The year it all went wrong. 1967.
I was eight years old and, heavily influenced by my parents’ choice in music, a fan of The Beatles. The first movie I ever saw was Help! in 1965. I queued for what seemed like hours outside the Odeon cinema in Newport, South Wales. How I yearned for a box of Fruit Gums among the treasure trove of sweets being sold in the foyer, never realizing that such things were luxuries my parents could ill afford.
And oh, the glamor of those red velvet curtains in the movie theater, closing and opening – apparently, I learned later in life, to show the audience that they were working and not a fire hazard (I have no idea if this is true). I remember fearing for Ringo and a ring he had that I seem to recall held poison. I may have imagined that because, with my active imagination, I saw poison even where there was sugar.
We sat through the movie a second time, as you could back then. It might even have been three.
Then, the magic evaporated. In May 1967, The Beatles released a song that, looking back, might well have been the first musical influence that gave me intimations of mortality.
When I’m Sixty-Four. What was all that about? Growing old. Losing your hair. Knitting. Gardening. Worst of all – ‘wasting away’. Suddenly, the band’s world was one I didn’t recognize and never wanted to. Was it really possible that anyone could be that old? Wasn’t I going to stay young forever? Clearly not, and I started to feel fearful of the horrors that might await me, 58 years on.
Tomorrow, I will find out. Sixty-four years ago, at 7.25am (GMT), I entered the world at Glossop Maternity Home in Splott, Cardiff, South Wales. November 5th is the day Brits celebrate Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up the Houses of Parliament (the Gunpowder Plot) in 1605, and the country celebrates by setting off fireworks, usually at bonfire night parties. I hated fireworks as a child and still do. You develop something of an aversion to them when all you get as presents from your party guests every birthday are explosives.
Thankfully, my world at 64 is very different from the one John Lennon and Paul McCartney portrayed in their song. And how different for `Lennon from the one he imagined. Murdered aged 40, he didn’t even get remotely close to 64.
Let’s look at the lyrics. The first line: ‘When I get older, losing my hair.’ For starters, I’m not losing my hair. Yes, it’s thinning out a little because I’m a post-menopausal woman – and no, I’m not, like a lot of other women my age, going to bang on about that. I was one of the lucky ones, who pretty much sailed through the menopause, and my flashes were no different from nights when I got a bit sweaty after drinking too much.
‘Will you still be sending me a Valentine?’ Well, no partner to do that, and the last card I had was in 1974. No worries there. With advances in technology, I wouldn’t even know how to open an envelope now.
‘Birthday greetings bottle of wine’ – yes, I’ll be celebrating with wonderful friends, as I do every year. My 60thbirthday was the happiest day of my life, filled with love and laughter and surrounded by family and many friends of decades’ long standing – in one case of a university friend, of over 40 years who had been at my 20th birthday.
‘If I’d been out till quarter to three’ – seriously? Why go home so early? I’m invariably the last person standing on every night out and luckily, I don’t have anyone waiting on the other side of my front door to lock it when I stumble home. The song is about reflecting on growing older with another person of course and, as a single woman who has never lived with anyone and never been married, I’ve never had to ask anyone’s permission to do anything. So, ‘Will you still feed me?’ I can feed myself, thanks.
Now, let’s get to those post-64 activities. ‘Mending a fuse’ – yes, I can change a fuse and do all manner of things practical. As the daughter of a mechanical engineer, I am also blessed to have inherited my father’s fascination with technology.
No, I will not be watching someone ‘knit a sweater by the fireside’, nor will I be doing that myself. I hate knitting. Go to Macy’s. They’ll have one of their ‘rare’ 365 days a year sweater sales on.
As for Sunday morning and going ‘for a ride’ – only if it’s to the pub. And ‘Doing the garden, digging the weeds’? There are people for that sort of thing. There are also things called supermarkets where they bag things up for you and you never need touch a trowel as long as you live.
Every summer ‘we can rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight.’ Let’s say this simply. Not gonna happen. Especially if you have to ‘scrimp and save’ to do it. Give me Virgin Upper Class to New York anytime.
Obviously, I won’t be having grandchildren on my knee, either – and if I did, they certainly wouldn’t be called ‘Vera, Chuck and Dave.’ People often ask me if I regret not having had children and I’ve even been called selfish for not having had them. Well, not as selfish as the people who have them and then neglect or abuse them. I am also incredibly close to my friends’ children and take great joy in seeing them make their way in the world.
The song ends with the refrain, requesting a response from the unnamed recipient: ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me/When I’m sixty-four?’
So, on the eve of my momentous birthday, where am I? Certainly a long way from ‘wasting away’. Physically, I am sitting in my Manhattan apartment, 31 floors up, looking out at a beautiful sunset over the Hudson. If you had told that eight-year-old me that this is where I would be at 64, I wouldn’t have understood the concept, let alone been able to picture the reality. I am now in my ninth year in NYC, after moving from LA, where I landed in 2008 and fell in love with America.
Yes, it has its problems, as all countries do, but there is a surfeit of everything that is great in life – breathtakingly talented people, kind souls, incredible food, great and varied art and culture. And, in New York City, resilience. It’s not really the city that never sleeps (closing down 4am to 6am makes it pretty dozy to me), but the city that never gives up. It’s the Phoenix that always rises from the ashes (that have been literal as well as metaphorical), no matter what you throw at it – and it comes back even stronger.
I am lucky to enjoy pretty good health and, despite having lost six close friends to illness in a very short space of time, I am grateful to have had them in my life and shared so much, good and bad. Both my parents are dead and I think of them every day and will always be grateful for my happy childhood, their love and support, and for giving me a strong work ethic that enabled me to strive professionally.
And yes, I have my work. I am lucky to have been born a writer and I knew it’s what I was from a very early age – the second I first held a crayon and wrote my first words. There have been considerable bumps along the way, I have lost jobs during recessions, endured many financial woes, and had issues with depression and anxiety all my life.
But I keep going – because I love my work with a passion. I am also incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to work with and for the cleverest and funniest people on the planet. On my refrigerator is a sign that says: ‘Choose a job that you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.’ I have never had to work a day in my life.
My emotional and mental survival throughout the tough times would not have been possible without my family and friends. I am, and always have been, very close to my brother Nigel and sister-in-law, Kim. I have aunts, uncles and cousins on both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family, and I have loyal, incredible friends with whom I have shared so much laughter and life experience.
Sixty-four also looks a lot different today from how it did when my mother was that age (Dad died at 60). She was very inactive, never exercised and, although successful in her job as a play therapist (not having gone to university until the age of 50), she always seemed to be winding down at some primeval, emotional level – but then she’d been doing that since she hit 40, a birthday she loathed.
She hated growing old, and every day lived in fear of what it might bring. As women, in particular, we are fortunate to have been given so many opportunities denied our predecessors.
Yes, the world is a troubled place, but there is still so much in which we can rejoice, and if you’re still breathing, that’s already a blessing.
Of course, I might feel differently tomorrow.
When I’m 64.