»  The Straggler, No. 3

January 27, 2003

  Nor Custom Stale


At fifteen, my mind was bent on learning.
At thirty, I stood firm.
At forty, I had no doubts.
At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven.
At sixty, my ear was receptive to truth.
At seventy, I could follow my heart's desires without sin.
                   — Confucius, Analects II.iv

Here is a story, in fact a story within a story. There are four people in the outer story. I shall denote them by A, B, C and D. One of them — let us say D, for the sake of simplicity — is me. The other three are all conservative journalists. All are male. None of their last names (nor, as a matter of fact, their first names) begins with either A, or B, or C. None is a National Review staff member, though all have contributed pieces to this magazine from time to time. Other than these, I hope impenetrable, disclaimers, I shall leave A, B and C veiled in proper anonymity.

The mise en scène for the outer story is as follows. A, B and D are seated at a dining table in a very acceptable hotel. They have just finished an excellent meal, and are engaged in some easy conversation, moderately illuminated by alcohol. C is not present. He is, in fact, on another continent, and so is very decisively not present. Emboldened by this circumstance, our three diners take up C as a subject of conversation. All agree on his originality and brilliance. Remembered highlights from some of his recent pieces are brought out and chuckled over.

Then B tells a story — this is the inner story — about C. The only other person in this inner story is B's wife, an American lady of great charm and intelligence, but with those open and forthright New World manners that 19th-century European visitors found so disconcerting. According to B, he and his wife were guests at a function where C was also present. B's wife got into conversation with C, whom she very much admires. All went well until she asked C how old he was. C supplied a long but evasive answer, leaving B's wife no wiser on the main point. She pressed her inquiry; again C was evasive. She persisted: "But how old are you?" C made a polite excuse, turned away, and avoided the lady for the rest of the evening.

After B's telling of this story, the diners fall to speculating about C's age. The consensus is that C can be no more than forty-five, and is quite possibly much less. We are all puzzled to know why, in this case, C should be reticent about his age. I remind A and B of the adage that forty is the old age of youth, while fifty is the youth of old age. This being the case (I argue), any person less than forty-five years old could fairly call himself young. We then move on to our own ages, and the earliest public event we each can recall — in my case, the coronation of Elizabeth II. There is no more talk of C.

Reflecting on this afterwards, I found I could not quite make up my mind which side to take. On the one hand, there is something slightly womanish about not wanting one's age to be known. (C, I hasten to add, is a husband and father, with, so far as one can ever know such things, no tendency whatsoever to any of the more sensational sexual eccentricities.) On the other hand, it seemed to me that B's wife had violated good manners, as I understand them, by pressing her question. Some people are shy about their ages, for all kinds of reasons, and ought not be forced into uncomfortable situations on that account, nor on any other account in the realm of individual privacy.

I came down on C's side at last, on grounds of personal sympathy. You see, I am shy about my age, too. Not shy enough to have stood up to Mrs. B's interrogation — I would have folded on the second inquiry, I think. Shy enough, though, to have engaged in some mild past dishonesty about my age, for which I hope I may be forgiven. We are all tempted to take advantage of whatever minor gifts nature may have accidentally endowed us with. I look much younger than my age, and am tempted accordingly. This youthfulness of appearance seems to be inherited; I have photographs of my father in his early sixties, looking like a hale forty-year-old. (It does not, though, survive the scrutiny of TV cameras. On TV I look precisely my age — yet another reason to hate TV.) Furthermore, the Derbyshire men marry late, to young wives, so that my lying looks are supported by two small children, and by a wife who is still very occasionally, to her infinite glee, "carded" when checking out beer at the supermarket.

The reason for this sensitivity about one's age is, of course, the desire not to be thought an under-achiever. If you pay any attention to what the Chinese call "large matters under Heaven," you become uncomfortably aware, as you pass through your forties and into your fifties, how many people of power and fame, in fields where recognition comes only after a long and grueling climb, are younger than yourself. The dull awareness settles in that you will never command men in battle, or be CEO of a major corporation, or have a mathematical theorem named after you, or be elected President or Prime Minister of even a very small country.

At this point it is customary for the commentator to grumble about the tyranny of our youth-oriented culture. Actually, I don't see this. I have it on good authority that Hollywood starlets will submit to absolutely any surgical or pharmaceutical process in order to pass themselves off as being 25 years old, after which age they are unemployable. I sympathize, but our culture consists of much more than Baywatch (though to be sure, many people, especially abroad, do not seem to know this). It includes, for example, politics, in which one is still a mewling infant at forty. The highest political drama of 2002 concerned remarks made by a 61-year-old senator at a party given for a 100-year-old colleague.

In any case, an acquaintance who makes a very good living in biological research assures me that science is on the point of being able not merely to arrest the aging process, but to reverse it. I think there should be some limits here; I'd love to try out for my school rugby first fifteen again, but I wouldn't want to regress much further than that. No doubt all unpleasant kinks will be straightened out in the labs prior to FDA approval, and we shall be able, like Confucius, to stand firm at thirty, or any other age that suits us. Memo to self: Next time I find myself in C's company, I shall tactfully slip him the business card of my biologist friend.