Here it comes, the big seven-oh. Next Wednesday to be exact; around 6:45 GMT, to be even more exact.
It was quite an entrance, as I recorded in We Are Doomed.
I was actually born around breakfast time on a Sunday morning, at a nursing home behind St. Matthew’s church in the small English country town of Northampton. (Annual venue for the nation’s biggest ram fair. Really.) With VE Day just four weeks in the past, the church bells were ringing, a thing that had then only recently been re-permitted. During WW2, church bells were to signal that the Germans had invaded mainland Britain, and the ringing of them was forbidden for other purposes.
The town’s boy scout troop was marching up the Kettering Road from Town Centre to the church, with their band a-playing. (This is my father’s account of the event.) It was some welcome into the material universe, though my own recollection of it is naturally indistinct.
Making it to seventy is not much nowadays. “Seventy is the new fifty,” my friends assure me. As the scriptural limit, though, seventy is a good point at which to take stock, to look back and get some idea of the shape of one’s life.
Doing that, my main impression—as I also said in Doomed—is of stupendously good luck.
I have got through pretty much my entire life without ever having to work very hard, without ever having seen my country invaded, without enduring war or depression, without suffering any horrid illness, without ever going hungry or wanting for anything. What luck!
Regrets, I’ve got a few, but no more than the average number: missed opportunities, wasted time, small acts of selfish unkindness to people who deserved better of me. Not altogether a bad tally, as these things go.
And now, seventy. Cong xin suo yu, chirps Mrs D. Literally translated: “Follow heart whatever desire.” That’s from Confucius, talking about his situation at age seventy. In a passage known to every literate Chinese person the sage summed up his life by the decades. James Legge put it into English 150 years ago:
The Master said: “At fifteen, I had my mind 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 an obedient organ for the reception of truth.
“At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.”
You can get an argument going about fine points of translation there. The sixteen English syllables that follow the word “sixty,” for example, are just two syllables in the Chinese original: er shun, literally “ear obey.” The old boy was cryptic. That’s not even him at his crypticest. No doubt Legge was doing his best, as we all must.
Looking back at the shape of my own life, it hasn’t actually been very Confucian.
Fifteen. Mind bent on learning? Not really. What my mind was mainly bent on in the early summer of 1960 was (a) reading all the science fiction I could find, (b) scraping a “pass” in my weak subjects—Latin, History, Eng. Lit.—on the General Certificate of Education, which I sat at Ordinary Level that year, and (c) constructing a card model of five cubes in a dodecahedron, one of the more challenging assignments in Cundy & Rollett’s Mathematical Models. Nerdy kid? Yep.
Thirty. I had a regular job, an apartment, a car, and a couple of credit cards, so “standing firm” isn’t bad for external circumstances. My psyche, though, was going through some acute distress—a nasty case of philocaption that it took me years to shake off.
From this vantage point those psychic woes look like wasteful folly, but of course it’s different at the time. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” That’s Kierkegaard.
Forty. By this point I was not merely standing firm, I actually was a firm: Giles Mathews, Ltd., software consultancy for the discerning corporate IT manager. (Make that half a firm: In British law a registered company must have minimum two principals. My sister, who couldn’t tell a computer from a rhododendron bush, was Co-Director and Secretary.)
Revenues were good. I had a flat in London’s West End, patronized a traditionalist gents’ tailor whose suits I still wear—that bespoke stuff lasts for ever—and had a subscriber’s ticket to Covent Garden Opera House.
The main doubt in my mind at this point was whether I should get married or not.
Fifty. Family man. Best decision I ever made. If you’re not married, get married. If you’re married, stay married. No, those are not the decrees of Heaven, just sincere suggestions for the general increase of human happiness.
That chubby tot in the picture, who had just gotten through eating several mouthfuls of Long Island beach sand, is now a man: a soldier and a patriot, strong and smart. If life has a purpose, that’s what it is: to make more life.
Sixty. Raising kids, writing books. My ear an obedient organ for the reception of truth? I hope so. At the very least, as by this time an established member of the stone-kicking fraternity, I flatter myself that I know a pretty lie when I see one. Reception-of-truth-wise, that puts me ahead of the great majority. Pretty lies are popular.
Seventy. Had that picture taken the other day at the drugstore when renewing my Suffolk County pistol license. “Apples in your cheeks,” said Mrs D. Who put them there, honey?
It’s a funny business, this being in the world—what Charles Darwin’s granddaughter called “the long littleness of life.” You fuss around for a few decades, then you’re gone; and after a few more years, in the overwhelming majority of cases, you and all that you did are utterly forgotten.
Ah, well. “Towards the end of the run you can overact appallingly,” said Quentin Crisp. Perhaps I’ll give that a try.
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