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November 21, 2006

On seeing the Mousetrap for the first time and other confessions of a misspent middle age

Posted by Jeremy Black

Not yet, not yet; but maybe one wet afternoon, dismayed by the grime and crowds I will find my way into the Mousetrap, doubtless persuading myself that it is a worthy research goal, in terms of understanding 1950's middlebrow culture. But other manifestations of changing attitudes have become more noticeable since I turned fifty, I am now fifty-one.

I don't know about policemen in Devon. They are notable not for seeming younger but because far more are now women - but in my own profession I feel somewhat out of touch with the fads and patronage structures of the bright new things. My generation, the old farts, complain that new appointments are overly-specialised not so much in research terms but rather in a lack of interest in offering courses across a wide range.

I'm also bothered about the widespread fascination with discourse, although, mercifully, many are indeed concerned with what happened and can see that postmodernist thinkers have chased themselves up their own navel.

The students; well they seem so immature and lacking in cultural references. In the 1980s, I used to tell students that my educational methods were modelled on those of the great nineteenth-century educationalist Mr Wackford Squeers. Now, I don't bother. Dickens is as one with Latinate writers unless breathed into new life through television.

A misspent middle-age? I nearly wrote middle ages. Certainly true if disillusionment is the focus, but a greater reflectiveness and resignation also hopefully represents a degree of maturity. That, of course, is very much not what is sought in modern Britain.

Instead, the cult of youth and novelty remains strong, not only despite, but possible because of, the greying of progressivism. Such a cult of course makes scant sense for a population where rising longevity is not matched by an increasing birth rate, unless there is an attempt to alter the parameters. With so many going to live into their 80s, are those in their forties going to be obliged to pretend to be young? Possibly that is the great consolation of being middle-aged. Such a pretence is no longer necessary.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter.

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