My mother tells a story about me at the age of six. She asked if I would like a birthday party – a rare event for the youngest child of five. That would be nice, I replied. As long as I don’t have to have any children there.
Six years old! My mother tells this story with a mixture of amusement at how badly this reflects on me as a human being, but also some awe at how such an annoyingly-precocious creature could have emerged from an otherwise normal family.
I kind of remember what it was like to be that child, though. Because that child was me, is still me.
One of the most irritating things you can say to any child is act your age. But not only is it irritating, it’s also absolutely meaningless. I’ve said it before, and there’s nothing more true – age is a very very ambiguous concept. This seems to me to be more and more the case as I get older. Almost everything I thought I knew about age, about getting older, turns out to be a load of old baloney.
It is an absolute perceived wisdom in our culture that we have most in common with people your own age. But, as evidenced by my six year old self and her adults only party, I’ve never felt this strong affinity with my contemporaries. We all know of people who refuse to grow up, or to grow old. Why should age trump personality? Despite the cultural norms, it doesn’t.
We send babies to nursery because they need to be with babies their own age. So they can talk over their concerns about the Euro crisis with other toddlers I guess. Children on the other hand need to be herded into classrooms with people born within 12 months of them. This works, of course, to a certain extent. But not for everyone. Often in the classroom you come across the child completely out of place, like a character from those films where a grown up goes undercover in High School and pretends to be a teenager in an unconvincing fashion. What’s that programme called? Oh yeah – Glee. There’s plenty of unconvincing teenagers in my school, in every school I guess.
But the bigger question is what we miss out on, mixing with only people of our own age.
I have many friends who Home Educate, and one of the most frequent criticisms they have to face is that they are keeping their children separate from their contemporaries. But what’s so terrible about that? In fact, if you hang out with a pack of lentil weaver hippy types this is what you notice: rather than hang out with people of their own age, the children spend time with people they have most in common with. The Dragon Slayers hang out with the Dragon Slayers. Lego builders hang out with other Lego builders. Long and complicated games of Mums and Dads are enjoyed by a mixed group and the crucial decision about who gets to be the dog is decided with a great deal less fuss and fretting than usual.
The same happens in big families, like mine. At the intimate family gatherings of the Number6 clans (30 or so across the generations), different ages meet and come together over food and football chat and hair plaiting and oh did I tell you who’s died?
On the other hand, we all know the old person who refuses to acknowledge that their rightful place in the world is in the waiting room to die, flicking through adverts for funeral plans and not getting in anyone’s way. These old folk persist in thinking that they have something interesting to say despite the fact that they’re, you know, REALLY REALLY OLD. Worst of all, they think that they are due a little fun before they die and don’t really respond to the palpable sense of disapproval that this garners from those people who aren’t revoltingly old.
I have every intention of being this type of old person myself. The kind of old person like my ex-boyfriend’s Nana. We dropped round to see her one day; we would have been in our early 20s, she was nearly 80 I guess. She was, to our youthful surprise, going out. Sorry, she said, I can’t stop. I’m off out to look after the old people. Obviously she didn’t bracket herself in that category. The old folk were some other people, somewhere else, playing whist or possibly having a beetle drive. She remained in this delightful spirit for many years, almost reaching 100 before she finally conceded that she might be old enough to die.
I am well on the way to this right now, because I am the kind of irritating middle aged person that lurches from one midlife crisis to the next in a way that is no doubt slightly exhausting to watch. I would even buy an open topped car if only I had the money.
Actually, scratch that – an open topped car is all well and good and excellent for carrying home Christmas trees. But there’s not too much room for a party. If I had the money I’d buy a Routemaster bus and my friends, aged from 17 to 70, can ride it in and chat about all the things we like to chat about – grammar, etymology, physics, brownie recipes, sarcasm, books, poetry, life.
All aboard, move down the bus now. Plenty of room at the back, and feel free to put your feet on the seats.
Growing up is – it turns out – entirely optional.