Illustration by Brett Lethbridge
Illustration by Brett Lethbridge

Less really is more when you turn 50

A mate I know is turning 50 and is a little wobbly about it, which I admit I am enjoying a tad too much.

He's just become a grandfather for the first time too, which has dramatically heightened his "I'm no longer the wild young thing at The Zoo" vibe. We meet for coffee.

"Hey Pops," I say, but when I see him, I instantly soften. His mousy shoulders are slumped. This 50 thing is weighing heavy.

"I've just got the knack of life, drive a car that doesn't break down, and now what?"

Being a caring friend, I had planned to get him a tweed flat cap as a cruel gift but see something more reassuring is needed: literature!

I give him a book titled Less, which is the furthest thing from a self-help book you could find.

"Strange to be almost 50, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young."

"Yes! It's like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won't ever be back."

It is Andrew Sean Greer's latest novel, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, about which US author Ann Patchett declared: "I recommend it with my whole heart."

It is the story of Arthur Less, a struggling novelist travelling the world to escape his problems, feeling he has failed at life, yet it's also a book about love, ambition and travel. It is witty and charming, and takes ordinary middle age seriously, without being a bit ordinary.

On making it this far: "It is, after all, almost a miracle they are here.

Not because they've survived the booze, the hashish, the migraines. Not that at all. It's that they've survived everything in life, humiliations and disappointments and heartaches and missed opportunities, bad dads and bad jobs and bad sex and bad drugs, all the trips and mistakes and face-plants of life, to have made it to fifty."

The face-plants of life! Thank you for writing that phrase, Andrew Sean Greer.

Let's be honest. In anyone's life, a birthday, any birthday, can suddenly slug you a little harder than others. You can be particularly breezy with 60 yet buckled at the thought of turning 40.

Surely 70 or 80 will be great, where you can wear outrageous clothes, say provocative things, call everyone "Darling" so no need to remember names, and drink martinis at 3pm.

Or have I just been watching a little too much Grace and Frankie on Netflix while sick in bed with a winter cold? Almost certainly.

I'm not much of a one for novels, my mate says. "Listen, you can't just read bloody biographies of generals for the rest of your life."

His family is throwing him a big party, inviting 100 of his nearest and dearest. "I don't have that many people I like, so god knows who they've invited." The whole thing is making him morose. What to advise?

From Less again: "We all recognise grief in moments that should be celebrations; it is the salt in the pudding. Didn't Roman generals hire slaves to march beside them in a triumphant parade and remind them that they too would die?" 

Forget spending money on slaves, I say, but remember to taste that salt and think, oh, I know what that is, life reminding me I am mortal. And then enjoy the moment, the pud more.

We drink up our coffees. I have so far delivered him hashish, foreign countries, face-plants and now pudding - all good, solid advice - although he still looks a little bewildered.

As we leave, I give some heartening parting news for the birthday boy: "You know what else happens on your 50th birthday? The government, to cheer you up, sends you a bowel cancer testing kit. It's life's way of saying 'Happy Birthday'. Use it. I know three people whose lives have potentially been saved by that little stick in a box."

AND ANOTHER THING …

Now, if you need to slyly slip away for a little time to work on your cultural hinterland, as all sane people do, the Byron Bay Writers Festival (August 3-5) allows you to combine three days of surf, swim, run, coffee, good food, books, drink and sleep - a kind of heaven, really.

The lineup includes Bernard Schlink (The Reader); Trent Dalton (Boy Swallows Universe), Lloyd Jones (Mister Pip); one of Australia's most successful artists, Tracey Moffatt; and Chris Hammer (Scrublands). Make the road trip just for the amazing Charles Massy (Call of the Reed Warbler), author, farmer with PhD in social change, expert on regenerative agriculture. He's the bomb.



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