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February 25, 2005

Peter Mullen on Growing Older

Posted by Peter Mullen

Following on from Digby Anderson, Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen shares his musings on growing older.

I have long got used to seeing policemen young enough to be my sons – but now it's the bishops! And with age develops, even against one's lifelong sense of fun, an increasing censoriousness. I mean for instance, the staff at Mansion House say that of all the banquets hosted by the Lord Mayor in his year, the one for the bishops is the booziest and rowdiest. Can this really be me being slightly shocked about this – I who not so many years ago led the assembled scholars of the US Liberty Fund in a carousing chorus of Monty Python's Philosophers' Song? And it's not just the bishops who are getting younger. Five years ago I was chaplain to the Lord Mayor and I was mortified to discover that the Lord Mayor himself is younger than me.

That's one of the things you do when you're approaching the sans everything phase: you find yourself looking closely at your contemporaries – blokes you have cheerfully ignored for the last fifty years. And you think, "Old Fred has let himself go a bit. Well at least I'm not as fat as him!" On the other hand, it's a matter of enormous comfort when you can identify someone who shows every sign of thriving when he's even older than you are. A retired banker friend of mine at seventy-two – a whole nine years my senior – is going in for the London marathon.

And you catch yourself making morbid calculations such as, how old was Beethoven when he died, then? And good grief, he was only fifty-seven! But Mozart dead at thirty-five. Schubert thirty-one. What have I ever done by comparison with them? Suddenly there is a senescent dawning of hope as you realise that Titian lived to be ninety-eight and when he was my age he had barely started. And Haydn wrote The Creation when he was well into his sixties. Even the old fraud and ladies' man Bertrand Russell lived to be ninety-seven.

I remember his death. I was in the library in Liverpool University and stumbled across a lovely young girl in a print dress crying her eyes out. When I asked her what was wrong she replied:

Haven't you heard? Bertrand Russell has died. And I thought he was going to prove the exception to "All men are mortal".
Heavens – that was thirty-five years ago! That's another thing – the vanishingness of time. It's fifty-one years since that Whit Saturday when I went to the Roses Match at Headingley and saw Brian Close hit fifty-two in twelve minutes. And I can hear the man in the crowd – the very pitch and timbre of his voice – as he called out, "Well done, Douglas Brian". And Closey himself was seventy-four last week. He was a god to me. Still is. But that's another thing: aren't I a bit old for hero worship?

You find it's not all decline. About a year ago I decided to do an MOT on myself and I didn't like what I saw. I had a definite paunch and the beginning of jowls. Eating and drinking too much at City dinners. Right then, I began a regime. The heart-warming aspect of this horrible tale is that I found after a few weeks of bends and stretches and gentle jogs and laying off the booze and puddings a bit, I could run five or six miles without getting out of breath. The weight rolled off and the cheeks de-jowled. I felt marvellous. Of course, the tendency to holier-than-thouness is a fault which certainly gets worse with age and I found myself saying to mates stuffing it away at livery banquets, "You feel much better when you're in shape, you know!". Pah! What a Pharisee!

The Bishop of London gave me the parson's freehold and, as it was remarked at the time:

They can't get you out now, Peter – except for senile dementia or gross immorality!
But the diminishing likeliness of the second – owing perhaps to the first suspicions of what Charles Sisson called "the dying of your heat" – is darkly compensated for by the increased possibility of the first. I forget things. Not just the things I forgot when I was twenty-five – like what to pick up from the supermarket – but books and ideas and even tunes. I used to know hundreds of the numbers of Mozart's oeuvre, but now can hardly remember my K.364 from my K.452.

And, as a co-senescent buddy picturesquely put it, "The names are dropping off things". I couldn't remember what you call a bread-knife the other day. And now I've remembered something else: I said buddy and it reminds me that things irritate me that used not too. I mean I'm second to none in my admiration for Mark Steyn, but I've started to find all his yankee jargon and transatlantic right-on syntactical kaleidoscopiousness getting on my nerves. Sorry Mark. Take no notice. Keep giving us the stuff as usual.

My own work – how's that going these days on our downwards slope? "The intolerable wrestle with words and meanings" is still there, but for some sorts of writing and not others. I used to be a completely pedantic wreck anguishing over whether to say and or but – and with an utterly snobbish disdain for the clichι. But life's too short – literally. These days I try to trust more to practice, to the lofty expectation that I might have developed a bit of sensibility and just bang it down on the page – as you can no doubt tell for yourselves! Not with the novel, though. I've no more confidence in that department than I had thirty years back.

The truly horrible awakening is when you come across what a great writer has to say about age and you know he's got you bang to rights.

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense…
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laugher at what ceases to amuse.
And last the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Too bloody true mate! And Eliot was approaching sixty himself when he wrote that. A similarly un-consoling fragment appears in the contemporary poet Geoffrey Hill – and he must be nearly seventy if he's a day:
Nothing is unforgettable but guilt
Guilt of the moment to be made eternal.
Yes, but there dawns a yet more glorious day. The miraculous consolation – and I'm not for once using miraculous as a bit of hype – is the Faith. Dare I even say my faith?

I look around at the liberal hierarchy and I don't care any more. I pity them for what they don't believe. Not all the denials of Affirming Catholicism can discourage me. Bugger you debunkers, I'm fireproof. What I have discovered to my immeasurable joy is that grumpy, failing, proto-amnesiacal and semi-demented though I might be, the Christian Faith – no, let me be blatant, the love of God - seems to illuminate and warm me as it never did. I have been a priest for thirty-five years and I have always been grateful for the privilege. But nowadays when I stand at the altar and repeat His words, I know. I don't want doctrines explaining the Real Presence. He is here. I wish I could sing it for joy. And His joy no man taketh away.

Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill & Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.


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Peter (as witty and incisive as always!), I came across the following verse in the "Jewish Chronicle" of 2 December 1864, which might give you a rueful smile. It is by an Anglo-Jewish communal figure called Philip Abraham.

Brevity of Life
(An Epigram)
"The days of our years are threescore and ten" - Psalms xc, 10

"Three score and ten," the youth replies,
"How far off seems the day."
"Three score and ten," the old man cries,
"How quickly passed away."
This lengthened life too short appears,
That wronged nor injured any;
If passed in sin, our youthful years,
Tho' few, are all too many.

Posted by: Hilary Rubinstein at February 9, 2008 07:20 PM
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