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Old Man River Can Cut It.

The annual boat race between Cambridge and Oxford universities is not generally an event that grabs many people – except of course those students attending either and those who enthuse about rowing. It must be said that there are significant numbers of both and after 165 years of the contest along the River Thames in London, it is also fair to say that the event is one that is well established in the British sporting calendar and it has become something of a tradition. So it is worthy of some attention each year.

165 years does include 2019 and this year’s race hit the headlines even before it began. The reason for this was the inclusion in the Cambridge team of one of Britain’s sporting greats, twice an Olympic Gold winner (as well as a number of other achievements), James Cracknell, and at the age of forty-six. There are those who will say (and undoubtedly have) that Cracknell, at his age, should never have been involved. Not at forty six – universities are places of education and education is not for middle-aged men. Education is for the young; and that’s the point. It isn’t.

Education has never been the exclusive preserve of people under any particular age. Education is a necessary rite-of-passage for the young, a passage enforced by law until the age of eighteen. That legal obligation is why there is something of a mistaken perception that only the young can be educated.

Education however is for everybody and university students are also adults. This is a fact often overlooked or conveniently ignored by some but the age of legal majority, the age at which one becomes an adult, is eighteen. Not twenty-one or twenty-two - eighteen. University places are open to adults, not young people compelled by law to attend only school. James Cracknell is an adult. So he is entirely within his rights to apply for (and be granted) a place at Cambridge. So he is a student. As a student therefore, he is eligible for selection to the university’s boat race team.

Why the attention then? The reason of course, is that so many people have stood back and gone, ‘Oooooooh!’ at his being forty-six. Not merely because he is more than twenty years older than most of his team mates and competitors, but because of the sense of wonder that a man of his age can, could (and did) compete on equal terms with those who are two decades younger than he is.

That sense of wonder is usually aimed at people who are well past retirement age, people in their seventies and older, who go parachuting or similar, doing things that are not generally considered ‘suitable’ for anybody once past a certain age. Why should this be so? At one time in the UK, whilst not given the same reverence as in other countries, older people were at least respected and listened to, their life experience considered worthwhile. Not anymore. Not since 1997.

From that year on, a wedge began to appear between generations. A wedge that has grown wider and more divisively inserted into the thinking of too many people in the UK. That wedge is often pushed further into place by politicians who, perhaps unthinkingly, use two words and one phrase more than any others when describing the wonderful things they are going to do. The two words are ‘Young’ and ‘People’. The phrase is ‘An ageing population’. One result of this is the mistaken idea that only old people voted for Brexit. The young all want to remain in the EU. No they didn’t and no they don’t. There are plenty of young people who voted to leave and plenty of older people who voted to remain.

It is not only Brexit however that has seen an increase in discriminatory practices and attitudes towards anybody over a certain age. The NHS is one of the worst, with countless numbers of older people abandoned to deteriorate, decay and die on hospital trolleys rather than being treated. There are other examples but every time a politician talks of work and housing it can be almost guaranteed that the words ‘Young’ and ‘People’ will be used somewhere. Every time a politician talks of the numbers of people in the UK, it is close to a certainty that the phrase ‘An Ageing Population’ will be used. Both words and phrase are used in connection with numerous other subjects as well and what is being said is somewhat subliminal; the underlying message is that older people don’t matter. Older people are worthless and must be either ignored or preferably got rid of.

An attitude starkly demonstrated by the youthful audience member on the BBC’s Question Time (Thursday 4 April, 2019) who, during a debate on Brexit, described the leave vote as ‘The will of the dead.’

James Cracknell struck a blow for age at the boat race in 2016. As one of his team mates said, he was ‘just one of the guys’. His age was irrelevant. Cracknell demonstrated beyond any doubt that merely because one passes a particular birthday, it doesn’t mean one is worth less or that one cannot (or should not be allowed) to do certain things. Yes, as we get older it helps if we look after ourselves – that there are far, far too many in the UK who do not, most especially after they get past thirty, is indisputable. If more, vastly more people, over thirty exercised more, took part in things more, and fought back against the ageist agenda promoted by those who want to show how ‘in touch’ they are, perhaps there might be more James Cracknells, not just in rowing but in all spheres of our lives. Perhaps age might not be thought of as such a bad thing. Perhaps we might even stop demonising older people and telling the young how bad more mature people are and how they must be avoided.

As George Bernard Shaw once said, ‘You don’t stop playing because you get old. You get old because you stop playing’.

Allow me to place my own little addition to the principle; No matter what your age now, no matter how cool, young and funky you may be now, you…will get old one day. You cannot stop it, you cannot avoid it, you cannot reject it, vote against it, delay it or overturn it. You…will get old one day.

© Kevan James 2019.

You can read more of Kevan James’ views regarding the division between generations and why 1997 is so important (along with other topics) in his book, ‘Comments of a Common Man’, £9.99, available from Amazon

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