Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: On celebrating my 90th birthday, I’m struck by the ordinariness of life

Through the war, the swinging sixties and the technological revolution it is the nitty gritty of life that I remember
March 1, 2023

OK, so I’m 90. How did this happen?

I’ve never taken much notice of birthdays, but this one is difficult to avoid. Everyone keeps asking me how I am going to celebrate the “big one”. My daughters are threatening to organise a party. Trouble is, I hate parties. I have the sort of deafness that means in a crowded place I can’t hear a word anyone close to me is saying, especially when loud music is added to the mix—invariably the kind that, for the musical snob that I am, is a cacophony that sets my teeth on edge.

Standing for a long time in one place is demanding on old legs and feet, but if you manage to find a chair and sit down you are trapped in the company of only the people who choose to approach you, rather than circulating away from the bores and choosing who you want to talk to. The added problem is that I can’t remember anyone’s name and end up sounding like an affected actress calling everyone “darling”. When people discover that you can’t hear unless they shout, they start having a conversation with somebody else over your head, and you sit there feeling old and ignored. Or, worse still, they kneel down and address you like a small child. Then there is the food and drink—when balancing a plate and glass, how are you supposed to wield a fork? Or grab a passing canapé? 

Why is this 90th so important to my nearest and dearest? Are they suddenly reminded that I won’t be around much longer? Probably the last chance for a party before the wake, when they will talk about me rather than with me?

Several people have pointed out that they want to mark a life lived through an amazing epoch of drama and change. The war, the grey aftermath, the swinging 1960s, the technological revolution, an extraordinary 90 years of history.

But I haven’t noticed all that.

I have been getting on with the nitty-gritty of existence: getting a meal on the table; controlling potentially delinquent offspring; surviving illness, poverty, grief, failure; and cherishing cuddles, unexpected prosperity, love and picnics. Oh, that picnic on Brighton beach in the 1970s!

Sally Wainwright’s script for the sensational BBC series Happy Valley captured the stubborn ordinariness of life, even when circumstances seem horrific. The final confrontation between the policewoman heroine and her nemesis begins with what seems like an almost cosy chat full of pauses, repetitions and non-sequiturs, but underscored with profound rage and desperate humour. It ends with the shocking spectacle of the suicidal man setting himself alight, as our heroine tries to smother the flames engulfing him. We see her explaining to her sister through not tears but gasps and inarticulate squeaks of despair: “I think I might have singed one of your crocheted blankets.” 

Life is simultaneously horrific, funny, incomprehensible and glorious. Human beings just try to hang onto normality. The big world can do what it likes in the few years that I have left; it threatens to be pretty complex. I will do my best to help. But at the same time, I will enjoy the odd cup of tea and digestive biscuit.