The Who perform on Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage. Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty Images
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As I tried to get to my seat at the Who concert, I felt bad about making all the old people stand up

It occurred to me that the only possible summation would be a paraphrase of Dr Johnson’s infamous remarks about female preachers, which is to say, I was amazed not so much by the Who playing well, as that they were capable of playing at all.

I was talking to a small crowd of doctors a while back and came out with one of my favourite headlines from the US satirical magazine the Onion, which reads: “World death rate holds steady at 100 per cent”. Most of the medics dutifully chuckled at this evidence of their own lack of omnipotence – but one of them objected. “Strictly speaking, that isn’t true,” said the stethoscope-toting pedant. “Given that all the people currently alive constitute half of those who have ever lived, we can only confidently assert that the death rate is 50 per cent.”

I thought about this the other day because, walking into the 3Arena in Dublin, I came upon a sizeable cohort of these potential immortals, and I have to say they weren’t in terrific shape. Making our way to our seats, we had to ask several of them to stand and I’m afraid they made pretty heavy weather of it: palsied hands clutched canes and ineffectually gripped seat backs, jowls twitched with the effort, and at least one pair of bifocals clattered to the floor. Meanwhile, on stage, Messrs Daltrey and Townshend belted out the line that more than any other in recent memory has come to exemplify shutting the stable door after the valetudinarian nag has bolted: “I hope I die before I get old.”

Yes, we were at the Arena for one of the gigs on the Who’s 50th-anniversary tour, and while the old boys on stage seemed pretty spry, their fans were . . . Well, frankly, we’re getting on a bit, and many of us share at least some of Tommy’s disabilities – although, unlike the deaf, blind and dumb kid, we’re no longer capable of playing a mean pinball. For us baby boomers, whose culture of aggressive juvenescence came to dominate the burgeoning global population over the past half-century, the spectacle of an aged crowd is deranging to the point of . . . well, dementia. And it would have been deranging at any previous point in history, given those damned statistics.

Illustration: Jackson Reese

To Daltrey’s and Townshend’s credit, they neither tried to avoid the reality of the situation nor made too much of it. The stage backdrop was – as is so often the case at gigs nowadays – an enormous screen, and throughout the set images were projected on to it of the lads when they were indeed lads.

The impression was that they were jamming with their younger selves: one confirmed by the presence on drums of Ringo’s boy Zak Starkey. (At least superficially; the intergenerational shtick doesn’t quite hold up when you realise that Zak himself is about to turn 50 and could theoretically be the grandfather of the skinny young pill-popping mods in the videos.) I must confess that, some time before I reached my own half-century, amplified electric music became an anathema to me and I began hanging out at the Wigmore Hall instead of the Wembley Arena.

The great advantage of rocking out to the Schubert Ensemble, or getting your rocks off over Matthias Goerne singing Schumann’s Dichterliebe, is that even if you’re a year or two older than Ringo’s boy you’ll still feel refreshingly youthful compared to the rest of the audience. Actually, I felt refreshingly youthful compared to the Who’s audience as well, but while they were equipped with hearing aids, I had opted for earplugs. These made the experience seem a little muffled – as if my ears had been tucked firmly into a tartan rug – but I could still see all the horrors going on around me: the bingo wings flapping in time, the myriad chins wagging like metronomes, the liver spots caught in the spotlights, and the grey hairs being whipped into a blur synchronous with Townshend’s wildly revolving arm as he crashed out the chords.

When I reflected on the gig later, it occurred to me that the only possible summation would be a paraphrase of Dr Johnson’s infamous remarks about female preachers, which is to say, I was amazed not so much by the Who playing well, as that they were capable of playing at all. The two surviving members of the original line-up are septuagenarians, and come September it will have been 37 years since Keith Moon popped his clogs. At 53, I barely have the stamina to sit still listening to the band – but these Freedom Pass-holders were belting it out like there was no tomorrow. (Which indeed, given the Who’s demographics, might well be the case.) True, Daltrey’s corybantic excesses have been somewhat curtailed along the darkening passage of time: at one point, in lieu of dancing, he did a little jog around the stage, as if to demonstrate there was life in the old dog yet.

But of course scenes such as this are only likely to become more common as humanity “advances” towards mass senescence. The median age in Britain hit 40 this year, which means the archetypal Briton is one among a vast crowd of middle-aged folk. It remains to be seen what the consequences of this will be for our collective behaviour. Arguably, an older crowd is a less febrile and suggestible one. Moreover, it’s difficult to stampede when most of you need a Zimmer frame to walk.

But I wouldn’t bet on it. The hoary old ­adage has it that you’re as young as you feel – and although I have been feeling like Methuselah since the early 2000s, all the evidence is that my contemporaries side with the number-crunching physician. Good luck to them, I say.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.


Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.


The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.


Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”


European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.


Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage