On the outside of Christopher Wren’s Observatory Tower in Greenwich a ball still drops down at exactly 1 p.m. every day to indicate just what time it is. Captains in the Pool of London, the largest port in the world, used to spy it with their telescopes before they sailed, and adjust their chronometers. Ships and port have vanished, but the daily rite of time and precision is still enacted. This nugget of information from Michael Young and Tom Schuller’s Life after Workis both moving and symbolic. Greenwich was the chosen area of their enquiry into what happens to us after we stop clocking in. As one with a year or so to go, I found their survey gripping.
Time, which you obey while you are ‘at work’, now obeys you. You can decide what you will be doing at any given moment; whether or not, for example, you will be holding a saucepan and egg-timer in your hands when the Greenwich ball drops down. You decide when to get up and when to go to bed. Your freedom is perhaps illusory, and more Pavlovian than you would wish it. The consciousness of the elderly begins to register how conditioned our daily lives are; something the young comfortably ignore or take for granted. Awareness of this conditioning can become a source of pleasure or of dread, depending on how we react to our awareness of it. The thing is, no doubt, to make active, even as it were humorous, use of our dog-like reflexes. It can be an amusement to know what we shall be wanting to do in a quarter of an hour’s time. I suddenly remembered an inspired aperçu from near the end of War and Peace – which Tolstoy wrote in his prime. Pierre brings the old Countess Rostov a miniature of her dead husband in a locket. So far from being grateful she becomes irritable, for it happened this was not the right time of the day for indulging recollections about her old spouse the Count. Her routine has been put out, her expectations seriously disturbed.
Imagine yourself on Roy Plomley’s desert island – at what times will you listen to your chosen discs? Will Mozart’s clarinet make you feel nice and sad in the morning, or frightfully gloomy at sunset? Will some old hit or jazz record bring back the days of your youth, or irritate you unbearably by harping on the same memory sensation? The wisest course, I would feel, would be to choose things that just go quietly on, like Gregorian chant or Bach: something to provide a soothing background to the expectations of the personal timetable. Young and Schuller’s subjects seemed to make a success of retirement, and being old, in so far as they imposed their own rituals on the monotony of the day, requiring of it no more than an unmenacing blankness into which they fitted their own high spots and carefully anticipated lows. ‘I shall now take my nap’ is a comfortable reflection: much less so to come round in one’s chair and wonder what has happened. Age can and should require precise manipulation; to manipulate it then becomes a good end in itself – taking short views, no further than dinner or tea, as Sidney Smith recommended.
Of course many people, who are not required to fall off the shelf at a given moment, never need to grasp the facts of retirement, and in many cases don’t do so. Some, too, are living refutations of Larkin’s lugubrious line: ‘You can’t put off being young until you retire.’ Indeed modernity rather encourages you to have a try at this. Take up windsurfing, make a few dates at a marriage bureau, learn how to do tandoori cooking. The drawback here is that you are not only taking too conscious an attitude towards your age and situation but you are allowing yourself to behave out of character: something the young get away with but which can be unbecoming in the old. If hang-gliding never came naturally to you before it will not start to do so now; nor will you become a hero of the bedroom – Larkin’s wistful dream at all ages, I should think – by making a Senior Citizen’s effort of will. Many women never become old at all, and women are far better at not bothering about the whole thing than men are. They carry on as before: but a man is probably wise to take a more conscious view of what is happening.
At least that seems to be among the lessons of this absorbing book, which argues against the practice of retirement dating from industrialism – argues that old people should be allowed and encouraged to work. The two interviewing sociologists were chiefly struck by the astonishing variety of responses from the retired men and women they talked to. It is probably significant, too, that they interviewed only those who got the chop on a particular day, not the ones who arrived there by degrees or not at all. ‘It is hard to believe that any 149 people, even though chosen at random, could be so different. The joyous and the depressed, the intensely active and those with time hanging on their hands, some busily engaged with the great society well beyond Greenwich and others barely creeping from a house in one street to a house in another and back again ... those whose chief delight is playing with two-year-olds and others who dread seeing a child again; those who have never been on a holiday and others who drive to their caravan at Clacton almost every weekend; those whose only routine is watching cricket in the summer and football in the winter and others who tend their chrysanthemums every day; those who look forward to Lammas-Tide and others who have not been in a church since they were married – they are all here.’
They are all here, certainly: but although much is made of the fact that both sexes now go out to work and consequently have the same problems when they are phased out, the men’s problems and preoccupations are insensibly more dwelt on than the women’s, as the tone of the above passage reveals. So far from being a leveller, age tends to reveal more sharply the different ways in which the sexes have been conditioned, the roles to which they have grown. One old gentleman prided himself on cooking the meal for his still working wife: but in fact he only took it from the fridge and put it in the oven and turned the gas on: she had bought and prepared the ingredients.
Still the pride was something – probably a good deal. Self-respect in one’s activities is shown to be what matters. One of the female interviewees used to like the jobs she’d always had, jobs ‘where you can keep your brains for your hobbies’, cleaning schools and lavatories or checking telephone engineers’ time sheets, ‘most of which were like War and Peace, not a word was true’ (a comment to rejoice the hearts of some modern critics). She was a great reader, and was as glad to have no children at home as to have no paid work. Retiring was ‘like being in the delivery room and just delivered – my God it was a relief. Then it was the beginning of another traumatic life but with this there’s no catch to it.’ She could make a totally happy work situation for herself by going to sit and talk for a number of hours a day with an old lady in shelter care. She loved that, and then home for a bath and supper. ‘What’s on the box? Not a lot. On the radio? Not a lot. Right, get out your book.’
Mrs Bright’s resources, like those of a surprising number of retired people, had no truck with the bosom of the family. Independence from all that was what she wanted, and the chance to revel in her own style of freedom, no longer at the ‘beck and call’ of others. Other women still clung grimly to the rival attractions of being at beck and call; even Mrs Bright, though she wanted nothing more to do with her own kids, was happy to play with her grandchildren. A number of men were as fortunate in their retirement as she was, but many pined to be back ‘in harness’ – using the term with a conscious and nostalgic relish. Mr Urwin summed the matter up by saying: ‘I don’t think anyone’s ever really a master of their time.’ There are two schools of thought: those who believe you make your own life, and those who think others make it for you. Mr Urwin expressed a strong preference for being in the latter category.
Outright poverty was seldom a problem: certainly not for poor Mr Aziz, who had worked on the Thames barrage, and now could find nothing to do but make himself a cup of tea and stroll up and down the street. Like many men, like Dickens’s Mr Wemmick who worked for Jaggers the lawyer, he had two quite different personae, for on and off work, and without the first he became a mere ghost in his home, disregarded by everybody. He may have misled the interviewers by being less articulate than the others, who took great pleasure in being conscious of their situation, and reviewing it for the writers’ benefit in graphically objective terms. Even so, I should have thought, on the basis of this book, that the curse of sociological enquiry is the tendency to ‘pastoralise’ the lives of your subjects, quite involuntarily but inescapably, as Sigal did in his study of miners and Benedict more famously in her accounts of the Samoans. Interviewees are usually all too willing to co-operate in presenting their lives in terms of a ritual and coherence which are themselves misleading, and which would under normal circumstances be unrecognisable to the individual concerned: rather as ideologues want to see ‘ordinary men and women genuinely participating in the formulation of meanings and values.’
No politician can avoid the falsifications of the pastoral, but its sociological equivalent is a small price to pay in the presentation of a study as civilised and illuminating as this one is. The retired often make unexpected comparisons. Mr Davis, who had worked at Ford’s, found himself infuriated by supermarket check-outs – old ladies holding up the production line by putting their baskets in the wrong places and talking to the girl about Mrs Brown’s baby. ‘When they dither I get annoyed – that’s all my Ford training.’ His wife had divorced him because he made her uneasy in the kitchen, wanting to rationalise her movements. Mr Davis had no love for Ford’s, giving you ‘a sherry and a handshake’ when you dropped off, but it had made him what he was. For me, at any rate, Larkin is undoubtedly the writer with the most penetrating imagination of this predicament, so well charted now by sociologists.
The circumstance we cause
In time gives rise to us,
Becomes our memory.
His poems chart in their unique style a preoccupation with work and retirement – work as the toad that helps you down Cemetery Road, the work situation as the place where sexual day-dream and other diversions are most readily available – and where you can have more daring dreams about shouting ‘Stuff your pension!’ The toad work is not mocked, and in one of his most subtly wry poems, ‘Poetry of Departures’, Larkin guys the notion that one can create ‘another life’ by following one’s more daring impulses. As so often with Larkin, the poem saves its own situation by taking the attitude it does: one of scornful separation from what you know you need. Reading between the lines, as it were, of the interviews in Life after Work, I found the most significant absence (which people were often conscious of) was the lack of the ‘Derision Factor’ in retired life. You can no longer mock your employers, the system, the boss. In Michael Young’s original book on the meritocracy he laid stress on the difficulty of accepting your own inferiority in a society determined by merit rather than by class or money. Similarly, when you are retired you can’t blame anyone else if there is a vacancy around you.
‘Every old man is a King Lear,’ said Goethe, and Lear planned a highly self-regarding scenario for his life after he gave up work. What about an old woman, what stereotype does she resemble? Larkin would mutter about ratbags, but then Larkin got a lot of fun out of bemoaning the horrors of even comparatively affluent retirement.
It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
Not a bad thing to think of a well-invested end as intensely sad – it would be one way of cheering oneself up with a new Derision Factor. ‘Where is Mrs Lear?’ once enquired George Steiner darkly. Did Shakespeare flinch from portraying what happened to old women? Or did Mrs Lear renew her youth in The Winter’s Tale and become a Paulina, a Queen Hermione?
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.