Monday, 22 February 2010

Crime of the half-century

Later this year I'll be 50.

How the hell did that happen?

One minute it was Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery, then it was, “I think it's about time you considered cosmetic surgery”. There must have been something in between but for the life of me I can't remember exactly what. A couple of years in drama school in London, a revolutionary time in South Africa, a decade and a half in Spain and here I am.

Must admit that, despite everything, I have no actual intention of doing what I have long threatened on my 50th birthday, that is disappear under the duvet with enough paracetemol to end it all, plus just enough travel sickness tablets to avoid sicking the whole lot up and having to start all over again. I've looked it all up on EXIT's website, readers.

No, I really can't be arsed to get too worked up about the dreaded half-century. I'm a baby boomer for God's sake and, as we post-war generation say, 50 is the new 30. I have high hopes for my latter years, especially having just witnessed the recent demise of a family friend who died aged 102, just one week after she gave up working in the family fish and chip shop. With an example like that, moaning about turning 50 seems impossibly wimpish and ungrateful.

What I have in mind is a future like Leonard Cohen's, a man who, despite a lifetime spent cultivating some ruinous habits like smoking, taking Class A drugs and drinking far too much, was only deterred from undertaking yet another spectacularly ambitious world tour at the age of 76 by knackering his back during the commission of a strenuous yoga move. And the action that his, admittedly orthopaedic, bed has seen! If I can muster the requisite amount of optimism I'm thinking of having one of those deli-counter ticket dispensers fitted on the foot of mine. Or, as Lenny C himself has said, there'll be a meter on my bed that will disclose what everybody knows.

So it came as a shock this week when my employers submitted my date of birth to the Powers That Be and were told that they would be given a sort of tax break for agreeing to provide me with work. Naturally I was delighted for them and impressed that the government had the foresight, during this recession which has had even more of a negative effect on Spain's economy than Britain's, to encourage employment.

Then I had time to digest this information and my mood darkened.

As a professional writer with more than two decades of varied experience and a postgraduate qualification under her belt it was a shock to realise that, at least as far as the government is concerned, I'm some kind of a bureaucratic loss leader. As they say in Private Eye, shurely shome mishtake.

While the issue of an ageing population is encouraging some very heated debates about the raising of the official retirement age, it seems that there has been very little alteration in the status of middle-aged workers. We're still considered so undesirable that prospective employers need to be offered incentives to tap into our knowledge and experience. In other words, while state old-age pensions will kick in later, there has been no improvement in the image of the older worker.

What are they worried about? That we'll take so long to glue our dentures in that we'll be constantly late for work? That the foyers of office buildings will be awash with Zimmer frames and mobility scooters? That we'll ask for longer tea breaks so we can change our incontinence pants?

Sorry to come over all Dame Joan Bakewell, but this attitude has to change – and fast. How are we going to survive financially if older employees are such a ghastly prospect that companies need to be offered bungs to take them on? I'm hoping to work until I drop – will probably have to, in fact - but the current climate scarcely looks encouraging.

I'm all for young employees, of course - where would be without their new ideas and enthusiasm? Yet we also need to rely on the experience and wisdom of the older worker. We're constantly being told that the baby boomers will make sure that attitudes will undergo a revolution as they start to collect their bus passes, but this change seems very slow in coming.

While fashion and cosmetic make-over features in the tabloids and magazines tell women that they can still look fabulous way into their seventies and beyond, it's difficult not to feel that it would be even more helpful if there could be a few more hints as to how they could be incredibly useful and valuable in the workforce. There's not much point in telling us how we should dress to avoid exposing crepey necks and wrinkled cleavage if the fundamental problem of ageing – our lowered status in the employment stakes – still hasn't been addressed.

It's not asking for much, surely. I'm a writer not a mud wrestler. As long as I retain my mental faculties there is no reason why I shouldn't continue to work until death and decomposition intervene. P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Forster and Maeve Binchy are just a few pensioner authors that spring to mind. Mary Wesley only published her first novel when she was in her seventies, while Catherine Cookson continued to work until she was very elderly.

Early retirement is now a luxury that few outside the banking sector can afford, so we need to be making the most of our extended working years.

It's time for a radical change and this (late) baby boomer, at least, is up for a fight.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

In praise of men with funny-shaped balls

Now that we have a couple of weeks off from the mental torture that is the Six Nations 2010, I feel it’s time to reflect on Wales’s status as a nation of rugby lovers and on my personal history with the game.

This particular piece might well have remained a kind of mental earworm, a few disparate thoughts that failed to cohere had I not seen, on 8 out of 10 Cats, seeing as you’re asking – it’s not clever, but even I need some time off at the end of the week from being an intellectual giant as quick with a mot juste as Oscar Wilde – the comedian, John Bishop, virtually cringing on being asked whether he ever watched rugby.

“Eeurgh, no!” he replied, as if he had been asked whether he liked eating dung. “Can’t stand it. Never watch it if I can help it!”

I knew what was coming, but felt that I had to give him the benefit of the doubt. Surely he wasn’t going for that old, long outdated chestnut about it only being for posh people?

“It’s for posh people, that,” he added, or something similar. “No, I’m a football fan.”

Having established his credentials as a Man of the People, Bishop enlisted the support of his fellow-panellists in a virtual orgy of rugby bashing. To listen to that lot carry on, you’d think that the only kind of person you’d rub against at a Six Nations match would be a nob with a double-barrelled surname who was only dropping in to “Twickers” on his way to see little Tristram playing the Wall Game at Eton.

I’d love him to have met some of the blokes I encountered when my Dad used to take me to watch Wales play at the Arms Park!

During a tackle one poor unfortunate Scottish player ended up with one of the Welsh team sitting on his head. “Better hope he hasn’t been drinkin’ Brains!” shouted the wit behind me, who had probably downed more than a few pints of Brains Bitter himself.

Equally delighted to be informed that they were posh bastards would have been Charlie Faulkner, Graham Price and Bobby Windsor, aka the incomparable Pontypool Front Row. Their opponents came up with some imaginative monikers to describe that man mountain of muscle and brute force, but I can make a fair guess that “posh” wasn’t one of them.

No, rugby union has never been a posh or elitist sport in Wales, which was one of its myriad charms. I was fortunate to have seen players like Gareth Edwards, JJ Williams, Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies and JPR in action, thanks to my Dad signing me up for membership with Pembroke RFC, who obligingly coughed up the odd ticket for the Arms Park.

Stuck in a girls’ boarding school, it wasn’t always easy for him to persuade the Powers That Be to allow me out for the Big Match. My Dad, bless his heart, had other ideas: on the only occasion that I saw him rebel against the ridiculously draconian rules that cowed parents as much as pupils, he stormed into the headmistress’s office, banged his fist on her desk and demanded that I be allowed to watch the Wales v Ireland match on Saturday.

“You are denying this girl her heritage!” he railed.

Nice one, Dad!

Needless to say, the head had no choice but to release me for the afternoon.

JPR Williams was my favourite, a choice that probably accounts for my current unmarried status: no other bloke has much of a chance of matching up. When you have seen the man of your dreams leave the field with half his face hanging off then return two minutes later with it stitched (roughly) back on to finish the match, how can the average eejit, who faints when he cuts his finger, measure up?

It might have been true, fifty years ago, that English rugby measured up to the old adage, “a game for hooligans, played by gentlemen” but that went the way of the penny-farthing many years ago. These days even the relatively refined world of English Rugby Union welcomes fans from every class. As a professional sport it can ill-afford to do otherwise.

There are a few sports that remain the preserve of the elite – polo, for instance – but that aside I can’t really imagine that these days any event would turn away a prospective fan on the grounds of class, accent, race, religion or any other factor.

It’s hard to believe that John Bishop really finds rugby so repulsive that he cannot watch it. While rugby will always be my first love, I am perfectly capable of enjoying a good game of footie. His attitude must be leftist posturing.

Anyway, how would he react if Stephen Fry or Joanna Lumley refused to watch soccer on the grounds that it’s a game for proles and oiks?!