Belfast Telegraph

Why there is still a country for old men

The Rolling Stones played Glastonbury well into their bus pass years, and still weren't the oldest act. Paul Hopkins salutes the legends who continue to rage against the dying of the light.


Youth ends at 35 and old age begins at 58. In between -- all 23 years -- is your middle age. That's what the average person on these islands believes, according to a recent study from the University of Kent.

The news that 58 is 'over the hill' may come as a surprise to those of you who have passed the milestone and feel you are not, by any stretch, in the twilight of your life. I have, hopefully unnoticed, edged past that milestone, but feel anything but old. In my mind I'm about 17.

The finding that society regards people in their 50s as getting doddery, despite the evidence that older people are living more active lives than ever -- what an inspiration we have in Bruce Forsyth at 85 -- was revealed by the academics at Kent who surveyed 4,000 people.

We live in a time preoccupied with youth, with attempting to stay forever young with pills and potions -- ergo the pathetic plight of the great Michael Jackson.

Yet, there is wonderful character in a face of lines, provided the person of that countenance is at ease with the inevitability of ageing. The stories such lines could tell. Why can't we be proud of such lines that tell our life's history? Be proud that our face is a reflection of our life?

At a time when we are living longer, and the provision of pensions is in doubt, this 'country for old men' has significant implications in terms of welfare.

But, one could easily argue, growing old and living longer also has implications for art, literature, film, theatre and music.

Who shall we follow into this new country of the old?

Certainly not Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, given the furore over their headline gig at Glastonbury.

Said an acquaintance of mine who attended: "General feeling seems to be it was an okay performance ... but sad to see they are a shadow of what they were."

Another said: "Jagger was out of key for the majority of songs, Keith Richards looked like he was dead behind the eyes and has seriously lost his talent."

So, to repeat -- if not the Stones, who shall we follow into this new country of the old?

Philip Roth (born 1933) is a case in point. The enfant terrible of American fiction shocked the reading world 40 years ago with Portnoy's Complaint.

Its comedy took off from the previously unmentionable fact that young men find themselves alone and solitary an awful lot more often than they get the girl.

Forty years on, in the aptly-titled Exit Ghost, the last of Roth's Nathan Zuckerman novels, the hero-narrator has a prostatectomy go wrong.

Paradoxically (like TS Eliot's withered, sexless Tiresias in The Waste Land) this empowers him with a clearer comprehension of the human condition. The circle of life is complete in Roth's late-life fiction, with even the laughs coming fewer.

Do artists get better with age? It's not necessarily always the case. You could easily take 30 years off Wordsworth's late, largely listless, life and give it to Keats. John Lennon was creatively washed-up before he was shot dead in New York City.

Some artists, such as Beethoven, with his late quartets, may need many years to arrive at their creative best, but Miles Davis should never have gone beyond Kind Of Blue with all that late-life navel-gazing.

For some, talent is spent early. Poetry, as he admitted himself, had given up on Philip Larkin in his 50s. Another 10 years beyond the 63 he was granted would have been wasted. Those years could have served Keats well -- or Sylvia Plath. Older actors can portray age convincingly. Robert De Niro (born 1943) was much more engaging as the evil old Bill Sullivan in The Good Shepherd than as the young, but cosmetically made older, Noodles Aaronson in Once Upon A Time In America.

Whether Gran Torino is a better movie than A Fistful Of Dollars is debatable but Clint Eastwood, its director-star, was not afraid to look what he is, now in his 81st year and not about to make any one's day. It is also the first Eastwood film in which the star dies.

Leonard Cohen, at 79, is still doing world tours, Dylan at 70 released his 33rd album last year with a plaintive 15 minute ode to the Titanic.

Van Morrison has never sounded better, his album of last year -- Born To Sing: No Plan B -- his best, I would contend, since Astral Weeks. And after his daft dalliance with American torch songs, Rod Stewart is back on form with his latest offering -- his best in decades.

Where an artist of mature years comes into his or her own is what Henry James called 'the distinguished thing'.

When, in The Tempest, Prospero breaks his staff and goes off to live in a cave, his every other thought, he says, will be of death.

As the 95-year-old Diana Athill, the British literary agent who worked closely with Roth -- and our own Brian Moore -- puts it in her memoir, Somewhere Towards The End, life and its various artistic interpretations only really make sense when you are somewhere towards the end.

Yeats wrote, 'That is no country for old men' in Sailing To Byzantium. It was popularised by the movie that ran off with the 2008 Oscars. It is never easy to know what directors the Coen Brothers are getting at. Nor precisely what Cormac McCarthy (born 1933) meant in his 2005 novel.

But it's pretty plain what the 63-year-old Yeats meant. The old must leave sex and frivolity and youth to those who do it best, and instead embrace art. It's all they have, the only way that they can hold back the years. Otherwise, "An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick".

Some, like the Daily Mail, might argue that Mick Jagger and the boys would do well to heed Yeats.

There is a lot of debate about whether working people should retire at 65. For me it would be a far less wondrous world if writers, singers, film-makers, musicians and artists were to do so.

The Rolling Stones included.


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