My most vivid memory of my father’s parents, aside from their inability to eat spaghetti bolognaise, is the incessant tick-tock of the grandfather clock that echoed through their Whitechapel flat. I loved boasting to Grandpa Daniel and Granny Minnie that I could count up to a gazillion tick-tocks, but always got bored before 30.
That antique timepiece in that long-demolished high rise on Jubilee Street came to mind this week as I turned one billion, five hundred million tick-tocks old. Also known as 50 (just short of a gazillion).
You don’t notice the accumulating tick-tocks. Then one day, like Tesco Club Card points, you have enough for a bottle of cava and a cheesecake to celebrate a landmark birthday.
Bemoaning lost youth is a cliché so I’m going the other way and embracing being a man of a certain age — a hip young gunslinger of the 50-to-69 questionnaire age range. I’m proud of the ‘uugh’ noise I make when sitting down, as if I’m doing some sort of exercise, and refuse to be shamed by my sudden penchant for women in pantsuits (such a pity about that nice Hillary Clinton).
I’ve also found patience. The kids recently broke my favourite swivel chair. Time was I’d have chucked it and got a new one. Not ‘Richard Version 50′. He called the manufacturer and spoke to a lovely lady called Roxanne who sent him four replacement screws in the post. Yesterday ‘Richard V50’ was back swivelling to his heart’s content while watching a documentary about trains with that nice Michael Portillo, before dozing off midway through. Age ain’t nothing but a slumber.
It’s a privilege to be afforded my 50s. I’m looking forward to seeing over the horizon into my 60, 70s and, who knows, if I ration the pistachios and pinot noir, maybe even a telegram from King William.
Those closest to me, however, don’t seem to be taking it as well. My wife is “mildly freaked out” to be married to a 50-year-old. “Well not freaked out as such, darling, but 50. I mean, 50! It makes me feel like I’m married to a professor. And no, I’m not buying a pantsuit!”
Dad’s also having a bit of a wobble at the thought of a 50-year-old son. My Sunday morning phone calls to ask if he wants bagels turn into Ted Talks on the meaning of life.
I was on the phone to him last Sunday when he told me to focus on what I think of myself rather than what others think of me. I replied that others had a low opinion of me as I was holding up the queue in Platters, to which Alan Ferrer, Finchley’s great philosopher, earnestly replied: “Son…” (He’s taken to calling me ‘son’)… “Half-a-dozen poppy seed and a tub of chopped liver.”
For a birthday present, he and mum bought me a copy of The Times from the day I was born, Wednesday 23 September 1970. There was a fascinating piece on how greengrocers are under threat from new-fangled hyper markets (“A shopping revolution has been set in motion. My guess is that most women will like it.”) and news that former Wimbledon tennis champion Roy Emerson had been beaten by “unrated 18-year-old university freshman James Connors”.
The day’s lead letter was by Labour MP for Leicester North West, Greville Janner, writing to complain about media coverage of Israel (Plus ça change). But what struck me most were the job ads. “Reckitt & Colman’s international pharmaceutical division is looking for three marketing men”. “British Rail is hiring two senior marketing men”. “A career in advertising awaits to the right men between the ages of 22 and 32.” Women’s appointments had its own sub-section, where roles ranged from secretary to personal secretary to secretarial assistant.
Society has changed so much in the course of one billion, five hundred million tick-tocks, but the values that give society its meaning and purpose – love, friendship and a sense of community – remain a constant. Today, in a society riven by a deadly pandemic and bitter public discourse, we’d do well to remember that the tick is nothing without the tock.