Clem Sunter

Those were the days, my friend

2013-04-10 15:30

Clem Sunter

I saw a beautiful movie last weekend called Quartet featuring four retired opera singers performing together at an old age home for retired musicians. Played by Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtney and Pauline Collins (whom I remember as Shirley Valentine talking to the wall), the four sing at an annual gala concert held on Verdi's birthday at the home. Of course, they were only play-acting, but they were accompanied by real musicians who had reached the top of their professions in their previous careers.

The democracy of aging

The film really got to me for two reasons. The first one is that as I get older, everybody gets older with me. No matter how rich you are, no matter how healthy a life you lead, you age. Julia Roberts now has lines on her face, Robert Redford's eyes are even more crinkled and Mick Jagger cannot strut his stuff quite as energetically as he did. The memory bank grows as the future shortens and the body grows weary.

I spent 11 years going to a British nursing home in Salisbury, Wiltshire to see my mother. As an only child, I would spend two to three weeks with her every year. I remember one evening in the communal dining room sitting at a round table with my mother and some of her co-residents. We were all sipping our regulation one glass of red wine when an old lady at the table says: "Why are we all here?" Her companion in her late 80s replies: "Because, my dear, we are not all there!" Logical and very funny and all of us nearly laughed ourselves to death.

Just like the home in the movie, there was a lot of fun and mischief and interesting interplay between the residents and the much younger staff. I thoroughly enjoyed those 11 years and when my mother died a few years ago, I said goodbye to all the people at the home with a genuine heaviness of heart. I haven't been back since, thus it has joined all the other memories in my bank. Yet I know, God willing, that one day through the democratic process of aging I will be joining those ranks. Nothing can put that off.

The eternity of music

However, there is one thing that does not age and that is the beauty of music and the passion to play it. In their advanced years, those musicians in the film - playing piano, violin, bass and wind instruments - did it with the same gusto as they had done in their prime. Which brings me to the second reason I loved the movie: I was a musician too but not of that elite sort. I played rock music with a friend of mine around the UK in the 1960s and one of my memories (which no one can take away) was playing at the same gig as the Rolling Stones in the summer of 1964. We alternated on the stage all the way through the night and had a big breakfast with all the party-goers in the morning.

The Stones are now celebrating their 50 years together with a concert in Hyde Park. I am sure they will blow the crowd away. In my case, I came out of retirement in the parking lot of the Rosebank shopping mall the other day in Johannesburg. A busker was playing a 1960s song on his guitar at the pay point, so I offered to show him how we played it at the time. I must have been an interesting sight for some of the shoppers who came up to pay, as they did drop coins into his hat.

Anyway I would like to end this article by quoting the magnificent lyrics of Gene Raskin, an American folk singer, in a song made famous by Mary Hopkin in 1968:

Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.

Old age is not for cissies, but it is a privilege bestowed by surviving the slings and arrows of life. Enjoy it while you can.

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