How can old people remain so cheerful, when they know that death will be upon them soon? I used to wonder that when I was young. Now I think I know. For most of us – even if, like me, we’ve lived pretty charmed existences – life has been full of tensions, problems, failures and embarrassments which the approach of death means we can no longer do much about, even if we had the energy; which gives us – me, at any rate – a feeling of relaxation as I anticipate my 80th birthday in just a few weeks’ time. I’ve got little serious to regret in my past life. I may have been rotten to some people, mainly my mother and my ex-wife (perhaps), but it’s too late to do anything about that now. My children, all of whom have turned out better in every way than I have, are up and running, and with wonderful children of their own. So I’ve helped keep the human race going: our primary duty as a species. I can’t do any more for them. I’ve written a fair number of books, a few of which have been influential in a small way, and among a small and insignificant group of people (other academic historians); and although there are a couple more I’d have liked to write – one on Britain and Europe, the other on ‘populism’, both of course arising from recent events – I’ve at last reconciled myself to the fact that I’m too chronically tired to even start the research that would be necessary to write them. I’m also reconciled to the fact that I’ll never be an artist, the career that was predicted for me when I was a boy, because I’d never be able to lift a candle to Vermeer. Or to Graham Gooch, if I had pursued the other (even less plausible) dream of my youth. All that gives me the luxury of lazily lying on a bed of moderate achievement, which is the condition I aspire to after death, and to me would seem like Heaven. (My other vision of the after-life is that I’d have to go through this life again, from the beginning, without knowing that I’d done it before. That’s my Hell.) Hence my own ‘cheerfulness in the face of death’. Is it the same for all oldies?
I’m also cheered by the simple knowledge that I will indeed reach 80 – if nothing unexpected happens in the next month – which I wouldn’t have predicted just a few years ago. In fact my life has been punctuated with illnesses and disabilities which, if I’d been born fifty or even twenty years earlier, would probably have killed me. One of them killed my father at the early age of 53; which was one of the reasons why I was surprised to live longer. I was born backwards; had serious asthma as a young child; was thin and ill-nourished; and in adulthood had several crucial operations – too embarrassing to detail – which couldn’t have been done just a few years earlier, when I would have died. Thank God for the NHS – though it wasn’t yet there for my breech birth. Today I only have asthma, again (a doctor told me it comes back when the testosterone decreases); arthritis; deafness; bouts of depression; virtual blindness in one eye; and my ‘chronic fatigue’ – probably the result of a tick-bite in the Swedish countryside – to worry me. That and suspected hypochondria. Nothing, really. And the fatigue might even be a boon, if it prepares me for the hereafter.
Against this I have the wonderful Kajsa to share my later years (or decades?) with, friends and family to share them with remotely, and a beautiful little wooden home on a covid-free (we hope) Swedish island. So all’s pretty well. If only it weren’t for the appalling politics back in Britain, I might even be happy.
Sorry for the personal. But the beginning of a new year – and one to be feared by those less fortunate than I – seemed to call for it.