When I was about ten, I got into a protracted feud with a local park warden called Mr Hitchens. It began when he told me off for discarding a Double Decker wrapper. No big deal, you might think, but I resented being forced to pick it up and put it in a bin. Shortly afterwards he caught me riding my bicycle in the park, an activity that was strictly verboten, and threatened to confiscate my bike if he saw me doing it again. After that, it was open warfare. Me and my friends would sneak up on him as he was tending one of his beloved flower beds and let fire with our peashooters. No doubt we would have continued to persecute him long into our teens, but he retired the following year -- and for all I know it was early retirement brought on by our harassment. Our nickname for him was “Hitler”.
Fast-forward thirty-five years, and I have turned into Mr Hitchens. If I see a small boy discarding a sweet wrapper I will bully him into picking it up. In my local park, I am constantly shouting at young men to get off their bicycles, and woe betide anyone who interferes with the gardeners. I keep a beady eye on the pavement outside my front door and if some poor, unsuspecting old lady allows her poodle to take a dump without picking it up, I’m out there like a shot, screaming my head off, arms flailing. I am Hitler.
Some people reading this -- men over 40 -- might think it sounds perfectly reasonable, but it gets worse. For instance, if anyone in a cinema starts whispering within earshot of me, I have a three-tiered response. First, I glare at them. If that doesn’t work, I glare while saying “Shshshshsh” very loudly. And if that doesn’t work, I get up, stand inches away from them, and scream, “SHUT THE FUCK UP.” It’s gotten to the point where my wife, who is eleven years younger than me, refuses to accompany me to a movie theatre.
What happens to middle-aged men to make them so irritable? It is almost as if there’s a hormone, a bit like testosterone, that is released into the bloodstream once we reach a certain age.
One theory is that this grumpiness is triggered by the awareness that the dreams we set our hearts on as young men are never going to be realised. According to a recent survey involving over two million people in 72 countries, all human beings suffer from depression in middle age because that’s when we wake up and smell the coffee. “We cannot all be captain of the national football team or a rock stay,” says Professor Andrew Oswald, one of the architects of the survey. “The 30s and 40s are therefore painful times when reality sets in.”
The problem with this explanation is that Professor Oswald believes that everything is hunky dory again once we’ve adjusted to the fact that we’re never going to amount to a hill of beans. “We learn to count our blessings when we get older,” he says. “We see friends and family die and we see bad things happen and are just happy to be alive.”
While that is undoubtedly true for some people, most of my male friends just seem to get more and more irritable as they get older. Indeed, in this respect grumpiness isn’t like testosterone because there’s no falling away after the initial surge. On the contrary, the grumpy hormone just seems to flow and flow until it turns into a torrent. By the time we reach 75, some of us are incapable of opening a newspaper without exploding with indignation. When we eventually die, it is often from a stroke or a heart attack brought on by a fit of irritation.
I know I am not yet completely in the grip of this splenetic rage because I still recognise that there’s something not quite right about my reaction to things. For instance, the other day, when my local authority neglected to pick up my box of recycled rubbish, I went ballistic. I immediately fired off an email to my local councillors, demanding the names of all the people responsible for refuse collection in my borough so I could name and shame them in the Evening Standard. Afterwards, I recognised that this response was a bit disproportionate. “What’s happened to me?” I said to my wife. “I’ve turned into Israel.”
No such perspective seems to trouble my friend Cosmo Landesman, the 54-year-old film critic of The Sunday Times. He believes that his irascibility -- and you’re unlikely to meet anyone quicker to fly off the handle -- is a perfectly reasonable response to a world that has gone to the dogs.
“I hate the way anyone above a certain age who happens to say anything critical about our society is immediately stigmatized as a grumpy old man,” he says. “Let’s face it, things have got a lot worse in the last twenty years or so. Where are people’s manners? What happened that that famous British civility? It’s gone and I think people have every right to be angry about it.”
Like Cosmo, I certainly find myself becoming angry at any sign of public discourtesy, but I suspect that because I’ve begun to notice it more rather than because it’s increased.
Take swearing. I have four children under six and if some random member of the public happens to swear in front of them I don’t like it one bit. This isn’t because I don’t want them to hear the words in question -- I swear in front of them at home quite often. It’s the fact that it’s so discourteous. I think they ought to take into account the fact that I might mind, even if I don’t. After all, most parents do. And my wife minds -- quite a lot. Whenever it happens, I feel I ought to say something, which can be quite tricky given that men who swear in public are often quite scary-looking. For this reason, I loved that scene in Brokeback Mountain when Heath Ledger stands up to two bikers who are committing precisely this sin. I would have enjoyed the whole film, actually, were it not for the fact that the guy sitting next to me kept picking his nose, and if there’s one thing guaranteed to drive me crazy …
But is this something that happens more often nowadays or something I’ve become more aware of because I’ve got children -- the swearing, I mean, not the nose picking? Thinking about it, the sea change in my personality does seem to date back to the moment I became a father. I’ve always vaguely disapproved of people who drive too fast down residential streets, but it didn’t send me through the stratosphere until there was a risk that one of my children might get run over. In many cases, though, it’s less rational than this. People who drive with their windows down and music blaring bring me out in hives. That’s nothing to do with my kids -- they don’t even notice -- but I don’t remember getting nearly as angry about “noise pollution” before they were born.
It must be something to do with becoming a stakeholder in society: Once men become fathers, we have a vested interest in preserving public order. Overnight, we go from being apathetic Bohemians to the Elite Republican Guard of the bourgeoisie. I used to be a party animal, but in the last five years I have become a trustee of a blindness charity, the patron of a residential community for adults with learning disabilities and the head of fund-raising on the PTA of my daughter’s primary school. It’s official: I’m a pillar of the community.
But the flipside is that I’m also about a hundred times more grumpy. Now that I’ve been press-ganged into joining the officer class, I won’t tolerate any bad behaviour in the lower ranks. I have all the Messianic zeal of a born-again non-smoker -- and don’t even talk to me about smoking in front of my children. I’m Mr Angry. If I was allowed to issue tickets to people parking illegally on my street, I would.
Quick, give me some beta-blockers. I feel a heart-attack coming on.