“Age is only a number,” people keep telling me – usually people who are forty years younger than I am.
“Well,” I tell them, “mine is a bloody big fat number, and I’d sooner it was a much smaller one.”
Ten years smaller would do nicely.
To put this into context, this past weekend I celebrated my 75th birthday (yes, very nice indeed, thank you). It means, as my still acute mathematical faculty has been able to work out, that I have been on the planet for three quarters of a century. That qualifies as a span of history.
Most schools have given up teaching history these days, of course, so the fact that I was born in the middle of the war will mean nothing to many people under forty, as I have discovered. “Which war was that?” I was recently asked. “The War of the Roses,” I replied. “Oh, who was that between?” was the rejoinder.
Just for the record – and largely for the benefit of those adolescents who think the modern world began with the Rolling Stones and that the mobile telephone was invented by someone called Michelangelo – the war in the middle of which I was born was the Second World War. This was fought between, on one side, the Allies – principally the United States, Britain (as we were then called), Canada and France – and on the other side the so-called Axis powers – principally Germany, Italy and Japan.
The Allies won, by the way, which is why I did not begin this piece with ‘Guten Morgen’, wie geht es dir.” And now, we are all good friends.
The day of my birth – judging by the front pages of contemporary newspapers – was relatively uneventful. But the year, 1942, was emphatically not. It hosted, in turn, the Battle of Midway; the start of the encirclement of two German armies at Stalingrad; and the British victory in North Africa over the German Afrika Korps in a battle we have come to call el Alamein. Not, from the Allied perspective, a bad haul for one year, but from the German point of view, a disastrous one. It marked the beginning of the end for Hitler and for Tojo. (Readers unfamiliar with all these names will have to look them up, or I’ll be here all night.)
Churchill regarded the result more cautiously. “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
And of mine, as it happened.
Much has changed in the world since then – some of it, for people of my generation, almost hard to believe. Germany, with the fall of the Nazis, became a model democracy; as did Japan, once their own war criminals were disposed of. Communism fell – unless one still considers China to be a Communist country. The doctrine of Apartheid – literally separateness – in which the black citizens of South Africa were relegated, sometimes by force, to serfdom by white supremacists, was eliminated – almost overnight, it seems now. America for the first time in its history lost a war – in Vietnam, in case anyone has forgotten (and some Americans have). Britain, virtually bankrupt after WW2 (as we now know it) lost an Empire, also in short order.
Economically the industrial countries of the western world – and now more than a few in the eastern part – have grown affluent beyond the wildest dreams of its inhabitants. I grew up in houses with no heating other than an open fire in one room; no washer, drier or refrigerator; no television; no car; and (horror of horrors!) no telephone.
My father would scarcely recognise the world of today, and he died only thirty years ago. His father would think he had walked onto the set of a science fiction film. Actually, he would be so bewildered that he would not know what to think. I am a little bewildered myself from time to time. (I would, not so many years ago, have produced this piece on a typewriter, and sent you a copy by post.)
The technology of communication is wondrous. Whether it is working for the greater good of humanity or reducing the human brain to mush remains to be seen. Sages predicted that it would bring the world together, and end wars. So far it has done neither. There is still time.
As for me, I have had great fun, and I hope done more good deeds than bad. Either way, I subscribe to the (unattributed) maxim: “Never complain, never explain”. I remain optimistic (still hoping, for a start, that medical science will come up with a cure for whatever it is that is preparing to kill me) even in the face of a thousand reasons not to be.
My wife threw me a fabulous party last weekend as she has done on every important anniversary of our life together. I look forward to the next one.
And so, it’s on to the 80th. I was going to say, ‘I can’t wait’. Actually I can.
On, then, to the 76th.