Getting older has made me realise I'm a real person
Reaching middle age has brought together my own self-perception and my existence in the world: it's not shocking but it does make one stop and think
As it’s a Sunday, the day of rest for Christians, the day of the hefty newspaper and earlier closing times for less observant people like me, I thought I’d let you all off a starchy political diatribe or analysis for once and talk about something which affects us all, whether we are obsessed by Westminster or think “second reading” is going back to a book. Don’t worry, this won’t be too heavy or introspective, I hope, nor should it make you regret your subscription options. I want to talk about ageing.
I went to the optician a few months ago for a regular check-up; I’m very short-sighed and wear contact lenses, so they haul me in every year or two to make sure my eyes haven’t fallen out or I haven’t resorted to a Labrador or anything. In fact—not that you have reason to be expected to care—my vision has stabilised over the last five to ten years, after a small but steady decline every time I went for an eye test, and it was all a formality, same prescription, job done. Except. The optician asked if I had any trouble with close vision. I said a little bit, text in dim light was a bit of a struggle, but if I squinted it was OK. Still, I knew I’d need reading glasses eventually: both my parents had, and both were very short-sighted. So it would come at some point, and that was a fact of life.
The optician said gravely, “I’d give you six months to a year.”
I know. It sounded like a terminal diagnosis. But I laughed, because objectively it was funny, and said that I’d be back when there was a problem worth reporting. I’m quite good at putting off till tomorrow anxieties which cannot be addressed today, so I was happy to leave with a clean bill of ocular health and something to think about down the line.
A few days later, I was walking down the street some time after dark, and remembered I had to send a message to someone. As I walked, I pulled out my mobile phone and set about texting, and, you know what? I couldn’t bloody see the screen clearly enough. It’s wasn’t all a blur or anything, but I couldn’t see it in pin-sharp HD, and it meant making sure words were spelled properly a haphazard business (I have a personal hatred for sending messages with typos). My heart sank. It was That Time, wasn’t it? The next day I went to one of the discount shops that have crept on to Chiswick High Road (everything a guinea, you know the drill), and bought a couple of pairs of very basic magnifying reading glasses. It was almost annoying that the difference was instant and huge: I could now see to read perfectly, at the deft flourish of an ounce of plastic.
Look, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not in despair at the inexorable grinding-on of time. Needing mild magnification to read is hardly a shattering blow either practically or emotionally, and, if I’m starkly honest, part of me had always looked forward to being able to play with reading glasses legitimately as a prop and to glare over them at people. Now that part of me has its wish. It’s not, by any chalk, the end of the world. But, a couple of months on, I’m realising, slowly perhaps, that this is for real, and here to stay. Last week I went into town, and as I stepped on to the Tube, I realised I hadn’t brought a pair of reading glasses with me. It’s still not instinctual. It didn’t, doesn’t, matter, I could read anything I would have to read, but it would make looking at my phone for the 25-minute Tube journey laborious. This is not a phase, a passing affliction or a temporary fix. This is the new state.
The reason this caused me any profound thought at all, in a brain which is frankly being fought over by a lot of other things in terms of real estate, is that I am middle-aged. There, I’ve said it. I’m 45 years old, so, in terms of activity, career, health and so on, I can call it “early” middle age, but in terms of likely lifespan, I’m at the halfway point on a very optimistic estimate. I’m fine with that, but I admit that a shiver ran up my spine when Rishi Sunak became prime minister and it was pointed out that he’s a millennial. (I’m late-vintage Gen X.) He’s only two-and-a-half years younger than me, but it is the first time I’ve been older than the sovereign’s chief minister. Politicians who are my junior have been emerging for a while, and I will admit it gave me pause when, in May 2017, I was suddenly older than the President of the French Republic (and Co-Prince of Andorra); but Sunak reaching the top of the greasy pole at home really drove it home that I’m their age now. More than that, I’m a grown-up. I matriculated at university more than 25 years ago, and it will soon be a quarter-century since I was awarded my first degree.
This has struck me because, I suppose, I’ve always a sneaking sense—Stephen Fry treats this brilliantly in The Liar—that I’m not really a proper person, that I’m maintaining a convenient fiction by the skin of my teeth and that exposure lurks around ever corner. Or, more egocentrically, I’m the only real person and the rest of the world is simply there insofar as I touch it, because the idea of a world full of people—nearly eight billion of them!—each of them feeling the full spread of human emotions, experiencing the highs and lows just of quotidian existence, is absolutely preposterous.
For Adrian other people did not exist except as extras, as bit-players in the film of his life. No one but he had noticed the splendour and agony of existence, no one else was truly or fully alive. He alone gasped at dew trapped in cobwebs, at spring buds squeaking into life. Afternoon light bouncing like a yo-yo in a stream of spittle dropping from a cow’s lips, the slum-wallpaper peel of bark on birches, the mash of wet leaves pulped into pavements, they grew and burst only in him.
I realise, reading it back, that makes me sound like a bit of a drama-monarch, but there is a point in there, of participating, however you cut it, in a kind of performance, which makes one (all right, me) regard the rest of the world as somehow detached, separate, maybe even fake. But as time progresses, I’m forced to confront this. Those hairs that are going grey are real, and proliferating. I am ageing. People notice, not in a bad way, but simply in the sense of, say, the barber remarking on the amount of grey hair, or even people kindly saying I don’t look my age.
There is a domino effect here, for me. If other people notice that I have aged (well or badly), it must have happened. I have started to meet people who know me only through my writing or my online existence, who know nothing of my life apart from what they have gleaned from words I’ve written: people who have only experienced my life through the lens of the narrative I present. It has made me realise that I exist as an individual independent of my own headspace, untainted—untinted—by the filters I apply to myself. Leading on from that, I realise that these people may have not only a view of me different from the one I have, but either better or worse.
This realisation is not wholly caused by ageing but the two processes are intertwined. It was encapsulated this weekend by my preparation for going up to St Andrews next week to give a talk to the history society of my alma mater. It struck me that the young people, the students, who come to listen in whatever numbers, are exactly the sort of people I was talking about in the last paragraph, people who have never met me and only know of me as a name on a computer screen, and maybe one which still lingers as a whisper of recollection in the collective memory of the student body (very much in big-fish-meets-small-pond style, I was a “known” member—I will put it no less neutrally than that—of the Debating Society, with a certain spill-over into other circles).
It may be that any readers find no spark of recognition in these thoughts. I don’t claim either to be exceptional or utterly run-of-the-mill, because I simply don’t know if I’m either. This connects tangentially with a piece I wrote almost two years ago (I find with surprise) about how we are all able to create ourselves, to some extent, as the people we would like to be. I still believe that, but the counterpoint is that we are viewed externally by people over whose perceptions of us we have no control, and into which we may have little insight. Maybe this has a whiff about it of what Jung called “individuation”, a process he described as “only experienced by those who have gone through the wearisome but indispensable business of coming to terms with the unconscious components of the personality”. Maybe. My father was a clinical psychologist, so I have his inherited scepticism about psychobabble. (I once said to him that it was perhaps for the best that I hadn’t, as I’d once toyed with, gone into psychology as a profession, as I had little patience for most people which was a limiting factor. “You’d be surprised,” he said elliptically.)
Perhaps this is simply an opportunity for a birth announcement. Eliot Daniel Wilson came into the world, aged 45. (My mother would have nodded vaguely at that notion, and she was there.) Here I am, an actual person with an image, a persona, an existence, and it is one which is, like everyone’s, on a chronological trajectory. It’s not coincidental, of course, that I’m going through a period of life in which a few pieces are moving around and the future is not yet wholly settled. A degree of self-reflection is neither unexpected nor unforgiveable.
And there I shall stop, as I have been prolix of late. I hope this has at least sparked a little curiosity and provided a brief respite from the hammering pace of politics. If nothing else, I have had the opportunity to trumpet the virtues of Fry’s The Liar again—honestly, a life-altering text for me—and that is enough to justify the typing. Whether it’s “fear not” or “bad news”, normal service will soon be resumed.
I'm long-sighted and needed reading glasses from age 43ish - I have a pair in every room of the house and in all my handbags and my beloved walking/hiking bum bag and I remember feeling that 'ageing' sensation when I received my first prescription. I'd finally run out of 'arms length'. Holding my Kindle as far away from my eyes as I could. It's something you get used to eventually. I am also particular about my texts. I still use apostrophes!...and occasionally exclamation marks.