AGED: on the curious compensations of middle-age

20th April 2016


In the world of fine whisky, ageing is the highway to specialness. With Time comes flavour, complexity and smoothness – a combination which gives whisky its differentiated and venerated character. Although circumventing tricks do indeed exist, nothing can fully substitute for the ticking of the warehouse clock.

Which makes the great tragedy of middle-age even harder to bear. Time, according to our ageist culture, is the overhanging belly of a life gone to seed. Old stuff is cold stuff by most accounts, and the counter-revolution of Ancient Diamonds (I think of Joan Didion, above, in this regard) has not yet taken hold – although I would dearly like to man those barricades. There is the vague stench of the scrap-heap pursuing those who dare to grow older. 

I sat in Belgrade with an old friend. We met as work colleagues in our twenties, and had not seen each other for ten years. 

‘Two things are going wrong with you’, he declared acerbically, as I sat down at the restaurant. He looked me up and down as he uttered the sad truth.

‘You’re losing your hair and your nose is getting bigger’. I couldn’t contain my mirth. An expanding nose had heretofore been absent from my list of worries. I responded in kind. My friend has blossoming man boobs, of the kind which may eventually cause alarm in polite society. 

We amused ourselves as we talked about the degrading processes of ageing. About how it feels as though the floor is tilting at an angle of increasing magnitude. How one’s grip on civility, decorum and vanity slips slowly out of control. 

‘If you haven’t made peace with your body by forty’, he intoned, ‘you need to see a shrink.’ I nodded in assent. Even I have noticed that my preoccupations with the mirror have become ironic of late. 

Looks are a losing game. 

We spoke about the vicissitudes of life and the things we have learned. How we are both now drawn to writing, drawn away from the win-or-lose aggression of cut-throat business, and alienated by the world’s quest for wifi codes whenever entering a public space. 

Ageing – I am 50, he is about to turn 47 – has brought a kind of tranquil bemusement to our lives. We recalled the intensity with which we had worked together, argued together, bonded together in the 90s. He explained how the shifting sands of his life had resulted in replacing old acquaintances with fresh acquaintances, managing to retain close friendships despite the tilting. 

It was a heady time, back then. Rushing about. Playing, objecting, demanding, learning. But much of it was, in retrospect, chasing our own tails. Energy inspired by a need to shine and progress in front of our bosses, and peacock amongst our peers. All the time, the real work of maturity was happening in the background, unbeknownst to us: a gradual realisation of that which is a game and that which is real, and an acceptance of our own true selves. 

As I got into the taxi at the end of the night, my friend imparted a word of local advice. ‘Pay no more than 600 dinars’. 

The young and gruffly handsome taxi man brought me the short journey over the Danube, but dropped me in a curious spot – on tram tracks. His cab was in partial view or my hotel entrance which lay some fifty metres away, by means of sharply inclining pedestrian steps. 

I stretched to see the fare. To my annoyance, the meter read 1400 dinars.  

‘Can you bring me to the front entrance?’, I asked, firmly, suddenly feeling little interest in being ripped off. The concierge would surely help me negotiate. He refused, and aggressively demanded the inflated charge. 

Spontaneously, and for the first time in my life, I walked. I simply left the taxi, strutted away, and paid zero. 

As I bounded up those steps, I chuckled out loud, to myself alone. Fuelled by good wine and lasting friendship, I felt gratitude for my disappearing hair, my expanding nose, and for an act of impulsive belligerence which, at that moment, I chose to call character.


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