The Fair-To-Middlings: Martin and Sylvia
Martin and Sylvia have a joke about their lives these days – they haven’t had a moment’s rest since the day Martin retired! Of course they do relax, really (they still have proper sit-down coffee and tea breaks, with biscuits, in the morning and afternoon) and Martin, as a partner, still does a day or two a week in his old office (a chartered accountancy practice; he joined in 1975 as a 34-year-old). But their point is that they’re involved in so many activities. Between doing the family trees on Ancestry, going to the U3A course meetings (they’re doing social history), the am-dram, Sylvia’s little volunteer job at Oxfam on the high street, and the cruises, it’s absolutely non-stop!
Martin was very lucky with the timing of his pension; they think life seems much tougher for young people now than when they were their age, and they still feel an urge to help their offspring. In fact they have been putting away money for their grandchildren, Sara and Christopher, for some time – although this is a thorny issue because, of course, their daughter Felicity (36, known as Flick) and her partner Becky (they entered into a civil partnership last year, no family invited – Martin and Sylvia were secretly relieved) probably won’t be having children, so is it fair? Martin says it’ll all come out in the wash, but Sylvia worries.
Generally speaking, though, they try to keep up with things without being embarrassing about it, because they are caught between not wanting to be like their parents, who ossified aged 50, and fear of resembling those mutton-dressed-as-lamb chumps on some of these television programmes (they are still to this day reeling from the spectacle of Sly Stallone’s mother on Celebrity Big Brother).
This desire to keep up and be involved is one reason why they remain involved with the local community. Because they had their names down as emergency planning volunteers, they spent last winter ferrying old people around the snowbound streets in the Volvo! They secretly relish such adventures, combining as they do three of Martin and Sylvia’s passions – community spirit, “challenges” and the weather; they are still telling guests about the last-minute dash to the vet’s with Mrs Adamson’s spaniel during the awful blizzard. Martin will illustrate the whole episode with cutlery and the cruet set if he senses you’re really interested.
They are devoted to Radio 4 and Classic FM, but find themselves watching television less and less – although there are some good programmes on BBC4, Andrew Marr remains peerless, and they enjoy a lot of the gardening shows. Both of them have gone off the over-exposed Titchmarsh somewhat (they do miss Geoff Hamilton), but Sylvia is quite keen on Monty Don. She also likes Carol Klein (you don’t often see a woman unafraid of getting her hands dirty on TV) while Martin is partial to Rachel de Thame (nothing to do with her looks at all!).
TV can be the source of much guilty pleasure for Martin and Sylvia – they occasionally end up engrossed by “tripe” on Channel 4 in spite of themselves, and are utterly unable to tear themselves away from The Jeremy Kyle Show. All their friends watch it, but feel it is so dreadful (why would anyone even want to see such things?) that the first person to bring it up in conversation always has to make an excuse (“It just happened to be on while I was making coffee”). They were especially appalled by the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand debacle (Martin thinks Russell Brand is the same person as Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean), and by the increase in scenes filmed in toilets in dramas. The sight of Julie Walters, playing Mo Mowlam, having a wee was a new low; how, Sylvia would like to know, was that essential to the plot in any way whatsoever? Shakespeare somehow managed without showing his characters on the loo, didn’t he?
Repelled by TV, they resort to DVDs (period dramas for Sylvia, The World at War box set for Martin) and technology. They spend quite a lot of time on the internet, though mainly in the darker, more wintry months as they like to be out in the garden, or visiting friends, in the lighter evenings. They also have a webcam so they can talk to the grandchildren (Sara and Chris live in Switzerland now, having previously been in Hong Kong – their dad Jeremy is a hedge-fund analyst, and he, his wife Jenny and the kids, have to go where the work is), although they still feel self-conscious in front of it and the children get bored in 30 seconds.
The Fair to Middlings rather like new gadgets, not only because of what they can do but also because being able to use them competently is an unspoken form of one-upmanship among their peers. Both have mobile phones, and Sylvia was among the first of her friends to learn how to text (she bribed Sara to give her intensive lessons by buying her a pink iPod Nano; “Sylvia can text!!” was her first message to Martin). Truth be told, they are drawn strongly towards those gizmos which can be used to do almost exactly what an old one did (they insist that Classic FM on Freeview “sounds clearer”, despite the sceptical looks from their children). When they come across digital versions of conventional, old-fashioned things, they snap them up like early adopters, although this often leaves them stuck with malfunctioning items that no one can sort out. They really liked the idea of the digital photoframe – it seemed a great idea for family photos and it can rotate them so no one gets offended! – but it soon started blinking and going negative, and the reset won’t work. They both feel slightly at fault for not knowing how to get it working again.
Their big treat is travelling. Two years ago they tried a cruise – a risk, because while not wishing to appear snobbish, they had heard cruises could be somewhat vulgar – but they got a tip-off on one that had a more educational element, stopping off at some sites of historical interest in the Med. It was really nice, just far enough – next time they’ll go the other way and try the Fjords. They met some lovely people, and the change introduced them to lots of new things. They both developed a taste for Bombay Sapphire gin, which they hadn’t tried before, and made a point of hunting down when they got home; that it was on sale in the local Sainsbury’s didn’t dull the lustre of exclusivity for them, as Martin and Sylvia tend to prize things according to when and where they discovered them, not where they’re sold now. Hence Sylvia still thinks of the Olay brand as the most exclusive beauty product on the market (though she has switched from Oil of Olay to Regenerist 30 Second Wrinkle Filler cream), Martin thinks his old Swiss Army knife has a rarity value, and they both persist in believing Ferrero Rocher chocolates are “hard to track down”.
Trying new things, travelling and learning; this is how Martin and Sylvia intend to keep living their lives. More than any other generation before them, they seek to avoid sounding like “old people”, and avoid grumbling about music and fashion and the like. True, they do feel something has gone a bit wrong with our culture somewhere along the line, because the media and the law seem to celebrate the wrong sort of people, somehow. But these feelings have as much to do with their moral sense as with feelings of nostalgia, and they try to remain positive – almost competitively so sometimes. Upwards and onwards! As Martin likes to say.
How to recognise the fair-to-middlings
- For work he wears a suit. This is the only item in his wardrobe that he chose himself. The ties and cufflinks and pocket hankies he gets for Christmas and birthdays from the grandkids and the dog (Sylvia always buys him something from the dog, Barker, a Springer spaniel who was named by the grandkids).
- The last item of casual clothing Martin can remember buying for himself was a new pair of gardening gloves at Homebase (the old pair were chewed by the dog).
- At the weekends Martin wears an anorak from Marks, or sometimes his old tweed.
- Slacks not jeans
- Rubber-soled Clarks shoes (very durable) for casual, black Church’s brogues for the office
- Wellington Boots.
- On Sundays he wears a tie.
- Martin’s most recent acquisition is a bright red sweater made by an American company called Gap. Sylvia bought it for him in the Dickins and Jones sale.
- Black Swatch with leather strap
- Hair parted
- Martin is still growing, but horizontally rather than vertically. Not that he’s fat.
- Peter Jones sky blue pyjamas
- Shortish hair
- Favourite suit is a mauve number by Betty Jackson
- She also likes Jaeger for special
- M&S undies
- Woolly hat from the Gap
- Court shoes from Russell & Bromley
- Swiss watch by Tissot
- Tights from the Sock Shop
- Recently bought a linen trouser suit for summer by Per Una (a Swedish designer, perhaps) at M&S
Thanks Heavens For…
Isn’t That Awful?
Sylvia’s favourite radio 4 programmes