One week on, I’m still processing that extraordinary performance by Sir Paul McCartney at Glastonbury. An 80-year-old man on stage for almost three hours. Playing the guitar and piano. Singing live. Joking with the audience and regaling them with anecdotes from the last century. Still recognisably McCartney.
When he and John Lennon started writing together in Liverpool in the late Fifties, Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister and man hadn’t been to the Moon.
The Glastonbury show was history and genius rolled into one, but it was also about the energy Macca brought to the occasion. To those who ignore and ridicule older people, this was a striking reminder of the contribution they can make.
Yes, his voice was huskier and occasionally wavered, but that only added to the authenticity of the epic moment when he became the festival’s oldest solo headliner.
This was never going to be a cosy exercise in nostalgia, with Sir Paul running through a short medley of hummable tunes. Instead, we witnessed yet another high point of a vital and still creatively exciting artist.
It’s important to note this, because we live in a shockingly ageist culture that routinely renders people invisible long before they collect their pension. Young women dread being ‘old’ so much they have Botox while teenagers. Yet as never before, we are seeing more evidence of those in advanced — even greatly advanced — age carrying on as they did when they were 25.
Also on Saturday night in London’s Hyde Park, Sir Mick Jagger (78) was still running around like the Mick Jagger of legend — the manic essence of rock ‘n’ roll cool.
Of course, not all older people are as blessed with good health as Sir Paul and Sir Mick. Nor need they be, either, in order to deserve our respect, fair treatment and civic protection. But this pair are proof that enjoying longevity, fitness and mobility can be a bit of a lottery.
If Sir Paul is enjoying the dividends of a healthy lifestyle — back when it was considered freakish, he was extolling the benefits of vegetarianism, as well as espousing the joys of simple family life — then Sir Mick is a walking advertisement for wild parties, decadence and dedicated womanising. Only in 2019 had he surgery to replace an aortic valve.
Who knows why some fare better and bounce back stronger as the years pile on? Genes play a part, as does being able to pay for excellent health care. But it’s clear there’s something else: attitude.
Sir Paul and Sir Mick have refused to be shunted into the sidings of old age. Despite vast riches, retirement is not for them. Making music is their raison d’etre. It gives them focus, purpose, identity.
Not content to live on past glories, they embody the spirit of that old saying, “Life is where I am, not someplace else”.
This determination to keep going is also evident in other high-profile individuals who don’t enjoy the same physical robustness.
It’s been terrific to see the Queen and Pope Francis out and about despite their mobility issues.
The 96-year-old monarch stood with the aid of a stick on the balcony at the Jubilee celebrations and used one again in Scotland this week.
The Pontiff (85) has been using a wheelchair and cane as the simple tools they are for months.
Pope Francis said that he “had to obey the doctor who told me not to walk”. Apparently, Her Majesty resisted getting a stick for some time, unhappy about being seen in public with one.
Such reticence is natural and ties in with many people’s fears of being branded ‘past it’ at the first sign of infirmity.
And who could blame the Queen and the Pope for having qualms given the media speculation that both might be about to step down?
Anyone with ageing relatives will know well the battle to get them to abandon their kamikaze routines, which is why Her Majesty and Pope Francis are important role models in changing perceptions.
Lack of mobility is not a decisive issue in personality, drive, authority or energy. Indeed, the Pope let it be known that he had requested a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and was ready to travel to Moscow.
But, sadly, the pandemic prompted many to view the elderly as weak, an encumbrance and a liability.
If Covid-19 showed us the very best of the human spirit, it also exposed the callousness of those who refused to wear a mask even if it made the vulnerable feel safer.
Discharging thousands of untested patients into care homes, where many died, showed how little value was attached to lives just because they were older, less robust.
I spend a lot of time talking to older people. They’re among the best conversations I have — bracing, irreverent, wise. There’s the endless sage advice handed down in ancient riddles, such as, “I never sold my ducks on a rainy day”. They have that rare lexicon with its back-handed compliments — when a relative found the tiny dropped back of an ear-ring, he was hailed for having “the eyes of a travelling rat”.
There are so many life lessons from these survivors. Like how few things are the end of the world, really, and that you can always have another go.
Being feisty helps. My mother is particularly combative after watching Loose Women, or “Loose Ladies” as she calls it. But then, there on the TV screen is Gloria Hunniford, back on air at 82 after a bad fall. Keeping going. Enjoying life. Staying engaged.
And then there’s the stoicism. My late father, marooned in a hospital bed under a phalanx of wires, would declare, one eye on the ward door: “I think we’re over the hump. I’ll get home tomorrow.”
The old Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero tackled our modern ageism millennia ago with typical directness.
“My old age not only is not burdensome,” he said, “but is even happy. No one is so old he does not think he could live another year.”
He knew that the old, in the end — if we are lucky — are ourselves.