A long period of silent rain-splattered necking and bodice- groping could be followed by "Its so funny (that we don't talk any more)".

Cliff as Heathcliff seems as incongruous as, say, Hugh Grant playing Falstaff or Jodie Foster's Lady Bracknell (eyes flick up, soft drawl emerges from side of mouth: A handbag?). Surely the man ought to realise that you cannot be one thing for most of your life, and then expect to be allowed to become another. That is the message which most of us who pontificate about these things are sending to Sir Cliff. For God's sake, act your age - be yourself.

But which self is a middle-aged man to be? I am a decade and a half younger than Cliff, but one morning last week I woke up with a feeling of terrible panic. My chest felt tight and my mouth was completely dry. It was like those dreams of childhood where it is Christmas Day, and there are no presents: or the nightmares of adolescence in which you are about to enter the examination and realise that you have done no revision. Except I was awake and the one thought in my head was: "How the hell did I get to this age? Where has it all gone?" Sometime in the night, Death - for the first time (but presumably not the last) - had paid me a visit.

I am not looking for sympathy here. If you're older than me, you've been through it; if younger, well - you have it to come.

But I understand very well why Cliff wants to be Heathcliff. He has spent a lifetime being civilised, wholesome, decent and dentally perfect. A model of effortless self-restraint. But something elemental - mortality - is hard upon his heels and now he wants to run to the hills, hunt with the wolves, eat red, raw meat and to howl. "Within all of us," he snarls, "is the potential to kill, to hate, to do bad things." To leave teabags in the sink.

This urge to be less restrained can be seen in many men. Two years ago, some folk thought they had spotted a character change in the author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. Previously rather bland and accommodating, he had turned nasty and impatient, growling at guests on his radio show and writing dirty stories. Bragg was reinventing himself.

And I like the new version. Bragg the Bastard has more edge than Melvyn the Mellifluous, and generates more light. He made an adjustment and it worked. Very often it does, and it certainly beats the more pathetic attempts of men to defeat their mid-life blues, such as dumping their wives and kids.

So, Sir Cliff, the good news is that I would like to join you on the moor. The bad news is that I want to play Cathy.

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