People live much longer than they used to. When I was a child, just before the beginning of the 2nd Punic War, it was rare indeed to have a grandparent even in their seventies. The last time British people had so many people in their eighties still dominating them was late in the 19th century; I do not know why . . . something to do with Victorian stickability I suspect.
An article in a leading English periodical inspired the following few words about the still influential over-80s. I do realise that other European countries also have many shining examples of elderly winners, but this article is about Britain, so there.
The Queen: Elizabeth, Queen of Great Britain and Canada, is 84. She has reigned since her father’s death in 1952, was crowned in 1953. This formidable woman still undergoes slightly more than 500 official enagements per annum. She has survived a difficult but loving marriage with a difficult but engaging man. She has survived the eccentricities of her difficult but entertaining children. She has one of the most acute senses of humour even seen in a British monarch, at least since Henry II. Like him, she has needed it, and the British should cherish it (the sense of humour), and her. It is hard to see where she has put a foot wrong in nearly sixty years.
Prince Philip: This compelling man, popular with some, not so popular with others, is 93. He dazzled the Queen with his extraordinary good looks and lackadaisical manner, when she was a princess, and is still said to exert a great influence over her. He did away with much humdrum nonsense within a short time of his wife’s becoming Queen – such as the Debutantes and Queen Charlotte’s Ball. He was a splendid athlete when young, and only gave up playing polo twenty years ago. He has not been a good father to the royal couple’s children, especially in the question of their schooling, though he did better with the girl than the boys – Benenden was a good choice for the Princess Royal. His oldest son loathed Kurt Hahn’s Scottish Salem at Gordonstoun, and probably never forgave his father for the notion.
Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (née Mitford):
The youngest of the legendary ‘Mitford Girls’, she is now 91. Married very young to the future duke, she took the reins early, and converted one of the greatest of all the English great houses, Chatsworth (then almost a ruin) into a working business with a board of directors. Chatsworth pays for its own upkeep and makes a profit. She is also a prolific and popular author. Now as ‘retired’ as any Mitford could be, she lives at Edensor, as her son is now the Duke. She is slim and beautiful, as she has been since she stopped being chubby (and beautiful) around 11 years old. She has seventeen healthy grandchildren, all as tough and mildly eccentric as Debbo’s parents Lord and Lady Redesdale.
The novelist baroness was 90 in 2010. She still works occasionally on BBC radio as an editor. Her metier is writing chilling novels that stop your sleep for a couple of nights or more. She has worked hard for her undoubted success, including bringing up two children by herself. She is an international bestseller, her plots intricate and elegant (and often chosen as set book in Oxbridge examinations). In a celebrated radio interview, she chewed up the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, and spat him out into a bloodstained cambric hankie. Neither the BBC nor Thompson recovered.
He is 82, a journalist, writer and historian. It would be difficult to think of other English writers of his age or much younger who combine a mind like an encyclopaedia with effortless authority. Two other great writers hated him, Auberon Waugh and Gore Vidal, which must be a special kind of consolation for his age. He survives Waugh, but Gore is alive in his eighties.
Still firing broadsides, like a swift, deadly 36-gunned frigate of the 18th century, Perry fought in the 2nd War alongside Michael Oakeshott, who some saw as the greatest Conservative thinker of the 20th century. He is what might be called a professional political philosopher, sometimes a little prosy, but readable for all that. He is 87.
82 years old and still a working journo, William was a hard-hitting and controversial editor of the Times. He had a justified reputation for firing other journalists.
At 85, love her or leave her, Thatcher stands out as the woman who put Britain firmly back on its formerly unsteady feet. At home, she saw the trade unions as Britain’s most vicious enemy, laboured against the English habit of lazyness and living beyond one’s means, and deterred if not stopped the dreadful tide of state ownership. Abroad she worked with Reagan and the Pope to topple the Soviet Union. When she visited Gdansk after the fall of the Wall, she was cheered by thousands of working men, but they were Russians: if they had been British and had had the chance, they would have bashed her with her own handbag and strangled her with her chiffon scarf.
She is 80, this woman who did more to destabilize British education than any other Education Minister. She is still in politics, at European level: still causing no end of trouble and upsetting everybody.
The greatest of all Draculas (though he would not thank me for describing him thus), is 88. He has made 266 films, more than anyone else, and recently had success as Count Dooku in the new Starwars trilogy, as well as making a memorable Saruman in Lord of the Rings. Bet you didn’t know he has a fully trained baritone singing voice, was a sabre and foil fencing champion, and had an Italian aristocrat for a mother. He is over 6 feet 6 inches tall.
The best known Scot in the world is 80 this year. He never stops reading, and is in fact largely self-taught. He has been a plasterer’s mate, bodyguard, boxer, candidate for the Mr Universe title, and James Bond – twice, with a gap of 10 years between two Bond movies. He is a gentleman, but does not suffer fools gladly. His reputation is such that for the last thirty years film producers have given him cameo roles in movies to ensure people go to see them (see Highlander, The Untouchables, First Knight etc.) A large percentage of his earnings has gone towards financing the Scottish National Party, which pleases Alex Salmond very much.
It is hard to believe that this dear old gentleman (87) once played a demonised killer in Graham Greenes’s Brighton Rock, and a working-class scholarship boy in a public school, in a film called The Guinea Pig. He is famous as an epic film director, one-time close friend of the Queen Mother, and brother of . . .
. . .David Attenborough (80s)
Before David the nearest Britons got to Nature was the antique TV interval starring tropical fish. Close-ups of corral, spiders, killer whales catching seals in the shallows, cannibal tribes meeting the white man, studies of hunting birds from the sparrow-hawk to the osprey, all this and more we owe to this member of the talented Attenborough family. He is a scientist who writes poetic scripts. He was a highly successful director of BBC2 – and managed to avoid becoming director-general of BBC1. He will probably be best remembered for Life on Earth (1970s).
At 91 this extraordinary draughtsman and cartoonist still works half the day every day. The best tribute comes from his colleagues, professional artists, who recently voted him (9 out of 10) their favourite cartoonist. He invented St. Trinians, My Skule, and very small girls on very fat ponies. Looking through collections of his works, it would be difficult for the world’s worst curmudgeon to be disagreeable.
Now alone without her musician husband, Cleo still works at 83. She recently sang her jazz with Andrew Lloyd Webber (no less) on piano at the Royal Festival Hall.
The clarinettist who composed and played a noteworthy Top of the Pops when I was at school in England in the early Fifties is another of these hard-working chaps who never stops work. He is just off to tour Ireland at 82 years old.
The legendary conductor of the LSO is 83. Tickets for his ‘Proms Concert’ the Beethoven Missa Solemnis go on sale 5th May, so I do not need to write that he still working too!