Refine Your Search

Falstaff vs Smokey Robinson: turning sixty during lockdown


10 Minute Read

Nick Coleman is newly 60, and an author who used to be a music critic at Time Out and the Independent. 

I turned sixty in April, at a relatively early stage of the coronavirus lockdown. The day dawned for me, as it does nearly every morning, with the sound of a north-east-London blackbird giving it some in the tree outside our bedroom window. It was four-thirty in the morning. The little fucker.

He thinks it’s great to be alive and he probably has a point, from his blackbird’s perspective. The skies are clear, the roads empty, the atmosphere, the very air that we breathe here in north-east London is so much more breathable now than it has been at any stage of the forty years I have lived in this city. The blackbird has, I suppose, every right to rejoice and to spread the news. His air is now Bruegel-fresh, as ours is. The colours in our shared world are saturated like Caspar David Friedrich’s. There is a new tang to our daily experience of our world as if it were a fruit bowl by Caravaggio.

Except of course that I am now sixty and do not wish to be dinned out of my thinning nightly tissue of sleep by some loudmouth with a message to impart. I don’t want messages at four-thirty in the morning. I want sleep. I want to be dreaming of fruit bowls, not reminded in so many cockney chirrups that I live in one, or would do if I only had the eyes to see it. That blackbird is a prig. One day I am going to lean out of my bedroom casement with my blunderbuss and turn the varmint into a pinkish-black puff of feathers and vapourised bird flesh.

Credit: Linda Nylind
Author Nick Coleman.
Photo by Linda Nylind. 17/3/2015.

Except that I am not, of course. I do not own a blunderbuss; nor are they as easy to come by as you might think in modern Hackney.

So the day of my birth dawned for the sixtieth time with thoughts of violence. Which then turned really poisonous when I remembered that I was now, as of today, officially old.

Who wants to be sixty? No, but really: who does? What are the advantages? What are the burdensome disadvantages of being fifty-nine that we then shuck off by turning sixty? I can’t think of a single one and I bet you can’t either. And guess what: if I’d been born a fortnight earlier in history, I’d at least have got a Freedom Pass for my sixtieth, like everyone else has for heaven knows how long, as a special cheer-up present as you turn the big corner into dotage. But I don’t even get one of those. They’ve stopped it. In the nick of time.

So the blackbird really isn’t doing it for me at four-thirty in the morning. I turn over in my bed and add to the joy of nations by swearing.

*****

I don’t mind getting old, of course. It’s not the fact of it, nor even the feeling of it that rattles my cage. Getting old is just one more day added to all the others, as Justice Shallow doesn’t quite say to Falstaff in the firelight. Getting old is incontrovertible and, you might say, even fortunate. I might after all be dead (as indeed I nearly was last year when still only fifty-eight). I might be having my teenage life cancelled by measures devised to combat the pandemic. I might be struggling to raise a young family with no income all of a sudden and, worst of all, having to home-school a four-year-old and a seven-year-old (as would have been the case for my wife and I had the coronavirus struck 15 years ago). As it is, I am fortunate to live in a nice if rather jerry-built little Edwardian house in north-east-London, feeling a bit like a tinned pilchard given that the 22–year-old and 19-year-old offspring just happened to be biding here when the lockdown started, but comfortable enough. I have a small income. I have a roof. I don’t have much health but am not dead. Mustn’t grumble ­– apart from about the blackbird.

And yet the onset of sixty in lockdown is forcing the issue somewhat – I do feel like grumbling, I really do, and I think it’s unavoidable in the circumstances, like having to pee in the night. It comes with the territory, as Justice Shallow also doesn’t quite say to Falstaff in the firelight.

‘Jesus, the days that we have seen,’ he does say though. It’s a phrase I heard first issuing from my father’s lips long ago in I know not what context – the kind of quotation he was given to, having survived the war. I have heard it since at moments of dark reflection, uttered both by my elders and by me, because I am a bit that way inclined myself; inclined to the emptied-out and fatuous rather than to the mythological. Let me be clear, I identify more at sixty with Justice Shallow, the spindly, mindless, excitable legal official on his last legs, gasping to be appreciated by his companion in the firelight, than I do with the great fat beast of English half-felt regret sat next to him, Sir John Falstaff, who may well be magnificent in his way but is, basically, a regrettable old arse: charismatic, yes, but no good to anyone and absolutely and fundamentally dishonest, even unto himself.

Orson Welles saw Falstaff as an emblem of something lost and appealing, as you might expect him to do having cast himself in the role for his The Chimes at Midnight (a cinematic conflation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV pts 1 and 2 and Henry V). Welles sensed an embodiment of Merrie Ynglande in the galvanising figure of Sir John, a wild, untamed throwback to an England of the English imagination, which has probably existed in the Anglo-Saxon mind fondly since 1066 as a comfort: a creature of wit and instinct and appetite and untrammelled Nature whose pretences to social virtue are for effect only and whose unremitting jive is nothing but code for bogus class sublimation: we’re-all-in-it-together, but me first. Welles’s Falstaff is truly mythological, a vast case of the merry English blues in which eternal June meadows are pregnant with English flowers and no invasive species. Welles said himself he was glad to shoot Chimes in black and white because it would not expose the fact that he, as Falstaff, does not have blue eyes.

Well, I was born in 1960, not 1929 – I’m not even a real Boomer – and that kind of Falstaff resonates ugly with me, regardless; he smells of UKIP and Tim Martin and the upbraiding ruddy face of Fake Nostalgia. (Yes, yes, I know Shakespeare didn’t mean it that way. And nor did Welles. But, hell’s bells…)

I much prefer the Falstaff offered by Simon Russell Beale under the direction of Richard Eyre in 2012. Russell Beale’s Sir John is not mythological; he is the repulsive old bloke who’s lived his life in the pub and got stuck there, wedged in the corner of the bar, opinionated, delusional, evil-smelling and unable to get in touch with his self-loathing. Yes, he has moments of charm and even musters the odd truthful self-observation – ‘Oh, I’m old… old,’ he laments as Doll Tearsheet fumbles with his knob-end – but those moments come as departures in his life not the rule and certainly not as the engine of anything useful to man, woman nor child. They are soon gone. It is only as he stares stark-eyed away from the flames at Shallow’s hearth that he begins to sense the truth about himself. ‘We have heard the chimes at midnight,’ he announces absently and his gaze darkens to reveal an abyss engulfed by silence. He cannot speak of what he can’t actually encompass emotionally – but he senses its presence all right. That’s a Falstaff I can understand at sixty, even if I don’t identify with him.

*****

How old was Falstaff?

I am not about to re-read both parts of Henry IV to see if there are any clues to be had as to his age – and of course, age is relative, anyway, it isn’t just a number, and never more so than in 15th-century England when surviving the lottery of birth was a matter of statistical reality. But sixty seems about right to me, psychologically speaking. Falstaff is starting to lose his autonomic faculties as well as all the others, and his jive is losing its lustre. ‘Oh, I’m old … old.’ Sixty is an age of extreme self-consciousness and denial and, dare one say it, of the dawning of previously unanswered regrets. Of course Falstaff fancies that he can do all the stuff he used to do – of course, he does – despite his gouty big toe; but, when it comes to it, he would rather sit and mope with a flagon of sack.

My wife, whose name by a strange coincidence is Nell Quickly (and by even stranger coincidence also runs a bawdy house which she disguises as a respectable Hackney PR company), chased me out from under the duvet on my sixtieth birthday morning and set about my pimpling extremities with the warming pan.

‘Now, Sir John,’ quoth she, ‘…er, I mean Nick… Get your hindquarters downstairs and let me and the changelings go about making this the best birthday you ever had. Come on. No excuses. No maundering. I know you’re feeling awful and that bird woke you at a grisly hour, but… well, just go with it. Be in the moment. Go into the living room and play your favourite records, why don’t you, and leave the birthday doings to us.’

‘But we’re in lockdown. I’ve got things to do…’

Thwack! The warming pan made abrupt contact with the gristle of my dwindling behind and I thought better of uttering another word.

But I did go downstairs and I did think as I went, well, this is going to be quite nice. What record shall I play? What does my soul yearn to dance to? What moves me? I know…

Smokey Robinson!

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 26: Singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson speaks onstage during the 56th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/WireImage)

And then the inevitable qualification… How old is Smokey Robinson? Christ on a bike – is he even still alive? Yes, yes, he must be: I’d have noticed if he’d died because… because I love Smokey Robinson and I would have undergone some sort of memorable emotional crisis if he had expired. But how old is he? Must be in his eighties now. After all, he has been embodying the poetry of undying romantic youth since… since when? 1961? 1962? Since before I was born even? The sound of Detroit south side’s beating heart, fluttering as delicately as dew-jewelled cobwebs on spring mornings; the sound of a stock of weightless metaphors so intricately extensive that they drape every curve and loop of Time itself, going both back into the past and forwards into the future until they are lost to view.

And so I went into the living room and played Smokey Robinson records all morning, while my children made breakfast and very old friends came round at timed intervals to surprise me and give me virtual hugs from beyond the front gate by secret arrangement with Nell – and the metaphors kept on lapping and mingling in the air all about until, by lunchtime, I was quite convinced this was the best birthday I’d ever had.

And then after lunch I had a nap.

And when I woke up it was still good, even though I had a slight headache.

Nick Coleman’s books are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage: ‘The Train in the Night: a story of music and loss’; the novel, ‘Pillow Man’; and, most recently, ‘Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life’

Book Review: Dear Life – A Doctor’s Story of Love & Loss


1 Minute Read

Reviewed by Asanga Judge

Dr Rachel Clarke is a specialist in palliative medicine. She has often been in the media during the Covid-19 crisis talking clearly about what is needed in terms of provision of PPE, perspectives and compassion.

Asanga Judge is a former GP.

I am not easily moved to tears, so the fact it happened to me repeatedly when I was reading this book is a mark of Rachel Clarke’s profound compassion towards her patients, in her capacity as a palliative care specialist running a hospice for terminally ill patients.

As a reaction to some of the awful experiences she had during her early medical career, for instance, people dying in terrifying and undignified circumstances, she decided that she intended to do everything she could to make her patients’ last days comfortable, peaceful and fulfilling.

One example was Ellie, in her early 20s with aggressively metastatic breast cancer that was causing her organs to shut down rapidly. She desperately wanted to get married with her family and friends present. She asked Rachel, ‘Can you keep me well enough to make it to Thursday?’ – that was in two days’ time. Rachel knew all she could do was to promise to try. She used all her medical skills to keep Ellie alive for the next two days and then to give her enough strength to manage the ceremony. As the final moments of the ceremony took place – Ellie was momentarily transformed ‘from a dying woman to a luminous young bride on her wedding day – radiant, ecstatic. Her cancer vanishes. And everyone sees it, everyone feels it – the world falling away until only one thing remains: two 20somethings getting married with beaming smiles. Ellie dies the next day, held by James and still wearing her dress of white chiffon.’

‘Living does not stop because one is dying.’

I have selected this quote from the end of the book because I think it creates a very welcome and inspiring picture of how the life of dying people in this type of palliative care is not typical of the generally held view of hospices. They are still viewed as places to die rather than places to live well until you die. And even in today’s progressive climate of death cafes and end of life doulas, there is still reluctance in our society to discuss the subject of dying.

‘If there is a difference between people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it is simply this: the terminally ill know their time is running out, while we live as though we have all the time in the world. Their urgency propels them to do the things they want to do, reach out to those they love and savour the moments of life still left to them. In a hospice, therefore, there is more of what matters: more love, more strength, more kindness, more smiles, more dignity, more joy, more grace, more compassion – than you could ever imagine. I work in a world that thrums with life. My patients teach me all I need to know about living.’ Rachel Clarke.

For me, one of the most important issues dealt with here is how fear and misunderstanding around death and dying, cause a lot of anxiety and potential, yet avoidable, suffering. That simple listening and communication around each person’s individual circumstances are at least, if not more, important than the use of sedatives and analgesics. Death remains a taboo even for doctors. And I speak here as one of the profession myself. Traditional medical teaching has always been focused on the ability to cure illness. Palliative care was, and still is among the profession as a whole, associated with failure. Because of this, the subject of caring for the dying patient has been woefully neglected in the teaching schedule.

Rachel Clarke also explains how for most people in a hospice their final days pass very much in the same way: gradually sleeping more and slipping into deeper unconsciousness. I imagine that prior knowledge of this, which many may not have, would be a blessed comfort. It was for me.

I cannot over-emphasize how much I was affected and inspired by this book. It even motivated me to discuss my own death with my daughter and let her know about practical matters such as my financial arrangements, which she found useful as well an indication that I was looking after her for the future. I am almost 77.

I think everyone should read it.

Book Review: Bolder- making the most of our longer lives | Carl Honoré


1 Minute Read

Carl Honoré is approaching his 50th birthday with trepidation. He’s worried about what happens on the other side and this sets the background for Bolder.

This context is worth remembering as you read Bolder. Honoré’s exploration of ageing is a self-confessed part of his own education and need for ‘reassurance’.  Compared to many members and followers of AOA, who’ve been splashing about in middle age for a while, he appears at times to be an ingénue: he is genuinely surprised and shocked by attitudes to age.

Reading Bolder is like following an explorer in ageing Disneyland, a place that proves to be a personal roller coaster ride for the author. He finds many positives about ageing that are backed up by researchers and academics, but occasionally, usually when you start feeling good about being whatever age you are, he steps on a spike and it’s like getting the snake in Snakes and Ladders.

One moment he is laughing with Spanish grannies on a graffiti workshop, the next he brought quickly down to earth by a young female observer who tells him she wouldn’t put them on her Instagram because ‘old people aren’t that attractive.’ There are his descriptions of a Lebanese television show where over eighties play pranks at pharmacies asking for Viagra, a show that has become extremely popular and produced its own media stars.

And the same thing happens: he begins to wonder about that slender line that separates something sweet and charming from being a circus in which the aged are targets of the wrong kind of laughter. These elements in the book are the ones that made the headlines in mainstream reviews, i.e. The Guardian. While I understand how the media works, I’m not convinced that ageing, which the author describes as a game for ‘losers’, needs to be a circus.

There is much that is positive about ageing here: cognitively we are better at learning and picking up new things in middle age. In a study of IT professionals, those who were in their fifties were far more relaxed about new technologies and ready to take them on than their younger counterparts. Our experience curve gives us an advantage in making fast connections in our brain, something Don and Patricia Edgar have written about in Peak – Reinventing Middle Age. The reality is that given good health – and enough money, there are no cognitive, intellectual or social reasons why older people shouldn’t be able to continue to be the person they are. And more.

At the same time we are up against a culture that bows to youth and beauty, where social media rules the cultural narrative, and the good life is associated with the unlined and pretty.

Despite the stylish older media stars and the author’s examples of celebrities baring their wrinkles and appearing in ads, they are celebrities that means they get a very special pass that the rest of us don’t get. I wisely skimmed his section celebrating celebrities and grey hair: wild curly hair will never look good grey and I don’t intend to give it another passing thought. Not caring is a big advantage of age.

Divorce Day: Why ending your marriage could be the best decision you ever make | International Business Times


5 Minute Read

The first Monday after Christmas is known as Divorce Day.

Two women reveal how the pain of divorce helped them to create better lives.

Forgetting your birthday was the first warning sign, which only highlighted their laid back attitude to sharing the housework.

Read the full article here: Divorce Day: Why ending your marriage could be the best decision you ever make | International Business Times

It’s Too Late, Baby | Purple Clover


5 Minute Read

Hard to believe, but it’s taken me almost 60 years to finally realize age has its limitations.

The other day it occurred to me I will never be a surrogate mother. I’m turning 60. That ship has sailed.

Not that I ever really wanted to be a surrogate. In fact, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t give up a baby I’ve nurtured in my own body. But I used to listen to these commercials on the radio seeking potential surrogates and I definitely gave it some thought.

Read the full article here: It’s Too Late, Baby | Purple Clover

Is it appropriate to write your own son’s dating profile?


1 Minute Read

Michele Kirsch, learns the hard way, that it is not.

The son has done a mutual and amicable break up with his girlfriend of six years. He is only 21 so she was the main one, probably the only one. When I ask why they split up – I refrained from hysterically crying, saying how much I loved her, how he would never find someone who looked as much like Mila Kunis as she does, how she was the ultimate package deal: beauty, brains, personality and manners, asking him if he was clinically insane, that if so I would draw on my pension early to pay for psychological treatment, or ghostwriting love letters from him to her saying it was all a hideous mistake, and would she marry him and have babies with him – yes, I did NOT do all that stuff, because he just might not have appreciated my making his break up all about Me, Me, Me, cos kids today, ay, they don’t like a drama. So, I have to accept it, that my head-turningly-gorgeous son (this is not my prejudice, he actually turns heads when he walks into a room) has decided, in an outrageously mature fashion, that they had grown up together and as the way of these things, had also grown apart.

Now I have a history of trying to intervene in his love life, from the age of 11 (him not me, though you could be mistaken) when he fell for a girl called Clementine. It was Valentine’s Day, and after I got him some flowers for her from a Tesco Metro – ‘Mum take the Tesco thing off, I don’t want her to think I am cheap’ – and we jointly stalked her house, and he was just going to leave the flowers with a ‘Be my Valentine’ card and run away. I said, ‘No, son, you want to do a GRAND GESTURE’ – so in chalk, we wrote outside the house, on the pavement – ‘Be my Clementine’. I thought it was ever so original and clever, and we decided against tossing clementines around her path, because we could only get satsumas, and maybe she hated citrus fruit or had a fatal allergy to them.

I never found out if the flowers were received, or if the chalk message was rubbed away in embarrassment. Clem wound up going out with a friend of his, and my boy met his lovely gal when he was in his mid-teens. I think he did. I was drunk off my arse for most of his teens so it is a little foggy.

So anyway, fast forward to…not that long ago. He comes over to my flat cos we are going to do what we do, which is go for Pho and chat shit for ages. It is by far my favourite thing to do. He mentions he has joined a dating app, not the really popular one Tinder but a different one, where you can only potentially hook up if you swipe each other at the same time. I think. I don’t even know what swiping means, except it doesn’t hurt and you do it on your phone and nobody gets pregnant. He shows me some of the girls, and I am shocked and sickened cos they all look EXACTLY alike, like the Kardashians, big arses, small waists, cat’s eyes, virulent lippy, eyebrows shaped by people who do not understand eyebrows, and wait it gets stranger. They are all 22 and all either philosophers or curators or anthropologists. Weirder still, they all pose with their friends who look just like them, and they do some strange photoshop thing to put on kitten ears and kitten noses and whiskers. And I’m like, ‘I don’t get it, so all these kitten women are curators and when you go out with them, you get the friend as well?’. Oh yeah, and lots of them are holding bottles of Prosecco aloft.

I do not understand any of it, so I say, OK, have you swiped any of these girls? Did you meet any, and do they actually have kitten faces and strange brows, and he goes no, he has not really swiped any cos yes, they do all look a bit modified, a bit altered, a bit samey, but the thing that really gets to him is that they all have these fancy pants jobs, and he works in construction, though he was a model til he decided he hated it because he did not want to be judged for his looks. So I say construction is a noble job, honest, everyone needs something constructed. But he feels it is not really impressive enough, and he does not buy my line, ‘Oh, I know these curators, they like a bit of rough’ so he feels that his profile does not really do him justice. I say, lemme look at what you’ve written. (Voice inside screaming – don’t interfere, it’s his date, not yours, but other voice goes, interfere. It is in your genes.) He has a lovely photo, a modelling one I think. So I go ‘Great pic’ but then the first thing he writes is – ‘This is an old photo’ and I explode: ‘You can’t put that! It is only a year old, maybe two, but you look exactly like that, maybe better. If you put ‘old pic’ they are going to think you are 75, bald fat and have halitosis and those strange hairs that grow out of old men’s nostrils and ears.’ He is not convinced. He also does not want to say he is in construction cos it sounds boring. And I’m like ‘no, everyone loves a builder. If you were a curator as well you would just talk hi falutin boring art shite all day and it would be a passionless relationship. You would have to go to galleries and museums, not clubs or festivals, with a clever kitten woman. NO!’.

And I realize that I have to let him go out there and meet these kitten women and make his own mistakes. He rejects my profile rewrite – ‘Can strangle a giraffe with my bare hands, if needed, though I love animals…particularly cats’ even though I protest it shows brute strength and sensitivity all in one phrase. And what do I actually know about dating in the modern world? Nothing. What do I know about my son? Enough to know that he’s smart enough, charming enough and gorgeous enough to make his own way in the world of dating. The stuff I find funny (OK, you meet one of these kitten ladies and find out that she does not have kitten ears and nose, and you look at her in horror and go, “But your ears and nose looked so different in the photo… this is really false advertising. I loved those damned ears and nose…”) leaves him cold. We abandon the app and go out for Pho, and I count my blessings. He’s happy and healthy, I am sober, and life is very sweet right now. He will meet his sweetheart, one day, and I will love her as much, if not more, than the last one.

Show me more
Surprise Me

Hear more from us

Subscribe to our newsletter