Ian McMillan: I'm starting to explore the strange land of 54

Happy Birthday to me! Happy Birthday to me! Happy Birthday dear me! Happy Birthday to me! Right then, Ian, let's try and blow out all the candles on the cake. Take a deep, deep breath old warrior, because, let's face it, there are a lot to blow out; it's a bit like blowing out a shed fire! That's right, that's right... keep blowing!

Yes, friends, your columnist has just about reached the grand old age of 54; on Thursday morning, as the clock ticks from 00.00 to 00.01, I'll slip from the comparative youth of 53 to... what? Old age? Obviously not. Middle age? Well, if I'm middle-aged then that means I'll live till I'm 108, which suits me. Decrepitude? Well, I'm still keeping up with my exercises, moving slowly towards my six-pack and my pecs of steel, although I'm still in party-seven and pecs of plasticine territory. I guess I'll just be a fully-paid up citizen of that strange and temporary country called The Land of 54, which seems like a spidery, grey territory from the vantage point of The Land of 53.

It's not a big milestone, obviously. It's not a new decade. Becoming 50 was a bit of a moment, a bit of a jolt; it was a moment when I began to become my dad, in subtle and almost indefinable ways.

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My dad would have been 50 in 1969, and I remember him in his suit and tie, appalled by all the hippie revolution that was going on around him. There were riots all over the place and John Peel was playing fantastic music on the radio and my dad sat in the conservatory tying fishing flies with names like Baby Doll and Bloody Butcher.

I recall cringing that summer as we trundled through Carlisle. He

wound the car window down, he slowed down almost to a halt and shouted to a man in a kaftan (probably Carlisle's first hippie or possibly somebody going to a fancy dress party at the Golf Club) "Get your hair cut!"

My mother tutted, my brother tried to hide behind his bird-watching magazine, and I turned beetroot red.

Mind you, I guess that's just the kind of thing chaps in their 50s did then. So when my dad was 54, it would have been 1974 and I would have been just about to leave school and go to North Staffordshire Polytechnic.

The point here is that, for me at that time, it seemed that my dad was impossibly old. He was 54! He was born in 1919! He had fought in the Second World War and he could remember a time before BBC2! He lived the first few decades of his life in black and white!

And now, here I am, about to be 54. To my kids, let's face it, I'm

impossibly old. To my grandson Thomas, I'm more or less an ancient monument. I bet he thinks I rode to school on a dinosaur while reading my ABC from a stone tablet. I was born in 1956! I can remember a time before Channel 4! I lived the first few decades of my life without broadband internet access!

I used to believe my dad in most things he said but when he said, in his 50s, that he didn't feel middle-aged, I thought he was fibbing, but now I know he wasn't. You're as old as you feel, as the old clich goes, so I must be about 36-and-a-half.

Since the Dawn of Time, though, when cave people sat about in the cavern equivalent of a front room, the same old dilemma always gets aired, which can be boiled down to "I wish I knew then what I know now". In other words: I wish I had the vigour of youth combined with the wisdom of maturity.

I look back at the lad I was, wanting to change the world, wanting to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, wanting to travel the globe and probably become the first man from South Yorkshire in space. Well, I've done a bit of that. I won the BBC Wildlife Poet of the Year 1992: my prize was a wooden badger and it still sits on the piano in the front room. I've been to a few places: do you want to see my holiday snaps? And, well, I've looked at space from my back garden, and tried to count the stars before the security light came on.

And my equivalent of my dad sitting in the conservatory tying his flies is me sitting in the conservatory reading poems and listening to music while outside the world whirls and spins and the one thing I've learned in just over half a decade is that I'm not the most important person in the world. I'm just one of them.

So, get the candles ready, write the cards, wrap up the surprise gifts. Happy Birthday to me! And don't let me forget: 54 is the new 28, or at least the new 42...