Howard Ja­cob­son

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Di­ary Howard Ja­cob­son

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There are some pur­chases you make that sur­prise you into re­al­is­ing you’ve grown old. I’m not talk­ing about the more ob­vi­ously des­per­ate items of de­pen­dency you find in the far cor­ners of phar­ma­cies. No, I’m re­fer­ring to zip-up cardi­gans, non­slip shoes that you don’t have to lace, money trays, keyring hold­ers with built-in torches, the Sun­day Tele­graph, his­tor­i­cal nov­els. Not de­fin­i­tive mark­ers of ob­so­les­cence, but first in­ti­ma­tions of mor­tal­ity.

In my case, it’s a back­pack. I know the young wear back­packs, but they don’t wear them in the spirit of shame in which I wear mine. The young fling them with in­sou­ciance over one shoul­der, which my phys­io­ther­a­pist (an­other in­ti­ma­tion of mor­tal­ity) tells me is bad for the spine. So I strap my­self rigidly into my back­pack as though I’m send­ing my­self on an Age Con­cern pack­age hol­i­day and have all the cu­cum­ber sand­wiches I’ll need while I’m away. I couldn’t look worse if I wore a vest.

That it should come to this after all the el­e­gant brief­cases I’ve owned and loved and pol­ished: my pro­fes­sor’s Leon­hard Hey­den Sal­is­bury, ca­pa­cious enough to carry the com­plete works of Kafka and Kun­dera; my bat­tered cognac Bridge bag for lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals; my svelte Jasper Blue Fabri­ano fo­lio case that holds a sin­gle Point Of View for Ra­dio 4. Bags de­not­ing con­fi­dence and au­thor­ity.

But they ei­ther hold too lit­tle when I’m trav­el­ling abroad, or weigh too much. It used not to mat­ter: I had the mem­ory not to need to carry lec­ture notes, and I had the strength to toss Kafka and Kun­dera into an over­head locker. Now, if I’m to travel any­where with more than a cou­ple of sheets of A4, I must be back­packed.

Ruck­sacks, we used to call them in the days we tra­versed in­hos­pitable ter­rain. By “we”, I mean other peo­ple. I have an aver­sion to the ac­cou­trements of ad­ven­ture, so won’t be car­ry­ing rolled-up ground­sheets and gunmetal wa­ter bot­tles. In their ab­sence, I am less of a dan­ger to fel­low trav­ellers – and where, you might ask, is the joy of wear­ing a back­pack if you can’t smash into peo­ple with it? But that’s just an­other rea­son I look wrong in mine. I’m too ob­vi­ously peace­able. I don’t cy­cle for the same rea­son.

Time’s whirligig brings in its re­venges. The last time I car­ried a bag on my back, it was a school satchel and I wore a cap. No won­der I’m ashamed. A man should not look like a boy. I strapped on my back­pack for a jour­ney two weeks ago, any­way, and ex­pected peo­ple to point at me in the air­port and laugh. But here’s the worst thing: they didn’t. You know you’re get­ting old when peo­ple don’t no­tice you look a prat.

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