Gustave Flaubert spoke to me once, telling me how unwise it is to touch your idols, given that the gilt is bound to come away on your hands. We hold this thought – which is not in itself specifically about ageing – while we add another.
To wit : much of adult life involves a deliberate and entirely healthy dismissal of one’s childhood and adolescence. To build a personal home and family has the natural effect of suppressing much of the inner monologue about the early years, whatever their trials and whatever their glories. Freud is not much use when you are in the thrall of first-time conveyancing or trying to get the toddler twins to sleep before dawn or talking to – a frighteningly adult moment – the highly recommended financial adviser (who wears such an expensive suit over his Rolex).
This leads us to a speculation stimulated by the autobiography of Hayley Mills, a septuagenarian of this parish. Perhaps it is the case that the early years loom big again precisely as one ages and the business of who-did-what-to-whom can be and indeed ought to be clear-headedly addressed. Did my parents really make good decisions? Were my siblings always with me? Looking back down the long barrel of history, can I discern now the moments when selfishness supplanted love? Am I still paying, emotionally and perhaps in every other way, for the failures of those who fretted and fiddled with my youth? Am I realizing something about people now, the significance of which – the true motive behind which – was hidden or misunderstood at the time?
It is perhaps only the real Rinkli Funstaz who can recall what a supernova Hayley Mills was, back in the day. Proletarian families would queue outside grey picture-houses to catch whatever movie she had just made. Her social realism was of the most digestible kind – not too much kitchen-sink under the coat – while her jaunty disneyfied optimism sprinkled a fantasia over the work-weary of so many TV-free municipal homes. Along the road to adulthood, as revealed here, she also seemed to meet and know everyone – from Walt himself to George Harrison to Dr Kildare to the Sinatras to Maureen O’Hara to Laurence Olivier to Nanette Newman to Irene Papas to Jane Birkin. One leaves with the impression that in the end all this showbizzery got, certainly distorting, a wee bit wearisome; meanwhile, we learn first-hand of the sheer ghastliness of un-modernized boarding schools and the bonkers syllabus of, sic, Swiss finishing schools. No doubt that Hayley, amid the recurrent glam, caught the rough edge of an upper middle-class English life. The scars, one feels and one fears, still lie under the silk.
In the end and indeed from the beginning, we all try to make a happiness pie out of the ingredients lying around the untidy scullery of life. This said, the people that you meet up close never really stop flavouring your days and dreams. Even the dead are still chefs to your pot. An economy in a boom does not know if it is really in a bubble; an individual, however alert and talented, does not know whether personal happiness is being maximized when times are tough and when love seems unattainable or alternatively when love is all around and the living is easy.“We spun so fast we couldn’t tell”, says an old Neil Sedaka song, ”the gold ring from the carousel”. And then the killer line : “How could we know the ride would turn out bad / Everything we wanted
Was everything we had”.
Forever Young is a rather brave disquisition on the theme of the distant past and how we might adjust to it now. It is as refreshing as it is disturbing here that some intimates are, d’outre tombe, not spared a rather heavy verbal spank. Just as she can remember (like many) where she was when she learned that Jack Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, so she can still bring to mind all the moments when concern for her welfare abruptly became a suffocation, when all affection suddenly seemed volatile to the point of snaring, when her career got shot right through by the solipsism of those meant to be on her side. The trouble is, one guesses, that everyone reaching the septua-genesis has a version of this narrative running in her/his head – everyone, even and especially those whose behaviour is so scrutinised here. The victimised and the perps all end up alone, wondering what might have been. Oh, if only Tommy had decided to stick to his guns or to stand aside, to speak or to say nowt, to sign the bit of paper in his own name or, in the signature box, to quietly scribble Mickey Mouse. We all have at least one big life-trashing and strangulatable twit in the memory-cupboard.
All those who can recollect the 60s and the liberations that it promised will remember Hayley Mills and the fabulous vitality that was hers. Whatever part she played, she stood for a hope of better days. Mercifully, she has given us a memoir with plenty of the varnish scraped off – so that the people who loved her back then can know her a lot better now, low self-esteem and all, accepting that she can be something of a flawed but fearlessly opinionated witness to her own life.
But deep down this is truly a story of the multiple paradoxes of ageing. For one thing, we can have but only selective recall, perhaps never to be a perfect balance between the profane and the sacred, the praising and the slagging.
Those whom we used to like do not necessarily stay liked – even long after their passing. As all of life’s big moments came along, we thought at the time we at least half-knew what was happening – an idea which has proved to be a hopeless over-estimate. Rich gifts can wax poor even when givers stay kind. For the more memories you amass the harder it is to wipe your slate clean; there are no fresh sheets of blank paper on your antique bureau. As mammals, moreover, we seek patterns in the past and hope to see the patterns emerge in later life – but what if there are none so stable?
What if it is all one giant kaleidoscope, twisting the colours and the shapes as each fresh decade opens, as the next bereavement strikes, as that embarrassing birthday photo slips out of the yellowing pages of an old volume by Kahlil Gibran, buried since the 70s on the study mantelpiece?
“Even if one succeeds in creating a masterpiece”, Hayley concludes, “there’s no guarantee you’ll live long enough to hear the audience applaud”. Quite so. And if you do get applause, will it be the right persons clapping and at exactly the right moment? And will the applause come from people you have come to despise or from the person you loved last year – but maybe not next.