In Defence of the Midlife Crisis – what happens when age catches up with us?

Newsnight culture editor Stephen Smith tried to find out how to grow old gracefully for a new BBC Radio 4 documentary. Did it work?

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When it comes to the midlife crisis, I’ve been lucky. I’ve never had one. I’ve been too busy having a whole-life crisis instead, which has affected my work and my relationships, not to mention several much-loved hobbies.

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But the MLC? Not so much. So when Radio 4 asked me to make a programme about it, I was nonplussed. Was no one available from Top Gear? Maybe someone had seen my stuff on Newsnight and recognised it as a cry for help.

But it’s not all about me, which ironically is one of the lessons of the MLC. Within living memory, our 40s and 50s were merely the anteroom to old age, but now we’re all living much longer. A man turning 65 in the mid-1990s had another 15 years to look forward to; today, it’s 18 years and counting. 

Women’s life expectancy has similarly increased, from 83 to getting on for 86. Retirement, like a vexatious hairline, keeps receding further every day, as politicians tell us we’ll have to stay at work for longer. So the pressure is on to keep fit and fashionable.

At my present age – 39, plus VAT – my dad wouldn’t have been seen dead in shorts, except during a few rubbers of tennis or when mowing the lawn. Now the culotte, thong and pedal-pusher are ubiquitous among the chaps from May until September, and I mean that in the actuarial sense. 

Our wardrobe is getting younger while we no longer are, but this doesn’t in itself signal a midlife crisis. Psychotherapist Philippa Perry says, “What’s in crisis is the meaning we make of our experiences. We are meaning-making creatures so we make a meaning and it fits for a while, but when it ceases to fit, and what we believe doesn’t match up to our experience, that’s what constitutes a crisis.”

Something very like that happened to writer and journalist Miranda Sawyer in her mid-40s. She’s living proof that the MLC isn’t peculiar to men. “The strongest feeling I had was: I’ve done it all wrong. I’ve woken up in this life and it’s not my life.” As Sawyer explains in her new book, Out of Time, she had her children comparatively late, and part of her anxiety was about her unfulfilled goals.

For some, the answer is cosmetic surgery. Personally, I’d never rule it out. So it wasn’t
 only for professional purposes that I paid a
 call on the Harley Street practice of husband-and-wife team Dr Aamer Khan and Lesley Reynolds. They have a smile for everyone, as well as a big basket of fillers that look like newly landed jellyfish. The couple are face-fixers to the stars, and to the rest of us. They also treat injured veterans.

I stated my preference for the fresh, natural look of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. But the couple’s modus operandi is to assure themselves of a client’s commitment before proceeding. “How happy are you with your appearance?” Lesley asked me – doubtfully, I thought.

At 47, musician Jason Rebello still has the youthful good looks that prompted record companies to shower him with contracts when he was barely out of college. It all happened very fast for him, including a prodigiously early MLC in his mid-20s. That led Rebello to quit show-business for a monastery.

At one time, he was anchoring Sting’s rhythm section in stadiums and amphitheatres. “At first, it was incredible. But then getting on a private jet became like getting on a bus. The tour manager would find us in the hotel lobby doing the crossword and say, ‘Bloody hell – this isn’t rock ’n’ roll!’”

In search of enlightenment, Rebello joined a Buddhist monastery, but left after a couple of months. Meditating full time wasn’t for him, though he still drops in from time to time, a kind of spiritual daybug. Rebello continues to record and perform. Like other MLC veterans I met, he looks back on the experience as a salutary stocktaking.

If you happen to be approaching midlife as you read this, and starting to worry that a crisis is inevitable, take heart from evergreen socialite Nicky Haslam. Now 76, the interior designer, who has partied with everyone from Andy Warhol to the Rolling Stones, insists that the MLC passed him by.

For Nicholas Ponsonby Haslam, to give him his full name, who was born into a titled family, emerging unruffled from one of life’s choppiest watersheds is largely a matter of good manners. “I mean, if a chap’s wife has left him, well, she’s left him,” he says unarguably.

“You mean, there’s no point maundering on about it?”

“Exactly.”

One of the great stories of ageing is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which the eponymous daub exhibits the ravages of time and excess that mysteriously leave Dorian himself unmarked. I think of this in Haslam’s salon, which is overlooked by not one but a gallery of portraits of mine host. “They’re here because no one else wanted them,” he says. There’s isn’t so much as a wrinkle on any of them.

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In Defence of the Midlife Crisis is on air Saturday 10.30am, Radio 4