Monday, 30 July 2012

On Being 56 Years Old

Today is my 56th birthday, so I am now the same age as William Guest in Morris’s utopia. Does that mean I’ll be reading the book differently from this day on? Or perhaps even living my life differently? Some immediate middle-aged thoughts come to mind, certainly.

Concerning Love: What I know here is something that William Guest, most painfully for himself, forgets in the course of the text. If, when I walk into town, a 20-year-old woman on the other side of the road looks interestedly across in my direction, that will be because I’m walking into Lancaster beside my 26-year-old son, and it will be him, not me, that she is looking at so keenly. 20-year-old women (like Ellen in Morris’s text) do not sleep with 56-year-old men, so it was highly imprudent of Guest to have got himself so infatuated with Ellen as to think that she might (old Hammond having warned him about this very syndrome in the first place, after all).

Concerning Politics: Does William Guest, having seen utopia, return to the nineteenth century a more resolute socialist than he was on the first page of the book? Critics have wrangled a good deal about this over the years, so perhaps we might ask instead: how much energy should one put into radical politics at the age of 56? Is there time and will-power available for one further great burst of activity, or should one ease back at this point, not withdrawing entirely but leaving the main thrust up to the younger generation (who will have their own new ideas about all this anyway)? After all, illness soon compelled Morris himself to find a new distribution of time and energy between politics and cultural pursuits.

Concerning Friendship: Morris once remarked to Burne-Jones that ‘the best way of lengthening out our days, dear chap, is to finish off our old things’, in which remark lies the seed of the Kelmscott Press. One can hope in the early twenty-first century to have a good many more years available after becoming 56 than Morris’s own mere six and a half; but even so, the picking up of precious old friendships and their associated activities, within the shared sense of a finite time span, will surely be part of what one’s later decades are about.

So my Nowherian birthday lessons are threefold: 1. stay well clear of much younger women; 2. make one judicious last political push, perhaps in directions the next generation is not much attending to (watch this space!); and 3. finish off old things with dear friends of many years standing. And if points 2 and 3 can be in some way combined, so much the better.


Kotick said...

Well, according to Dostoyevsky in 'The Idiot', 56 is "the age at which real life can be rightly said to begin". And as for William Guest, perhaps he should have taken his chances with 42-year-old Annie at Hammersmith Guest House.

Tony Pinkney said...

Ah yes, Annie: one of those characters (like Boffin the Golden Dustman) that 'News from Nowhere' should have made more of. Have just spotted Wilfred Scawen Blunt offering Jane Morris some advice on being 56, as recorded in his diary: ‘I have advised her to set up a dairy farm as old age without a hobby is sad. She is the same age as myself 56’.

Makiko Minow-Pinkney said...

And there's always Muriel Rukeyser's little 'Rondel':

Now that I am fifty-six
Come and celebrate with me -

What happens to song and sex
Now that I am fifty-six?

They dance but differently,
Death and distance in the mix;
Now that I'm fifty-six
Come and celebrate with me.