I want to be forever young
Do you really want to live forever?
Forever, or never?
A song by German pop group Alphaville, released in 1984. I was 16 and, given the song’s lyric, ‘We’re only watching the skies/Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst/Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?’ I should have been singing it at Ban the Bomb rallies. It should have been one of my teen anthems, but I didn’t even know it existed.
Instead, it became a tween anthem for my son and daughter; the first time I heard the song it was coming from one of their music players in 2006, after the Australian band fittingly named Youth Group had covered it for the US television program The OC. Then, in 2009, American rapper Jay Z released a remix of the Alphaville version to his adoring public. But that version, my now 20-year-old rap-obsessed son tells me, was itself a re-working of the 1992 cover of the song done by Wayne Wonder/Buju Banton/Stone Love.
Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy; ‘Forever Young’ is fresh for every new music-loving audience. And that fits perfectly in the cultural milieu my youngest son occupies. For my nine-year-old, the idea of new or old music is meaningless; it simply comes out of a phone or an iPad, now. Music has no history or future, he just hears it.
Despite the seeming agelessness of so many cultural artefacts in a digital age, no such desire for eternal youth exists in my adult children. Instead, they’re aligned with that old pattern of wanting to grow up. During her work at a café, my 22-year-old daughter overheard a four-year-old girl talking to her mum. The mum explained to her daughter there were certain things she couldn’t do because of her age. The girl sobbed and squealed, ‘I want to be five! Everything will be better when I’m five!’
We laughed at the little girl’s pathos, but, later that day, my daughter, desperate to get finished with uni and café work, said, ‘I can’t wait to be thirty, with a full-time job, and having brunch on the weekend.’ I waited to see if she remembered the little girl, whether there was irony in her statement, but no. That was probably a good time to talk to her about St Augustine’s meditations on time, but the topic came up later when we chatted about what her future might hold.
‘You realise that time, well, it’s a construct,’ I stuttered, doing my best to explain St A’s thoughts, ‘because we don’t know where the past or the future are, and the present never actually arrives?’
Her vague nod showed it hadn’t been a subject of late-night chats with her girlfriends.
‘So, yeah,’ she said, ‘time doesn’t really exist?’
‘No, probably not,’ I replied, not having a clue. ‘But we have to work with it.’
I’m glad she and my older son show no interest in remaining forever young, surrounded as they are by celebs keen to remain ever-youthful, to appear perfect, to never wrinkle, to never say or do anything that might show their age. Because that’s not how I experienced life as a twenty-something—and it started in my teens.
I was ageist. Dire Straits was one of my favourite bands growing up. They played a record 13 straight shows at the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Centre in 1986, and I caught a gig somewhere in the middle. I was obsessed with the Straits and put on my wall a poster of Mark Knopfler playing guitar: signature red headband, sweat flying and greying hair.
The poster was up a few months before I felt uncomfortable hero worshipping a bloke with greying hair. I pulled down the poster and got interested in younger bands or those whose lead singers had died and had no chance of developing grey hair.
Soon after my conversion, the recession of the early 1990s hit. People struggled to find part-time gigs let alone full-time work. My employment history was limited to service station console operation and, failing to get work in that area, a registered nurse friend who thought 20-year-old me had a caring personality, prised open a door that should have been closed to me and I was soon a nurse’s assistant at a city nursing home.
Grey hair everywhere. White too. And people whose lives were ending as mine—both in age and faith experience—was getting started. It cured my ageism, forever. The people who needed spoon feeding and their soiled undergarments and bedclothes removed were the same people who told me of their high-ranking former professions.
I could almost hear the spirit’s voice in my ear: This is what it comes to, Paul. Think less about what you do with your life than who you are in it.
Too often, I failed to listen. Trying to be a rock star in a band in my mid-twenties, I read Rolling Stone magazine looking out for the ages of people in bands. How far behind was I? Our band didn’t have a recording contract, let alone a single or an album. Then, when my creative energies turned to writing, something I was better at, the same age anxiety appeared: how old was Tim Winton when Cloudstreet was published? Oh my God, twenty-seven! I was thirty-three when I first noticed that fact and I hadn’t even published a book.
Danae Bosler, whom I taught at uni, is Mayor of the City of Yarra in her mid-twenties. A current popstar, Billie Ellish, in the forever young music industry at seventeen, has received a billion plays and has fifteen million followers on Instagram. And what about that Jesus bloke? Thirty-three and hung on a cross, with several billion followers (and growing) over two millennia.
But then there’s Norman Maclean, who published the near-perfect novella A River Runs Through It at age seventy-four. And Allan Gray who, at age eighty-three, is still employed as an engineer and has for 10 years volunteered weekly at the city’s St Vincent’s de Paul soup van. He says, ‘I know it sounds silly, but I need to go out and be educated by these people on the street.’ Considered the van’s wisest volunteer, he has been known to literally give the clothes off his back to people in need.
If there is one version of ‘Forever Young’—hip-hop, literary, popstar or politician—that I could bear listening to forever, it’s Allan’s. Youth might be wasted on the young as Oscar Wilde said, and age might be just a number as many health experts proclaim, but I want to be forever young in the way that Allan clearly is.
‘I’ve got no plans of retiring,’ he says. ‘I jokingly say that when you retire you have an affair, you buy a boat, you paint your house and after that, what do you do? Sit in God’s waiting room? You’ve got to plan [for that time], but I don’t plan to retire. I’ve got too many things to do.’
Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne-based writer. His latest book is a novel, We. Are. Family (MidnightSun Publishing).