In the introduction to an anthology of his jazz record reviews, the poet Philip Larkin imagines his readers. They’re not exactly full of the joys of spring. He describes them as ‘sullen fleshy inarticulate men… whose first coronary is coming like Christmas’. Loaded down with ‘commitments and obligations and necessary observances’ they’re drifting helplessly towards ‘the darkening avenues of age and incapacity’. Everything that once made life sweet has deserted them and their only solace is the memory of the music they once loved.
I first read that passage 35 years ago and didn’t think it would apply to me one day. Admittedly, the men Larkin conjures up are more miserable than I’ll ever be. He describes their wives as ‘bitter’, their daughters as ‘lascivious’ and says that their cannabis-smoking sons have a contempt for ‘bread’ that is ‘matched only by their insatiable demand for it’. But I recognise the sense of injustice Larkin evokes — the feeling that your hard work and civic duty aren’t properly appreciated. You’ve never contributed more to society, yet you’re being readied for the knacker’s yard.
I now think of myself as a Luma — lower-upper-middle-aged. These are the years between 55 and 60 when you’re paying more tax than you ever have before; when you’re supporting not just your nearly grown-up children but, in some cases, elderly parents as well; when your career, if you’re lucky enough to have one, is peaking, meaning longer hours and endless responsibilities; when you’ve never had more people depending on you or more people gunning for you (and in some cases, the same people); when you’ve finally acquired a modicum of wisdom, but face the prospect of surrendering any opportunity to use it.
Am I succumbing to self-pity? A little, perhaps — we Lumas are prone to self-pity — but our grievances aren’t entirely groundless. Take the response of the BBC’s audience services department last month after a 55-year-old viewer wrote to the director--general to complain about the lack of content for people like him. The BBC said it couldn’t possibly make programmes aimed specifically at older viewers because their tastes are far too varied. No, they had to make do with content designed for a ‘general audience’. Curiously, the BBC has no such blind spot when it comes to catering to the tastes of younger viewers. On the contrary, it has just announced it’s pouring £40 million into resurrecting BBC3, which makes programmes for 16- to 34-year-olds.
In the oppression Olympics, Lumas have fewer victim points than any other group, which means we are held responsible for the injustices that have been inflicted on minorities dating back to the dawn of time. Not only are we expected to engage in ritualised bouts of self-flagellation at monthly struggle sessions (aka unconscious bias training), we’re also singled out for ‘reverse mentoring’ whereby some orange-haired scold in her twenties lectures us about our ‘privilege’ for 45 minutes over a vegan sandwich.
We thought we’d found our political leader in the 56-year-old Boris Johnson and rejoiced when he won an 80-seat majority, but now nurse a keen sense of betrayal after he committed himself to the ‘net zero’ agenda and told us we’d have to trade in our luxury sedans — one of our few pleasures in life — for electric shoeboxes. It surely won’t be long before he hits us with a punitive property tax and a hike in capital gains tax. Lumas may run the country, but woe betide the politician who does anything to help us. We’re political kryptonite.
I sometimes fantasise about Lumas leading a populist revolt — and perhaps we did play a part in the Brexit upset. The conventional wisdom is that it’s the young who bring about tectonic political change, but just imagine what a motivated, well-organised group of Lumas could do. We could take over the Conservative party, replace Boris with Liz Truss (our generation’s Margaret Thatcher) and sweep all before us. Alas, it’s unlikely to happen. It’s not that we lack the energy, we just don’t have the time. Too busy supporting our families and keeping the economy afloat. And maybe a bit too cynical as well. We’re old enough to have seen half a dozen hope-fuelled political movements descend into in-fighting and chaos as soon as they obtain power, the latest being the Vote Leave crew. Best to steer clear of that snake pit.
Instead, I think I’ll take Larkin’s advice, dust off my old record collection in the attic and ‘awaken memories of vomiting blindly from small Tudor windows’.