50th Summer

27Sep09

Exercise on Barcelona beach

Alive and alert though absent-minded, I have triumphantly reached my 50th Summer. That’s, what – about 18,250 days of thriving health and Neolithic survival though there have been weekends when I have curled up, whimpering with man-flu as if the plague cross was being daubed on our door.

I may be riddled with angst but apart from an Alpine icicle that almost finished me in 1977, no other life-threatening events have so far endangered me:
I’ve played no pranks that meant a solitary night in a cell.
Nor seen a friend nearby take a bullet meant for me.
My body (that could run an epic schoolboy hundred yard dash) has not fallen apart needing repairs to right self-inflicted wrongs.
I’ve not had any teeth whitened, eyes tightened nor hair cultivated. Yes, I am pretty much still together as in that week in 1959.

I did almost cheer hair-loss but the final arrival of cataracts or liver spots on shrivelled hands will be difficult, as will be the first time a young mother offers me her bus seat to me – the elderly gent needing to sit. Wait, though. By that time, on-one will be so chivalrous and as a grubby septuagenarian, I’ll be left standing in Oxfam shoes and a limp from a failed acetabulofemoral joint.

A 50th Summer is a year of prolonged naval gazing and introverted ponderings: How many hours have I wasted asleep, or in post office queues? How many miles have I paced in pursuit of pictures and my how many times has my heart contracted to make that happen? Where is that elusive marvel of literature? That guru, that Rioja, that piece of Electronica or breathtaking place on earth that can alter a purpose in life? And like a last blink on the world, what will my last photograph be about and will everything I have created for posterity be deleted to save a few measly megabytes, one drizzly January afternoon?

I sometimes look in the mirror and wonder when and how I will die.

And about fates and catastrophes: Of approaching asteroids, swelling sea levels and declining bees. A future without me, and cars, eardrum-piercing sirens, litter – nor enough protein for millions. And all without the knowing smile from one’s long-dead family who were alive and ever-present in the noisy days of carefree youth .. all of whose sudden demises are now barely mentioned. Like dear old Harry Patch, everyone around us are eventually all gone and forgotten within 20 years, existing only as vague entries on a family tree. Their lives as ever-haunting as Tallis Fantasia.

Three thousand years ago, a Bronze Age elder shivering in his Hill Fort was a white-haired and toothless crone at 50 while as late as 1870, the average life expectancy for industrially-thrashed men was 41.

My own 50th Summer is a fast-forward, accelerating rate of change. A concertina of experience and memory. I am as old as some of the 20th century’s most important inventions: Castro’s Cuba, Motown, Sleeping Beauty, Barbie, David Archer, the postcode, the M1 and by Toutatis! the anti-Roman hero of my childhood in Brussels, Asterix. With the motorway especially, empty promises of modernity, innovation and progress tends to pass over me like the temptation of the Sixties road-building revolution. With their minds still set in an era of Chesterton’s rolling English roads and larks ascending, 50 year-old anti-modernists think they’ve been born 50 years too late.

So what to do on the big weekend? A long walk to prove the legs and knees of a 16 year-old (spent climbing Great Gable in the hot summer of ‘76) can still carry me the length of Hadrian’s Wall or a Wainright coast-to-coast; a health retreat where a Swedish masseuse (see, always the 70s teenage fantasy) digs talons into delicate muscles; a wild weekend with some lads (any lads, really) in a seaside town of their choice, pretending we are still in our oaffish, staggish prime.

Far more likely though, I might take a glider flight, a wisp about the clouds and thermals above Sussex for 1,500 air miles. Weather permitting.

I appear to have made it. And so far so good.

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