Must the grasshopper be a burden?

D.J. Enright

Impatience is one characteristic of advancing years, and so, this book being delayed in the post, I set to and drafted a review in its absence. There is always another deadline looming up, all too aptly named, the one that Time’s winged chariot is heading for. More soberly, making notes before you have read a book isn’t as monstrous as it sounds: at least you formulate your own, existing, perhaps meagre views on the subject. Mind you, the book still ought to be read.

Old age has had a mixed press, but (as so often in literature) the negative side is more potent than the positive. ‘Grow old along with me!’ could be an advertisement for a twilight home. ‘With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding,’ claimed Job (adding a few chapters later, ‘My days are past, my purposes are broken off, even the thoughts of my heart’); but Shakespeare judged that ‘when the age is in, the wit is out.’ Even Goethe, whose purposes were never broken off nor his wit ever out, remarked that, far from bringing us wisdom, the passing years make it hard for us to preserve what wisdom we may have had. The most famous account, alas, is that of the melancholic Jaques, with his lean and slipper’d pantaloon, and the ‘last scene of all’, second childishness. To which Philip Larkin has appended a later last scene: ‘... and then the only end of age.’

If the old are wealthy they will be allowed to be wise, or at all events handled with circumspection. If they are poor, they may find, mutatis mutandis, that the family outing to the peak of some remote mountain, possibly known for its wolves, is for them a one-way trip. So what about experience, a thing generally held to distinguish age from youth? If your experience is of any practical value, then you will be wealthy anyway. Understandably the young cringe away or grow prematurely deaf when faced with some such preamble as ‘Now in my time’ or ‘When I was your age’. There is so much explaining to do. For a forthcoming Oxford Book of Friendship I picked up a revealing and touching passage from Julian Barnes’s Staring at the Sun, where a character reflects that when they have lost their friends and contemporaries the very old need interpreters: ‘Everything you wanted to say required a context. If you gave the full context, people thought you a rambling old fool. If you didn’t give the context, people thought you a laconic old fool.’ On this subject the modern world is as brisk as was Rosalind towards Jaques. To his complacent observation, ‘Yes, I have gained my experience,’ the young lady retorted: ‘And your experience makes you sad. I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad.’

In the past, and perhaps in the present too, for most men ‘experience’ will have meant what they learned in the course of their work rather than during holidays in Spain or, come to that, in the course of domestic life: their gradual mastery of a professional craft in which they could take a proper if quiet pride. In one not uncommon scenario, a man is glad to take retirement – no more getting up early, no trudging to the office or the bench, no more wrangling with abrasive or bungling colleagues, but plenty of time for the garden or doing up the house or pasting in the stamp collection – and then finds the charm soon wears off.

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