Well, it's finally happened. The moment I've been dreading all my life. Last Thursday on the stroke of midnight I turned 40. I'm now officially middle-aged.
Throughout my 30s I spent a good deal of time dreaming about how I'd celebrate this occasion. I imagined an incredibly decadent party at which I'd be surrounded by these scantily clad models. Forget about a cake. I was planning to have a couple of waiters come in at midnight bearing a huge, gilt-edged mirror with the number "40" written on it in cocaine. Theme: Growing Old Disgracefully. Dress: Age Inappropriate.
In the event, my birthday wasn't quite as glamorous as I'd hoped.
"Ooh look! Tommee Tippee!" said my wife as we arrived at the Baby Show at Olympia. "I hope you brought your wallet."
I hadn't bargained for the fact that I'd have a 12-week-old daughter by the time I turned 40. In the circumstances, the Baby Show seemed like a responsible alternative to staying up all night and getting shit-faced.
Let's face it, 40 is a pretty miserable age for a man. He has to put away foolish things and look through a glass darkly--and make sure he doesn't finish the bottle. These days, if I get rip roaring drunk I don't just have to be worry about how I'll feel the next day. There's cirrhosis of the liver, coronary heart disease and premature senility to contend with.
There's also my rapidly deteriorating physical appearance. It's a cliché that at the age of 40 everyone has the face they deserve, but I want to know what I did to merit these three chins. Where did my jaw go? Not that the bones in my face have completely disappeared. One of the paradoxes of growing old is that, the more bloated your face gets, the more visible your skull becomes just beneath the surface.
Some might argue that the presence of a baby in my life should be a source of comfort at this difficult time. After all, even if I was to die tomorrow, at least my DNA would live on. Having a child cheats death of its victory.
But to paraphrase Woody Allen, I don't want to achieve immortality through my children. I want to achieve it through not dying.
Admittedly, I'd probably feel a lot worse if I was still childless and unmarried, but one measly kid isn't much to show for four decades. When I take stock of my life, I can't help but compare myself to Boris Johnson, an exact contemporary of mine at Oxford. Not only is he the editor of The Spectator and the Member of Parliament for Henley, he also has four children. By the time my family's as large as his, he'll probably be Prime Minister.
Do all men go through this masochistic accounting process when they reach 40, comparing themselves to their most successful peers? Perhaps that's what triggers a mid-life crisis. I also think of two other Oxford contemporaries: Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall and Patrick Marber. Okay, I don't particularly envy Hugh's life as an organic farmer in Dorset, even if he has parlayed it into several bestsellers and a long-running series on Channel 4.
But Patrick Marber? On my 34th birthday I went to see Closer at the National and I don't think I've ever been more depressed in my life. It was that good. Since then, he's directed half-a-dozen plays, appeared in several others, and written two more, the latest of which, After Miss Julie, debuts next month. I sincerely hope it'll be terrible, but I expect I'll be bitterly disappointed.
The really galling thing is that all three of the above are a year younger than me. What can I possibly do to catch up? I'm working on a novel, but the chances of me winning the Somerset Maugham Award or being selected as one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists are pretty remote. As a 40-year-old, I'm not eligible for either. There's always the Booker, I suppose, but I'm not either black or a woman or a reformed addict. I used to be a recovering alcoholic, but I've fallen off the wagon.
I can't even take comfort from the fact that I've got plenty of time left to prove myself. I've worked out that even if I live until the ripe old age of 80 two-thirds of my life is over.
How did I reach this morbid conclusion? Start with the truism that the rate at which time passes appears to get faster as you get older. When you're a schoolboy, the five minutes before the final bell seem like an eternity, whereas when you're my age whole weeks disappear in the blink of an eye.
Now let's assume that, compared with the first 40 years, the second 40 will go by in half the time, ie, a mere 20 years. Consequently, from a purely subjective point of view, I've lived two-thirds of my life already.
I'm reminded of one of John Cleese's more memorable soliloquies in Fawlty Towers: "Zzzhhoom. What was that? That was your life, mate. Oh, that was quick. Do I get another? Sorry, mate, that's your lot."
Perhaps it isn't fair to downplay just how enriching the birth of a child can be. And I mean this quite literally. As Caroline and I were leaving the Baby Show at Olympia last Friday, a pretty young girl thrust a flyer into my hand for a company called Models Direct. "To apply for your baby to be registered as a UK model with Europe's foremost model agency," it said, "call this number."
Now I know that all parents think their newborns are the most beautiful babies in the world, but in Sasha's case this just happens to be true. So, naturally, as soon as I got home I called the number. Not surprisingly, I got a recorded message, but it did promise that if I hung on I'd be given details of where to send my application. I waited patiently for the preamble to finish, my pen poised at the ready. This is it, I thought. This is going to make my fortune.
Then I heard the fateful words, "This call is being charged at 75p a minute." After 10 minutes had elapsed and the address still hadn't been given out I decided to give up. God knows how much money this agency has made out of gullible parents at the Baby Show, but I imagine it's a small fortune.
At this rate, I won't be able to put Sasha through school, let alone have any more children. Perhaps that's the real lesson of turning 40. I should stop trying to keep up with the Joneses--or, rather, the Johnsons--and be content with what I've got.