Tom Hodgkinson wonders why such a seemingly simple activity makes his brain go off the rails
I don’t know about you, and of course I don’t know how old you are, but I’ve found there’s something about being middle-aged that makes you behave, well, like a middle-aged person. Take logistics. When I was young, I would sleep soundly the night before catching a 10am train. I would get up, leave the house, arrive at the station at 9.50am, catch the train and that was the end of that.
These days, I start worrying a good week before the train leaves. I pore over timetables and consult various online map programmes in order to calculate how long it will take me to get to the station. I lie in bed pondering the issue of what time to arrive at the station and whether it’s better to buy a coffee there or make one in the kitchen before I leave. I consider making sandwiches in order to save on railway concession prices.
The night before the train leaves I pack my bag carefully, even though it’s only a day trip. I place the bag near the front door so I won’t forget it. I go to bed extra early and set the alarm early to allow myself plenty of time for breakfast and more fretting in the morning. I lie awake worrying I’ll oversleep and miss the train.
The next morning the alarm goes off and I remember with horror that I have to catch a train. I get up and slightly curse the extra beer I had the night before – that was foolish. I behave with extreme grumpiness and bustling self-importance to any family member who attempts to engage me in conversation.
I arrive at the station a good 40 minutes before the train leaves and stare fixedly at the departure notices in order to spot the platform number the moment it’s announced. I aim to find a carriage near the exit at the other end, though of course, this is guesswork. As the train pulls out of the station, with me in it, I feel an enormous sense of relief and indeed achievement. I have successfully caught a train! I feel like phoning Victoria to say, “It’s all going really well. I got to the station nice and early and caught the train.”
As for holidays, I used to throw a few things in a bag and walk out of the door. Now I start thinking about what to pack a good two weeks in advance. This sort of semi-fearful behaviour reminds me of Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s remark about his parents, who would get up at 4am on the day of the holiday in order to “get a good crack at the highway”.
I’m now worrying that these fears will only intensify as I grow older. Aristotle said that middle age was the best of the ages because you were free from the impetuosity of youth but also from the excessive fretting of the oldies. So it’s just downhill for me now.
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What an astute and somewhat sad confessional piece you’ve written about your middle-aged anxieties. I too suffer from exactly the same fears and behave similarly. It is a worry to be fretting about minor organising and planning details of everyday life. I realise how silly it is, but it doesn’t stop me from being anxious. I could spend a sleepless night inventing a list of things to be worried about when going to catch a train; how many sandwiches, what to put in them, do we have the ingredients? Perhaps I should go to the shops and buy some special cheese? No, that would negate the savings on buying train station sandwiches. Should I take a coat? If so, which coat? Etc. Etc. I think I’m the same as you as this anxiety has become much worse with age. I also think there are probably thousands of other middle aged men who have similar feelings. You have tapped into a huge issue Tom. Perhaps you should write a book about it? It may help you, and me, and all those other men.
What a spot-on description of whatever the hell this age is that I seem to have found myself in. I thought it came with parenting, this having to worry about stuff, pack three weeks before the trip, wake up 19 hours before the flight, etc. But maybe it’s just the middle age thing. In any case, you really nailed it. Beautifully written and so effortless to read.
Superb, but you forgot to mention going to the station the day before to buy the ticket.
When my young nephew came to stay before the lockdown, he mistakenly thought he could roll out of bed, pootle down to the station and get on a train from Bath to Bristol for an interview, all in the space of half an hour. My partner and I made him get up early and dropped him at the station in good time for the train before the one he needed to get. He just couldn’t understand why we were fussing so much. But we grown-ups know that the trains are crap! The chance of one leaving on time, with a full complement of carriages and seat reservations for all, and arriving on time without mishap must surely be close to zero. I don’t drive so I’ve been at the mercy of the trains all my life. I’ve been delayed, stranded, diverted and stuck on crowded, freezing platforms staring at blank screens more times than I care to remember. I was once on a train that was so full the driver refused to continue until some passengers volunteered to get off (the last one back from Cornwall on a bank holiday). Once, I missed an entire funeral! And for the chance to endure all of that, you need to book an overpriced, inflexible ticket three months in advance. If you’re in the seat you booked, on a train that’s vaguely on time, it really does feel like a minor miracle.
Your description of this phenomenon is so accurate, so hilarious and so utterly, and tragically, relatable: the angst over the wasted minutes when your nearest and dearest say or do anything that causes your finely honed timetable to be skewed; the agonies endured when you realise the connecting train is in fact a replacement bus service; and, possibly worst of all, the nail-biting dilemma as to whether you should waste even more time looking for a loo and risk missing the train or be held a hostage to fortune and hope to God there’ll be one fit for use on board.
Your train anxieties are about the end of life being nearer, which we can’t do anything about, so we become over-preoccupied with trying to keep control of those things we can have some power over, like catching the train on time.
This made me laugh! We must resist acting middle-aged without falling into the other trap of acting like a teenager – which is surely worse.
I loved this. This is me. But of course I’m actually old now.
Spot on! Way back in the day I packed for a trip to the UK with a minimum of fuss. Now I simply can’t imagine traveling anywhere outside my rural community…
Beth, a fan in the little finger of the state of Michigan, USA
This should be a novel. As the young people say, I feel seen.
Ian Parker, New York