It's a Mann's World: Mid-Life-What?

Olly Mann 8 June 2021

As he approaches middle age, Olly Mann ponders the randomness of life, ageing and sports cars 

How did YOUR mid-life crisis arrive? An affair with the milkman? A Lamborghini? A three-week bender in Vegas? I haven’t done any of these things - although I’ve only just turned forty, so perhaps they’re yet to come.

I didn’t think I was bothered about looking youthful, or ticking off my bucket-list, or sowing my wild euphemisms. As a kid, I actively wanted to be middle-aged: the diary I kept when I was thirteen records my school computer password as ‘I6Want7To8Grow6Up’. Indeed, I remember aspiring to be forty: it seemed the perfect age to be! Old enough to have achieved financial independence, young enough to remain physically fit. Old enough to be excused from nightclubs, young enough that my politics would not yet have turned full Fascist.

But now I’m here… I don’t know… the ‘half-way’ thing is playing on my mind, a bit. My Dad died at 70. His Dad died at 62. So, being optimistic, I’ve reached the half-way point. All the food I’ve ever eaten, all the sunsets I’ve ever seen, all the live gigs I’ve ever attended, all the laughs I’ve ever laughed… I’ve eaten up about half of my allowance. That’s sobering.

"All the food I’ve ever eaten, all the sunsets I’ve ever seen, all the live gigs I’ve ever attended, all the laughs I’ve ever laughed… I’ve eaten up about half of my allowance."

Illustration by Daniel Mitchell

Does this troubling thought process explain why I’ve suddenly taken up outdoor swimming? Perhaps there is no other justification. I mean, I’ve always enjoyed fresh air, and shifting my body through water. And the experience of lockdown was enough to propel most of us into almost any activity outside the confines of our own homes. But, let’s be honest: Britain is not a practical country to pursue such an activity. And yet, for the past three Wednesdays, I’ve been up at the crack of dawn, driving to my local (allegedly ‘heated’) Lido and taking the plunge – and receiving such an intense punch to the lungs from the extremity of the temperature that I’ve then spent all morning shivering.

Inspired by this new-found passion for al fresco exercise, I even applied to be a member of a ‘Country Club’. Absurd! The full Alan Partridge! But then they said that, because of Covid, this year’s swimming sessions (in their actually heated outdoor pool) are to be pre-booked in small sessions of six swimmers at a time. That rather ruined the Mar E Lago vibes for me, so I declined to sign up.

Man diving into wide open lake

But still. I was apparently prepared to part with serious cash to join an establishment with its own Bridge club, dress code and coat of arms. Is any further evidence of a mid-life crisis required? If so, consider this: I’ve just launched a daily podcast series, and, in the teeth of a global recession, I’ve stumped up to hire an edit producer and two co-hosts.

This new show (which is called The Retrospectors, by the way, and is – ahem - available now, wherever you get your podcasts) has an ‘on this day in history’ format. So, if you were to download our episode on June 1, you’d hear us chatting in detail about a quirky historical event that occurred on a previous June 1st (specifically, in this case, the first citation of the Heimlich Manoeuvre, in Emergency Medicine on June 1st, 1974).

"Does this troubling thought process explain why I’ve suddenly taken up outdoor swimming?"

The process of researching the programme has exposed me to some fascinating pub-quiz fodder. Did you know, for example, that the party game ‘Twister’ only became a bestseller after Eva Gabor played it with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show? Or that the musical Cats had no script when rehearsals began? Or that the first Oxford-Cambridge boat race was initiated to settle a bet? I didn’t, and it’s been fun to learn.

But the big takeaway lesson has surprised me, and it’s this: no matter what subject we investigate, no matter the historical era concerned, you can bet that behind-the-scenes of the story there will be a significant person whose contribution went undervalued, overlooked and unrepresented in their lifetimes.

For instance, the earliest known demonstration of microwave cookery was at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 – but the researcher who developed it was laid-off during the Depression, and the microwave was then ‘discovered’ decades later. Or there’s the case of Harvey Ball, the graphic designer who came up with the Smiley face that has adorned countless T-shirts and emojis since the 60’s, and is now licensed for millions of dollars per year: he never trademarked his drawing. Or, how about the models for the biggest-selling pin-up of all time (Athena’s landmark man-and-baby poster ‘L’Enfant’)? The man received £100 for his troubles, the baby £32.

"Life’s rewards can come to people randomly, and, equally, the lottery of ill-health can strike at any time."

Life’s rewards can come to people randomly, and, equally, the lottery of ill-health can strike at any time. These are things I already knew in my heart, of course, but having them hammered home, through the echo of history, in my daily work, has been quite impactful. It’s making me feel more grateful for what I have: my health, my house, my wife, and my kids.

Just such an epiphany, I guess, is the ultimate destination of many people’s mid-life crises. And I haven’t even had to buy a sportscar.

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