Does everyone else of my age repeatedly get quizzed on how it feels to grow old? That’s my experience, unless I’m imagining things. “Grandpa, what’s it like to be eighty-seven?” Some things the little darlings can perfectly well see for themselves; they know that I tend to wobble just a trifle as I walk; they realise that now and again I have to hunt for a word, or ask them to pick up something from the floor, so that I don’t have to bend down. Actually, I myself am repeatedly surprised at how little the process of living life seems to have changed me over the years. In plenty of matters, I still think and act and enjoy things much the same as I did when I was thirty. I really don’t dwell on what is supposed to be my decline. And yet…
One change that I do ponder on is when it comes to distinguishing between those things that I absolutely need to do, and the lesser things that are just not worthwhile. I can draw a line between the two as well as ever I did; the only new thing is that nowadays I am faced with an intermediate group, comprising the things that do need doing, but with which I simply cannot be bothered. There you have it. What is bothersomeness? Have I, in my latter years, actually developed an ability to define necessity more precisely, or am I merely advancing an excuse for downright laziness?
I ran into the issue quite acutely the other afternoon when I was watching TV from a comfortable armchair. The channel to which the thing was tuned had spent half the afternoon showing its audience how cleverly some people contrive to slide on skis down slippery slopes and then go on to glide bird-like through the air until they land on other slopes far below. Clever it is, I have no doubt, and maybe graceful as well, but when three such skiers have flown past the camera I am satisfied; I have seen enough; I do not need to know which of them has performed best or why or how. I merely thank the heavens that I have never been expected to engage in such antics myself, and I am sure that I do not need to see any more of them for the moment. But only minutes later, the same TV channel demands my attention for a world speed chess championship. Here I am a little less clueless, for thirty years ago I myself did indeed play chess, relishing particularly those long intervals when one could meditate at ease on one’s next few moves. But here on TV there are no such moments for contemplation; one sees only champions challenging other champions at breakneck speed, moving the pieces around twenty times faster than I ever thought to do myself. Even on the screen I cannot keep up with it; indeed, I cannot even be bothered to try. Nor, for that matter, can I be bothered to rise from my armchair, hunt for the remote, and switch the thing off.
That is how many a day goes by, whatever I may be doing. Take books: years ago, I read the first half of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. People have told me what happens in the book after that, so need I ever read the rest of it? And, having once been to the Last Night of the Proms, and heard the whole audience bawling out “Jerusalem”, need I really go to another and hear them do it all over again? Such experiences I have set aside without any sense of regret.
All the same, I am beginning to worry just a little about how life will be if more things become too bothersome to tackle. Here and there, people will no doubt prod me into action – the taxman is particularly good at that. But what if, in the absence of prodding, I reach a point in my life at which I can no longer be bothered to take a bath, or to eat, or even to get out of bed in the morning? Ultimately, I suppose, they will simply have to put up a tombstone for me, and call in old Ephraim the stonemason to engrave my epitaph. “He could no longer be bothered” would seem about right. Provided that Ephraim, who is at least my age, can be bothered to hammer it all out, I suppose.
Illustration: “You are old, Father William,” the young man said…”
Father William balances an eel on his nose, Sir John Tenniel, 1865