This is piece I wrote just before my (ouch) 50th birthday. I just bumped into it again and thought it was worth a read.
‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I reasoned as a child. But when I became a man, I put aside childish things,’ so wrote St Paul in an email to the Corinthians. In a little-known coda, he carried on: ‘and when I reached middle age, I said to myself, what the hell were you thinking? And that’s when I reformed The Apostles.’
The road to old age is paved with youthful intentions. No longer are we asked the question ‘what are you going to do when you grow up’, because it’s obvious that whatever we intended, it wasn’t meant to be this. Instead, and armed with the confidence of age that tells us not only that what we think is important, but important enough to warrant telling everybody, whether they like it or not, we spontaneously recapitulate our unsought thoughts regarding who we’re not going to be when we get old. ‘I’ll never be the kind of middle-aged killjoy who says “it’s all just boom, boom, boom”, or starts a sentence with “the problem with you youngsters is …” (unless I’m trying to be witty and I’m addressing a forty-year-old)’. Of course, what we’re so adamant we are not going to be is, invariably, what we know to be our fate. This shift from possibilia to providentia is a sure-fire sign a corner has been turned.
There are fingerposts on the way to our mid-life crises, of course. The topics with which we bore everyone to death are a fine indicator of our current state, and it’s been said that middle age is the time when a man stops pretending that he can play the electric guitar and starts to intone loudly on matters oenophile. Wine, women, song. Just not necessarily in that order. Is it the crisis itself that compels us to contemplate the re-capturing of youthful glory, that proof that we really have achieved something, or is it the attempted re-capturing that ushers in the crisis? Whichever it is, there are classic markers that designate a certain stage in this, the inexorable crawl towards our dotage. For some it’s the motorcycle, the solo road trip in leathers and a gopro. For others it’s the convertible (ideally with young blonde attached, the better to aid the egress of the driver), or the blond … You add in some numbers, you know, such as a half-century, pass the tipping point with regards the ratio of salt to pepper in our beard, the ratio of scalp to hair, and finally, develop some condition that slathers the cake with thick, gloopy icing, and you qualify.
For me, if you ignore the gout that every now and then transforms the blood in my foot to boiling water, that condition was parkinson’s. Parkinson’s is odd, because it is not only in effect a disease of accelerated ageing, but one which in diagnosis forces you not to confront your mortality, but a disintegration that is palpable. And yet if, like me, diagnosis predated the fiftieth year of existence, then you find yourself in the ironic position of having an old person’s disease, all shuffling stiffness and shakiness, but one that finds you designated as a Young Onset Parky. That’s right, in parky terms I’m something of a spring chicken.
But back to the band. And my joining the ranks of the 50+. Some mad fever gripped my soul and before I knew it I was contemplating a re-treading of the boards. I mentioned this to an individual who shall remain nameless (but I was once married to), who promptly said ‘well that means you won’t, then.’ When I started playing the guitar, aged fifteen and at boarding school, I practised in an alcove between the main boarding house and the library where we worked. I was playing a piece-of-shit guitar friends of my parents had brought back from Spain. Practically unplayable. Every time one of my fellow institutionalised personages walked past it was ‘can you play smoke on the water/stairway to heaven/blah blah … no? you’re shit, then.’ My response was a silent ‘fuck you I’m going to be amazing’. This same youthful attitude was rekindled, the ‘fuck you’ attitude that had carried me to a point of high virtuosity was now to rear up and laugh at me. I formed a band made up of ex-students, general pros who I knew would have my back. And wouldn’t need to rehearse. Add a sprinkling of high-quality guests and you have a recipe for …
Youthful brio rediscovered I picked up an instrument I had barely touched in seventeen years, and had last carried onto a stage fourteen years before. Since then the Parkinson’s had wrecked the fine motor control in my left hand, and sent the co-ordination between the two hands south. What could possibly go wrong?
It wasn’t so much the triumph of hope over experience as that of bloody-mindedness over absolute conviction. My playing, once so fluid and carefree now stuttered like, well, in much the same way as I walk, a sort of inexact shuffle performed by feet that don’t know where the floor is, let alone each other. I practised, a bit, not because I thought my fingers would miraculously stutter into life, but because my brain was still in my twenties, when it could tell the digits to play practically anything and they’d obey. The trick I had to pull off was to come up with strategies that would allow brain and fingers to work together to produce music. A bit like being a management consultant.
I had one session with a real amp. It was so awful I barely touched the instrument again until the day of the gig, which was also the day the band met. During the sound check.
As for what happened next, it managed to be far less painful than it might have been, some might say it was a great success (but they were drinking heavily, I suspect). But the whole shebang took place at my fiftieth birthday party, just weeks before the birth of my grandchild.
I got up on the stage not to recapture the glory of my lost youth but to give it a proper burial and to welcome agedness with open arms. This was less a mid-life crisis than a putting to bed, a pensioning-off of my youthful self in such a way as to allow some closure. After all, youth isn’t wasted on the young, it’s exactly what they deserve.