Thursday, 26 January 2017


As Old As the Hills
Reflections on being a codger

I remember a day, perhaps 50 or more years ago. A hot day in summer, when I was between ships, working ashore in the building trade to earn a few extra pounds. Unskilled work was abundant then.

It you were fit and strong, could handle a pick and shovel or shoulder a bag of hot cement, most firms would employ you. It was sweaty, honest work after which cold beer tasted all the better and restful sleep was guaranteed. For the first 15 years of my post-school, working life, I did my share of it. In those days digging footing trenches for building a house wasn’t done with a JCB. Manual labour was the way; the trusty spade, the wheelbarrow. On that day, I remember the foreman standing over us, puffing on his briar pipe, telling us to put our backs into it. It didn’t annoy me, because I felt so strong, virile and invincible that I dug into that grey clay with even more vigour. I thought my energy might last forever. I was a human machine primed, lubricated for constant action. How foolish that notion seems now.

   Time for reflection. On the other hand, you might call it navel gazing. The moment has undoubtedly arrived; just two months away from 74 and I’ve finally had to surrender to taking an afternoon nap. I know this is the kind of thing the laid-back Spanish do, the siesta,
and much of my experience visiting UK OAP care homes has proved that for the inmates, the challenge and physical strain of getting through a sandwich and a Viennese whirl at lunch would usually result in a comatose two hours in a Shackleton’s chair (remember them?) interrupted only by afternoon tea and a biscuit.

But now, even though I still have all my own hair and teeth, I too am an ‘Old Age Pensioner’. I’m one of today’s 65+ group of the early 21st century who grew up with rock’n’roll. In the immediate post war years we were a ‘marketing opportunity’ - the first real ‘teenagers’. The generation of ‘oldies’ before us are dying off. They were the ones who went through the war. I was born in April 1943 with a vague infant memory of the Luftwaffe over Hull.
The way we were - a marketing opportunity with disposable income

The older generation who braved the shrapnel passed into peacetime loving Glenn Miller, the clunky Billy Cotton Band Show and dreary post-war BBC radio shows. Radio to them was ‘The Organist Entertains’ and the anodyne insipidity of ‘Sing Something Simple’, a Sunday teatime regular of such stultifying tedium it made you realise why the Lord’s Day Observance Society still had bombed-out Britain by the throat. But we, the rockers, weaned on Elvis, Little Richard and Lonnie Donegan, still imagined, even by the 1990s that we might well live forever, because our culture appeared as immortal as Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On LP.

If my memory serves me well, much of what you could do physically at 20 could still be managed in your 40s. Add three decades and the situation changes. I did try going to a gym once to tighten myself up, but found the experience highly distasteful. It was full of preening narcissists and the vinyl upholstery on muscle-punishment machinery and bench presses always seemed to have a patina of some would-be Schwarzenegger’s sweat on it.
another sweaty narcissist ...
I swam 50 lengths a day in my late 50s and early 60s and that eventually informed me that when all those abdominal muscles you thought were indestructible pack in, they express their weariness by giving you a hernia, and with hernias there’s a choice from inguinal to umbilical and beyond (check this out) and some, as I’ve discovered after three bouts of surgery, can all but finish you off.
I tried riding a bike but that was exhausting. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you can still have sex, because you can do it in a more leisurely fashion horizontally in bed. (I should be so lucky...) You can even go up and down in straight lines cutting your grass with a lawnmower and push the wheelie bins out or chop firewood.  But past 60, other things kick in. Then there’s the strong possibility of arthritis. This seems to favour the knee joints and coincides with that time when you’re just about to ‘enjoy’ retirement. Hips are another danger area. If, like me, you’re borderline obese and love your food, you’ll also find that whereas ten years ago you could walk two or three miles and feel a sense of achievement, now a half mile walk to pick up your newspaper demands an immediate nap when you get home. Smoking? Yes, I’ve puffed my way through many an ounce of Golden Virginia and packs of cigars; stopping’s easy. I’ve stopped loads of times. As I write this, due to my current disabling injury I haven’t smoked for 26 days. Will I smoke again? Put me in the vicinity of a couple of pints of decent bitter and I’ll no doubt surrender to the weed. It’s an evil, pernicious, death dealing carcinogen and indulgence in it is like Russian Roulette. Yet I’ve been stupid enough to do it.

The sad thing is that all these ailments (and for many victims, more serious ones) is that they don’t just ‘come and go’ when you enter your 70s. They come and stay. You can, as I do, take enough vitamin pills each morning to make your guts rattle like a pair of maracas, and eat your ‘five a day’ healthy foods, but if your number’s up, that’s it. You wonder what’s next; dementia? Alzheimer’s? Anything’s possible. 

There is no secret, spiritual palliative to aging. Your body’s like an automobile. Think back to all those shiny new cars 20+ years ago you once proudly polished and sat in. Where are they now? Big ends, carburettors, gearboxes, brake linings … all worn out and rusting at the bottom of some dystopian metallic death mountain in a distant scrap yard. They’re a fine analogy for the human body.
Yet I can only speak as a man. Women are much tougher than us. When you consider childbearing - nine months of carrying an infant in your body, then the pain of birth itself, the struggle to maintain a position and dignity in an unequal, male-orientated world, women deserve medals and a double pension.
So, what do us old folk do to keep ticking over? We try to be useful. Our experience is sometimes valuable. Those who can, turn to daily creativity. This blog is an example. Those with extended families are stimulated by the love of grandchildren. Others dance, try to exercise, read, study, expand their knowledge. Some of us remain pointlessly political; anger, said Johnny Rotten, is an energy.
And if we continue to annoy some sections of the younger generation, they should think on; we’re dying, we’ll soon be out of your way, we'll stop drawing that pension which annoys you so much (yet which, like the NHS, we've been paying for throughout our working lives) and then, guess what? You too will get old, creaky and cantankerous and believe me, kids, it ain’t no fun.

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