By Brian Aldiss (THE GUARDIAN, 01/11/06):
Many famous men and women have been celebrating their 60th birthdays lately. Well, Virginia Ironside and Bel Mooney for a start. I want to put in a good word for being 80. True, there are disadvantages to being so old; the great thing is to count the advantages. When you are 80, there are all sorts of things you don’t have to do. You do not have to go out to dine if you can’t be bothered; a phone call in a whiney voice, a burst of sympathy at the other end, and you can stay in snugly and read Tolstoy.
Things that might seem like disadvantages when you are young – say 70 – can be transformed into pleasures. I tend to wake up at four or five in the morning. Instead of lying there whingeing about it, I shuffle downstairs and make myself a mug of tea. Sometimes I switch on the TV and discover a world that does not exist in daylight hours. The riches of Istanbul, a chap making friends with a crocodile, someone climbing the Himalayas in a wheelchair, the last orang-utangs in Sumatra, dining off durian fruit.
It’s wonderful! They didn’t have TV at four in the morning in my young days. In fact, they didn’t have television at all.
The number of things they didn’t have then and do have now is always cheering. I can remember when our town got its first traffic lights. And when bright-coloured plastic washing-up bowls came in. I remember when washing machines came in, but so do you, most probably. I remember when I bought my first Volvo estate. I am still driving it after 2m miles, although I don’t go that far these days.
I see a lot of interesting consultants. Yesterday, I talked with a consultant who knew all about the Sittang Bridge disaster in Burma in 1942.
Talking of newer things, we now take for granted the computer – the computer that guides and governs most of our activities, pleasures and pains. How easily now I fly to a Greek island every so often, baggage intact. I have forgotten how difficult travel used to be. Just for the nobs, really. I remember Heathrow when it was Bushey. Terminal One was a Nissen hut.
A tip worth passing on is not to go out looking miserable even if you feel lousy and the ingrowing toenail is playing up. Look cheerful. Keep your back straight. And lo and behold, there’s a good old friend having a coffee at the patisserie up the road. Not that it matters if you can’t remember his name. He can’t remember yours.
It’s a good idea to get out and about. You need exercise. And it feels so pleasant when you arrive home again. There are many foodstuffs you can buy which never existed once upon a time. Mangoes, pitta bread, Madagascan prawns, goats’ cheese, Australian Shiraz, Belgian chocolates, peppered mackerel fillets you don’t have to cook, free range bananas, loganberry yogurt … Why, I remember when yogurt came in, together with Green Shield stamps…
Many people feel old at 30. I still feel young in spirit. And there is a great abounding reason for that, though she has begged me not to mention her name. She is just the most empathic, intelligent, adorable woman I have had the luck to meet. My winter sunshine.
In case it might appear that I wallow in the bright side of being 80, I had better end on a cautionary note. Don’t become 80 if you can avoid it; but remember the alternatives are even worse…
I require spasms of sleep during the day. I will be sitting in an armchair, perhaps watching television or perhaps reading – at present it is the TLS and John Heilpern’s magnificent biography of John Osborne – and I fall asleep. At least, that is what I call it. But, like those unfortunates caught on the wrong side of the Sittang Bridge when it blew, I find myself on the wrong side of consciousness. I have entirely blanked out.
Perhaps I come back to myself after half an hour. I am astonished. And I reflect that a time may come when I blank out for good, there in the armchair, Heilpern’s book unfinished on my knee. Be warned, darling!
This marvellous, unique lifetime will be over. But what an easy way to go …