By Virginia Ironside
There is a phrase I dread hearing. Itís usually spoken by unhappy women who, having reached their sixties, are determined to blame their advancing years for all the things they feel are now beyond their grasp in life.
The phrase is Ďwhen you get to our ageí, and it is usually followed by a litany of the experiences they can no longer enjoy: dancing the night away, staying up after midnight, sleeping in a tent, having one-night stands or enjoying rock music.
At the age of 68, my viewpoint is rather different. Iíve been young, worn the T-shirt and given it to Age Concern, and now I am enjoying this entirely new age ó the age of being old.
When I was young, I remember elderly friends telling me, enviously, that youth was the very best time of life. As a result, I felt downhearted. Were they saying that from now on things were going to get worse? What a terrible prospect.
But now Iíve reached the same age as them, Iíve discovered that itís not being old thatís nerve-racking, itís being young.
What a relief it is to reach the autumn of oneís years and not have the future suspended in front of you like an intimidating cloud throwing out tormenting dilemmas.
Should I be a social worker, a secretary, a ballet dancer, a shelf-stacker or a writer? I found the myriad possibilities as frightening and confusing as those shelves of different olive oils at the supermarket ó there was just too much choice.
Being old means that instead of facing a daunting future, you have a rich past stretching back behind you, which you can plunder and enjoy as you wander down memory lane. My own memory lane is as long as the M1: young peopleís stretch no further than a short mews.
With each day that dawns when youíre young, youíre learning something ó youíre making mistakes, being hurt, hurting others and stumbling through life.
When you are older, however, youíve learned from your experiences, and the passage through life becomes far smoother.
Virginia Ironside has discovered that it's not being old that's nerve-racking, it's being young
The result? The absence of all that anxiety. Does she like me? Did I say the right thing? Will he ask me out? Will he ring? Will I ever get married and have children? Am I stupid?
The confidence that comes with age means anxiety and insecurity is swept away, and in its place there is a carte blanche to be eccentric and outspoken ó as exemplified by Quartet (the recent film starring Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins, set in a fun-filled home for retired musicians.)
I can joke with strangers in the street and call people I hardly know Ďdarlingí. I can send back food in restaurants with a smile. And if I fall over in the street, I can blame the pavement.
Even better, at my age you can patronise the middle-aged. I met a 50-year-old the other day and was delighted to be able to say to him: ĎIím old enough to be your mother!í
The fact that my life feels finite gives every day new poignancy. I can cut to the chase: walk out of bad films and refuse invitations from disappointing friends.
I can tell people, loudly, that I donít agree with them. Or, even better, admit I havenít a clue what theyíre talking about.
And Iíve got the confidence to know that if I canít understand what someone says, itís not because Iím daft, itís because they canít explain it properly.
Whatís more, I can start new ventures with no fear of failure, since nothing matters very much any more. At 63, I decided Iíd like to try out a one-woman show called Growing Old Disgracefully, which was a kind of granny stand-up. With a courage I never possessed when I was young, I took the show to Edinburgh, and Iím still touring with it now.
In the old days, Iíd have been too nervous even to squeak out a toast to a birthday friend. These days I stride out on stage, rubbing my hands with glee at the prospect of an hour of entertaining hundreds of people.
Most seem to regard being old as some kind of downward slide. In some ways this is true, but itís worth remembering that the view as you hurtle down the hill is far more spectacular than when youíre trudging up it.
Virginia Ironside when she was 22: 'When you're young, you're learning something - youŅre making mistakes, being hurt, hurting others and stumbling through life'
I prefer to think of old age as entirely new, uncharted territory, where my fellow oldies and I are intrepid explorers, hacking our way through the jungle and discovering treats along the way. Grandchildren are certainly one of the most glorious surprises.
I have also found that, with age, nature has become a whole lot more interesting. Show me a view of rolling hills when I was young, and Iíd have dismissed it as boring. Now I can stare for hours at the landscape, doing that curious thing you can only do when youíre old ó which is marvelling.
True, sexual desire wanes, but why lament that? Iíve had enough sex to last me a lifetime. It means that for the first time, men are now available to me not as potential lovers, but as friends with whom I can share deep feelings of love and closeness.
Virginia Ironside says: 'I prefer to think of old age as entirely new, uncharted territory, where my fellow oldies and I are intrepid explorers'
Old friends are another profound joy, akin to treasured possessions, and I find re-reading classic works of literature is a definite perk at my stage in life. Invariably youíve forgotten the plots since your first reading, and anyway your views have changed radically.
I used to regard Jane Austen and Tolstoy as geniuses; today Iím not so sure. Anthony Trollope?
Quite the reverse. I used to hate going to the theatre. Now I love it.
Being really old, however, is probably a rather different matter. Arthritis has come creeping into my body, as well as various other unspeakable physical complaints. Every day I discover yet another friend has cancer, or some grim terminal illness.
So Iíll admit that there is a period which might not be quite as much fun as now ó perhaps after 85, an age group which one respected American medical dictionary describes as Ďold oldí.
But death doesnít worry me. Itís strange that the older you are, the less frightened you become of death. In fact, if most of my elderly friends are anything to go by, I might even welcome the Grim Reaper when he knocks.
But, for the moment, life is a delight, and it seems a shame that, having been congratulated on everything from passing exams and getting married to writing books, nobody has ever congratulated me on reaching my sixties. Rather, they have commiserated.
Yet itís the thing Iím most proud of. Iíve managed to stagger through this extraordinary vale of tears to reach my gold at the end of the rainbow intact ó and happier than Iíve ever been in my life.
Virginiaís new comic novel, No! I Donít Need Reading Glasses! is published by Quercus (£14.99). See virginiaironside.org