‘The joy of hitting 62? I don’t have to pretend to like the theatre or foreign holidays – and I can spend all afternoon in the pub with my pals!’ It’s no fun getting older. But Marcus Berkmann has turned his travails into a mordantly funny book
At the age of 62, I have realised that I am living through one of the most purely humorous phases of life, which may be why I laugh out loud if I happen to catch sight of my naked body in a mirror. (Our flat is full of mirrors, possibly as punishment for some long-forgotten crime.)
Certainly my children, now in their early 20s, see me as a figure of fun, not to be taken entirely seriously until they run out of money and need to ask me for some.
When we are young, we want to try everything. I never took any drugs – way too timid – but I did go to the opera once or twice, and may even have pretended to like it.
Actually, the list of things I have never done is rather odd:
- Never smoked a cigarette.
- Never been to New York City.
- Never driven a car.
- Never worn, let alone purchased, a pair of blue jeans.
It might be more interesting to list the things I have done precisely once:
- Been on a cruise.
- Attempted to water-ski.
- Applied moisturiser.
- Gone to South Africa.
- Been a best man at a wedding (I quite enjoyed this, so more bookings please.)
Four or five years ago, in a whimsical moment, a group of five not-quite-as-employed-as-they-used-to-be friends and I formed a small club, which we called WALLS: the Wednesday Afternoon Long Lunch Society
As we get older, our list of things that we do, or want to do, gets shorter and our list of things that we don’t want to do gets ever longer.
I used to go to the theatre quite a lot – well, four or five times a year. This felt like a hell of a lot when you have to sit though all those plays, and no one can ever agree on whether to eat before or after, and there’s all the travelling time, and the incredible cost of even quite poor seats, and the glass of mediocre red wine in the interval, and all the dull middle-aged and elderly people in the audience who make you feel you have gone to the Conservative Party Conference by mistake, and the desperate, almost fevered wait for the end of the play so you can at last escape.
At some point I reached a stage at which I thought, I really don’t want to do this any more. I’m a grown-up and I don’t have to do it. No one can make me.
Even though you are probably over 50 when this realisation hits you, you are liberated by it. The chains are unshackled. I will happily go and see a friend perform or, more usually nowadays, the grown-up child of a friend, but that’s it.
In America, and even more notably in American films, there is the concept of the ‘bucket list’ – the list of all the things ageing people want to do before they kick the bucket. Go skydiving, visit the Grand Canyon, have unprotected sex with a ladyboy in Bangkok, that kind of thing.
What a waste of time. Getting older is not about embracing life’s adventures, it’s a slow and orderly retreat from them. It’s about not doing what other people want you to do but which bores you silly.
Marcus Berkmann (pictured) has turned his travails into a mordantly funny book
There should be only one item on the bucket list, which is ‘tear up bucket list’.
When I was a teenager I was a sports nut, and would watch literally any sport on the telly, even flat racing from Doncaster and the wrestling on ITV on Saturday afternoons. My son is the same: I have spotted him, in slight desperation, watching rugby league. But gradually these sports leave us. They vanish, sport by sport.
What is this about? Is it just boredom? Or is it actually the reverse, the realisation that life has so much to offer, and we have so little time in which to enjoy it that we can no longer afford to be bored?
With sport there’s the terrible repetition and also its total godforsaken pointlessness. Generations of fake-grinning men in silly trousers have been and gone since I last watched golf, and once you have ceased to care which car manufacturer is winning the F1 Constructors’ Championship, you will never care again.
So we retreat from dullness and obligation, and what we have left – our core interests, if you like – looms ever larger in our lives. For most of us, I think this is a relief.
My friend C, a retiree who cooks and reads and plays golf, is probably happier now than he has ever been: he glows with the joy of a man who knows he will be out on the course tomorrow morning, slashing his ball into the heavy rough.
I have always read a lot of books, sometimes for work but mainly for pleasure, and ten years ago I was reading about 50 a year. Now it’s more than 100. Not a conscious decision; just a suspicion that, whenever it’s sunny, I would be better off sitting in the park with a book than doing anything else at all. It’s a good, sound suspicion, and I respect it.
Travel can be an awful faff writes Marcus Berkmann (Stock Image)
Travel can be an awful faff. The sheer boredom of booking all your various connections, of packing most of your belongings into a tiny suitcase, of getting to the airport in time for your 7am flight, of being bodily squeezed into a tiny seat, of having to drink yourself silly to overcome your fear of flying, of the sheer brutal heat of wherever you land hitting you like a frying pan in the face, of horrible little concrete hotel rooms, of the sour din of air conditioners, of the profusion of man-eating insects (their buzzing even louder than the bloody air conditioner), of the price of a minuscule bottle of beer, of the creeping dread of returning home, of the even more depressing journey home… not to mention the credit card bill that assails you a couple of weeks later, when you had quietly forgotten you had ever been on holiday at all.
At 20, or 30, or 40, or even 50, it might all have seemed worth it. At 60, to my slight surprise, I don’t go on foreign holidays at all. This is what I mean by retreat. When you were younger you were willing to put up with so much. But now you have less energy and less patience. You need to conserve and focus your energy, and keep your stress levels as low as possible.
As I said, I have never been to New York, not for any particular reason, other than possibly laziness, but now I can admit I don’t even want to go. Everyone is appalled by this. ‘The energy! The lights! The buzz!’ they all cry, not understanding that those are the three things I specifically want to avoid.
If I want to relax I go for a walk in the English countryside. It costs bugger all and feeds my soul in a way that a huge noisy city never could.
Actually, I rather like European cities. Paris is magnificent, Rome is full of deranged Italians screaming at each other and Barcelona has the prettiest girls in the world. It’s 20 years since I visited any of them.
We all have different tastes and I have several friends for whom travel is still the thing. They have money and health and time, and for them every visit to an airport is still exciting and full of promise.
As I said, I have never been to New York, not for any particular reason, other than possibly laziness, but now I can admit I don’t even want to go (Stock Image)
Fine, I say. If you can maintain a Buddhist calm when security confiscate your nail scissors and Ryanair charges you to go to the loo, you are a better man than I, in every possible way.
But my idea of bliss is a cottage with low ceilings in an out-of-the-way Dorset village, with a sturdy pair of walking boots, a pile of books and a pub not too far away. If this sounds to you like an old person’s holiday, you would be right.
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We hired just such a cottage not so long ago, on the edge of a village next to the main path down to the sea. I’m not sure we saw a single person under 50 walk by all week.
It is all part of an attempt to remove unnecessary complexity from our lives, to pare down, to simplify. I’m not even sure this is a conscious urge, and if it isn’t, our subconscious knows something that we don’t. But I do think that craving a simple life as you get older is compatible with sound mental health.
My mother lives in a tiny flat at the very top of Baker Street, with a small dog, whom she takes for walks in Regent’s Park. She has pared her life back to the essentials, which are having a nice time, buying wonderful clothes for her granddaughters and talking for Britain. I have never known anyone happier.
If you offer her a second jam doughnut, she will say she really shouldn’t, and then eat it anyway. My mother does watch too many property shows on TV for my liking, but everyone has their flaws.
THE purging of ambition is one of the most satisfying symptoms of middle age, and one of the least expected. At 60, the process is pretty much complete.
All that scurrying around for personal advantage, and to what end? What seemed compulsory in our 20s, and an act of increasing desperation in our 40s, now starts to look like a symptom of mental illness. If you are still attempting to climb the greasy pole in your 60s, you will have noticed that there is more grease on it than ever before and that it only goes up a certain way, maybe a few feet.
The purging of ambition, I believe, is one of the most beautiful things that can happen to a human being. (People who have been purged of sexual desire say much the same thing, but for some reason I find that harder to believe.)
The need to make a mark, make a name for yourself, was once the highest-octane fuel in our engines. Then around 60, you ask yourself: do I really want to do this job that I have been doing for years even though it bores me to death?
It’s amazing how many people endure tedious jobs, then finally retire and are instantly run over by runaway trucks or eaten by wolves on a day’s walk in the countryside.
The real problem with ambition is that it’s not much fun. When I was younger I was tirelessly ambitious and, like all ambitious people, completely self-absorbed.
If someone I thought was talentless was given a newspaper column that I had my eye on, my rage and envy knew no bounds. So who gained from that, exactly? No one. Who lost? Only me. It was a complete waste of time and energy.
It’s amazing how many people endure tedious jobs, then finally retire and are instantly run over by runaway trucks or eaten by wolves on a day’s walk in the countryside (Stock Image)
Several of my friends, both male and female, went through a harsh stage, which usually coincided with their most successful (and therefore most stressful) years. In a harsh stage, you don’t smile as much as you used to. Charm is de trop.
To show your mettle you have to be decisive, matter-of-fact, businesslike at all times. It’s a harsh world out there, and if you’re not harsh enough, someone else will be harsher. I saw this in a few people and in every case I thought it was a permanent change. But it never was. Sooner or later ambition was purged, either by circumstance or by the passing years. The harsh gradually ceased to be harsh, relaxed, smiled again, looked younger than they had for a long time. The sun came out, blossoms budded on trees, heavenly choirs burst into song on every street corner.
Four or five years ago, in a whimsical moment, a group of five not-quite-as-employed-as-they-used-to-be friends and I formed a small club, which we called WALLS: the Wednesday Afternoon Long Lunch Society.
We meet once a month in a pub at about 1pm. We eat, we drink, we talk drivel, and if it’s the summer and we are out of doors, we stare at passing girls. After five or six hours of this, we stagger to our various homes, pass out and snore like lawnmowers.
We meet once a month in a pub at about 1pm. We eat, we drink, we talk drivel, and if it’s the summer and we are out of doors, we stare at passing girls (Stock Image)
It is as utterly and straightforwardly enjoyable as anything you can imagine. The pleasures of the long lunch are grievously underrated by modern capitalistic society, which generally favours a sandwich at your desk and maybe a Cadbury’s Twirl for afters. What joyless lives people lead.
When you are young and driven and keen to suck up to whomever is in charge, I can see the appeal of the swift lunch-snack and back to work, staring at your computer as though you’re afraid it’s going to leap off your desk and run away.
But we are now 60, for f***’s sake. When does thankless toil end and pleasure begin? If not now, when? – as Primo Levi once wrote, possibly about something else.
WALLS works because we have all known each other for 30 years. As old friends tend to be, we are all quite similar: very verbal, tending towards drollery, but not naturally disposed to dominate the conversation. No one has anything to prove, each of us has his quirks, and everyone else respects those quirks.
The value of friends is something you have to discover for yourself, and men can be catastrophically bad at keeping up with each other, for all sorts of reasons. One problem is the hermit tendency.
Most women I know have huge networks of friends they carefully nurture, while their menfolk sit in their sheds by themselves, listening to Test Match Special on the radio. I have known a few men who realised, in their 40s and 50s, that they simply didn’t have any friends at all.
At the top of my road there used to be a wonderful old pub full of solitary older men nursing their pints and saying nothing to anyone. Occasionally one of them would die and a photo of him would be put up behind the bar with a black border. A new solitary man would take his stool and life would carry on as before. Most of the new friends I have made over the past 15 years have been women – no, not for that reason, but because they are so much more interesting than most men.
My friend Russell, who also has more female friends than male friends, has a wonderful line on the terrible limits of male conversation. He says they only really have three subjects: sport, work and machines (cars, computers and the like)
I laughed when he told me this, but didn’t quite believe him. No, he said, the next time you are in the pub, just eavesdrop. So I did. And he’s right. Not entirely right, but very much more right than he has any right to be. What is interesting about WALLS is that when we meet, we are genuinely delighted to see each other and not afraid to show it. Such is the perilously low standard of male social intercourse that this still comes as a pleasant surprise to me.
‘ARE you happy?’ I asked my old friends at one of our WALLS lunches. ‘Right now, very,’ said David, tucking into his third pint of Estrella. The consensus was that while there were bad moments, this was quite a good time to be about 60, healthy and reasonably well off, as most of them are.
Long lunches with friends can only be a good thing, even if we talk endlessly about our aches and pains and demented parents. And rolling home feeling merry at half-past five is definitely an improvement on going back to work and snoozing at your desk. My feeling is that, for all the fears of the future, these are in some ways the best years of our lives. Ambition gone, children grown, pubs and restaurants open and absolutely no need to go to the theatre if you don’t want to: I’m not sure I see any downsides, except those that are undoubtedly to come.
Live in the present, keep life simple, take nothing for granted and never, ever watch daytime TV – unless you feel like it, of course. Rules for life that make complete sense to me, as a fully paid-up member of the young/old.
Still A Bit Of Snap In The Celery by Marcus Berkmann (Abacus £16.99) to be published November 16. To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid to 27/11/23; UK p&p free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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