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A CELEBRATION OF BECOMING SIXTY

The Times, October 9th 2006

 

Yesterday I became 60. Or should I say, 'reached,' since it's a milestone? Or maybe 'hit' – a shade more aggressive, taking on mortality with those boxing gloves I love? Others segue into sixty without telling anyone, coyly ashamed of aging. Not me – not with two parties.

But no…. stop there. Starting with numbers implies that it matters to me, the notching up of decades which starts at ten when feel so big to be into double figures. So blow out the candles and become bigger and older - quick and easy as counting in tens. Yet the jump from the ten to the twenty year old is enormous, whereas the leap from my forty year old self to this new sexagenarian is but an eyelid's blink. I'm not counting numbers, but revelling in the fact that I haven't changed at all – not in any way that matters. To explain why, let's leave the digits and go to a party.

It was a month ago, on September 11th. I'd had a bad day and didn't particularly want to go to Bath's first free concert, marking the sombre date. But my friend Lucy was the organiser; the 499 precious tickets had been given out by local newspaper ballot, so I had to count myself privileged. It was a modest event: small marquee in a field behind a supermarket, white plastic tables, stalls selling food, wine in disposable beakers, faintest whiff of spliff on the air, and local bands like Oedipus, The Doubtful Guests, The Mad Cows ('bovine smut funk') and brilliant Undercut (are they signed yet? If not, why not?) - thrashing guitars and drums for free.

Did they realise that on the lighting desk was the country's biggest lighting designer and show director, Patrick Woodroffe (running the board himself tonight, as earlier he'd wielded a spanner for the first time in decades) – the Mr Big who lights the Stones and Bob Dylan, not unknown west country bands? But there he was (a local) skilfully synching colour to chords, as an eclectic mixture of people shimmied: all ages, with hair from dreadlocked to grey. The MC was called 'Fluffy' and right at the end Bel at 60 Peter Gabriel stood in front of (not on) the stage and gave us a quiet message of peace and love. Serious young faces looked moved by his words. I thought, 'this is so cool, just like the best of the 'sixties, and I don't want to be anywhere else.'

Does that sound 'hippy' enough for you? Wait – it gets better. Much hard slog went into putting on that little concert – for a good reason. In a world full of hatred, terror, cruelty and fanaticism it was a small symbol of what St Paul called faith, hope and love. The September Concert Foundation was created in April 2002 for the sole purpose of organizing an annual citywide music festival in New York, in remembrance of September 11th and as 'a celebration of our universal humanity.' The website says, 'Our vision is to mark this day as a day of music and prayers for a peaceful world year after year….. based on the principles of musical equality, freedom, and accessibility, and the spirit of giving.'

Now, I really love all that stuff. Fluffy' is about right. Why, I even thought 'Right on, man!' (or words to that effect) during Bill Clinton's long, soppy speech at the Labour Party Conference – that's right, the one hotshot reporters dismissed as hokum. 'But I would not be convicted / By a jury of my peers'… since so many would understand. I've survived thirty-five years in and around journalism, wearing my heart on my sleeve and enduring a few personal vicissitudes along the way, but I haven't learnt to download cynicism. What's more, the chief joy of reaching my prime is that I couldn't care less what anybody thinks or says about me. So as I leap cheerfully into my sixties, I know the point is not the number but the attitude. To me there is an inescapable link between Paul Simon's 'Still crazy after all these years' and Bob Dylan singing 'Forever Young' on Planet Waves. Be the former and the latter will follow. That's the way it works.

If the miracle were possible, why wish to be forever young? Crazy indeed to be deluded - spending more and more money on face cream and clothes, to hide 'the skull beneath the skin.' So let me get the vanity stuff out of the way, because it's not what this is about. In the sixties I had Quant hair, in the seventies long hair; in the eighties it was Big, in the nineties scrunched – and now I have plughole hair. Not good. I've had botox twice, and 'filler' injected into my smile lines and cheeks – all to write about, I must add. I've never paid for the stuff, but I'm quite prepared to, because I like the difference it makes, and hate the way certain newspapers delight in 'exposing' women who have 'confessed' to a bit of help, as if they'd been caught out touching up teenage boys behind the bike shed. The extremes of cosmetic surgery are sad, but if women (and men) want to 'prepare a face to meet the faces that they meet' (to quote T.S.Eliot) – where's the harm? It's a statement about life, not mere terror about aging and death. It winks at the guy with the scythe, chuckling, 'Not yet, baby!'

Somebody asked recently, 'What's the secret of staying youthful?' and I mumbled something about always be ready to reinvent yourself. But that implies putting on masks, trying to switch your selfhood as you might redecorate a room. Of course, it's meaningless. What is important is to ADD all the time, opening yourself to new experiences, never allowing yourself to congeal, always topping up the sum total of who you are, surprising yourself. Instead of saying 'One door closes, another opens,' you fling open ALL the doors. The truth is, never before have I felt such a powerful passion for life. I relish the biker hen look one day and boho chic the next – because it's all authentic: the multi-faced self.

I set myself a little exercise, which was to jot down a top-of-the-head list of favourite things – omitting 'raindrops on roses', soul-lifting though they are. This is how it went. 'Poetry; George Eliot; my partner's stonking black Harley-Davidson 'Fat Boy' customized with skulls and 'Screamin' Eagle' pipes; the music of Hildegarde of Bingen; my Maltese dog; make-up and perfume; Norman churches; jewellery; my fabulous 60s juke box and the music on it; medieval painting, especially Giotto.' I'll stop there at ten (it went on, for how could I omit champagne and Elvis?) but the important point is - you couldn't typecast the one who made that list. Since so many of the people who write to my Wednesday column, 'Life and Other Issues' feel stuck in the rut of their lives, I'd suggest that 'favourite things' is a good way to see how you might shift and change. If you can't think of ten things, or if they're all pretty samey, then do something about it – please. If husbands and wives find their lists are utterly different then it might be a good idea to come up with a plan of something new to share. It's about seeing your life as a constant becoming. As I reach sixty I have this extraordinary, dizzy feeling that I've only just begun - God willing, of course, which thought brings a necessary note of humility.

The universal story is of aging; what I can bring to it is my own narrative. We baby-boomers are surely the luckiest generation. Born in 1946, we imbibed post-war relief and optimism with our mothers' Bel Mooney 60milk and experienced a safe and structured childhood during the undervalued 'fifties. I was brought up in a Liverpool Corporation flat by young parents who demonstrated by example that if you worked incredibly hard you might one day be (almost) as good as 'them.' You stuck with what you started, did your homework, never whinged over knees grazed in a hopscotch tumble, and accepted rules and hierarchies just as our medieval forebears accepted the Great Chain of Being. We had serious public libraries (which fed me), ultra-clean hospitals ruled by fierce matrons, and rigorous schools like my crowded state primary, Northway, which saw a top class of 50 all pass the 11 plus. As a clever child, I had to listen to younger, very poor 'D' stream children read aloud. Smelling neglect and feeling instinctively that it wasn't fair, I realized I was lucky. My home wasn't wealthy, nor always harmonious, yet love sat on the table with the bottle of tomato sauce. Each day now I give thanks for that upbringing, as much as for all I possess.

Idealism borne of a sense of gratitude – did that fuel us baby boomer protesters? Liberated by the late sixties and early seventies we preached tolerance and challenged the old structures in as many ways as we could. For me CND and Movement for Colonial Freedom at 17, then feminism, then anger at Vietnam, racism, then Labour Party membership – all seemed much more significant than the so-called 'Summer of Love', in a world that was changing more rapidly than our parents could have predicted. When I became a journalist it was because I believed that writing could improve the world – you would tell it like it is, write passionately about the disadvantages which weigh people down, and then somebody with power would say, 'Hey, we'd better change that.' It's easy to be cynical now and say, 'No such luck,' and since 1946 history does show that human beings can take the long, slow road to improvement; 'things can only get better' indeed. There's no space to list the acts of parliament and liberalization of attitudes, but no amount of disillusionment or despair should blind us to progress.

In the recent, colossal hit, 'Crazy' Gnarls Barley sings, 'My heroes had the heart to live their lives out on a limb/ And all I remember is thinkin' I wanna be like them/ Ever since I was little…it looked like fun…' Exactly. Here's another little exercise: write down a quick list of ten people (alive or dead) you really admire, and then try to sum up what they have in common. This reveals much about yourself, and so I hope you like it. If not (maybe they all made money -period) then maybe you should roll back a few years by finding some new heroes. One of my own heroines, the war reporter Martha Gellhorn, could write this when she was 78: 'I belong to a global fellowship, men and woman concerned in the welfare of the planet and its least protected inhabitants. I plan to spend my remaining highly-privileged years applauding that fellowship, the young volunteers and the veterans together, cheering them from the sidelines, shouting good for you, right on, that's the stuff, never give up. Never give up.'

That inspires me. Why would one give up when there is so much to do?

I confess I went through a period of quiescence and complacency, enjoying the ivory tower; as Dylan sings, 'I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.' For I've returned to feeling that things can – and must – be fought for. If you don't cherish deep in your soul, the conviction that things ought to be made better, you die slowly inside. It can happen to people in their twenties; we all meet them sometimes – so much 'older' than they should be. It may seem 'crazy' to cling to idealism when proofs to the contrary come in every day, but don't forget that crazy can mean 'mad' too – and the things that make me mad as hell drive all fluffiness away. Bad parenting: indifference to the environment; all fanaticism, racism, tribalism; greed – in whatever corner of the globe it raises its ugly, bloated head; the assumption that people cannot be stretched; cruelty and cynicism; selfishness and defeatism…..need I go on? 'Cry shame' said Martha Gellhorn - and never before has Yeats's famous line seemed more true: 'The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.'

When I was fifty I wrote a piece for this newspaper which said 'I didn't plan it this way. I wasn't supposed to get old.' Well, the good news is – I didn't! Things didn't work out the way I thought they would, but I celebrate the fact that you can come Bel Mooney 60through a divorce with mutual love and respect, and work out pain, sorrow and regret, murmuring 'That's the way it was fated to be – dammit - but now let's move on.' And I know that somewhere in a trailer park in Arizona, or a block of flats in Marseilles, or a village outside Kampala, or a cottage in the Highlands, a woman is weeping because she has lost what she thought would last – that whatever the differences in our lives, we are the same. I celebrate that awareness, for without what Yeats called 'the imaginative sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike' - what hope is there? I celebrate the will to challenge corruption and war-mongering, and Peter Gabriel bothering to show up at the little Bath free concert, and Susan Sarandon's victory sign at the Oscars, and Bob Geldorf's endless, mouthy championing of the poor in Africa. I celebrate 'love thy neighbour' as the only way to live, and admire those who preach it.

You see, somebody has to speak out, and up. Always. That faith keeps wrinkles on your mind at bay. You're rejuvenated by the absolute certainty (even after six decades of life and so much experience) that the good ones are always beavering away, never giving up - real heroes, people brave in body and soul, humans full of love and compassion, whose deeds outweigh the evil. It makes me throw back my head with joy that I'm young again.

 

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