My 80th birthday yesterday came rather more quickly than I had expected. As we get older our sense of time speeds up if only because we have experienced so much ‘time’ already. A double Latin class on Friday afternoon in the early 1950s seemed to last forever, while last Christmas seems only a few weeks ago. Mind you, my life expectancy at birth was only 63, so there’s been some luck along the way. At 80 you certainly do wonder how long you have. According to the life tables, I can expect (on average!) another eight years. If that is realised, I will live about as long as my parents, both of whom got to 87 (my mother missed 88 by a week).
As far as I can remember, I am a good deal fitter than my father was at 80. I walk a lot, play tennis, do exercises for my back and for general fitness. And I write, read and converse widely. I am a carer for my wife, and that is my main occupation. At the same time, I am not at all as fit as I was fifteen years ago. I used to be able to spend a whole day in the garden, digging and making rock walls. My five-kilometre daily walk has dropped to a three-kilometre one. After two hours of tennis I am done. I sleep an hour or so more than I used to.
And though bits haven’t fallen off my cart yet, I am most aware that my chronic conditions are not going to get any better. My sinuses have never been really clear, and they’re worse now. I have trouble remembering names of composers, friends of long ago, authors, singers, books, and so on. They will return in due course, but the failure to remember at once is vexing. Injuries take longer to heal. Little conditions I endure are slowly getting worse. But I manage, cope and look ahead. I wonder — I guess we all do at this age — what will carry me off? Will I refuse food and water, as my father did when he recognised that his dementia was endless and awful. Will I have a sudden major heart attack, like my mother? There is no answer, at least at the moment.
Our needs, medications and visits to the health system aside, are much reduced. There will be no future overseas journeys to see friends. My wife’s condition rules that out. We will continue to do some short trips in Australia, and we might go to New Zealand early next year, in part to see what is happening with a village for those with dementia near Rotorua. It is being designed on a radically different basis, more much empathetic to the needs and histories of those who live there. We don’t buy new things much, and replace only what we must. So money is not a real problem, though my pension slowly falls in real value. There is enough for us to live in some comfort (important, given my wife’s condition), and we need no more. We have been supportive of charities for a long time, and now stick to the half dozen that we feel akin to. I recognise that we are in the last stage of our journeys, but we don’t know how long the last stage is. There are lots of possibilities, and we are doing what seems sensible in planning.
For fifty years I have been responsible for activities and organisations, and that phase has passed. But of course I still care about a lot of them. And for even longer I have been interested in the politics and government of my country. That interest hasn’t passed, though I no longer have connections to power. I have never met either Mr Abbott or Mr Turnbull, who are a generation younger. I happen to know my MP, because she and I were on the same board for about ten years. I know both our Senators, and the Chief Minister, and many of the ACT MLAs. But politics and politicians no longer have the same sense of importance to me.
I am confident that the next generation will make many mistakes and do many good things. During more than a decade as a vice-chancellor I was impressed with the quality and drive of my students, and felt that the country was in safe hands. I like Australia’s multi-ethnicity, and feel that we have done that well. I do not wish to see Australia accept too many refugees. There is a needed balance between doing what we can, and making sure that our country, our society, is still able to absorb the new arrivals well.
The world is a more complex place than it was in 1950, but I have less fear than I had then of a nuclear conflagration consuming the civilisation that humankind has created, astonishingly, in only ten thousand years. I see no end to wars, and sabre-rattling, and crises of all kinds. I feel that we will muddle and struggle through them, as has been the case for the last couple of hundred years, when ‘nations’ came into real being. I still feel that it is far too early to see the world as a single entity. The nation-state is much the best domain in which to look after millions of people. And globalisation has brought with it a lot of costs, and potential costs (like a deadly virus brought around the world in a couple of days via passenger aircraft).
Nonetheless, I am generally optimistic. Yes, there are occasional steps backwards, but more steps forward. In a future essay I will set out what I think ‘progress’ should mean, and summarise it here to say that the conditions of life for most people in the world are far better now than they were half a century ago, and I see no reason to expect that trend to end.
I cannot get exercised about most of the current political fads and fashions. Gay marriage can’t be of consuming interest to more than a couple of per cent of people, since that seems to be the proportion of self-describing homosexuals. Some kind of recognition of our indigenous people in the Constitution is likewise a side issue for the great majority, since only about three per cent of the population self-describes as indigenous, and most of them live normal lives in our urban areas. These are fashionable concerns for some non-homosexual and non-indigenous people, but seem to be examples of virtue-signalling for them rather than anything else. That our politicians seem to wrestle with these ‘issues’ seems a great waste of their time.
I would like to see the Australian Parliament deal with what I think are real problems: how to live, collectively, within our means, how to develop a foreign policy which could serve us well in both this present turbulent world and any variant of it, how to develop a sense of what it means to be Australian and how to help Australians make it an even better society, and how to encourage us all to be both self-reliant and altruistic, and not see ‘the government’ as a kind of money-tree or milch-cow.
I feel that my own generation, whose working life spanned the second half of the 20th century, did a pretty good job in improving the quality of life of both those of us born here and those who came as immigrants. Despite Mr Howard’s belief (he is of our generation) that this advance should make us comfortable, my feeling is that this project never stops. Making Australia better is a national task, and I keep waiting for a politician, or even better several of them, who can articulate that task without descending to attacking either those who are comfortably off (for their imagined greed and sins) or those who have not at all done well (for their imagined greed and sins).
I was never a hater, and dislike the tone of much or our politics today, which is full of aggression and, yes, hatred. I can get angry, often with myself, but the anger quickly passes. It is such a privilege to be alive, and to live in this decently civilised, prosperous, creative society. Life should be enjoyed, not become a platform for darker passions. To work creatively and productively seems to be the best of all possible existences, and I have had my fair share of it, for which I am most thankful.
More on my 90th, should I get to it.