Studying my 2016-17 diary now, the round of activity I embarked upon as I turned 50 looks decidedly manic. For a long time, I knew I would die before I got old. Having tested positive for HIV when I was 22, I was told I had a probable life expectancy of no more than 10 years. So I had no idea of reaching 40, let alone 50. But as 2016 approached – and after 20 years of effective HIV medication – I realised that I was, incredibly, going to reach my half-century. So I made a decision. I wanted to be the best version – physically at least – of my 50-year-old self.
Earlier that same year, my mum, Angela, had reached 80, and the dementia that had started to impinge on her life some years before was now leading to increasing mental and physical problems. I realised that while the exercise I’d undertaken (intermittently) in my 20s was about making myself look good in the here and now, exercise in my 50s was much more about preparing myself for reaching the same age as my mother, for the struggle of old age.
I joined my local Slimming World and there were visits every few days to a Pilates coach, who would guide me through the stretches and contortions of the reformer machine. Despite this, I decided – why, I now can’t imagine – that I needed one more activity in my fitness routine. Reading that Mick Jagger attributed his ability to undertake stadium tours in his 70s to a regular ballet class, I concluded in 2018 that what I needed was ballet.
Despite being a culture lover, ballet has never figured highly in my list of priorities. In fact, it hovers just above jazz on my “only if there’s no other choice” list of possible evenings out. But the combination of strength, flexibility and an aerobic workout was irresistible and I signed up for beginner’s ballet at the City Lit in Covent Garden.
With my new life of exercise, I’d got used to being the only man in the room. The women of Slimming World had welcomed me, the female environment of the Pilates studio had been friendly. But the women here gave me a far frostier reaction. Edging into my first class in newly bought jockstrap, tights and ballet shoes, there were no welcoming smiles. In fact, there was a reluctance to even make eye contact with me. The teacher was encouraging, but when I was paired up with an older German woman, she muttered loudly with every move I made: “Oh you are very bad. You are terrible. You are doing it all wrong.”