Yesterday I came face to face with untrammelled youth and lost the encounter. I was the one who stepped aside. It was a clash of wills; age lost and youth won, as in the end I suppose it must. It was a pity because I represent age. I stepped aside; the pimply eighteen year old bounded ahead, up the stairs; mine might be the basilisk stare of age and experience but his was the glittery eye of self righteous youth. Hurry on down, he was saying; the future is mine. So it is.
I try not to get the 3.50 train home from Waterloo to Dorset – it’s usually crowded, and is besides, the one train of the day which stops on the ‘wrong’ platform; instead of just walking out of the side gate into the station yard and straight into a waiting car, one has to climb the steps across the tracks by the stone bridge. After a hot rainy day in London the stairs can seem the last straw.
The 3.50 pulled in on the wrong side, the train emptied – this is its ‘final destination’-, passengers streamed out and up the stairs. A socially-conscious group waited to let the energetic go first– we’re very mannerly here in Dorset. The old and infirm, those with bicycles or heavy bags, take time and wait politely so as not to hold others up. I am one of the last to go, conscious that I have a hip which needs replacing and take the steps one at a time.
I was on my way down, with only some eight steps to go, when a youth bounded up the stairs on my side, and instead of dodging aside and back as the young usually do –anxious not to meet anyone’s eye for fear of reproach – he stopped in front of me, stared and waited for me to move out of his way. He was not aggressive, the light in his eye was not so much hostile as aflame with self-righteousness. Why? Sure, I was in his path – perhaps he had right of way? But isn’t keeping to the left for roads and escalators? No, the problem was I was old, he was young, I was just in his way. He was declaring war. I was taken by surprise. I am 81, he was 18. Just you wait, I almost said, but didn’t. Instead, I stood aside, understanding my defeat before the words even formed. I was the one to move, and he bounded on up, triumphant.
Automatic deference from youth would be nice, but hardly to be expected. It’s like any ‘human right’ – nice work if you can get it, that’s all. The old are in the young’s way in every sense of the word. We live longer and longer, we keep our jobs, we use up the benefit budget. Worse, we are a hideous reminder of mortality. We just don’t look nice.
If youth eventually takes power, as it already begins to, empowered and united by the new weapons of Twitter and Facebook to get rid of doddering tyrants, elderly generals and old establishments, the old can do little more than placate. Prudent to step aside graciously, as I did on the station steps yesterday, and forgive; put it down to experience and hope that youth learns from its own.