Reflections on turning 40: my ankle is middle aged

Last August, I hurt my ankle. I was walking along a rough path, and I twisted it in a slightly awkward way. At least, I assume that’s what happened. I can’t be sure because I didn’t actually notice the injury at the time. What happened was that the next morning, when, in my usual manner, I rose from my bed like an eager gazelle grunting warthog and began my quick scamper slow shuffle to the bathroom, I was suddenly struck by a sharp pain.

The acute pain phase lasted, I guess, for about three weeks, before it was replaced by a feeling that’s quite hard to describe: not pain, exactly, and not weakness, exactly, but some kind of hybrid of the two. I didn’t google for guidance – I’d only have discovered that a sore ankle was a symptom of bubonic plague, or something – and I got gradually back to both usual speed and usual distance in my walking. (It was a strange experience, during those weeks, to find myself being lapped in the supermarket by people with walking sticks.) I still had to treat some things with care for several months: walking up and down slopes, for example, seemed to put a kind of strain on it that could kick me temporarily back to the acute pain phase within a few steps. It’s not completely recovered even now, although it’s so much better as to hardly warrant mentioning.

Here’s the thing. I’ll bet you that, if I’d twisted my ankle like this twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed a thing – it would have been flexible enough not to get injured. And ten years ago I reckon I’d have had a few days of twinging, but nothing worse. Ten years into the future, I would probably develop a comedy limp for a while. Twenty years hence, an injury like this would probably more-or-less immobilise me, for a while at least. The truth is that my ankle is already middle aged, and in a couple of decades it will be old.

Or, to put it another way: bloody hell, I’m 40.


Slightly dodgy ankle aside, I don’t seem to be entering in on my fifth decade in too bad a shape.

In photographs, my 40-year-old dad looks far older than I look in the mirror. Maybe that’s what having kids does to you? Or, possibly, it’s just having me as his kid that aged him.

Looking in the mirror, I see my hair salted with a few flecks of grey, but the overall impression is still of dark brown. My eyebrows have an evident desire to become a refuge for nesting birds, but with regular trimming they pass muster. The skin around my eyes and on my forehead crinkles easily into creases, but overall remains tolerably smooth; the deep vertical furrow I’ve long had between my eyebrows (the legacy of short-sightedness undiagnosed for years) is not much worse than it ever was. There’s no sign, yet, of wattling on my neck, although if I twist my head to the side the skin is starting to ruckle like carpet where it once contracted like Lycra. My gluteal fold is lengthening, but remains relatively unpronounced. (If you don’t know what a gluteal fold is, or why anyone would care, well, you’re either: (a) not a gay man; or (b) less of a narcissist than me.)

I’m aware I’ve aged, of course: I was last asked for ID buying alcohol 6 years ago. It turns out that’s one of those things that’s intensely annoying when it happens, and galling when it stops. It’s not that I want to be checked – it was always a pain – but at the same time it’s hard to escape a feeling of wistful regret when all around you driving licences are demanded and proffered, while you are considered so old it’s unnecessary.

My appearance has altered in other ways, too. These days, hardly anyone would assume I was female, which was commonplace twenty years ago. Some of that’s down to the fact that I have something approaching facial hair these days. Back then, I could go two weeks between shaves and have no more than a faint shadow along my jaw, whereas now a gap of only two days is enough to produce the same effect. Maybe by the time I’m 50 I’ll get a five o’clock the same day I shaved, like a real man. (I hope my lack of masculine vigour hasn’t come as a shock to anyone: given my fussily precise prose and Pet Shop Boys obsession, I realise some of you will have assumed I was a hulking giant of testosterone-fuelled manliness. Or, you know…not.)

I used to despise my “feminine” appearance, but that’s because I was an idiot when I was young. There was a lot of gender fluidity around in the 1980s, when I was growing up – think Eurythmics; think Culture Club – but somehow I missed all that. Or, no, didn’t miss it, but saw it as something completely unconnected to my life in conservative, rural England: those people might exist in London, and on TV, but I couldn’t see how they could relate to me.

It took me a long time to shake that. Even into my 20s, I still laboured under the misapprehension that all men should be Men-with-a-capital-M, and had an ideal image in my head of what a Man should look like. Basically, for years I wanted to look like Dolph Lundgren’s character, Ivan Drago, in Rocky IV (as a teen I had a picture cut from a magazine on my wall), and I bitterly resented my soft, skinny body for letting me down.

Pumped up, plucked, waxed, and slathered in oil – even my ideal masculine archetype was pretty gay...

Pumped up, plucked, waxed, and slathered in oil – even my ideal masculine archetype was pretty gay…

Even aged 20, when I was plenty old enough to know better, I was so preoccupied with my limited understanding of handsomeness in men – and so disgusted with myself for falling short – that it never even occurred to me that there might be other ways of being attractive. It never occurred to me that, even if I wasn’t handsome, I might have been pretty.

Don’t get me wrong, I was never pretty enough to launch even a small flotilla of ships – an inflatable dinghy, perhaps, or one of those novelty pedalos shaped like a rubber duck. But pretty enough to explain why bored guys in tawdry gay bars at the back end of nowhere would sometimes chat to me, buy me beer, and invite me back to theirs at the end of the night. I was was such an idiot when I was 20 I could never really understand why that sometimes happened, though I was flattered when it did.

I find that’s the thing I really regret, now that I’ve turned 40. Not the increase in the signs of ageing (which are inevitable and – I kid myself – not yet too pronounced), but the loss of my slight prettiness. The problem is that I now look so conventionally, drably male. That was the thing I most wanted 20 years ago – to look like a guy, so that patronising straight men wouldn’t call me “dear” or “love”, then recoil in confusion and embarrassment when they heard my voice. Well, I have that now, only to realise that I don’t want it.

I’ve finally cottoned on to what I (and those occasional bored guys of 20 years ago) find attractive – effeminacy, to use that pejorative term – only to realise that my shoulders have broadened, my chest deepened, and my features coarsened to the point where I no longer possess it. I can’t help but look on those years I spent wedded to the idea of a strict gender binary as a wasted opportunity. Who wants to aspire to look like Dolph Lundgren when you could aspire to look like Diamond Rings?

Prettiness personified: the musician Diamond Rings (or John O'Regan, as he was known for the first 23 years of his life)

Prettiness personified: the musician Diamond Rings (or John O’Regan, as he was known for the first 23 years of his life)


Of course, part of growing up is recognising that life is broken into phases, and that what we had or wanted as young people is not available or appropriate for us as we age (and vice versa). There’s nothing sadder – or so certain to reveal incipient old age – than a middle-aged man trying desperately to persuade himself he’s still young. I like to think I’m not doing too badly with that. OK, so there’s that reference to Diamond Rings above. You might find that suggestive of someone who’s a little too eager to show that he’s still in touch with trendily obscure pop music; you might find it redolent of someone who’s yearning for the mid-20s glamour that is definitively behind him: you might well be right to find it so.

But then again, I don’t set much store by the idea that the phases of our lives are “supposed” to be reflected in our musical and other cultural interests. By my age, according to received wisdom, I “ought” to have put popular music behind me, and moved on to an appreciation for light classical: concertos by Vivaldi, arias by Puccini, that sort of thing. By sticking with pop, I’m opening myself up to a charge of refusing to act my age. The trouble is that, just as much at the age of 40 as at the age of 20, I can’t help but listen to classical music with the same analytical ear that I apply to other forms of music.

In a Mozart piece, the musicians spend most of their time playing either scales or arpeggiated triads, and a large part of every Beethoven symphony is made up of wholly predictable modulation between keys, alongside the same scales and arpeggiated triads. Meanwhile, decent quality pop/rock/whatever-you-call-it is frequently more sophisticated and less facile than much classical music: if you don’t believe me, try comparing the austere emotional resonance of John Grant to the trivial sentimentality of Antonin Dvorak. If preferring sophistication to sentimentality makes my cultural tastes juvenile then I guess they’ll be juvenile my entire life.

I don’t tend to divide my life into phases on the basis of my cultural interests, then, but I like to think I’m ageing with reasonable good grace nonetheless. (If nothing else, I have managed to survive the transition to my fifth decade without breaking out in a sudden rash of inappropriately youthful clothing.) Part of the reason for that is that I don’t just think of ageing as an irreversible process of decline. I think of things changing rather than decaying, and I’d sooner chew my leg off than become one of those witless nostalgists who’s convinced that the present is worse than the past, and that the future will be worse again.

When I first emerged, blinking, into the world of adulthood I was an unthinking optimist, a naïve person who assumed the best of everyone. I had that idealism knocked out of me, of course, by the disillusioning life experiences you’d pretty much expect a naïve optimist to have. That led to cynicism. For a while, in my mid-to-late 20s, I took pride in a cynicism so caustic it could have blistered paint at 50 paces. At the time, I mistook it for world-weary wisdom, and a sign of sophistication, but really it was a straightforward defensive reaction, and a hallmark of relative immaturity.

In due course, I realised that I didn’t like what cynicism was turning me into. What can seem fresh and bracing in a relatively youthful person just seems jaded in an older one, and gay men in particular can easily slide into bitter queenery. So my next step was into intellectualism – if optimism had failed me, and cynicism poisoned me, maybe a cerebral approach to life would pay dividends. It did and it didn’t, of course. I may have gained in dispassionate analysis (and I certainly think I understand people better) but I lost in the lived experience of life. I had good reasons for stepping outside life for a while – the long sequence of death, breakup, breakdown, sacking, eviction and more death that made up much of my 30s had me pretty much convinced that life was too painful to live, especially since death was so ubiquitous – but that’s not to say I profited from it.

So where does that leave me now? With a mindset I’d characterise as deliberately, consciously hopeful, one that’s informed by the cynicism and intellectualism that came before it, but optimistic for the future nonetheless. I’m kinder, these days, than I used to be, but also more robust: I assume the best of people, but I’m quick to spot if they’re taking advantage, and to protect myself accordingly. I find myself increasingly repulsed by cruelty in all its forms. I’ve reacquired my ability to gladly suffer fools, but not those non-fools who consciously choose or affect foolishness for underhand reasons. I find that these days I prize coherence above any other intellectual virtue, including consistency – better to change your mind if logic requires it than to persist in your old beliefs regardless.

I have come to realise that my ambition is to see a kind world, in which people live happy and fulfilled lives, even as I become increasingly convinced (as the standoffish, anxious, melancholic person I know myself to be) that such a life is not possible for me – or at least not as achieved in the conventional way. Although I haven’t given up on sex, I expect to be single for the rest of my life, since I no longer believe in romantic love. That illusion died hard, given that I am a sentimentalist, but it died just the same. I’m now convinced that romantic love, like God and the therapeutic effect of antidepressants, only exists if you believe in it, and that those of us who have passed beyond belief will never recapture it.


Of course, it’s unlikely that I’ll go to my grave thinking precisely as I think now. Barring unforeseen events, this will not be the final phase of my life and, as my life changes, so will my attitude towards it. In the same way that I perceive the cynicism of my mid twenties as a phase, at some point doubtless I will perceive this as a phase, too: the phase associated with my mid-life crisis, perhaps.

That’s the thing about a landmark birthday. It shouldn’t just be a time for poring over old scars, and for wallowing in sentimental nostalgia. Yes, turning 40 is a time to take stock of where I’ve come from, but it’s also a time for looking forward to where I will go next. I’ve got no idea where that will be, and that’s what makes it so interesting. One of the great pleasures in life – in my life, anyway – is satisfying curiosity. With that curiosity always pulling expectantly onwards into the future, who would want to live in the past?

And, anyway, I’m not old. 40 is the new 21. That’s what they’re all saying, am I right?

That’s what everyone says, right?


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2 Responses to Reflections on turning 40: my ankle is middle aged

  1. gun street girl says:

    Might I be the first to wish you a happy birthday?

    I remember when I turned 40. You whippersnappers have it so good these days. Now get off my lawn!

    (serious about the happy birthday; hope it and all the following days are good ones!)

  2. Pingback: ‘Vicious’ bingo | Aethelread the Unread

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