PETER HITCHENS: To my critics who call me ‘Boomer’, I say this: One day you’ll be lucky enough to be old

Words often fail my opponents, as they tend not to have much in the way of arguments. So in recent years, as I battle for facts and logic on anti-social media, my critics have taken to calling me ‘old’ in the hope of damaging me.

A variation on this is to call me a ‘Boomer’, the American expression for those such as me born in the great Baby Bulge after World War Two (I was born in October 1951).

They do this as if it were a brilliant point. They seem to think that because I am old, therefore I am stupid. They are not at all embarrassed about this, as they would be about equally open prejudice on the grounds of race or sex.

My first response to this strange, rather stupid rudeness was to say to myself: ‘Old? Me?’ As recent research from Berlin’s Humboldt University shows, the boundaries of age have moved a little further away in recent years.

Those born in 1911 believed, when they reached 65, that old age began at 71. Those born in 1956 said, at the same stage in their lives, that old age started at 74. But of course I am old, a fact I at first resisted, then accepted, and now actively welcome. These days I tend to respond to this intended abuse by saying that I hope my critics will one day be lucky enough to be old themselves.

Peter Hitchens in 1969 after being evicted from a hippy squat in Piccadilly, London

Hitchens, here in 1984 just off Russia's Red Square, witnessed the collapse of Communism while living in the country

Hitchens, here in 1984 just off Russia’s Red Square, witnessed the collapse of Communism while living in the country

If they are, they will find one thing, that we who are old do not in general feel that we are. We accept it as a fact, but I am essentially the same person who protested pretty vigorously against the Vietnam War in 1968, in London’s Grosvenor Square, where the American Embassy then was.

As it happens, I am as sure as ever that I was right to do so. The historians have definitely come down on the side of the anti-war movement. A picture still exists of this version of me, in case I was inclined to forget or suppress this fact.

In truth, as a minor celebrity I can, with a few clicks of a computer mouse, see my advance into pensionable age illustrated with many photographs and videos. TV clips emerge from the late 1990s onwards, recording the odd behaviour of my hair, on head and face, the curious unwillingness of any clothes to fit my squat peasant frame, whether I am thin (occasionally) or (more often) fat.

Beards come and go, starting out dark brown and becoming grey. During the Great Panic over Covid my hair grows to prodigious lengths as an unhinged government has decreed that it is too dangerous for anyone to get close enough to me to trim it. Oh, very well, then.

Had it gone on much longer I had planned to adopt a full-scale Karl Marx look in protest at the idiocy of our rulers. The exciting success and predictable aftermath of a severe diet (kippers and cabbage, plus Listerine mouthwash) can also be traced. So can a lot of other changes, of mind and of direction.

At what stage in all this did I think I was growing old? Never, until the jibes began – after which I thought I had better enjoy it. As that fine novelist Kingsley Amis said of another inevitable part of life (death), you don’t have to apply for it or queue up for it or collect it. ‘They bring it to you – free!’

Hitchens returns to Russia after ten years in 2002 to see if life has improved now that the country is no longer under the Soviet Regime

Hitchens returns to Russia after ten years in 2002 to see if life has improved now that the country is no longer under the Soviet Regime

Meeting Bhutan's then home secretary Jigme Thinley at his office in the Dzong in the capital Thimphu in 2004

Meeting Bhutan’s then home secretary Jigme Thinley at his office in the Dzong in the capital Thimphu in 2004

Now at  72, Hitchens tells his critics that one day they'll be lucky enough to be old

Now at  72, Hitchens tells his critics that one day they’ll be lucky enough to be old

So here I am, past three score years and ten, more than two years into extra time and sticking firmly to the view that I cannot really complain about what happens next. My generation have not in general treated their bodies as temples and every few weeks another sixties rock star, ravaged by Bourbon and cocaine, bites the dust, often rather younger than me.

The great institutions of my era grow fainter and weaker. I used to wonder whether The Times, that mighty organ, would give me an obituary when I died. Now I wonder instead which of us will be the first to go.

And then there are the advantages. I am old enough to have been educated before the revolution. I knew England before the roads were so full of cars that children could not be allowed out on their own.

I know what ‘Button A’ and ‘Button B’ were in the days when we had telephone boxes. I’ve eaten bars of Fry’s ‘Five Boys’ chocolate. I know things about history and poetry that most people don’t even know they don’t know.

What I used to (rightly) regard as a pretty ragged education now makes me look like an intellectual (a description I absolutely reject, as I can remember what really well-educated people were like, and I can also remember proper teachers). I have failed an examination. I saw express steam locomotives hissing and clanking into stations on winter evenings, glowing fiery red and orange – and it was normal.

I saw the Royal Navy’s last great battleship, HMS Vanguard, towed to the breakers on a sultry summer afternoon in 1960. I saw and smelt Paris almost 60 years ago, before it was modernised. I heckled the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in 1974 on the steps of 10 Downing Street (then open to all) as he went in to discuss a coalition with Ted Heath. I saw the deep blue stratosphere and the curve of the earth’s surface from the flight deck of Concorde.

I saw one of the last great luxury trains of America, the Southern Crescent, pull out of Washington’s Union Station on its way to New Orleans, with white-coated waiters serving mint juleps to the lucky passengers.

I queued up at Downing Street receptions to be welcomed by Margaret Thatcher, who first took my hand and then pulled me sharply forwards and past her, to let me know that I, a person of no account, was not expected to linger in her presence. I was told to sit down and stop being bad by the future Sir Anthony Blair after I asked him an awkward question at a press conference.

I many times passed through the Berlin Wall, and observed the gigantic Red Army roaring about the streets and roads of East Germany, and shaking the Soviet-controlled sky with sonic booms. I stood in the freezing snow, warmed by a pair of Communist-built long johns, as Marxism-Leninism collapsed in Prague in 1989.

I was canvassed for my vote (which I didn’t have) by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. I watched a Soviet Navy admiral tip a plate of pies into his briefcase at a Kremlin reception, because at that time even he could not get decent food in the Moscow shops.

I was frightened almost out of my wits by Islamist gangsters in Mogadishu. I’ve attended divine service in a nuclear missile submarine and walked amid the radioactive dust of a nuclear test site. I’ve been chased down a Berlin street by the East German People’s Police (I ran faster than they did), and been refused entry to a rather interesting-looking bar in North Korea.

I’ve seen chain gangs at work, two American executions, one Soviet massacre and several Nazi concentration camps. I’ve crossed the International Date Line backwards from Monday morning to the previous Sunday afternoon, on a journey between Siberia and Alaska which I doubt anyone could ever make now. Don’t you wish you were old too?