Happy birthday (war is over)

It's that time of year when all sorts of significant birthdays gang up together: my mother's, my sons', the Woman I Love's, and, indeed, mine (all cards and cheques can be sent to me c/o The Guvnor, The Duke of Wellington, 94a Crawford Street, W1). The big sacrifice this year was to go paintballing with my eldest son and three of his friends.

Of all the things that make the man entering his late forties (46 can be counted as mid-forties; 47 can't) efficiently feel the full weight of eheu! fugaces, paintballing must come fairly near the top.

The last time I dodged behind trees firing pretend guns at pretend Nazis I was in short trousers, and even then, our headmaster, Mr Cooper, himself a distinguished WWII veteran, it was plausibly rumoured, told us off for making light of the pity and horror of war. We slunk away, chastened.

Anyway, the kids are loving it. If you're a 13-year-old boy, this is your idea of a sizzling time out. And the paintballing company goes to some lengths to make us think we are experiencing something like armed combat. It is a strange mishmash of futurism and history: when in the playing zone we are obliged to wear goggles and helmets at all times, and we are in black overalls, so we look a bit like scary riot police (it is disconcerting to see ten-year-olds dressed up like this). But in one of the scenarios we are invited to first storm, and then defend, a "castle" called, in Gothic script, "Wolfenstein"; another one is called "the Siege of Stalingrad", and includes trashed vintage army Jeeps with hammer-and-sickle logos stencilled on them. I crouch behind one and wonder what Baudrillard would make of this, until a paintball hits me on the grille of the helmet and the paint splashes into my mouth.

It is exhausting: running around the place in the April sunshine in a black boiler suit, dodging paintballs while carrying a heavy gun, is not what an homme de lettres such as myself is really built for, and after a while the sweat inside my helmet is running into my eyes, and, in the case of the left one, aggravating a tear in the contact lens to the point of agony.

I give up. A very modern way to evade the draft, is it not?

Eye to eye

And so to the opticians. Here's another thing guaranteed to make you feel old. The WIL tells me that if you're over 40 and either of your parents has glaucoma then the state suddenly rediscovers its nobler principles and forgoes its fee for an eye test. I qualify for this bounty. The eye test itself is much more hi-tech than I recall.

There's a machine that blows a harmless puff of air at your eyeball, which makes you flinch, and a peripheral-vision tester, which I think is as much a test of your concentration (I found my mind wandering, as it so often does these days, which must have affected the results).

A grim choice awaits me. Do I go for the stronger contact lenses, which will allow me to, in the words of the Who song, see for miles and miles, but will render any printed text smaller than that in the Mister Men books illegible? Or the weaker lenses, which might make me unable to read a bus number at 50 yards but will allow me, in bright sunshine, to read the A-Z unaided?

I go for the former. Seeing for miles and miles is important: it buys one extra time to duck into doorways when one's creditors are marching down the street. However, this entails reading glasses, which means that my desire not to wear glasses has put me in the paradoxical position where I have to wear glasses. (You can always tell those in denial about their ageing: they're the ones you see holding menus at arm's length and muttering about the dim lighting in restaurants.)

Consoling myself with the knowledge that Samuel Beckett, even after winning the Nobel, would get his from the shops rather than the opticians, I bag a pair for £4.99 from the local chemist. If this isn't a milestone, I don't know what is.


Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.