My age? As young as I feel


Never ask a lady her age, goes the age-old maxim, but some people can’t help asking, especially when that older person refuses to conform to the tired old stereotype

IT’S A QUESTION that often crops up. On a sailing course recently, while the rest of the (all-male) crew were discussing the intricacies of the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod, leaving me to peruse a yachting magazine, the tone of conversation shifted and I heard it coming: “Would you mind if we asked you . . .” “No,” I said, before he’d finished, “I never say.” Last time I told someone my age there was a pause before the reply: “But I thought you were the same as everyone else.” What had happened, in that silent second, was a shuffling of preconceived ideas about ageing. I am the same as everyone else – except I’m older.

But am I happier? A new survey of German and US adults says that people are happiest in their mid-70s. Well, I’m not there yet but I’ll let you know.

Of course, one person’s happiness is another’s hell – something I’m very aware of when playing sax; though, if happiness and ageing are to go together, then music has got to be in there somewhere. For me, it’s logging on to YouTube late at night to listen to Johnny Hodges playing Daydream. Try it.

But no need to take surveys too seriously. At a conference on ageing in Oxford last month, the speakers based their findings on tests done on the brown Norway rat. I know I’m only two chromosomes away from the non-human ape – but the Norway rat? Of course, everyone has preconceived ideas about ageing. Mine were that, as I got older, I’d have silvery hair and an aura of wisdom which young people would lock in to. Do they hell? For starters, my hair: OK, it’s white in the front where I’m not in denial, but bottle red at the back where I am. Then there’s the fact that young people now have stories to tell me about their travels and they’re good stories too. So, when it comes to the happiness cocktail, add a dash of youth.

Are there any disadvantages in ageing? I’ll have to think about that . . . hang on, I’m still thinking. Oh yes, there was the bockety knee. “Age,” said the pharmacy doctor, “that’ll be €50, please.” Age? So how come my grand-nephew had the same thing? Then there’s the inherited but worsening deafness, though even that has its funny side. Staying with some Bedouin in Syria, the randy man of the house waited till his wife was outside and then asked: “How is your successful life? You have to manage on your own for two months. It’s a long time.”

“It is,” I replied, “and ‘on my own’ means I have to do everything myself.” Only when his eyes widened with interest did I realise he’d actually asked, “How is your sex life?”

Speaking of which, the sailing fraternity say that owning a yacht is more expensive than keeping a mistress. Well, I don’t own a yacht but being a mistress can bring great sex, poetry and friendship, the last an important ingredient – wherever it comes from – in that happiness hotpot.

Given my many faults and the fact that I tend towards solitariness, I’m fortunate to have the friends I do, and what’s surprising is that the older you get the more friends you make. Are you shy? Walk a dog – it’s a great way to meet people. So too is having bottle red hair. Better still, hang out with children. When my grand-niece Eve came to visit, she was clearly expecting the Zimmer frame. Must have been the Great-Aunt Mary prefix.

“But, you know,” she said chattily, “you’re not that old at all.” Happiness is a nine-year-old telling it as it is.