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Michael Wolff: Octogenarian

Michael Wolff: Octogenarian

As I celebrated my 80th with family and friends in the Wolseley restaurant in London last November, I knew that 8o was just a number, but surprisingly, unlike the previous 79 birthday numbers in my life this particular one seemed unusual. It felt like an irreversible marker that can only be turned back in memory. Can people still turn back the milometers in second hand cars? Somehow I doubt it, and in any case you could nearly always tell this had happened as the many signs of wear and tear inevitably showed up. I used to enjoy it when in my seventies people would say “You don’t look 70, you can’t possibly be 70”, but now it doesn’t give me the same illusion of reassurance. I’d rather be my age and look my age to people in general, and enjoy most, but not all of the realities of it. Except, when it comes to the opposite sex. I’ll write about that later.

My eighth birthday, my first memorable encounter with the number eight, was not a happy one for me. I was an evacuee in a boarding school run by ‘the Two Witches of Fulbrook’, near Burford in the Cotswolds. All I can remember of my time under the jurisdiction of these terrible two Thompson sisters, I feared and dreaded, is walking in fields of cowslips and cowpats, stepping into a wasps nest and getting 26 stings – I remember counting them. I was told that bravery meant not showing and if possible not even feeling pain – a mad British lesson in suppression.

Eighteen wasn’t bad, except I looked fourteen and so when I went to dances at the local tennis club to try to start some kind of a thing with one of the many dazzling and attractive young women there, they usually thought I was the owner’s son. They would pat me on the head or blow me a kiss and so I never got anywhere at all with my early, but later than average, sexual ambitions.

From the age of twenty-eight, fortunately, looking much younger was ceasing to be a serious problem at work. By that time neither age nor birthdays meant much. Thirty, forty, fifty, sixty and seventy slipped by with all the normal dramas and ups and downs of life filling my time and using up all my capacities to think and feel.

But eighty seemed somehow to be different – a cause for a pause. And during that pause, which I realise will be a brief one because I’ve so much more to accomplish, all sorts of thoughts and feelings are now vying for my attention. The first thought is that even since my recent 80th, several close friends and creative giants have died and so I may be now approaching what many refer to as ‘The End of Life’. These giants were people that I’d always counted on for inspiration and collaboration and now, suddenly, they’re no longer there. It’s a sad feeling of irretrievable loss. The second thought I find myself having is about the many repressive regimes in our world and particularly the ones that flourished during our time, like Pinochet’s Chile, Hitler’s Germany and many others in which the closest of relatives and best of friends could suddenly not be there and disappear for good. I thank God that life in the UK for many, but not all of us, isn’t as dangerous. Third, I’m assuming I’m relatively fit because various doctors and consultants to whom parts of my body have to say thank you, tell me that I am, but maybe that’s what they tell all their octogenarian patients.

Maybe just like an old car, signs of wear and tear will continue to appear without warning and bits and pieces will need repair or replacement. Come to think of it, little by little, I notice I seem to need more and more little pills. I have to struggle to remind myself to take them on time. Luckily, I’ve found devices that help me not to miss any. But, and I find this perplexing and even scary, a few moments after taking them, I can’t remember whether I did or didn’t, and I’m too absent-minded, stubborn and stupid to mark the packets as I take the pills. What else, I wonder, am I forgetting, and how often do I use procrastination or acceptance of a less than perfect memory as an excuse.

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