How old is old?

My Dad and me: how old is old?

How old is old? I’ve never thought age matters much. To be sure, when I was a young teacher I thought the head, well into his 50s, was ancient. I thought my dad was old when he was my current age. Now he’s 95 and I’ve just hit 60: it’s not old at all.

On Monday I went public on my intention to retire next summer: a number of people were incredulous that I was that old. Nonetheless I feel that working through one more winter at the speed required by the headship of a big independent school is probably enough.

Sadly, my big announcement was upstaged in any case by the departure from parliament of former Prime Minister David Cameron. Having assured us all that he was in it for the long game, he came disastrously unstuck in the Brexit referendum and resigned: realistically he couldn’t do much else.

Now he’s decided to go altogether. Was he right to say that he’ll just be a distraction, that people will always be looking to see what he thinks of his successor’s latest decision or policy? Or is he just taking his bat home, sourly and selfishly? I suspect a mixture of both.

More to the point, what will he do? He’s only 49! I have some excuse for planning to spend a lot of time lazing about. For Cameron it seems, well, obscene! He isn’t old enough and hasn’t suffered enough to retire!

When heads leave schools, people tend to be generous in their valedictory comments. By contrast, departing PMs are frequently treated harshly. Margaret Thatcher was ousted by her own henchmen. Tony Blair was backed into a corner and obliged to hand power (disastrously) to Gordon Brown. John Major and a succession of party leaders who didn’t make it to the top job bowed out after losing a General Election. If that counts as failure – and it probably does – then there is truth in the saying that all political careers end in failure.

So how old is old? Think of the election battle underway in America. By UK standards both Donald Trump (age 70) and Hillary Clinton (68) are, in that glorious English understatement, getting on a bit. Would we Brits nowadays elect a PM at that age? No. We did elect Winston Churchill to his post-war premiership – but that was more than six decades years ago. And it scarcely ended well.

At the moment the argument is raging not about the age of the two candidates but about the health of one of them. Donald Trump is keeping schtumm about Hillary Clinton’s current illness, a silence that speaks a thousand words! Still, it’s not the Republican candidate who is whipping up the storm of questions about Hillary’s fitness to rule. The media’s doing it all on its own, ever since her little faint at the 9/11 Commemoration last weekend.

Is it age or illness? How old is old? Clinton has pneumonia. It’s eminently curable by antibiotics and a period of rest. But the whispers won’t go away: is she really fit to be president?

This morning Clinton’s doctor stated that she’s fully fit to be President of the United States. I like that: I’m popping round to my GP later to see whether she will give the same opinion about me. I just need that validation: “I could be President… if I chose”.

During the summer I had minor surgery on a finger. To test the surgeon’s sense of humour (sometimes hard to find in that profession), I asked lightly: “Will I be able to play the piano afterwards?”

Devoid of a sense of comedy-writing, he wrecked the punch-line I’d set up (“because I couldn’t play it before”). “Oh”, he replied. “I thought you were a trumpet player.”

Whatever those veteran American politicians may do, I’m announcing my retirement not because I can’t go on, but because 27 years of headship are long enough. I let my senior colleagues know of my intention. “After all,” I commented breezily, “It’s better to go too early than too late.”

There was a pause. Then one murmured, “Who said it was too early?”


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