We have all seen old age in action and often it is not a pretty sight. Chances are, it strikes suddenly. “It is,” said James Thurber, “one of the most unexpected of all the things that can happen to a man.” In Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth, an elderly composer played by Michael Caine sums it up: “I’ve become old and I don’t know how I got here.”
But we should never allow catastrophe to get in the way of good humour and practical common sense. “One of the most irritating things about getting old,” a friend of mine once said at lunch, “is not having any idea of how much longer one has got. Take George’s dinner jacket. He’s nearly 80. His old one is practically falling to bits, but what is the point of getting a new one if he isn’t going to get decent use out of it?”
I am confident that my own dinner jacket will see me out. Being a mere 78, I am still enjoying late middle age. However, I am all too aware that senectitude is lurks around the corner and it occurred to me that, before it strikes, I could do worse than fill the unforgiving minute with a few light-hearted observations on the perils and pleasures it may bring. Most of the writers below have taken a positive, and often wry, look at old age, while never forgetting that beneath the eccentricities that accompany advancing years lie uncertainty, grief and thoughts of mortality.
1. The Summer of a Dormouse by John Mortimer
Mortimer was only too aware that the price to be paid for getting old is making oneself looking ridiculous. The opening sentence says it all: “The day will come in your life, it will almost certainly come, when the voice of God will thunder at you from a cloud: ‘From this day forth thou shalt not be able to put on thine own socks.’” Reading this collection of theatrical anecdotes, gossip, fond memories of friends and witty observations made while growing old disgracefully reminds one that possibly the greatest pleasures of old age is reminiscence.
2. A Positively Final Appearance by Alec Guinness
Guinness is equally reassuring to those of us who wonder what enjoyment can be found in old age. Chock-a-block with opinions on books read, plays and films seen, stories of happy times spent with old friends such as Alan Bennett, Irene Worth and John Wells, and the joys of life at home in Hampshire, this diary is interspersed with poignant accounts of the death of friends and funerals attended.