2017 was always going to be designated as a ‘milestone birthday year’, albeit not in the way that other birthdays had happened. Quite a long time ago, I remember going out for drinks on my 21st, drinking and smoking my way into a terrific hangover, and thinking that life was unable to get much better than this (I was completely wrong). When I was thirty, I sent out invitations to celebrate, or commiserate, passing into middle age, and we had a huge party, reforming the bands we’d been in a few years before, in the realisation that we were all headed for some sort of rock & roll decline (which we were). Another party for my fortieth, but this time with a more expensive suit, and a further band reunion, but, worryingly, sitting down to play. And then, a few years ago, 50, which, unnervingly, is least clear of all, lost in a haze of extreme running, ice baths and ill advised tequila competitions with kids who were young enough to be my children. Which, of course, they were.
Being 55 was different, but notable in its own special way. Firstly, there were a series of letters reminding me that years ago, I’d suggested that May 2017 would be an excellent time to retire, and I would save every last penny I had to make that happen. I kept my promise on the savings front, but unfortunately others in my life didn’t*, and I found myself woefully short of the sunset retiree lifestyle that Michael Aspel and Gloria Hunniford seem to witter on about, given half a chance.
Then came more letters, the first one the day after my birthday, inviting me to take out insurance for my declining years (with free Parker pen, but only if I reply now!), then offering holidays, to be taken with other over-55’s, probably so we could have long chats about Brexit and the youth of today. A horrible prospect indeed, a bit like an 18-30 holiday but with less energy, less tolerance, and less wet T-shirt competitions (I’d hope).
And then, the letter I’d been looking forward to least. Because, at 55, you get put on a special health screening list. The first letter is fairly innocuous, welcoming you to the world of the NHS, and giving you assurance that early screening of bowel cancer is a fabulous way of getting old gracefully. Or, I suppose, at all. The letter is beautifully put together, with soft words around screening and images and prevention, and makes very little reference to the main point of the exercise, which is to put a smallish camera up your backside, with a longer lead than you might imagine possible.
So what you do is fill in the form, because you figure that you do really really really want to know if you have the other c-word in your life. And you put the appointment in your diary and try not to think for a few weeks, and, largely, you don’t. And then, a couple of weeks before you need to start remembering about the appointment that you’re trying not to remember, a parcel arrives.
I still love getting parcels, especially unexpected ones. A few years ago, I got a book posted to me about great naval battles of the Second World War. Inside, it said ‘To Kevin’. Nothing else, and no clue who’d sent it, other than a Manchester postmark. It remains one of the most brilliant moments of my life. Last week I got a parcel from my parents, just as unexpected, which had two packets of smoked mackerel in it. Not as weird as it sounds, but just as delightful. So when this parcel arrived, I pounced on it like Michael Fallon at a Young Conservatives rally.
I tore the parcel open, and (you might be ahead of me here) was disappointed to see nothing about great naval battles and no sign of smoked mackerel. Instead, there was a tube, a plastic container full of clear fluid, and a set of instructions on how to use your enema.
I’ve never had an enema before, but my wife, a woman with the patience and black sense of humour shared by many in the nursing profession, told me that there was nothing to worry about. In fact (and I should have smelt a rat here), she offered to help administer the enema, to make sure that it was ‘working properly’.
When the diary date finally arrived, I knocked off work a bit early, got home and reread the enema instructions for about the 50th time, and Mrs E kindly suggested that she could help with what she charmingly called the ‘introduction’. For a while, I wasn’t absolutely sure what she meant, and then suddenly I very much was. There was a definite imbalance on the enthusiasm of the two of us taking part. I don’t think she actually shouted out ‘Geronimo’, as she ‘introduced’, but she might as well have done.
If you’ve had one of these enemas, you’ll be fairly aware of what happens next. Not very much for the first 10 minutes and then, fairly suddenly, something that feels like a small volcano in your lower intestine. Fortunately in our house there are only a couple of dozen buttock-clenching strides between the sofa and the toilet, where I realised the true sensation of what I understand is called an evacuation. When, as Lionel Ritchie once said, there was ‘nothing left to give’, it was time to go to the hospital. In a plan that was either macho, naive or stupid, I’d planned to cycle there, but agreed with Mrs E that it might be, after all, worth taking her up on her offer of a lift.
Mrs E dropped me off at the hospital, arranged to pick me up at some vague point in the future, and I distinctly heard her cackling away to herself as she drove off. Found my way to the gastro ward without asking for directions (always a win), and opened the door to the waiting room. My appointment was for 18:15, and I suppose I expected a small room with 3-4 people awaiting their evening appointment with a sigmoidoscope. Much to my surprise, the door opened to a really large waiting room, with maybe 50 chairs, and almost each one occupied. I sat down at one of the chairs, and looked around. I noticed that everyone else was looking around surreptitiously as well; I wasn’t really sure why until it suddenly struck me – I’d not been in this situation since I was about 15.
Just to be clear, no-one shoved a camera up my backside when I was 15, but that was probably the last time that I’d walked into a room of people of exactly the same age. And then, like now, everyone was looking round, while trying not to catch anyone else’s eye, to see, well, how the last 40 years had gone for everyone else. Slightly different thoughts to the ones when I was 15, perhaps a bit more ‘looks like he had a good Christmas’, and a bit less ‘crikey, where did he get those shoes/trousers/haircut?’, and some new thoughts too, like ‘I wonder why he brought his wife along, particularly if she’s going to look so bloody miserable’, and ‘ there’s an odd place for a tattoo’. And we were probably all having these thoughts as the receptionist kindly matched called out names to match faces. I seemed to get called about 10 minutes after checking in, which did make me wonder how I’d jumped the queue. Maybe this was just somewhere that a selection of 55 year old men go on Wednesday evenings for their own entertainment. Perhaps some of them had enjoyed the process so much in the past that they’d turn up hoping for a cancellation.
Then you’re shown into a small room and asked to undress, put one gown on backwards, another one on forwards, and keep your shoes and socks on, and put your clothes in the shopping basket provided. You emerge from the little room, carrying your basket, and sit down next to the other men who have just been through the same process. Now, I’m not sure if there’s a supermarket scene in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, but if there is, we were reenacting it, sitting there with gowns and modesty barely intact, still wearing unlaced boots and socks, and each clutching on to a shopping basket. It’s not a look I’ll be planning to replicate, but it’s definitely one to remember for a while.
Another call, and this time into a room with a proper door, and serious equipment and people inside. There were four of them, and I was introduced to each one in turn. One was going to make me feel comfortable from the front, the next was to keep an eye on things from the back, the lead role was to be taken by a kindly soul who would be wielding the camera, leaving Steve in the corner who was going to be doing the ‘impressive stuff with the computer’. Well, they all looked very relaxed about the whole situation, especially Steve, who had an especially comfortable looking office chair. I asked if they normally heard or told jokes during this sort of procedure. They didn’t, but would be very happy to hear any material from me. I said I’d not really prepared anything specifically for this event, so I told them a bit about the enema and how it reminded me of a John Cooper Clarke line:
‘Like a recently disinfected shithouse
You’re clean round the bend’
Steve pitched in with his favourite joke, which wasn’t necessarily a gag as you or I might know it, but ended with some sort of a punchline from Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones ; ‘They don’t like it up ‘em’.
With all parties sufficiently relaxed, a nervy silence crept into the room, only to be broken by the lead role:
‘What you’re going to feel next is my finger’
Which I did.
If you’re lucky enough to have the over-55 invite still to turn up in your post, rest assured, because the rest of the exercise is relatively pain free. In common with teenage sex, watching Norwich City at home and the final couple of Clash albums, the excitement of anticipation isn’t really matched by the following reality. There’s a bit of discomfort; a really disconcerting video stream in front of you showing your healthy pink insides and a phenomenal feeling that you’re going to poo yourself in front of four people. There were a few encouraging ‘please relax’ shoves from behind, and a few calming words from the front, telling me that all would be well, and admiring my resting pulse. ‘Are you a runner?’ said the voice in front, and, naturally enough, the next few minutes passed by in a very convivial fashion, with me talking about my favourite subject to a captive audience.
And in no time at all ‘All clear’ was announced, with everyone in the room aware of the double meaning. I started to move off the table, and was met with firm holds on three sides.
‘We’ll just give that a bit of a wipe’
And I think I would have last heard those words, in that context, about 50 years ago.
Sometimes I guess we all feel a bit nostalgic for the days when we didn’t have to bother about self-dignity. I guess that might be something else to look forward to as we get old.
* In no particular order, the others in my life who stopped me from retiring were : Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, and Fred Goodwin, along with the hilariously well-rewarded 2007-8 Risk Committee of the Royal Bank of Scotland.