However I Smell

Jenny Diski

  • Out of Time by Lynne Segal
    Verso, 331 pp, £16.99, November 2013, ISBN 978 1 78468 139 5

One of the problems of ageing is knowing when to start complaining about being old. I received an email not long ago from a woman who had read something of mine in which I described myself, at 66, as old. She said she worked with elderly people and her 85-year-olds call people my age young. What’s more, they never refer to themselves as old. The point of my piece (written for a Swedish newspaper) was to report that I supposed I must accept that I was old because my hairdresser says, ‘Ah, bless,’ in response to whatever I say in answer to her questions. ‘Are you busy today?’ ‘Just regular working.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ ‘How was the weekend?’ ‘A friend came to stay.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ The other day, when she asked, I said: ‘I’m being interviewed by a journalist from Poland.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ I hear it too from shop assistants as they call out that I’ve left my purse on the counter. ‘Ah, bless,’ they say when I return to pick it up. I used to leave my purse behind in my younger days too (though not nearly so often), but I don’t recall anyone ah-blessing me until recently. The ah-bless alters or confirms whatever it’s responding to, and in my mind’s eye (altered and confirmed) I see a small, nondescript old lady going bravely about her business. There are other signs that I am no longer young, but the ah-bless is the most open and public. Yet my Swedish correspondent said she found me ‘sad and pathetic’ for describing myself as old. So that’s me told, every which way.

Recently, I read an article in the Guardian by Bronwen Clune, headed (for all the world as if no one had suggested it before): ‘Women, it’s time to age disgracefully.’ Two weeks off her 39th birthday, Clune talked of herself as ‘edging towards a worthlessness that society has constructed around my age’. Older women, she said (accurately), ‘feel their volume fading’. She also quoted the artist Molly Crabapple’s thoughts on turning a mere thirty: ‘Staying alive has power. The years should give you competence and toughness along with the battle scars. You’ve survived.’

I’m not about to write to Mss Clune and Crabapple telling them they’re pathetic for thinking of themselves as ageing. It’s right and proper that they should try on their older selves rather than sit in the warm but rapidly cooling bath of thinking themselves simply young. It’s decidedly irritating, but also rather tragic, when head-turning young women, not content with being what they presently are, take the time to look at you in triumph, never doubting that they are going to stay young for ever – or perhaps they think the old and the young are born that way. The only defence against them is also a kindness: silence and knowledge. Even if we don’t take the Stoics to heart and live every moment as if it were our last, we should try to mitigate the awful shock that comes later on when we can’t fail to remember that the direction we live in goes only one way.

People are going to be cross with you for declaring agedness too soon as well as too late, but it’s not that easy to identify the right moment. According to Scientific American, we ought to be able to sniff out where we are at. Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Research Center in Philadelphia examined sweat-stained pads from the armpits of a cross-section of ages and, it appears, were able to tell by smelling them which had belonged to the old. It confirms what we all know but hesitate to say: old people smell. Apparently it isn’t an unpleasant smell – like ‘cucumbers and aged beer’ or comparable to ‘old book smell’ – but it’s there. Could that be one of the signals my hairdresser is picking up when she gives me the ah-bless? It seems not. The age groups were classified as 20-30 (young), 45-55 (middle aged), and 75-95 (elderly). So far as science goes, I am in a no person’s land and my critical correspondent is right: I’m merely on the nursery slopes of age. I do, however, qualify for the state pension, which when I was growing up was called the old age pension. There were no senior citizens then, or silver surfers. If you had a bus pass or a pension, you were old. Younger people may not now hear the echo of ‘old age’ when the pension is mentioned, and I’ve noticed sales assistants flinching when I announce I have an ‘old person’s’ rather than a ‘senior citizen’s’ railcard. The state retirement age is going to change in response to an increase in life expectancy. But it will be too late to affect me, so in spite of the ebullient 85-year-old Swedes I’ll take my cue from the language I’ve grown up with and my hairdresser’s style of passing the time of day with me, however I smell.

I am of the cohort which lived inside a gilded bubble when young, and made a proper song and dance about it. Now that group is clearly beginning to think of itself as old, and you can be sure this won’t happen quietly. In addition to Lynne Segal’s Out of Time, we’ve had Anne Karpf’s insistently buoyant How to Age; Angela Neustatter’s hymn to the great gift that ageing brings, The Year I Turn … A Quirky A-Z of Ageing; Why Frenchwomen Don’t Get Facelifts, in which Mireille Guiliano speaks up for the power of chic in ageing; and, coming soon, post-baby boomer India Knight’s In Your Prime: How to Age Disgracefully. Germaine Greer got in early to greet the menopause with a moonlit dance of delight in The Change (1991).

Segal takes us back to the early days of British second-wave feminism, embedding her book in her political activism and youthful reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s self-loathing (or at best ambivalent) book about being old, La Vieillesse. Back then, in the early 1970s, we baby boomers threatened our elders with radical change without thinking that we would ever change ourselves. But we have changed, in the ineluctable way, and not, as we assumed, as a result of personal choice. The irony of ‘I hope I die before I get old’ was that we didn’t believe for a second that we could become the old as we knew them. And we weren’t just young, but young in a way no previous generation had been young. We used ‘young’ and ‘old’ as time-free categories. ‘Young’ meant new and different, able to see what the old couldn’t (certain visionaries excepted): we had reinvented the terms to mean us and them. They, the old, would die out: we would change the world and remain forever ourselves, meaning forever young. (Which is not at all the same thing, Segal points out, as the untruism that ‘whatever your age, you are no older than you feel.’) Without the constraints and necessities of war or strong memories of having had to manage austerity, we could believe that there was a single something that we purely were, and always would be. We made a fuss about being young, without understanding how much being young enabled us to make the fuss. Now, we’re going to make a fuss about being old and that’s going to be rather less straightforward.

It’s certain that only a small fraction of my generation were doing any of the wild and wilful things people think (that we thought) we were all up to and that the same fraction are probably the ones who are going to write, talk, march and legislate about getting old in order to let the world – and ourselves – know what we think about it. The young of our old age have expressed considerable resentment at the noise we have made about our activities in the 1960s and 1970s – just wait till we’ve all got our old age books out. By squinting slightly, I can see what a gloomy prospect that might be for you young ’uns, but given that you will be rid of us soon enough, you might just as well put up with it. Read, don’t read, it’s up to you. It’s our last shout. We will read one another, then notate, cross-reference and append our thoughts in our own books. When we’re dead I suspect it will be as if we had never been. The feminists, the radical left, the communards: all will dissolve into a trivial pop culture history called the Sixties, much slighter and less consequential than it thought itself to be. So bear with us. Those few of our parents, aunts and uncles who remain still disapprove of us. The young now disapprove of us too. Even some of our own demographic disapprove of us. So nothing, really, has changed for the self-loving unloved baby boomers.

Segal was part of a London-based group of feminist, socialist, communal-living consciousness-raising sociologists, psychologists and historians who were active in the late 1960s and 1970s, and in favour of radical social and political change. Out of Time isn’t a memoir of that period, but a personally informed discussion of the politics and sociology of her own ageing and that of her generation and the attitudes people now have towards it. Although she depends a good deal on fiction, often problematically treating novels as if they spoke directly for their authors’ feelings, the examination is more useful when rooted in her awareness and memory of having been an active, political young woman, and her experience of and feelings about being in her late sixties forty years later.

One of her primary concerns is the war between the generations. The one in which, to our surprise, we are now the old and tiresome. But this time, there are worse accusations being chucked around. We are the baby boomers, the demographic catastrophe waiting to happen that is now happening. Baby boomers lived their youth in a golden time. Far from having to go into tens of thousands of pounds of debt, we had free tuition and decent grants to live on while we received a higher education. The generation that bore us and lived through the hardships of war and austerity, while disapproving of us, also provided us with welfare benefits that allowed us to take time off from earning a living, to play with ideas and new ways (we thought) of organising socially and politically, of exploring other cultures, drugs, craziness, clothes and music. Now, this free time seems mythic. If we wanted jobs, there were plenty of them. If we didn’t, we benefited in a way that would be called scrounging now (it was then, but no one stopped it). We are costing a fortune as we age and we’ll go on to cost much more because medical science has promised us twenty more years of some sort of life than our parents expected.

Our pensions, the medical expertise and equipment, the time and energy needed to care and cater for a disproportionately large aged population: all this, the young have been told, is coming out of their earnings and limiting their wellbeing. We got grants to do up houses we bought cheaply. They can’t get a mortgage. Workers to our queens, they are providing our good life, in suburbia, beside the sea, in sunny Spain, filling hospital beds, out of their taxes. We take our pensions, our cold weather payments, foreign holidays and cruises, while the young struggle to find jobs to pay for our needs, our strokes, our previously unhealthy lifestyles that caused the sicknesses which the impoverished NHS is obliged to cure. Segal, quite rightly, doesn’t blame the young for their anger, but mostly the media for provoking it. ‘Older people lived the “good life”. Why should the young have to pay for it?’ the Guardian asks. ‘Crumblies should stop whingeing and claiming priority over a scant welfare budget. We created this me-first world, now we should give something back,’ says 74-year-old Stewart Dakers. The Mail warns that the ‘Young face future of higher taxes to pay for parents who won’t save, says BoE man.’ Another article in the Guardian tells us: ‘The one demographic group that has not seen its incomes fall since the recession is those over the age of sixty. Pensioner incomes have continued to rise on average, albeit very modestly.’ Beware of the albeits. A relatively small rise in income during the recession doesn’t mean a relatively high income level to start with. ‘Over 20 per cent of those who live in poverty are pensioners,’ Segal points put, ‘rising to around 30 per cent if they are single women, with at least a third of that group being people in their sixties.’

Opposition between the generations is a perfect shield for a government under fire for cutting welfare while destroying the NHS, privatising education and doing nothing about the depletion of reasonably priced housing. Let the young blame the old not the coalition. In addition there is the now institutionalised pressure from all around to ‘age well’. Government and official bodies issue warnings about eating wrongly and not getting enough exercise. We are told to take our wellbeing and our ageing process into our own hands. The idea of ageing badly looms over us: those who become ill or develop age-related conditions are to blame for failing to keep themselves bright and sparky. They have grown wilfully old and expect the world to take care of them. It all plays into the neoliberal notion that the old are demanding welfare and medical aid which the young have to pay for. Dependency, more or less inevitable with increasing age, becomes something about which the old should apologise.

These political lies and half-truths are bad faith enough, but Segal’s real wrath is for those ‘scapegoats who have joined the chorus’ of blame. She quotes Marina Warner: ‘my generation is guilty of heedlessness, I can see that now.’ Nick Broomfield agrees: ‘We have left this country bankrupt.’ Will Hutton: ‘I’m at the heart of it – guilty as charged.’ Essentially, those of the left who are now apologising are doing so for having failed. Blame the government, big business and the bankers, but we were the ones who failed to stop them. It was less a selfish generation than a naive one, for thinking then, as some still do, that it is possible to change the inequities of the world. ‘I’m heartbroken that we were defeated, politically, culturally. I’m also sad for the next generation,’ Warner goes on to say. What we had then was a ‘kind of hopefulness, the energy that buoyed one up in those days [that] nobody with any kind of sophistication can really entertain now. You can’t believe there is something to be done that can be done by you.’ Maybe we were so high on our intentions that we failed to see the fog of Thatcherism creeping up around our ankles. As for costing the young money, it’s a marvellous distortion of the point of a welfare state. Perhaps we should apologise for being alive at a time when medical science is advanced enough and will do its best to keep us alive. But that’s also going to be true of the next generation.

It was our generation that came up with the phrase ‘the personal is the political’. And Segal examines her own experience of ageing in that spirit. She speaks of her surprise at finding herself hesitating to state her age. If it never occurred to us that we would grow old, it also never crossed our minds that we would baulk at growing old. Feminists may or may not have chucked out constricting undergarments and razors when they were young, but none of them dreamed they would dye their hair to eliminate the grey, or cover up their arms to conceal creased and creped skin, or wonder: is this skirt OK for a woman of my age? When Gloria Steinem snapped back at the ‘compliment’ that she didn’t look her age with ‘This is what forty looks like,’ no one thought that in later years it would still be thought flattering to say a woman looked ten years younger than she was. We knew we’d have sorted that nonsense out by now. We certainly haven’t. Many working women are right to withhold their age or make out cosmetically that they are younger, because there is still a problem about growing old in the job market. But even apart from that practical reality (as real as women of childbearing age being thought to be ‘worth less’ to employers), the deluge of advertising and articles addressed to women, and increasingly to men, continues to insist on the need to look younger in order to remain desirable. Being desirable, and staying desirable for longer, is the main thrust of marketing for clothes, cosmetics, medication and food.

*

It turns out to be harder than we thought it would be. The ageing flesh is not so fascinating, erotic or irrelevant to our sense of ourselves as we had planned to make it. Segal points out that everywhere culture still teaches us shame and disgust at our ageing reflections, and makes it seem reasonable that men see older women in that way too. The older woman becomes invisible in public, just part of a crowd, while recalling how when young she was catcalled and handled by strangers as soon as she stepped out on the street. Like young women now, we were spectacle whether we wanted it or not. We were always visible, even when alone. It is almost impossible to be a young woman and not imagine yourself being looked at. Some of us tell ourselves that invisibility is an improvement, and so it can be, but the release comes with, it’s accepted, a loss of our sexual selves. Visibility and our sexuality are relegated to the past, youthful self, and it’s not surprising if those selves grown older breathe a sigh of relief at being free from the incessant gaze, the time-consuming achings of desire and the desire to be desired. But Segal doesn’t really believe those women who claim to be relieved at being released from the grip of sexual longing. She quotes from Virginia Ironside’s The Virginia Monologues: Twenty Reasons Why Growing Old Is Great: ‘One aspect of this, she too emphasises, is “the freedom of no sex”. Having had far too much sex in the past, Ironside explains, she is now “older, wiser and luxuriating in [her] single bed”.’ Irma Kurtz, who chose to become celibate at 48, gets called out, as does Eva Figes, who spoke of women being ‘liberated from foolish longings’: ‘She may be alone, but she is no longer lonely, since her body no longer craves what she cannot have.’

According to Segal, these ‘pronouncements of cheerful sexual abstinence look much less compelling for anyone used to delving more deeply into the curious and bizarre world encompassing sexuality and desire’. Rejecting the idea that sexuality is simply ‘some particular physical action or engagement that is no longer performed’, Segal looks at it from multiple angles – ‘psychoanalytic conjecture, clinical observations, discursive musings or unguarded personal reflection’ – and finds that ‘sexual feelings permeate an infinite cluster of keen, anxious, stifled, blocked, voyeuristic desires popping up in all the secret spaces within and between people’. We are, she seems to insist, merely masking our always existing but culturally inconvenient sexuality if we claim to rejoice in its loss. This seems less thoughtful than prescriptive. Why doubt that some people really are relieved to get the bed and the streets back for themselves, while others make the best of it or agonise or shrug it off? But contentment with their physical lot among the elderly is certainly not what the market wants, even if cultural taboos express universal disgust for geriatric sexuality. Advertisers who don’t want to lose the massive cohort of the ‘retired’ hint constantly that some kind of desire and satisfaction is possible after forty when they show us those Eurosmart couples wandering barefoot along a calm seashore at sunset, holding hands and smiling into the limitless unviewable distance (which is the land of afternoon television where life insurance companies and undertakers show advertisements spoken by elegant older men and women for a nicely arranged and sanitised funeral).

The miracle of sustained desire (a nice amount, nothing rampant) after the bloom of youthful flesh has started to wither is brought about for her by ‘anti-ageing’ creams and firming serums, chemical peels, cosmetic surgery and weight-loss programmes. He may need his grey touching up and a machine to clear his nostrils and ears of excess hair, but it’s nearly all about keeping her nice enough for him, because we know it’s hopeless if she lets herself go. That is, do you want to become someone who’s past it? Because when it’s gone, it’s gone. Do you want to be like the man who on his 60th birthday said to me with tears in his eyes: ‘Now no one will ever fall in love with me again.’ (Did they before?) So much of the material and cultural world tells us that we are our sexuality and the effect we have when we enter a crowded room, that unless you’ve got something else going for you (fame or wealth), or never had any effect on a crowded room anyway, there must be existential panic at its loss. What does culture tell us is beyond the age of desire? Witches, post-menopausal creatures, bent over, noses to chin, hormonal unreason, watery eyes, fallen flesh, voices screechy and scratchy with age and malice, that smell, being loathed and feared by everyone. And that most terrible of fates, being a single woman. We all risk loneliness in old age if we live long enough – it is a terrible thing to be the last of your friends to die – but there is a special dungeon of isolation for women alone, mad old bats, pathetic creatures, talking to themselves and their cats, waiting out their lives. Being alone is as much of a stigma to be feared as losing sexuality. Old, lonely, unwanted, invisible. We learn about these sorry creatures in the books we read as small children, we see them repeatedly on the television news, dying of solitude and neglect, even in the crowded day room of a care home.

‘Orgasms are good for you,’ Segal says, ‘and good to have often,’ though I don’t think she’s including the possibility that the older woman might like to have her orgasms as well as her bed to herself. After two decades of living with a younger man, she tells us, she became single when he left her for a younger woman. Like De Beauvoir with her late love, Sylvie Le Bon, Segal has moved on. ‘Looking around my own ageing feminist milieu, I can see that I am far from the only older woman who has enjoyed and, in my case, celebrated the delights of a heterosexual partnership that ended in her late fifties, who has subsequently found unexpected erotic pleasure in a relationship with a woman.’

Having women lovers makes sense. It always seemed to me to be what there was to look forward to once the tedious hang-up with youthful heterosexuality had played itself out. If you didn’t want to keep the bed to yourself, you might well choose, I imagined, to share it with another woman, on the grounds that women have a wider understanding of love and sexuality than men, and they don’t make so much noise in the bathroom. Annoying as I imagine new-found, latter-day lesbianism in the older woman might be for lifelong lesbians, Segal points to Adam Phillips’s review of Lisa Diamond’s book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, in which ‘he is convinced that she and others are right in suggesting that what is most “mysterious” about women’s desire and relationships is that they are less narrowly focused and more flexible.’ This is Segal’s answer to Kurtz and Figes. She rejects their rejection of sexuality because she has found a way not to reject her own. You can stop assessing your desirability through the eyes of men, and discover that you and other women can desire together more and differently. But it won’t be everyone’s way, and in reality there is more to fearing age than a loss of desire, for all Segal’s examples of sexually active elderly women, and her insistence that sexuality dances kaleidoscopically within us, however old we are.

*

Another definitive non-sexual way of knowing you’re old is the moment when your doctor tells you that ‘you’ll have to learn to live with it,’ or that whatever ails or pains you is ‘the result of wear and tear’. You wait for the suggestion of a procedure, the next appointment, and then realise that you aren’t going to be considered for it. You see a virtual shrug that says you are no longer young enough for a resource-strapped institution to be overly concerned with getting you back to full health. There are higher priorities, and they are higher because the patients are younger. It comes to you that whatever ailment you’ve got at this point is decay inflected by decay, in one form or another, and, to people who aren’t you, only to be expected. It is, to put it simply, which they won’t, a recognition of the beginnings of the approach of death. And it can come to you in many ways, none of them alone necessarily recognisable. Things happens, this and that, which don’t in themselves mean anything, until the incremental signs pile up to the fact that there’s nothing to be done that’s worth doing. You are old, getting older, you won’t get younger, you are physically wearing out. You will die, sooner rather than later. Some things about ageing, such as whether we mind showing our wrinkled arms or living alone, are perhaps a matter of choice and decision, but then there comes the ordinary decay and breakdown of the old body. Eventually it’s out of our control and even our social and economic situation will affect only the conditions not the way in which we die. None of the gung-ho books on ageing has more than a brief mention of the proximity of death as one of the symptoms of old age to be dealt with. ‘Acceptance’, they say, without much elaboration, and then move rapidly on. Even if it won’t kill you imminently, the degeneration of the body will alter and limit how you can live, whether you can get out, continue to work and travel. I can’t think of anything about the reality of ageing which improves a person’s life. The wisdom people speak of that is supposed to come to us in old age seems to be in much shorter supply than I imagined, and apart from that, it’s a matter of how self-deceptively, or stoically, you are able or prepared to put up with the depletions, dependency and indignities of getting old.

Segal’s solution to the reasonable pessimism of ageing is to carry on doing what she always did, within the limitations of her capacity. The trick is to see the then and the now not as the same, but as continuous, a series of selves, changed over time, but linked to an underlying self that has always been. These thoughts might be read as vague pleasantries, except that they clearly mean something real and practical to Segal. She leans towards Beauvoir’s solution of decent ageing: ‘One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, compassion.’ A sense of love and community, a life vested in equality and the rights of women, certainly adds up to a proper life, even a good one, but I’m not sure that a good life, even the best life, is enough compensation for the multiple ills of ageing and what seems the single piece of wisdom I’ve learned from my past – the fact that the world is immune to benign liberal longings. As conclusions that work for her, her conclusions are fine, but her more objective analysis of the situation of the old and the attitude of society to them is more stringent.

She quotes John Berger writing in his eighties: ‘One protests because not to protest would be too humiliating, too diminishing, too deadly. One protests … in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds.’ Berger’s social optimism is always cheering, but here it conceals the shadows. The advice seems to me to be to do what will prevent you from despairing, because being old and having been young, we are very well aware of the world’s capacity to remain utterly unchanged by our efforts. And that awareness alone is enough to make the end of life grim and disappointing unless you have the capacity to grin and bear it.