Wednesday 9 February 2005

Life begins at 50

They say that life begins at 40. Mine didn’t. In fact that birthday marked the start of a decade of spectacular non-achievement, both personal and professional.

I spent ten years commuting between London and Northumberland, being regarded at both ends with the suspicion and resentment that the English reserve for outsiders. Although my parents had kindly arranged for my Geordie accent to be beaten out of me, trace elements remained that were sufficient to attract periodic ridicule in the City. What Geordies used to say about the way I spoke cannot be repeated in a family newspaper.

I was appointed managing director of a moderately successful financial PR firm, on the sound old principle of Buggins’ turn, and managed to make that success even more moderate by applying a management style that combined wheedling flattery, towering rages, sexual harassment and a total absence of inspiring leadership.

True, we managed to win a few high profile takeover bids against all the odds, and I never actually lost a client. But my predilection for giving a totally honest assessment of what we could achieve for new clients meant that I hardly ever won one, either.

Personally, I broke off one unsuitable engagement and promptly entered another. This collapsed in circumstances that would have fatally wounded my self-esteem, if I had had any left. The only real gains of the decade were grey hair, an extra two stones around the waist, wrinkles and gallstones.

Exactly a year ago, with my 50th birthday looming on the horizon, I decided that life-changing action was required. So I made a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of how long it would take me to drink myself to death and how much it would cost to do so. And, after consulting my bank statement – but definitely not my bank manager – I walked out of the office, never to return.

For a year now I have been scraping a much reduced living working for a few loyal clients, taking long walks in Northumberland, writing unread columns and planning that Big Novel that never quite gets started.

In November, at the most unlikely event imaginable – an aunt’s 80th birthday party – I met and fell madly in love with a beautiful and very entertaining young woman, who last week agreed to become my wife. My doctor tells me that the strange, tingling sensation I keep experiencing is called ‘happiness’.

True, we’ve got virtually no income and absolutely no prospects, but we console ourselves with the mawkish thought that at least we’ve got each other.

If you are approaching this personal milestone, you will know that reaching 50 is considerably more traumatic than turning 40, as you can no longer console yourself with the thought that you still have half a lifetime left – unless you have an exceptional genetic inheritance or remarkable faith in medical progress.

But if you are in that position, resist the temptation to punch the next person who slaps you cheerily on the back and tells you that life begins at 50. Because, from my personal experience, I can tell you that they might well be right.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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