I’ve never liked birthdays. Even as a child, when the gradual accretion of years gives a blooming sense of importance and achievement, I found the whole thing squirmy and embarrassing. All occasions of enforced jollity make me feel alienated: New Year’s Eve is bad enough; I am never ready by the time my birthday comes around a week later to weather the barrage of good wishes, culminating in the horror that is Happy Birthday to You. It hasn’t got better over the years, but I’ve found a way of combating the mortification. For the past few years I’ve been in Australia for my birthday, have worked through it without saying a word, and thus largely escaped the folderol. This year I shall be here, and although it would be an exaggeration to say I’m dreading it, I am certainly feeling uncomfortable at the pressure to celebrate it.
So why, you might very reasonably ask, am I even writing about it? Why am I drawing attention to something only to bat it away so gracelessly? We humans are hopelessly complicated beings, and much as I find the notion of balloons and birthday candles abhorrent, I can’t help feeling, too, that to ignore my birthday, this year at least, might so easily mutate into shame at my age, something I have always fought fiercely to resist.
You see, the thing is, I am going to be 60 on my birthday. When I say it, it sounds strange enough, but when I see it written down, I find it very odd indeed. I think one’s ideas about what ages look like take shape in one’s childhood, so when I say or write 60, I see in my head a little old lady with a grey bun. It’s disconcerting. Of course, that’s not what 60 looks like, or feels like, these days, but even if it isn’t properly old, it is undeniably well beyond middle age; I am not expecting to make it to 120.
That in itself doesn’t worry me. I don’t pretend to be youthful. And when you have seen people you love die young, the idea of complaining about getting older is just revolting. My mother died at 48, one of my sisters at 32, and my first husband at 47; it is a curious thing to be so significantly outstripping them in years. In truth, the hardest birthday I have ever gone through was my 49th. This is something anyone who becomes an age older than they remember a same-sex parent will know. By comparison, my 50th was a doddle. And I did, even if at the last minute, have a party that year. I didn’t know that I wanted one, but I came to the conclusion that it was a choice between dread or self-pity (even those of us who hate birthday celebrations can feel rather subdued when the day goes past unmarked) and really anything is better than self-pity. So I went ahead, had a dinner, banned presents, speeches or singing (I didn’t have a cake, as that would have sent a rather mixed message) and never regretted it. I think I was rather relieved no longer to be 49, that year that made me a traitor to my mother. But I also think there will always be a sense, for me, of pretending to be whatever age my birthday is celebrating. If I see, in anything I read, a woman’s age listed as 48, I think “that’s my mother’s age”; how can a daughter be older than her mother?
Now, I can see a very good argument for celebrating this. There’s a lot to be said for giving thanks for getting older, when you know what the alternative is. And if daughters customarily define themselves in opposition to their mothers, I should say that having a mother who declared herself relieved to be dying at 48 (grateful that it was a month shy of her 49th birthday), as it meant she wouldn’t have to grow old, makes me feel vehement that getting older is nothing to keep quiet about. I had some inkling of this three decades ago when I decided to have a birthday party, and wrote on the invitations that it was my 30th; I wanted to be open about my age to stop myself ever being able to lie about it in the future. I had been brought up, as many women are, to feel that getting old was something to be ashamed of, and I knew it was something I had to resist.
And resist I do. But even without thinking that getting old is a personal failing, it takes some getting used to. When I joined the staff of The Sunday Times at 23, I was the youngest person on the paper, and for quite a time, wherever I went, I was always the youngest in the room; now, it seems, I am nearly always the oldest. In what I often fear is an act of bombastic overcompensating, I boast about it. And then am almost as ashamed as if I’d lied about my age instead.
So let me do neither, but rather try and understand what being 60 means now (even if it would never be incumbent on a man to do the same). To some extent I find this hard, because I feel it takes a whole decade to get used to the age bracket one’s in; it’s only now, when I’ve got only a little left of being 59, that I feel I’ve got used to being in my fifties. And, of course, one isn’t marooned in one’s age: most of my friends are in their sixties, and it allows us all to age obliviously together. When certain of those friends say that 60 is younger than it used to be, I rather tartly tell them: not from a young person’s perspective it isn’t. But for us it is, not least because the trajectory of our lives is so different from the women who came before us. I remember both my grandmothers being in their forties; by the time they were in their sixties, they’d fully embraced grey-haired old age. I know only three women my age who have grey hair, and while they look wonderful, I’m certainly not ready to stop getting my roots done. My story to myself (should I have to put it in words, and I don’t as a general rule) is that while I have more than a few grey hairs, I am not actually grey. But I’m not prepared to find out. I hide from myself that by dyeing my hair, I am pretending to be younger than I am, because I’ve been dyeing my hair since my teens. I’ve always rather looked forward to the Anne Bancroft/Susan Sontag/Cruella de Vil years, when I have a dramatic dark bob with a switch of white at the front, but somehow the time when I adopt such a look seems ever in the faraway future. My concession to hair and ageing so far is that I don’t dye my hair as dark as I used to (too draining) and it’s a lot shorter than it used to be.
Otherwise, I have the great luxury of sticking to the same look I always have. I say “luxury” because I remember distinctly from my youth and childhood that women just started dressing differently as they got older. Luckily, the age of floral-patterned Crimplene dresses and sensible shoes is no more. And while, yes, one wouldn’t necessarily expect a woman in her sixties to be in a crop top and hot pants (certainly showing my age here by describing shorts as hot pants), I couldn’t wear them when I was young, so have not made any sartorial accommodation to age. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true: while I never found high heels comfortable, I now feel quite mutinous about them. But I can’t honestly claim that my refusal to wear them is an act of sensible maturity: it’s entirely due to the wisdom of the young. Much as I don’t feel myself to be a fashion person, it is entirely true that because of young women’s refusal to wear heels to gad about the place, flat shoes and trainers have become fashionably acceptable footwear, and so it is back-sparingly possible to clump about in trainers and feel that it is funky rather than fuddy-duddy. For that, I am inordinately and enduringly grateful to young women.
And while we’re on the subject of young women, I do have to say that getting older is so much easier than being young. The two great enemies of happiness are self-consciousness and pressure to conform, and the older one gets, the easier it is to throw off those shackles. And while I never quite believe those who say that the great benefit of age is that one no longer cares what anyone else thinks — we are social creatures, and thus we are always somewhat reliant on the reactions of others — it is true that one cares ever more fleetingly. Or rather, one just doesn’t have it in oneself to care as much. Ageing happens whether we like it or not, and to mind about it is so futile as to be a waste of energy. Denial has an unfairly bad reputation: I am quite happy to block out those signs of ageing that, were I to focus on them, would make me unhappy. There is, however much one might want to glory in what the years have brought, both good and ill, something really quite perturbing about ageing, the withering on the vine. Ignoring it is the only way to go. Most of us spent our youth hating things about the way we looked, and now, from a more elderly vantage point, that seems so ridiculous. I try to learn from that. Why worry about being 60 when, in 10 years’ time, it will seem laughably young by comparison? And if I don’t get to see 70, then
Of course, getting older would be easier if “she’s looking her age” wasn’t such an insult. The one thing we ought to be entitled to look is our age: it is the truth, after all. But even as I accept my age, I do want to stave off the more unflattering of its manifestations. I have no great anti-ageing secrets (and slightly recoil from the term), but the two things I think are the most important as one gets older are a) looking after your teeth and b) exercise. There’s not a face cream in the world worth putting on if you have receding gums; old age is not called looking long in the tooth for nothing. And being mobile is, I really think, the crucial factor in staving off the worst of old age. I only have to have a bad back and I feel ancient. I never exercised when young; now I know it’s essential.
But so much for the worst of old age, what about the best? For me, I can honestly say I have learnt one great lesson. I have learnt to relish solitude. I regard myself as lucky in the extreme here, as I know that one of the blights of old age can be loneliness. I found it hard to enjoy my own company when young, but now I relish it. Put like that, it sounds remarkably self-satisfied, but I don’t care how it sounds. I just feel so happy it’s the case. Solitude is as important to me now as food. I’m (fairly) sociable, and have close friends I wouldn’t be without, but I don’t feel like I did when young. Then I felt that I was like a fridge: the lights only came on when the door was opened. I knew who I was when surrounded by friends; alone, I felt I was a blank. Now, I feel most myself when alone. And in a good way. It was worth waiting for.
The other, and perhaps most exciting thing, about getting older is perhaps counter to how it’s always been perceived. Ageing is nearly always portrayed as a closing down of opportunities: I now see the rest of my life as a great unfurling mystery. For the past three decades, as I grew up, established a career, had children and so on, I pretty much knew what the shape of my life would be, day to day. Now I feel that anything could happen. I’m happy with my life as it is, happier than I thought I would be from the anxious vantage point of my twenties, but now I feel so much more open to anything and everything. And that’s a wonderful way to walk into the future.
Styling: Victoria Bain. Hair: Mark Francome Painter at CLM. Make-up: Tricia Woolston using Sisley Skin and Laura Mercier