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There are perks to being middle-aged

Like sitting quietly in a pub, reading and eating fish-and-chips.
Joanna Bogle | 9 May 2011
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In general, I must say that I honestly enjoyed life slightly more when I was younger. I loved the 1970s. I left school at the start of that decade and got married at the end of it, while the years in between were filled with all sorts of adventures, including political campaigning and first steps in journalism. I relished the 1980s, which took me as an Army wife to the then-divided city of Berlin. There, by the end of the decade, communism was crumbling and in 1990 the ghastly Berlin Wall fell, hacked down by joyful people celebrating freedom.

I spent the nineties and the noughties being busy and getting books published and rushing about doing things which were sometimes useful, sometimes not. Now it’s 2011 and I’m edging into the later stages of middle age.

Perks? They include sitting quietly in a pub reading. I remember being told, categorically and firmly, as a young woman that I really shouldn’t go into a pub alone and order a drink. It Just Wasn’t Done. On the whole, I think this was wise advice: I didn’t like hanging around in a pub on my own waiting for someone, and I am grateful for having been brought up to believe that I didn’t need to do so. Boyfriends arrived on time, or met one at home or work beforehand, and accompanied one to a pub. Or, if it was a girly evening, it tended not to happen at a pub but at a chatty restaurant or pizza-place, or some one’s home. It all sounds old-fashioned now, but it was fun and it worked.

As a young woman, when I was on my own and needed somewhere to sit for a while, I went to a cafe or a coffee-shop, a library or a park or – well, anywhere pleasant, but not a pub. Now I’m middle-aged my options have expanded. The other day I was in a town some distance from home, with an afternoon meeting behind me and an evening event that didn’t happen for another two hours. I had some revising to do for a major project, and a stack of material to study. I was hungry and I needed a drink. I went into a pub, ordered a beer-shandy and some fish-and-chips, and settled down comfortably at a window table with a pleasant view.

Middle-aged women don’t attract attention, unless they are being annoying, drunk, argumentative, or complaining. We merge into the background. I sat and studied with quiet pleasure. The bar staff were efficient and pleasant, the fish-and-chips were good. I was sorry when the two hours were over.

Being middle-aged means memories: some months ago, on going through my elderly mother’s shelves as we organised her move into a residential home near me, I found the log-book kept year on year for family holidays. What a poignant pleasure it was to re-live some of those trips and picnics, damp barbeques and searing hot seaside days, idiotic family jokes and long chatty evenings over wine and snacks...all written up in my late father’s dear handwriting, all coming alive as I turned the pages.

Being middle-aged means friendships. The old ones matter more than ever, and new ones are a delight. Nephews and nieces who were small children not so long ago are confident young adults: “Auntie – why not come over for a meal?” “Auntie – you must see this play!” They will disagree with you and explain where you are wrong: “Oh, stop worrying about that, Auntie...” They make you laugh and give you joy, and challenge your ideas and enlarge your mind.

There are some things about being middle-aged that I don’t like at all. I am saddened by the thought that history gets distorted according to who writes it, and that each new generation tends to forget, or twist, or ignore much of the good that has gone before.

Will people remember just how glorious it was when a Polish Pope called out to the world “Do not be afraid!”, or the joy that erupted as he visited Poland, and people strewed flowers in his path, and rediscovered the public affirmation of a faith that they had never abandoned? Will people remember how good it was when ecumenical friendships began to be the norm in the 1970s and 80s, and Christians of different denominations started to have Walks of Witness on Good Friday and joint carol services at Christmas, as a normal part of the local scene in towns and suburbs around Britain? These things now seem quite ordinary, but at the time they were innovative, and joyful, and they achieved something important.

Being middle-aged brings a sense of absurdity. Young people can’t imagine what it was like to grow up in a Britain where not many houses had central heating, most suburban shops were closed at lunch-time and after 6pm, and all sorts of now-standard foods (avocados, different pastas, Italian sauces, kiwifruit, to name just a few) were unknown. I find myself explaining that it was normal to have a disused WWII air-raid shelter in the garden and to use it as a bike-shed.

Being middle-aged makes you wistful. Of course a computer is useful – I am writing this on one – but I mourn with anguished parents whose children have become addicted to Facebook and vicious gossip, or whose attempts to get the family together for a cheery meal have been thwarted by the endless ringing of mobile phones or must-read incoming emails. I am worried by the horrible loss of personal freedom and dignity involved in people secretly filming others and posting the results on YouTube, by the gross reality of internet pornography, by the loss of community values in the “anything goes” world of sex-saturated and violent material available at the click of a mouse.

The perks of middle-age include greater knowledge of all sorts of things – history, religion, politics – and an ability to place things in context: “This too will pass”. The sorrows include a realisation that what is achieved by one generation can be lost by the next, that people are not always fair to their predecessors, that there is a lot of injustice in the world, and that some – too many – problems do not admit of an easy solution.

And the next stage is old age. My mother is 90 now, and a great-grandmother. On her shelf, crowded with mementoes, pictures of her three brothers, all now dead, jostle with pictures of grandchildren who are now parents themselves, a commemorative plate from the silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 1977, and a papal flag from the visit to Benedict XVI just last year. Sometimes, she’s forgetful and confused, but then there is a sudden crystal clarity: “I do love all you so much,” she said at a family gathering the other day. It is reciprocated. There are perks to old age, too.

Joanna Bogle writes from London.

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