Monday, April 18, 2011


I was eighty yesterday, an average-looking old guy of medium height, with all my own hair and pretty well all my teeth.

You wouldn’t look twice at me in the street, and if you asked a passer-by for directions, you probably wouldn’t choose me. No, you’d pick someone who looked more approachable and genial or more user-friendly, as they say these days.

It’s not that I look menacing or anything. It’s just that, with my face in repose, advancing age has given me a decidedly stern and somber look. In fact, to be honest, you might take me for a curmudgeon. My mouth turns down and, with the lines on my face, you might reasonably suppose me to be bad-tempered and humorless, even sour.

Of course, the exact opposite is true, I’m nice to small children, I brake for squirrels, and feel guilty when I have to kill even a moth or an ant. I certainly couldn’t harm a mouse or a muskrat, so you might well say I’m a have-a-heart kind of person. And when it comes to humor I can be almost funny on occasions. Well, at least amusing.

They say that growing old is not for sissies. They’re right. This gruff exterior makes me sad and wistful. I know you only have my word for it but once, as a soldier, a bridegroom, a soccer dad, and even on the first rungs up the corporate ladder (something by which we foolishly tend to measure success and failure) I was – I blush to say this – pretty good looking. What happened to that dashing young captain who sits in a silver photo-frame on my wife’s writing desk?

Time happened, that’s what. Ok, we all change with age, but in varying degrees. A lot of friends who are older than I still have nice, open faces and pleasant smiles. So why don’t I?

My wife, normally a paragon of kindness, jokes about my glum appearance. She laughs aloud at the pictures in my passport and driver’s license.
“Why didn’t you smile?” she asks.
“I was smiling,” I tell her.

I really was. Inside me, I could feel that cheery upturned mouth and the warm twinkle in the eye but, somehow, when the pictures came out, all that was missing was a prison uniform, or a string of numbers hanging on a board around my neck.
My mother-in-law, a lovely old lady with a Giaconda smile and handsome dark eyes, was a fountain of wise saws and sayings. One of these was that the living’s on the inside. By that she meant that many plain pug-ugly or unprepossessing people, and things, too, are often beautiful on the inside. She applied this especially to homes in mean, run-down streets, and to homely people, but the message was clear: never take anything at face value; instead, search for the beauty within.
She was right, wasn’t she? All the same, we still go on making judgments based on external appearances. More than in most countries, we Americans put an impossibly high premium on good looks. Not so elsewhere. In my native Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, many relatively plain men and women have made it right to the top on stage and screen. They wouldn’t even have landed a walk-on part on Broadway, or in Hollywood.

Don’t laugh, but behind my fossil-like façade I still believe that, physically and mentally, I’m that young man in the silver picture frame. My wife and I published a novel a few years ago, a thriller set in exotic South East Asia. Mark Gregson, the hero (they call heroes protagonists these days), is a young ex-Army officer. In my head and heart I’m still thirty-two year old Gregson, chasing heroin traffickers through the jungle; racing up three hundred steps in pursuit of thugs; saving his lovely girlfriend from drowning and, in the nick of time, disarming a booby trap under the hood of his hired car. The flesh may well be a little weaker, but the spirit’s still willing and, yes, the living really is on the inside.

King Duncan in Macbeth knew just what he was on about when he said: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
So if you’re in your thirties, or even much older than that, kindly remember this when you pass some old geezer in the street.

Smile at him, he might be me.



  1. First let me say that in thirty years this is the first time I've heard you say "we Americans." Oi, John. That's a landmark of some kind.

    Second, your piece makes me wish we could all walk down the street with a holographic projection of our real, internal selves walking two steps ahead. Just so everybody'd know who we are, like. You there in your Army uniform, wave to me with my long brown hair, won't you?


  2. You don't look grumpy! We can all recognize neutral expressions for what they are.

    Mom, look up Daemons in The Golden Compass. It's a concept from a kid's book about animals who are external projections of internal selves. They never leave their owner's side and some can shape-shift depending on mood.