In my opinion, only once has Peter Andre been remotely interesting. Several years ago, he appeared on a television programme about age: with the assistance of extensive protesthetics, some acting lessons and clothing procured at a charity shop, he tried to appear much older than he actually is. He attempted to fool his then wife, the pneumatic Katie Price, into thinking he was an Anglican vicar who disapproved of her lifestyle. He gave the game away fairly quickly by addressing her with a private nickname; this thoughtless slip caused the entire prank to dissolve into laughter and embarrassment.
The other participant on the show, Julie Goodyear, had the reverse challenge: she had to come across as being much younger than her years suggest. She was altogether more successful; she even managed to pass herself off as an American. The moral of the story, perhaps, is that it is easier for age to recall youth than for youth to approximate age. Alternatively, it could be merely that Ms. Goodyear is far more intelligent than Mr. Andre.
This lesson has been buzzing around in my brain recently because this week, I will be turning forty. I have been approximating age for a very long time, though perhaps more successfully than Mr. Andre. I recently had occasion to look through old photos of myself: while I saw a younger, fitter version of me with more hair on my head, I also recalled a distinct sense of disquiet. I felt as if I hadn’t achieved who I was supposed to be, my interests and my age didn’t marry up. Others around me sensed this; when I was in my twenties, I briefly was in a relationship with a young lady who would say, jokingly, “You’re 47, right?” Now my years and my outlook align: the face I see in the mirror reflects what I think and feel. I am comfortable in my skin; I should be happy, and in many ways I am. Nevertheless, as I say a final good-bye to my youth, I will miss some of its aspects.
In my youth, I was foolishly romantic. I didn’t quite know back then that true love arose from accepting someone entire, faults and all. I didn’t fully realise that relationships involved extensive compromise and the ability to say “Sorry” and mean it on a frequent basis. Because these concepts weren’t fully formed, I could indulge in meanders down the fantastic and imaginary alleyways of “ideal love”; I believed that the constant searching and restlessness that were the feature of my younger years would find rest in another. I have even had a moment of being thunderstruck by instant affection.
18 years ago, I was finishing up my Bachelor’s degree with a course that took my classmates and myself on a tour of Eastern Europe. We went from London to Brussels to Berlin to Warsaw to Krakow and then to Budapest. By the time the group arrived in Budapest, we were exhausted. As part of the Krakow stop, we had taken a tour of Auschwitz, an experience which still scars my memory. I recall the abandoned crematoria, and the flakes of human bone that they once spewed out which still lay among the tall grass. In the museum, there were piles of suitcases never to be reunited with their owners. The piles of eyeglasses and shoes were just as heart rending.
Budapest, then, was a respite. Red poppies grew in the rail yard and swayed on a warm breeze; the station was a magnificent piece of 19th century architecture, a testament to belief in industry and progress. The silvery Danube flowed through the middle of the city; on both the Buda and the Pest side, there was an air of well-being, punctuated by delicate music plucked out by a busker with a zither. I fear this sense of bonhomie has since deserted the place.
We students were granted a day off. I went on a wander by myself; I first went shopping on the Pest side. I bought a book on the collapse of the Soviet Union at an English language bookstore; this seemed apropos given that the transformation of Eastern Europe was the main subject of my course. I then went walking along the shopping streets, pausing at a shop window that featured a t-shirt emblazoned with the pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin and the legend “Game Over”. This seemed like a great souvenir; furthermore, given that I had been to Berlin not long after the Wall fell, it was particularly poignant for me. When I was there, I had borrowed a hammer and pick from some students and my younger sister and I had chiselled out several pieces of that hated Wall.
I went in the store and picked out several shirts. A female voice asked from behind me if I needed some assistance. I don’t believe I gave a particularly eloquent reply in the negative. As I went to the counter, I set down the clear plastic bag which contained my book; the same voice asked if I was interested in Russian history. I turned to face my questioner.
She was younger than I. She had golden blonde hair which were done up braids, and she wore a traditional Hungarian outfit in black with applique flowers in pink and white. Her eyes were a brilliant blue, her smile was radiant. My heart raced; my hands shook. I couldn’t leave the store without making a total fool of myself by asking her to breakfast the next morning or at least the chance to write to her. She consented to give me her address. Feeling as if every internal organ had been turned over and twisted, I left the shop and raced across the Chain Bridge. By this time, rain was starting to fall in earnest. There is a set of stairs which lead up to the top of the Buda hills. Despite being slippery and muddy, and the cold rain penetrating my thin denim jacket, I ran up them. I then raced down the narrow streets of Buda, passing the 18th and 19th century homes lined up along cobblestone pavements and found the Matthias Church. I went inside and in the dim illumination provided by candlelight, I said a prayer, for I had thought that in that moment my turbulent soul had found its home. I believed that when I said “I love you” that the person for whom that statement was intended and meant had been discovered. From that moment on, I was sure, I would not only know, but understand: I would also be inspired, the flame of which would keep me alight for the rest of my days.
Sadly, life’s path is seldom covered in rose petals. She and I did write to each other. However, she had a boyfriend; she later married him. It was not too long after I had finished my Bachelor’s degree and found myself living in a tiny, humid cottage in Hertfordshire that I received her wedding pictures: she was a vision in white, her new husband and she smiling happily for the cameras. The photos came in a thick stack. After viewing two of them, I threw the rest in the trash. My older self wishes that I could transport back in time to that younger variant and say “No, don’t go down that path”. A lot of mistakes would have been avoided had I not persisted in my belief. Abjure poetry and reject Cyrano, the reality of love is that you have to be able to laughingly tolerate each other’s foibles and quirks. That may be more profound than the idea of it opening before you like a bloom in the first rays of Spring sunshine as that kind of affection has to flourish in more stony soil.
I say that, and then wonder: perhaps the grief of Budapest and the other sorrows that followed were formative. There were wonderful moments associated with being romantic; there was not just Budapest in the rain, but there was Chicago on a snowy night, Amsterdam in the spring and West Virginia in the summer sun. Time perhaps tempered and refined all my tendencies rather than stilled them completely. Maybe also I couldn’t have learned my final lesson without going through all the other courses associated with it. I found my heart’s home when I least expected to do so, namely not long after I was just about ready to give up. My last date prior to meeting my present significant other was an unmitigated disaster: my companion for the day was a doctoral student of Mediterranean origin and exhuberantly so. She wore red. She pinched my cheeks upon greeting me, a peculiar gesture to a man of 38 years as I then was, and referred to me as a “delightful boy”. This behaviour perhaps could be ascribed to cultural peculiarities, the fact that she was constantly on the phone and strangely temperamental could not. I fled as soon as I politely could; I descended into the bowels of the Victoria Line and heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Now here I am in Bradford, with my home, my other half and our three cats. When I’m at work and the clock approaches the appointed hour, I feel liberated, happy to get in my car and go back to talk of grocery lists and taking out the trash. When I greet her at the door, I recall the day we met and how I plucked a single peach coloured rose from my garden as a gift. No, this wasn’t what I envisaged when I was drenched by the rain in Budapest, but it is better because it is real rather than merely ideal. It endures.
The theme is consistent. Yes, I miss aspects of youth: I could run for miles, I had better cut suits and I fit into them well, there were no grey hairs to vex me, and my knees didn’t creak like they needed oiling. I also had the one great luxury of youth: a belief that vast amounts of time lay ahead, and I had a constant ability to say to myself that I was young and free. But free to do what? I suppose I could stay out all night: and 9 years ago, it was altogether thrilling when I was with work colleagues for a pub lock-in until two o’clock in the morning. I remember the dark wood panelling of the pub, the scent of stale beer, the orange street lamps and all too occasional taxi cabs winding their way up Farringdon Road. Now my liver and stomach would revolt against such consumption of alcohol and very late hours seem stupid; did I lose much by arriving at this conclusion? I gleaned all the pleasure I could from doing it back then; that’s enough, now is better.
I know that age has its pitfalls and pains: a friend of mine and my other half said to us over the weekend that once one hits the mid-forties, certain things, such as putting on shoes and socks, become more problematic. When I descend the stair in the morning and see the cats bound ahead of me, I can sense this physical decline approaching. Furthermore, I am slowly surrendering to alopecia, and it takes ever more cups of strong coffee to get my engine running. Certain things can be improved and I will do so, but as I wrote in an as yet unpublished novel, “Entropy is a fact of life.” All things reach a peak and then decline. I’ve reached the top or nearly the top of life’s arc. This doesn’t mean that what happens from here on in cannot be enjoyed, savoured, relished and remembered. I am older and happily so. That doesn’t mean at all that I am near dead.