Midlife crisis! Hell with that.

Leith on life

My midlife crisis
September 18, 2013

There’s a scene in the film When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan is weeping, hysterically, on a bed. She drove her last boyfriend away, she wails, “and I’m GOING TO BE 40!” Billy Crystal, all tender solicitousness, says: “When?” “Someday!” she says, barely able to speak. “In eight years!” he objects, baffled. “But it’s there... It’s just sitting there...”

Even by remembering this scene I am showing my age. But the thing is not the fact that I remember it, but how I remember it. Not long after seeing it, and finding it funny, I realised that I couldn’t recall which birthday it was that was causing her all that anguish. I knew it was either 30 or 40, but—to my then 16-year-old self—both were so remote that the difference between them was the order or precedence between a louse and a flea. Both were probably pretty distressing, I reckoned: once you’re over 25 you’re practically dead.

How time flies. On 1st January I’m going to turn 40 myself, and it occasions all sorts of bleak thoughts about time’s arrow. It means, for a start, that I will now officially never ever appear on one of those Granta Magazine Best of Young British Novelists lists. Not having published a novel—for a long time my chief disqualification—doesn’t actually rule you out, and nor does not having written a good one (latterly my chief disqualification), and nor does not being British, but over 40 you’re sunk. So there it is: another dream goes pff. It seems a particularly cruel blow coming as it does just a decade after the realisation that I will never go on a Club 18-30 holiday.

But much as one can maunder over doors closing, grumble about the steady deterioration of one’s looks, health, energy and social life, regret the henceforth accelerating programme of deaths and divorces of loved ones, the tightening noose, the dwindling available time to engage with the astonishing variety and possibility of the world, the books that will be unread and languages unlearnt, the space travel unindulged in and curiosities unsatisfied... Much as one can maunder over all that, nevertheless there is a case for getting over oneself. Forty, even as recently as When Harry Met Sally, used to mean middle-aged. It was midlife crisis time. Death was getting just near enough—you could see the tip of the scythe peeking out from the walk-in-wardrobe at night, and hear that terrible quiet cough he has once the light was off—that it drove people a bit mad. Lord: imagine what it did in the Middle Ages. Turn 40, and you’d be a miracle of nature: the children in the village would gather around and touch your goitres in the hopes of being healed.

But now, what with the wonders of medical science, I’ll probably make it into three figures despite my foul habits and refusal to exercise, so I’m not sure I’m entitled to feel sorry for myself. Having said that, those foul habits and refusal to exercise do mean that I am more or less guaranteed to spend the last 30 years of my long life receiving very expensive medical care and indulging in what Larkin called “thin, continuous dreaming” (about Club 18-30 holidays, most likely).

It’s that care that my children in particular and my children’s generation in general will be paying for—once they’ve finished paying off the debts we raised for them to prop up the financial system we wrecked, their student loans, the rent on their stratospherically expensive lodgings because we didn’t build any houses because we were enjoying the property bubble, and all the rest of it.

Midlife crisis? Hell with that. It’s not 40-year-olds but four-year-olds that need to feel woe. But they don’t know that yet. I’ll tell my daughter: “You’re going to be 40.” “When?” she’ll ask. “Someday!” I’ll say. And I’ll be the one rolling on the bed hysterical with sadness.