Signs of age

“Simon, that’s a nice name.”

The young lady sitting next to me on the plane from Geneva was charming. She asked where I lived, where I was from, if I had had a good time in Switzerland. Her English was impeccable. She told me that she currently lived in China, had spent some time in Tibet, but would soon be returning to Switzerland. Not only was she fluent in French and English, but she could also speak Chinese. Her name was Lydie. I asked her to spell it for me. Emboldened, I asked her age.

“If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?”

She smiled and told me that she would soon be ten.

When I was nine I used to catch tadpoles with my friend Hamish Symington in Steeple Modern. The world, to my mind, was flat and extended no further than Cambridge, fourteen miles away. French was something I would do at school next year (and would subsequently become a source of mystery, misery and inadequacy for years thereafter). China was something that lived in the crockery cupboard and was, I found to my cost moments after discovering it to be breakable, capable of making my mother mad. Adults were on a different planet. I could no more hold a coherent conversation with a grown-up in English, let alone a second language, than Hamish Symington and myself could ever hope to impress a sophisticate such as Lydie. Even with our tadpoles. Or our Hot Wheels collection.

Lydie made me feel old. Here was someone who could speak three times as many languages as me, was considerably more worldly and yet who was a good thirty-five years my junior.

One of my friends on my Boy’s Skiing Weekend had been adamant on our first day that he wasn’t middle-aged. “Not middle-aged”, was how he classified himself.

Later that morning he crocked his back getting out of a car. Not only could he not ski, but he couldn’t move at all. Only through supreme willpower did he manage to haul himself into the bathroom. (The unpalatable alternative of having to request a helping hand from one of the Boys imbued him with an extraordinary degree of lavatorial self-determination).

The next evening, when we were out, he lost the house keys. Confronted with the prospect of being stuck outside all night in a remote Swiss village five thousand feet above sea level tested tolerance to the limit for our ‘not middle-aged’ friend and his diminishing faculties. We tracked down and woke the cleaner in the early hours of the morning to borrow her set of keys. Only when we were safely back home did our ‘not middle aged’ friend find the key, a good two hours after ‘losing’ it. It was in a pocket he never knew he had. (North Face need to design simpler jackets with fewer pockets so as not to confuse the elderly).

By dawn of the third day he admitted he was, in fact, middle-aged.

The evidence was overwhelming.

Like my friend, America is similarly getting older. Boyish good looks are beginning to take on a more mature complexion and both are beginning to find grey hairs.

I’m no cultural anthropologist, but whenever I drive through the outskirts of town, careful to avoid getting swallowed up by the not insubstantial potholes in highways that were once the pride and joy of a nation on the move, I can’t help but notice the peeling paint and cracks in ageing buildings that fifty years ago expressed a confident reality of the American dream.

While the City Centres still have the sheen of the most powerful nation in the world with their glossy glass-plated skyscrapers, it’s all beginning to look a little tired around the edges.

Even the American skyscraper is no longest the biggest in the locker room of the world.

Chicago, ever the innovator, boasted the world’s first ever skyscraper in 1885. And thereafter, America’s pre-eminence on the global stage was symbolised by its tall buildings. One hundred and thirteen years later, at the tail end of the twentieth century, the crown moved East when the Malaysians built a building taller even than Chicago’s Sears Tower. And now America is resigned to no longer being the biggest.

There’s an echo of the beautiful medieval Tuscan town San Gimignano where, in the thirteenth century, each of the wealthy families tried to outdo the other by building a higher tower. The thirteen remaining towers, of the seventy-two built, bear witness to the vanity and worldliness of its citizens in the Middle Ages. But their glory was short-lived as they succumbed first to Florentine power and then the Black Death.

The searing images of the Twin Towers in their last throes could, in time, become less the grotesque artwork of a terrorist’s hand than herald the beginning of the end of America’s short reign as the World’s Greatest Nation.

Perhaps this is why 46% of Americans now believe the country’s best days have already come and gone, for the first time ever more than think they’re still to come. The optimists are growing pessimistic.

Fifty years ago today it was all so different. 1957 was, according to Gallup, America’s happiest year. Flush with the success of having just saved the world, they enjoyed unrivalled prosperity and the future looked bright. Free love was just around the corner; young Americans were all shook up to the beat of Jailhouse Rock; the cowboys had only just started smoking the Marlboro cigarettes that would turn them into global icons; nine out of every ten homes could chill their beer in a sparkly new refrigerator, sparing them from the warm beer so inexplicably beloved by the Brits; Civil Rights was becoming an issue; George Bush was an unknown eleven year old; Jack Kerouac, along with the rest of the country, was on the road; and Americans were the good guys of the Cold War.

It was America’s golden age.

Fifty years later free love is unsafe; Elvis became bloated and now lives only through impersonation; the Marlboro cowboys have died of cancer; alcohol has become a sin; Civil Rights has grown up to become political correctness; George Bush is in a position of influence; the automobile industry is falling apart along with the roads; and the rest of the world doesn’t love or admire America in the way it used to.

No wonder they’re feeling depressed.

Casual disinterest in the rest of the world has been replaced by a patriarchal sense of global responsibility; fear has taken the place of hope in the national psyche; the innate conservatism previously obscured by the country’s youthful exuberance has come more and more to the fore, and there seems to be a sense of resignation that world domination may only be a fleeting state of affairs.

Like my friend, America may protest that it’s “not middle aged”, but, also like my friend, it knows it really it is.

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