Tag Archives: ageing

The Gate of Desire Ajar

21 Sep

There’s a poem on the wall next to platform 10 in Glasgow Central station. posted up there to mark the relaunch of the Caledonian Sleeper service (unfortunately with sharply increased prices, meaning that I will be unlikely ever to sample its comforts). It’s by Alfred Cochrane, an English cricketer and I was rather taken by it, so I looked for it on the web, naturally, and couldn’t find it – well, not apart from a couple of references in old issues of the Oban Times.

It is called “Northward Bound”, apparently (or
“Northward Bound Once Again”), and it beautifully sums up the call of the Highlands, which even the least energetic among us (i.e. me) feel the power of. It has a rather poignant, bittersweet beginning, but works its way up to a much more uplifting ending.

I think it deserves to be more widely known, so as it’s not online, I’m going to put it there. (Don’t worry, it’s out of copyright – just.)

And in case you have difficulty reading from the photos, or you’re using text-to-speech, here’s the full text:

Does your heart still beat with the old excitement
As you wait where the Scotch expresses are?
Does it answer still to the old indictment
Of a fond delight in a sleeping car,
As it did when the rush through the autumn night
Meant the gate of desire ajar?

Or has the enchanting task grown tougher?
Has the arrow beyond you flown?
The hill that was once rough enough grown roughter,
The steepest climb you’ve ever known?
For the forest abhors a veteran duffer,
Sorely beaten and blown.

Ah, the years, the years, they are rusty and mothy;
The flesh it is weak, that once was strong.
But the brown burn over the stone falls frothy;
The music it sings is a siren song
And the pony’ll take you as far as the bothy,
And that’ll help you along.

See! From the tops the mist is stealing!
Out with the stalking glass for a spy!
Round Craig an Eran an eagle is wheeling,
Black on the blue September sky.
A fig for the years! Why, youth and healing
At the end of your journey lie.

Alfred Cochrane

The Consolations of Growing Up

23 Oct

Last week I unwisely finished reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman shortly after watching the end of Peter Pan (2003) on TV. Both of them have bittersweet endings involving the hero or heroine growing up and leaving behind friends or family who are unable to join them – either because they are ghosts (in the case of The Graveyard Book) or because they are Peter Pan, and have vowed never to grow up. Both of them left me in tears – although, to be fair to myself, I had been working rather hard, feeling stressed and staying up too late, which can make anything seem worth crying about.

Absorbed in quick succession these works can leave you feeling that “to grow up is such a barbarous business”, that growing older is not just a tragedy but also some kind of failure, as if every year you allow to slip by is a betrayal of the happiness of your youth. For me personally it doesn’t help that I’m approaching a milestone. Not that this is your average milestone, mind you. I’m not turning thirty or having a child or anything, but I will soon be older than Alexander the Great ever was. That probably means nothing to you but I’ve idolised him since I was 17, and now that I’m about to outlive him (barring accident), it’s impossible not to notice that he achieved more with his life by this point than I have.

Fortunately, I have an excellent antidote to all this morose calendar-watching. I am currently studying the life of St Augustine, another towering figure from antiquity who, like Alexander, suffers a lot of misunderstanding and bad press. Unlike Alexander, though, Augustine spent quite a lot of his youth faffing around, getting into trouble and wondering what it all means. It wasn’t until he was about the age that Alexander died (incidentally also about the same age that Jesus died – a strangely significant age, apparently) that he surrendered to God, pulled himself together, and made something of his hitherto pointless life. He went on to write some of the greatest works of Christian literature and to use his remarkable rhetorical powers trying to bring unity to the church and godliness to people’s lives. He lived to be 75.

Most of us don’t achieve that much with our early lives. Although there are always exceptions, like Alexander the Great, Pitt the Younger and Premiership footballers, most of us are just getting started by the time we’re thirty – which is fine, because there’s a lot of life still to come. In fact, much as we may look back with fondness on the “blue remembered hills” of our childhoods, we tend to get better at almost everything with age. Adults are more skillful than kids. I find I can knit better than I could as a child, translating Latin has mysteriously become easier (although it’s still extremely hard), and don’t even get me started on child actors or (shudder) children singing.

In fact, it’s not even clear if the sadness in Peter Pan is that Wendy must grow up, or that Peter never will. Their separation is caused by the combination of those two factors, not by one or the other. So I will be sad to overtake Alexander and leave him behind me, eternally youthful, but perhaps more for his sake than mine. After all, getting older might sometimes be pants, but it’s better than the alternative.

Understanding Karenina

11 Sep

Last night I went to see the new film of Anna Karenina, adapted by Tom Stoppard. I had read the novel, but it was a good few years ago and going into the film I was carrying around the thought that Kitty was “young” and Anna was “old” – not old old, of course, not in need of a walking frame, but middle-aged. After seeing the film, and through it remembering the book, I realise that I was wrong. Anna is not old, even though Kitty is a good decade younger. She has been married for many years, yes, but she was only 18 when she got married. What Anna is, is an Older Young Person.

I use that phrase as if it’s an official description because, at my church, I sometimes put on events for Older Young People. It’s a category that’s not well-defined, but which I fall into myself. At the lower end it includes people who really are very young, in their early twenties, but who are no longer students and have therefore outgrown the previous stage of their life and been replaced by new models rolling in for Freshers’ Week. At the top end are those who have proper jobs and houses and so on, and have had for some time, but still sometimes feel like they’re not ‘proper’ grown-ups; people who notice, with incomprehension, that there are folk ten or fifteen years younger than themselves who can drive, marry, drink alcohol, seek gainful employment (though finding it is rarer these days), and in most other ways appear to be functioning adults. We are still young, but no longer obscenely young. This is the Older Young Person.

Now that I am a few years older than I was when I read the novel, I understand Anna a lot better. She didn’t want to hurt Kitty, of course, and even felt protective of her, but the ability to turn Vronsky’s head when that part of her life was supposed to be behind her was intoxicating. It wasn’t just Vronsky’s good looks and charm that tempted her, it was being seen as an attractive woman in her own right, not someone’s wife or mother or aunt. The kind of person who might dance at a ball. The kind of person who might embark on a love affair. A young person.

I don’t have to cope with a stale marriage, nor have I ever found myself infatuated by another man since I met my husband (for which I thank God), but for all that I know a little of what Anna was going through. She was beautiful, may even have become more beautiful with age, but she had lost the dewy glow of youth that Kitty brandished so innocently, and no amount of BB cream can ever give you that back. She had made her choices, and they were good ones, but the thrill of having life choices to make is so much more exciting than the satisfaction of having made them. Kitty’s rival was another woman, but Anna’s rival was time itself, and that’s a much scarier adversary, because he always wins in the end.

I’m rather pleased (and not a little surprised) that the new film does leave in all the moral censure that gives the story of Anna Karenina its point; what Anna does is understandable, but like many understandable things it’s also very wrong. So while I may look in horror at the dates of birth of some of my younger friends (how can someone born in the 90s even tie their own shoelaces yet?), I won’t be embarking on a torrid affair with a young cavalry officer. Instead, I will invite my Older Young friends round for dinner and laughs. And refuse to tell anybody under 25 my age.