There was a cloud over the ‘Oldie of the Year’ awards luncheon this week, which was the death only a few days earlier of Sir Terry Wogan. Readers of the Oldie must rank high among Wogan’s TOGs (‘Terry’s Old Geezers and Gals’), as he called his fans, not only because old geezers and gals are exactly what most of us are, but above all because he was for many years the chairman of the judges of these awards and the person who presided at their annual presentation ceremony at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand.
Wogan’s words on these occasions — whimsical, sardonic, affectionate — captured perfectly the nature of old age: its mix of dignity, poignancy and absurdity. And so it was largely thanks to Wogan that the Oldie awards became, during Richard Ingrams’s long stewardship of the magazine he created in 1992, more than just a source of innocent merriment but something rather more — a genuine celebration of the impressive things that many people manage to do in the evening of their lives.
Since Wogan’s departure in 2014, his place as chairman of the judges has been taken by the gifted and irrepressible Gyles Brandreth. As time goes on, the judging gets harder; for as people live longer and enjoy better health, there is an ever-expanding pool of oldies to choose from. Nevertheless, it still seems rather remarkable that the joint winners of this year’s main award should be so old that their ages, added together, would span two centuries. They were Jeremy Hutchinson, who will be 101 in March, and Olivia de Havilland, who will be 100 in July. Altogether, 12 people won awards, and their combined ages, according to Gyles, exceeded a millennium.
Lord Hutchinson and Olivia de Havilland are still both very sprightly. The great liberal lawyer, whose case histories were recently gathered by Thomas Grant into a bestselling book and are about to be turned into a television drama, complained at the lunch about his hearing aids but otherwise showed not the least sign of decrepitude.
Since his 100th birthday last year and a memorable appearance on Desert Island Discs, he has re-emerged as something of a celebrity, whereas the opposite is more or less true of Olivia de Havilland, who many were surprised to find was still alive. Having been a famous Hollywood actress from the 1930s onwards, she moved to France in the 1950s after marrying a French journalist and has lived there ever since. She is the last surviving star of Gone With The Wind (1939), and played Maid Marian opposite Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, but nothing much had been heard of her until Roger Lewis, one of our judges, tracked her down last year and offered her the award. She accepted with enthusiasm and recorded a message that was played at the ceremony. ‘I am utterly delighted,’ she said in a deep, sonorous voice, ‘that you and your fellow judges deemed that there is sufficient snap in my celery to justify my receiving the 2016 Oldie of the Year award. It is deeply gratifying to thus find myself in the company of the Queen Mother whose record I have long wanted to match.’ The Queen Mother, who died in 2002, aged 101, was awarded the title ‘Oldie of the Century’ the year before.
It has become rare for anyone to turn down an Oldie award, but we got no response from Jeremy Corbyn when we sought to honour him for his astonishing victory in the Labour leadership election. Our emails went unanswered. Perhaps he felt that, at 66, he wasn’t old enough to qualify; or perhaps he feared that acceptance of the award would expose him to mockery. On the other hand, he may just have felt he was too busy.
Busy he certainly is, but hardly busier than Aung San Suu Kyi, who on Monday inaugurated Burma’s first move towards democracy when she led members of her National League for Democracy into the Burmese parliament to take their seats. Yet none of this prevented the 70-year-old Nobel peace prize winner from graciously accepting an Oldie award as ‘Democrat of the Year’. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t actually make it to the lunch, but she sent us the most charming letter saying how ‘honoured and delighted’ she was by the award. ‘I must admit that I have not had much time recently to reflect on what it means to be old,’ she wrote. ‘I was fortunate to have been able to enjoy a retirement experience somewhat earlier than most. But after rather too many years of quiet contemplation, where my main activities were reading, listening to the radio, seeing very few friends, and barely leaving home, I am now more than happy to be back at work.’
She ends by urging oldies to visit her country (which, perhaps out of consideration for us, she calls by its old name Burma rather than Myanmar). ‘You may find our roads rather bumpy, and our electricity rather temperamental at times,’ she writes, ‘but the veneration of age in Burmese culture will guarantee every oldie a particularly warm and generous welcome.’