There was a piece in the Telegraph last week claiming that nearly two thirds of people over the age of 50 are happier now than at any previous time in their lives. We know there are lies, damned lies and government surveys, and at first sight this seems to be one of the least persuasive polls ever. Who could possibly prefer to be in their fifties than in their twenties, feeling the ache in their bones, realising they have probably had most of the sex they are ever likely to get, and knowing that their personal date with mortality is moving ever closer?
I was just about to cast the paper aside with a Meldrewish ‘I don’t believe it’ when I realised that, actually, absurdly, I really am happier now than I’ve ever been before. Every day when I wake up I feel blessed that I’m no longer drinking and attempting to get through the day with a hangover and the certain prospect of more joyless refuelling. I’m almost as glad to have stopped smoking, despite the occasional fierce craving for a Golden Virginia roll-up. In a weird, Zen-like way, giving stuff up is actually an addition to life, not a subtraction.
But my contemporaries, who still drink cheerfully and moderately and gave up smoking long before me, mostly seem ridiculously happy, too. I think it’s partly the feeling of having nothing to prove any more, the realisation that we’ve probably reached a point in our lives where we might just as well be content with what we’ve got rather than miserably hankering for those things that have eluded us. Much better, surely, to consider the glass (in my case of delicious blackberry and blackcurrant smoothie) half full rather than half empty?
But I think and hope there is gratitude involved, too. My generation of fiftysomethings have never had to fight in a war, never had to do national service, always had the safety net of the NHS and state benefits to fall back on if we needed them. The downside of all this is that I don’t think we’ve ever really grown up. We’re a soft, flabby, self-fixated generation who have too rarely been called upon to prove ourselves. We’ve expected happiness almost as a right, rather than a privilege. Our mettle has never really been tested, at least at a public rather than a personal level, though as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins knew, we can all make our own private hells for the ‘mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap/May who ne’er hung there’.
And, for those who were wondering when I’d ever get round to the subject, was there ever a better time to be born than the 1950s when it came to pop music? Rock’n’roll was just getting into its stride in our infancy, which we probably subconsciously ingested with our mother’s milk, and then the child-friendly Beatles arrived at just the right time, to be followed by the wonders of the summer of love, pirate radio stations, the birth of Radios One and Two and the glorious years of classic rock in the late Sixties and early Seventies just as we were hitting our teens and early twenties.
Proof that these really were golden years, rather than a mirage of sentimental nostalgia on the part of my generation, surely comes from the fact that our children so frequently and infuriatingly ‘borrow’ our old records from the period and that so many of today’s supposedly cutting-edge performers sound just like acts from the Sixties and Seventies.
Mind you, the scary perspectives of time can still give you a jolt. Can it really be 40 years since Radio One started with Tony Blackburn playing the Move’s still mightily enjoyable ‘Flowers in the Rain’ as we were reminded the other day? Or 40 since Pink Floyd released their still thrillingly fresh psychedelic classic, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Go back 40 years from 1967, and Louis Armstrong was making his first recordings with his Hot Five and Cole Porter was a bright young thing with most of his best work still to come. It was another world. Put on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn today and you will find that you are listening to something that still sounds recognisably modern (albeit with a patina of period charm) and has an audibly living influence on today’s music.
Syd Barrett’s great masterpiece has naturally been repackaged yet again for the anniversary, this time in both stereo and mono versions and with a third CD containing Syd’s terrific Pink Floyd singles and alternative album takes. The reissue also includes a reproduction of Syd’s endearing 1965 notebook of collage, watercolours and writing that is likely to make all true fans of the great lost leader of British pop go misty-eyed. You can get the whole beautifully produced package for under £20 on Amazon and it will leave you feeling even happier than you are already.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.