By the time you read this I will have turned 40. Forty. Up until a few days ago, 40 was just a number, plain and simple — the sort of number that followed 39 and preceded 41; the sort of number that bands from Birmingham placed after the letters ‘UB’ before recording a few reggae-based songs; the sort of number that was occasionally mentioned on the Shipping Forecast, just before Cromarty, just after Viking and Dogger. My friends had emailed or called with concern, never quite broaching the subject directly, always skirting, dancing around the inevitability of my ageing, the ‘night follows day’ reliability of my mutability. I found myself quoting Wilde, when he suggested that youth was wasted on the young. (I was too wasted when I was young to enjoy my youth.) I was chipper and upbeat, sanguine in the extreme. I was running towards 40 with a smile on my face and cheer in my heart. Then it all when Pete Tong. (I’m entitled to use colloquialisms like that while I desperately cling on to the last few days and hours of my thirties.)
I know exactly when it happened, exactly when the boat that is my life started to capsize. I was chatting (urbanely) to this beautiful, flirty filament of femininity. I was at one with the three-headed god of charm, elegance and wit. While I topped up her glass with yet more Veuve, she made reference to a song that was her guilty pleasure de jour. (For those for whom detail is everything, the song in question is the questionable New Wave Italian pop sensation of 1985, Baltimora with their kitsch and camp classic ‘Tarzan Boy’.) I laughed debonairly. ‘I remember that! What a terrible song. The Eighties is the decade that time should really have forgotten. Don’t you think?’ She looked back at me blankly. ‘Really?’ she asked. ‘Why?’
‘Don’t you remember? It was terrible.’ She looked at me blankly (again), shaking her head. ‘Too many drugs?’ I posited. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I was born in 1987. . .’
The needle scratched violently off the record. All of a sudden I felt old, very old; like a downpour of decades, years and months had showered upon me. It was a monsoon of my own mortality. I was 18 years older than this girl, for she was naught but a girl. I was labouring under the most gargantuan of delusions that this beautiful, buxom 21-year-old might take seriously a romantic advance from a sad, middle-aged, crisis-ridden has-been that never was. Suddenly there was nothing, no one in the room. I was staring into the abyss, four decades behind me, my birth date in the past millennium, more than half my life to be described in the past tense and nothing much to show for it but a handful of corduroy suits and a paunch that seems impossible to dispose of.
I should at this point apologise to any lady readers. I am well aware that the strictures of time have an utterly different impact on you. My biological clock remains tick-tocking at the same pace. I have, however, noticed the following, rather alarming changes:
1) It is my avowed desire to hang on to that moth-eaten old beige cardigan because it’s comfortable and I know where I am with it. (I hear myself saying things like, ‘fashion comes and goes, but this cardie. . .’).
2) I have an uncontrollable desire to use a hammer and to attempt small acts of DIY.
3) I am selective over certain lunch choices; the last thing I want is another bout of heartburn. Not at my age.
4) I like to arrive at the Post Office bright and early and form an orderly and slow-moving queue. I also enjoy a knowledgeable discourse about matters of a meteorological nature.
5) I have discovered that I like to talk about the best route to drive to rural Gloucestershire (incorporating a digression into the pros and cons of the Hayes by-pass vis-à-vis a Heathrow destination.)
6) And, perhaps most worryingly of all, I have found myself selecting footwear based purely on comfort alone. . .
And as if all that wasn’t depressing enough, I worked out that I am closer to my death than my birth, statistically speaking. As we are all living longer and stronger, the demarcation between youth and being old is blurring and changing. I too bring my own anomalies to the equation of age. This year my firstborn turns 16 while I hit the big 4-0. I have a son who will shortly be able to get married, having first scrabbled together the coach fare to Gretna. He has already broached the topic of having his first tattoo. I was alarmed by his use of the word ‘first’, as if he had an entire extended series of pictoral body modifications in mind. I too, I have to confess, have considered a subtle body marking on my as yet virginal skin: I like the notion of a dolphin on a shoulder blade or an eagle across my hip. This, I realise, would be a sad and very obvious cry for help. A cry for help by an old man.
My chagrin is that while I will no longer be regarded as nubile, youthful, vibrant, strident and thrusting, I am entering the decade of highest achievement, the peak of my earning curve. If my life was a running machine or a cross-trainer from here until my 50th birthday in 2019, I would be regarded as being in the ‘above zone’. I should automatically become more distinguished, practise a higher level of sagacity and win arguments with cutting and insightful observations from my vast life experience. (I would also know about fine wines, sports cars and have knowledge about the best Italian region for truffles.) However, the reality is markedly different: I still wear really cool Evisu jeans; I still own very flash and highly desirable Adidas trainers; I still buy hip new music described as ‘dubstep’, ‘grime’ and ‘new techno’. Age, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Forty is the new 30. Yet I have to knuckle down and face the facts, confront my chronological reality.
Given the assault on the global financial structures of late, one worries about what sort of world we oldsters might be venturing into. For those of us who are euphemistically described as Thatcher’s children, our property, our futures were designed to be our pensions. They would appear to have been shafted. We kids of the free-market age have no savings; we live beyond our means, fuelling our brand-obsessed lives with what seemed to be the constant flow of credit. That has all gone. I approach the autumn of my life in great jeans and wicked trainers but fiscally flummoxed.
I intend now to become a recluse, hide my greying beard from the mocking, juvenile world. I shall enter my senility listening to Radio 4 and Radio 3; I will suck Harrogate toffees; I will wear driving gloves. At some point I will contemplate Saga tours and plan long, cruise-based holidays to countries with temperate climates where the food isn’t too spicy and the locals can speak English. This will become my life. This is being 40. I have no idea where that gorgeous 21-year- old girl has gone. But there is one thing I can be sure of, that she too will share the same journey over the next 19 years. My schadenfreude is offset by the fact that when she reaches 40 I will be approaching 58 and another whole set of crises, no doubt listening to Baltimora singing ‘Tarzan Boy’ and remembering the Eighties.