Old age is the age of reminiscence
I have managed to persuade myself over many years of anecdotage that all sorts of extraordinary things happened to me
Christopher Matthew: there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half as much worth doing as simply messing about in one’s memory. Photograph: William Matthew
The older you get, the less there is to look forward to; and, such as there is, is not always that appealing. So uncertain is the future that one can only speculate and hope for the best. Which is why one of the great pleasures of old age is that it gives one the time and the leisure to look back on one’s life and remember the good times. Senectitude is the age of reminiscence.
Mind you, a lot of what one remembers with such fondness (or thinks one remembers) has become so fictionalised over the years that one finds oneself viewing some of the highlights with almost as much incredulity as one’s grandchildren when one attempts to describe to them what life was like when one was their age.
My granddaughter rang me up one day wanting to know what it was like being a child during the war: what we ate, what we wore, what we did for entertainment and so on. I gathered it was for a school history project.
‘When you say war,’ I said. ‘Do you mean the second World War?’
‘What other wars were you a child in, Grandpa?’ she said.
Suitably chastened, I launched into a rambling monologue about wartime rationing, hand-me-down clothes, Children’s Hour, absence of bananas etc, which segued neatly into such regular 1940s standbys as snoek (‘Wasn’t he a cartoon character?’) followed by a colourful account of whale meat – a staple in our house, I assured her.
‘You ate whale?’ she said. If I had claimed to have feasted regularly on slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails she could not stared at more wild-eyed in disbelief. ‘Yuk. What did it taste like?’
‘A bit like shark,’ I heard myself say.
Even as the words were issuing from my mouth, I knew that I hadn’t the faintest idea what whale tasted like, as I had never actually eaten any. A lot of people did and I’m told it was nourishing and not too unpleasant, but I’m pretty certain none of it found its way onto the table in our cottage in the depths of the Surrey countryside.
Years of anecdotes
We had our own chickens and ducks, and a friendly butcher in the nearby village supplied us with offal and rabbit and the occasional chop, and we probably ate our fair share of spam, but never whale meat. As far as I know. But what do I know? More to the point, what do I really remember? I have managed to persuade myself over many years of anecdotage that all sorts of extraordinary things happened to me in those days that didn’t – or, anyway, didn’t in quite the way I tell people they did.
Did I really, six years old and entirely alone, cross the nearby, cow-populated field to Mr Tooth’s farm and spend whole summer days riding on his tractor, and helping to arrange wheat sheaves into stooks? Was I, at the same age, really allowed to muck about for hours unaccompanied in the woods with my little friend Margaret next door, and did we once eat deadly nightshade, as I seem to remember my mother telling me? Was there really a barrage balloon in a field at the bottom on the road? In the middle of Surrey? Really?
For years I have been telling anyone who cares to listen that when I was a schoolboy it always snowed on Boxing Day and that the highlight of the Christmas holidays was a day spent hurtling down the steep field behind our house with my chums on a variety of wooden toboggans, some of them knocked together in garden sheds by gung-ho fathers.
Yet looking through the meteorological reports for 1945-55, I find that although the winter of 1946/7 was the coldest in three centuries, it didn’t snow until January 27th, and that apart from a heavy fall in April 1950, the winters were largely wet.
Ah well. If an old geezer can’t indulge from time to time in a little poetic license, who can? And if my grandchildren are riveted to be told that a master in the local prep school I attended in the late 1940s once got so batey with a boy that he threw him out of the window (but that luckily it was on the ground floor and he landed in the flower bed), why should cold facts be allowed to stand in the way of pleasure and all round entertainment?
Who knows what the future holds for one approaching his 80th year?
How, one wonders, will old age suddenly take hold, and in what shape? A stroke or, worse still, some form of dementia is unimaginable. On the other hand, there is considerable satisfaction to be derived from dreaming up exotic holidays, planning family outings, contemplating new hobbies, looking forward to a favourite daytime game show and promptly falling asleep within moments of it starting...
And, of course, there are always more serious matters to keep the mind ticking over: drafting possible scenarios for one’s funeral service; wondering whether to have a memorial do and making a rough list of who might turn up, and whether to change one’s will; going through one’s wardrobe and trying to decide if one’s decades-old dinner jacket is respectable enough to see one out; compiling a new address book and deciding who to leave in and who to strike from the record; wondering whether one will ever be up to tackling Proust, or whether Camilla will ever become queen...
As old age creeps ever closer, there’s never a shortage of things to think about, fuss about and, very possibly, bore one’s friends and family about in the process. But, to misquote dear old Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half as much worth doing as simply messing about in one’s memory, wondering whether life was half as extraordinary as one remembers it, or ever could be again.
Christopher Matthew is author of The Old Man and the Knee