The worst thing about middle age for us chaps is there are more pretty girls to look at – but so little we can do about it
On Saturday, Marcus Berkmann argued that men deny the onset of middle age, refusing to accept that pot-bellies and irritation with the young are part of the ageing process. Here, in our second extract from his book A Shed Of One’s Own, he says the secret of happiness for men of a certain age is to embrace pointless interests which would bore their younger selves rigid. These, then, are his strictly mid-life ideas of fun . . .
The only people under 40 in a National Trust property are the children of the middle-aged people who have dragged them there. I vividly recall the intense boredom of these excursions, always advertised as ‘educational’, against which there was no argument.
And then, at some point in your late 30s or early 40s, the mid-life switch clicks in your brain and you can see nothing wrong with wandering listlessly around an enormous house its owner can no longer afford.
The secret of happiness for men of a certain age is to embrace pointless interests
My friend ‘T’ favours ruined castles, which he imagines defending against invading hordes. ‘B’ likes wandering around enormous gardens, imposing par-four golf holes over them in his mind.
Our libidinous friend ‘X’ goes for smaller gardens with lots of hiding places in which he can imagine having sex with someone who isn’t his wife.
And for everyone, there’s the tea shop at the end, where you can sit down (at last!), eat dry cakes and sneer at the other boring, middle-aged people at the tables.
A brisk walk is good for blood flow, keeps the musculature in trim and makes people think you’re actually going somewhere. And you are.
You’re going to the shop at the end of the road to buy a newspaper, and maybe a bag of Revels. You’ll walk back home equally briskly, even though there’s no hurry at all. Only middle-aged men do this. No one knows why.
One of the stranger features of the heterosexual male mid-life is the sense that there are more attractive women than ever — far, far more than there were when we were young.
Where have they all come from
Historic: Batemans, a National Trust property in East Sussex was the home of Rudyard Kipling from 1902 – 1936
I think I’ve finally worked out the answer. When you’re young, you generally fancy girls of roughly your own age and slightly younger. So at 20, you’ll be gawping at pretty women between the ages of 16 and 25.
Our libidinous friend ‘X’ goes for
smaller gardens with lots of hiding places in which he can imagine
having sex with someone who isn’t his wife
And when you’re 50, you’ll gawp at pretty women between the ages of 16 and 55. That’s four times as many.
Really, it’s a disaster. The more women there appear to be, the less we can do anything about it. (Either we’re unavailable, or we look like hell, or both.)
It’s remarkable how many men in their 40s suddenly take this up, having previously shown not the smallest interest in rocks, large or small. Perhaps it’s a way of staring your mortality in the face, of challenging the fates to kill you now and save you the bother of a slow decline into senility.
Or it may just be that halfway up a mountain is the only place left you can get any peace and quiet.
Of course, anyone of any age can cook, and most of us have to. But when certain men of a certain age deal with food, they have a way of letting you know about it.
My friend ‘P’ takes his cheese very seriously. He stares at it from all angles. He decides where he is going to cut it. He tests the knife. He pulls back for a second, to make sure there’s no more elegant slicing solution.
In he goes. The incision is made. A surgeon could be no more delicate; a watchmaker could be no more precise. The operation is complete.
‘P’ picks up his slice, stares at it. Is he satisfied with his work Dissatisfied It’s impossible to tell. He shoves the slice in his mouth and chews thoughtfully.
When men of a certain age deal with food, they have a way of letting you know about it
You could hit him on the head with a frying pan and he wouldn’t notice. He’s communing with his snack.
It’s all a form of mid-life peacockery. Harmless enough, I suppose, unless you are starving hungry and waiting for lunch.
Some mid-lifers become obsessed with the idea of driving a train, and preferably a steam train. They buy Thomas the Tank Engine books for their children and watch DVDs of Ivor the Engine late into the night.
This isn’t nostalgia, because steam trains were all but gone when we were little. This is part of some deeper, darker folk memory.
The timetable is then as follows: 1
Fancy pilates teacher, so go back every week. 2 Fall in love with
pilates teacher. 3 Make shambling, desperate pass at pilates teacher. 4
Give up pilates
And there’s further to go down this track, much further. If you have an empty attic or a cellar, what better use could it be put to than to house a vast model railway You need money for this, obviously, and time, and a wife who is happy never to see you again.
Consider the case of Rod Stewart. Famed in his youth for squiring blonde lovelies and wearing insanely tight trousers, Stewart now owns and operates a 1,500 sq ft model of Grand Central Station and its surroundings. He has 9,000 ft of track and several skyscrapers.
On tour in 2011, his dressing-room requirements were a bottle or two of decent red wine and a very large table for his trains. So much more civilised than asking for all the blue Smarties to be taken out.
Obviously the garden needs to be done, because it’s there and it’s your job.
We could venture beneath the surface here and ask precisely why the garden has to be ‘done’, as opposed to sat in and enjoyed in all its unmanaged lushness, as Japanese knotweed encroaches on your house at the rate of an inch an hour and foxes lurk in the undergrowth, chewing on the carcasses of much-loved family pets. But that won’t get the lawn mown. And it’s good for you to ‘do something with your hands’. (Make sure you wash them afterwards.)
A surprising one, this, because I thought it was chiefly for women. But a sizeable minority of (it has to be said) sizeable men have also discovered this highly effective physical fitness programme, devised by Joseph Pilates early in the 20th century.
A sizeable minority of men have discovered Pilates as an effective form of exercise
We have bad backs, do we not And often the backs are bad because of the weight they are carrying at the front.
But instead of eating less, we find ourselves a pilates teacher, who is likely to be female, younger than us and physically at the peak of condition.
The timetable is then as follows: 1 Fancy pilates teacher, so go back every week. 2 Fall in love with pilates teacher. 3 Make shambling, desperate pass at pilates teacher. 4 Give up pilates.
Surely the quintessential mid-life sport. It may not be fair, but millions of young people across the globe regard golf as the last straw, the final admission that you’re doomed to wear hideous multi- coloured knitwear and talk tripe to other sad old men.
My friend ‘B’ has been obsessed by golf since childhood, and has spent tens of thousands of pounds on it. He admits that his golf club is full of appalling bores, misfits, serial killers and escaped war criminals — but it isn’t half as bad as his previous club, where I once went for a quiz night.
To join, you needed to prove not only that you could play the game to the required standard, but that you referred to women as ‘ladies’ and had closed your mind to new ideas in 1955.
Start running and before you know it youre running marathons
The shame is that golf is a rather wonderful game, which doesn’t require you to be young or fit, or even able to walk more than a few feet without falling over. Its pace and its contemplative air could have been designed purposefully for the middle-aged mindset.
You never ran for anything before, so why now An unanswerable question, because the truth is that you’re only running to lose weight and look younger, so girls will look at you again.
No, don’t even pretend otherwise, I’m not listening. Nonetheless, running can become addictive.
The wobbliest old joggers go out and buy decent shoes, run further and faster than before, and somehow manage to overcome the pain of recurring blisters and corns and collapsing ankles, all because they want that rush of endorphins, the runner’s high. (It’s encouraging to learn that we never outgrow the desire for a cheap thrill.)
Before you know it you’re running marathons, possibly dressed as a giant soft fruit or the Pope.
‘We need somewhere to put the hoes, wheelbarrows and growbags,’ you say to your family, whereas what you really mean is: ‘I need somewhere to hide from you.’
Build a largeish shed and you can throw all that gardening rubbish in the corner. Then there’s room for a desk, a chair, certainly a kettle and maybe a mini-bar. Most important of all, the shed must have a window.
You need something to stare out of for hours at a time, contemplating infinity. You also need an early warning system when someone comes to bother you, thus giving you time to hide your newspaper/beer/secret stash of biscuits and pretend to be working.
Because that’s the only justification for asking not to be disturbed there. You’re working.
Mid-life cyclists wear Lycra without embarrassment and dont do small talk any more.
Give us a shout when lunch is ready. I need some peace and quiet to be able to concentrate. Not playing internet poker at all. Absolutely not.
Women are right to be suspicious. We’re never going to be 100 per cent honest about our need for quality shed-time. There’ll always be something vaguely underhand and secretive about our behaviour, even if our shed-time activities are entirely innocent.
There may be sports that offer a faster getaway, but I can’t believe that any gives you the same sense of freedom.
Once you’re out of sight, you could be gone for ages. No one answers a mobile phone on a bike.
When you next see your cyclist friends, they’ve lost all their excess weight and become sinewy and weather-beaten. Most of them have a mad light in the eyes, the light of the convert.
Mid-life cyclists wear Lycra without embarrassment and don’t do small talk any more. They just want to go out and do more cycling. Or maybe go to bike shops and salivate over an unusually sleek carbon frame.
Do I want to go out on Friday night I’m not sure I can be bothered. Cocoa Mmm. Yes, please. Hot water bottle Now you’re talking. Staple me to the sofa for the next 30 years Oh, go on, why not
Extracted from A Shed Of One’s Own by Marcus Berkmann, to be published by Little, Brown on January 19 at 12.99. 2012 Marcus Berkmann. To order a copy for 10.99 (incl p&p), call 0843 382 0000.