Five thoughts on getting to 57
I am in a couple of hours 57 years old. My rather elderly (aged 40) mother gave birth, old-style, in Much Wenlock Cottage Hospital on 1 January 1955...with a midwife and the local GP, who (as he and Mum always used to joke, for years after) only got there when everything was more or less over. (This isn't just self obsession -- it's a story I heard repeated at the said GP's Xmas party for years and years in my childhood and adolescence... with greater or lesser shades of embarrassment, on my part)
So my birthday has always been (for me) a New Year occasion. And always bound up with New Year's Eve... everybody is pissed and enjoying the 'rite of passage' and at some point after midnight I nerve myself to say (or not to say) "and..errr.. excuse me..it's my birthday.
Anyway, at 57, happily and very very gratefully married for more than quarter of a century .. five thoughts on birthdays as you get old(er).
1) Bloody lucky (version 1). I am still alive, 57 years on. I've survived 2 children and various bits of medical intervention (including a benign breast lump/aka clot of milk, when I was breast feeding, and that seemed like imminent death at the time). Most of the people I work on (the Romans) were dead or dying by their late 50s. So thank the Lord, and modern medicine.
2) Bloody lucky (version 2). By immense good fortune, things have gone really well for me in the last few years, and I've done stuff that my Mum and Dad would never have dreamed of, though would have loved. Some of the little triumphs seem a bit silly. But I am really chuffed that I've been on Desert Island Discs, and Any Questions; and I've written books that colleagues have liked, as well as the "general public" .. I even got a book prize. And I now get offered more books to review, or radio programmes to make, than I could ever do (OK,in the great order of things, not a key indicator...not a big deal maybe, but when I think back 20 years, I would have felt it a huge success when anyone asked me to do anything like that.)
And let me say to any young female academic with a brood of kids, who thinks her career is going down the tubes..so was mine (as several of my more waspish male colleagues enjoyed saying) back then, a couple of decades ago...I hadn't written enough stuff; I had too few outcomes; and in fact people talked about the "tragedy" of my career. But stick in there; keep your name on the map; and dont let the buggers get you down. Don't, don't give up. And accept that offer to review a book...
3) Anxious. Well anyone my age is anxious about what happens next. One of my best mates said to me when he turned 60 that the bad thing was that after 60, any illness might be your last. And indeed it was almost true for him. He died almost a decade ago. So, lets face it, each visit to the doctor is more loaded now.
But I'm also interested in 'the media'. So far, with only a very few exceptions, they have been very kind to me. I have blathered on about the ancient world, and worse, and the critics haven't said 'oh for f....s sake, shut up'. But who knows what next? (I am just making a mini-series for BBC 2 that I hope you all like; but I'm on tenterhooks, honestly.)
4) Memories. When I was a little kid and asked what happened when you died, my Mum alway came out with the old cliché about 'living in people's memories'. It wasn't nearly good enough at the time, but I begin to see what she meant. For me, as for most of us I imagine, memory is a bigger and bigger thing, even in the fleeting, just-a-nod-to-it, sense. And that includes all kinds of stuff from school room trauma to long past, ancient passions -- in a way I would never have expected.
I still vividly recall all those unlikely and memorable sites of serious adolescent love with unserious (or wholly unsuitable) partners.. from Hawkestone Park to Rose Cottage, Ironbridge or the in-your-face rhododendrons at Attingham. Every day I find those guys,and those places, come through my head -- as my dead parents do, usually in a nicely teasing way. (I guess it never stops... years ago I reviewed a biography of Naomi Mitchison, and I called attention, with a degree of disbelief, to the moment when she made love to Wade-Gery in a snow storm outside Oxford; she sent me a card, aged 80 something, to say that it really was snowing that day.)
5) Humility. Obvious really...but when things are going well, just remember how different it might be, how easily.
And this I guess is the time to say that we plan another 'don's life book'. picking up where the last left off. Hope you'll all be on board, As I've said before, the commenters make this blog. Thanks everyone, and good luck for next year.