Going on for almost ten years ago I got an idea for a project exploring the dissonance between our calendar age and our age inside, the age we feel. I’d hoped to turn it into a book, but that didn’t fly. For ages now, I’ve been sitting on a number of extraordinary interviews conducted with a wide range of famous people — everyone from the late, great Iain Banks, to gorgeous (inside and out) Immodesty Blaize, and then some.
Think of my brain as an environmentally friendly lightbulb. It takes a while to burn brightly. Somewhat belatedly, it’s occurred to me that this blog is a wonderful venue for these interviews. Below is an edited version of my pitch along with the first interview.
May I ask a favour? If you like this idea, if you like the interviews, can you help spread the word via your social media accounts? And feel free to open up a dialogue in the comments section. (With me, with each other.)
Always, always — and I make this plea especially to journalists, who may wind up here when they google their next interviewee — remember that these interviews were conducted some time ago, and as pieces of history, they represent that person as they were then. Were I to re-interview any one of them, the answers and ideas might be somewhat different. And it should go without saying, but the NYT has started mentioning this so I will too: these are edited versions of long conversations.
YOUR AGE INSIDE
Try this the next time you’re out with friends. Ask them how old they feel – that is, their secret, inside age; the age that defines their sense of self. I’d wager a fat sum that, especially if they’re over thirty, it doesn’t correspond to the number of candles on their cake.
Time and time again my friends say things like: “How can I have kids at university?” “Where did all these wrinkles come from?” “Can you believe I’ve got a bus pass? I still feel like a kid.”
For a couple of years now I’ve been asking people how old they are inside. None of us feels their age – I know I don’t. It’s not a weird quirk limited to my immediate circle of friends, chosen because we have so much in common. Read profiles of celebrities from all walks of life and you’ll hear the same refrain. In a 2009 interview with The Scotsman Magazine, Richard Wilson, 72, said, “I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in a window or a mirror and there’s this bloke with terrible posture and I think, who’s that old man? The image thing’s weird.”
Judy Blume, recently profiled in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, reported the same disconnect between her actual age and the way she felt.
Talking to The Observer in 2009, poet Benjamin Zephaniah said, “I don’t feel 50 – there’s still something very childish or child-like inside me. I ride my bike like a kid you know, I love doing wheelies, I love climbing trees, I love exploring – I still love that stuff.”
In the January 2010 issue of Psychologies, Susan Sarandon said, “It’s a shock to think of myself as 63. I don’t relate to it at all. As a gauge of where I am in life, the number seems artificial.”
And an example closer to home: Some months ago, at Sunday lunch with friends in their 60s – she writes thrillers, he’s a retired headmaster – I posed my favourite question over a pre-prandial glass of champagne. My host, then several months away from receiving his pension, didn’t hesitate. “Same age you are now, 49,”* he said. My hostess couldn’t answer, but knew instinctively that her number hovered some years below her reality. We batted the topic about for a while and then moved on.
[*I told you this was old, I’m 55 now!]
Hours later, I excused myself while coffee brewed. To my surprise and delight, on returning I discovered that they’d taken up the question of age once more, and without my prompting. Proof, if any were needed, that once asked, the question taps deep into the psyche and throws out shoots.
Mirror, Mirror on the wall – who’s that?!
That’s something I ask at least once a week. It’s not that I have any problem with getting older. If there’s one great legacy my mom bestowed, it was not to sweat the ageing process. As she used to say, “Honey, I keep hoping if I get older, I might get wiser, too.”
Ultimately, there are only two choices: grow older or die. Which would you prefer? Once you watch your first friend die far too young, it’s hard to see another year as anything but a gift. I regularly joke that if I were to start lying about my age, I’d lie up. “Seventy-three? Gosh, Lee, you don’t look a day over fifty!”
When I was a youngster people always mistook me for older, partly because I was tall and overweight, partly because I had a big vocabulary and a fine line in sarcasm, even at elementary school.
It suited me to be thought more grown up than I actually was. Not only did I want to be older, I felt older, too. Maybe it’s because I’m the eldest of two, or maybe every smart kid feels the same way. My favourite hobbies included memorising old movies, eavesdropping on adult conversations and devouring books housed on my parents’ shelves.
As Dylan said, “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.” I was too callow to realise my hopeless lack of sophistication (and naturally I couldn’t be told). I had yet to learn that it’s one thing knowing the dictionary definition of a word, but entirely different understanding how that word feels, and what it entails. For instance, while I could define adultery and often read about it as a teenager, I couldn’t really comprehend how emotionally complicated it is to endure or execute.
I love my birthday and always make a big deal of it. On my tenth, I paraded around braying, “I’m a decade old!” The impulse didn’t fade, and at 25 I tortured my friends by reminding them that we’d arrived at our quarter century. This past October* I hit my mid-century and while I’m vain enough to be delighted to see the shocked looks on people’s faces when I tell them, I always quote Gloria Steinem, and say, “This is what fifty looks like.”
[*like I said…]
Sometimes, though, I can’t find myself in the mirror. Instead who’s staring back but my mother or her mother (I didn’t inherit much of my father’s female gene pool). Lee – the Lee I feel I really am – has vanished. It may be lucky that I never had great beauty or an incredible figure to lose, so ageing isn’t as traumatic as it might be. I’m most tortured by the softness around my jaw line that has nothing to do with weight, but owes everything to gravity.
How old am I? My mother used to joke that I was eight (ten, fifteen. . .) going on thirty-five. As it happens, she was right. I am around 33 or 35. That’s where my sense of self stopped cold, even though I’m well aware of — and grateful for — the ongoing accumulation of experience that makes fifty so much richer and more nuanced.
(Why not 34, you ask? Because, foolishly, I used to round up when reporting my age. Thus, from the midpoint of my 33rd year, I always said I was 34. That October, I realised I had a solid year of 34 ahead of me – for a stultifying total of 18 months. I swore off rounding up, and swore off 34, as well.)
At 33 I was self-sufficient, making a living (not much of one, but a living) as a writer. I was in charge of how I allocated my time, how I decorated my flat, and whom I had sex with. I had accumulated an eclectic, international circle of friends and acquaintances. I felt neither too old nor too young. It was my Goldilocks moment of just right. Now I’m stuck there, at least in my psyche.
This project isn’t asking when were you happiest? It’s not asking: when did you attain your greatest achievement or success? It wonders: when did your sense of self crystallise into the person you feel yourself to be, the person who, no matter how much time passes, is the one you refer to when you say I, me, my?
For my first AGE interview, I give you the redoubtable Ian Rankin:
Ian Rankin, author
b. 28 April, 1960 (as noted, cryptically, on the first page of the first Rebus novel)
Age Inside: 17 – 19
The essential Ian is somewhere between 17 and 19. I wear the same clothes I wore back then; I have the same haircut I had back then; I listen to the same kind of music and I’m reading more or less the same books that I read back then. A lot of the friends that I’ve got, such as I have friends, are mostly friends I had at high school.
When I was 17, 18, 19, I was trying to be a writer, I’d already decided that was what I wanted to do with my life. It might not be how I made a living but I knew that my vocation, if I had one, was to be a writer. Even though it wasn’t until I went to university in Edinburgh that I’d ever met anyone else who wanted to be a writer.
From 17, I was interested in punk and new wave music. Punk was a huge thing because of the attitude: ‘Do it!’ In my last year at school I was making cut and paste fanzines and stuff. I was writing song lyrics. I was writing poems. I was trying to write short stories – a lot of the things that I wanted to do then, I still do now.
I am sure a lot of people say the same thing. When I get together my old schoolmates we go to each other’s houses and play vinyl, which I would have done as a teenager.
All the things that you get when you grow up – not all, but most of them – I was doing from an early age. Drinking? I was drinking in pubs in Fife when I was fifteen. At school, we’d just take our blazers and ties off and go have a pint at lunchtime. My dad took me into the local bar on my eighteenth and the barman had to pretend he’d never seen me before, it was hilarious.
And I found literature and fiction early on. I wasn’t old enough to get into movies like The Godfather, Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Carrie when they came out, but nobody stopped me borrowing the books from the library. At 12 or 13, reading adult books, it seemed like forbidden fruit.
But writers are kids who don’t grow up anyway. We still play with our imaginary friends. I am still playing the same let’s pretend games and writing it onto paper and occasionally people buy them. So this idea of grown up – in some ways I was grown up because I was reading grown up books, but on the other hand I’ve stayed young all my life because I’ve still got that childish Peter Pan thing.
I do all the stuff that’s age appropriate. I pay the bills. I make sure I’m not overdrawn at the bank. I do the shopping. The kids always have clothes to wear. I do all the grown up things but I don’t feel grown up. I’m sure everybody feels that. We don’t think the generation before us felt that way but they did. They were having sex when they were underage, they were drinking, they were doing drugs, they were doing all of that and having a great time.
Every generation thinks that they invented everything and everyone older is obviously a fuddy-duddy who never had any fun and has nothing to add to the world. It’s a little trick we play, because of course we don’t want to die. Once you admit to the ageing process, the next thing is death. That’s what’s looming at you. But it could be looming at you when you’re 25 or 30, you just don’t know.
Since I was about 17 I’ve been thinking that I was going to die at any moment. I don’t know whether or not it’s to do with my mother dying when she was only 56. I would come home at the weekends from university and every time she’d be a little bit worse and a little bit worse. I shrank into writing, because it was a world in which you could play God and have complete control.
When my mum died, I went home to Cardenden, and my dad and I went down to Kircaldy to buy me a suit for the funeral. When I came out of the changing room my dad was checking the suit, tugging on the sleeves and adjusting my lapels.
There was never a lot of physical contact in my family. At all. My dad was never one to hug you. At that moment I did feel quite grown up. And when we went to the funeral, I remember as we were leaving, I put my arm around his back and again, that was the first time I’d ever done that. I’d never put my arm around my dad’s back until I was 19 and at my Mum’s funeral. That felt properly grown up.
Having kids yourself makes you think: what’s going to happen when I’m not here? Who’s going to look after them? Will they be well provided for? Are they going to be able to cope? You think that when your kids are very young, but I’m going to have that all my days because Kit, our youngest, isn’t able to look after himself and never will be. My wife Miranda and I went on holiday recently and we looked at each other and thought: if we died on this plane, what happens back in Edinburgh?
My accountant’s the guy who got me thinking like that a few years ago. He said you’ve really got to have guardianship issues sorted out, you need to make sure there’s a trust in place and that people know what you want to happen after your death. Most of us don’t have to think about that stuff in our 40s. But two things happened: these people started asking me questions and making me think about it, but at the same time, it was that I had the money that made it worth thinking about these things. That does make you feel your age, when you have those conversations.
I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the distinction between man and boy, because our eldest, Jack, turned 18 recently. He’s “officially” a man. He can go into pubs. He can vote. Though you can get married and join the army at 16! I don’t think hitting 18 makes you a man, nor does voting in your first election.
In other generations, and this is a gross generalisation, men became men when they went to war. When my dad was 17 or 18, he went off to India and the Far East. He worked in a grocer’s shop and suddenly they said, ‘You’re conscripted; here’s your gun, go and kill complete strangers.’
The people who came back from the war probably came back thinking of themselves as men. We live a cosseted existence now because even if there are wars, they’re not pulling us off the street and making us go fight them. We’ve got a generation where we fight wars all over the place but without that fear of the call up.
Sometimes when I go to the football it takes me right back to when I was a kid. I think that’s why men go to the football, because they remember their dad and granddad taking them. They get to be just like kids, singing the songs and clapping their hands and jumping up when a goal’s scored. Scottish men? They’re barely up dancing when there’s a wedding, but take them to a football match and they’re hugging complete strangers and punching the air and cheering and singing. Again, that’s not being manly, it’s being a child.
I still go watch Raith Rovers, the team I watched when I was 11 or 12. And I still have the same bloody pies. I walk the same route, buy the programme, and eat the same pie.
There’s definitely something in the Scots male, specifically, and maybe it’s the working class male, that is incredibly reserved and shy – not all of them, you go to Glasgow you can’t talk about shy – but clumsy and awkward in social situations, afraid they’ll do the wrong thing. Until you add alcohol, the secret ingredient! Then they come out of their shell. That playfulness is nice unless it descends into violence.
I think my mates would think of us as being in our twenties. I think my son Jack thinks I’m younger than him. I’ve got a more puerile sense of humour. I’ve got less interest in serious books. I think he thinks he’s already looking after me. Miranda – I’ve known her more than half my life – I think she probably thinks we’re the ages that we are. She’s properly grown up. She’s rational and thoughtful.
I’ve been lucky because I’ve not got a lot of the twinges and the aches, and not a lot of grey hair. Though it comes to a point when it isn’t seemly not to have grey hair – when the face looks old and the hair looks young. But the eyebrows are sprouting and the hair’s coming out of the ears and nose. It’s a tough gig in a man’s life when you go to the hairdresser and he says, ‘Shall I just trim your ears?’ You think, ‘I am turning into my dad.’
I think I will fight the dying process, but you can’t fight the ageing process. I’m not getting liposuction anytime soon. No botox. No hair dye. No wig. But people’s attitudes towards ageing are changing. People in their 50s used to be old a few generations back. The generation of Glen Miller, that’s old. If you’re in your 50s now you’re in the generation of T Rex. That can’t be old!