When I was​ 78, I wrote a book about being old. I don’t think I’d ever felt the need to swim more than twenty lengths at that time, let alone record my paltry daily achievements. Now I put letters and numbers in my diary (a sort of code) to remind me that I’ve walked at least five thousand Fitbit steps and swum a kilometre, which is forty lengths of the pool.

With what I took to be affection, my cat, Fergus, leaped at my shin a few days before my ninetieth birthday, and ripped a small hole there, and I’ve not been able to swim for a week or two. Instead of glorying in the extra hours this gives me to do nothing at all, I am wracked by failure, and my diary is bare of its codes and feats. I am, though only temporarily, I hope, brought face to face with the reality of this absurd age I’ve reached.

The truth is that I’m often bored and certainly don’t have enough to do. There are places I could go to wallow in oldness with other people suffering the same predicament, but I can’t face that. Instead, there is a perpetual inner argument between what I like to think of as my superego and the voice of my defeated younger self. The first tells me in a firm voice, and rather witheringly, that I must not only swim forty lengths a day but the lengths must be swum according to a routine, alternately crawl and backstroke, and the backstroke evenly divided between the use of both arms moving simultaneously and then separately. The other, weaker, voice tells me that by far the more grown-up and sensible course of action would be to swim fewer lengths and not every day and/or to lie to myself about how many I’ve done. It also mutters that I could swim all the lengths on my back, which is much easier, and that I could even indulge my lurking wish to spend longer in bed in the morning reading the Guardian and listening to the Today programme than I already do.

I suppose most of us make rules for ourselves. Perhaps it’s the absence of work, of a job, that has made me so dependent on mine. I have certainly become a harder taskmaster and, it seems to me, a sillier one. When I do keep to all my rules, not just some of them, I put a tick in my diary to accompany the letters and numbers. And those aren’t the only self-imposed regulations. I have a 16-year-old knee replacement in each leg. Every morning I do the exercises that were prescribed by physiotherapists after the operations. There is probably no point in my doing them now, but if I miss doing them I feel ashamed, almost sinful. And then there are the pills and the eyedrops and remembering to charge my phone and my hearing aid. Could I ever have believed that completing these daily rituals would come to seem a moral obligation?

Karl, my husband, wrote a book called Doubles. He was inclined to detect expressions or signs of doubleness in quite a lot of books and quite a lot of people. I sometimes asked him about this and even got him to admit that though he had secrets, he didn’t really have a double himself. But then he pointed out that I often began a pronouncement with the words ‘A part of me thinks/feels …’ What was that, he asked, if not evidence of doubleness? My inner debates have grown louder as I’ve got older. Some of them are about language. I try not to mind when people say they are ‘humbled’ when they’re given a prize or a knighthood, or ‘on a journey’ when they’re clearly at home. I know that language evolves and that this is ostensibly a good thing. Indeed, I founded and edited an academic journal called Changing English. But I still mind all that challenging and struggling and impacting and moving on that younger people go in for.

I’ve always been dogged by shame, which is not, of course, to be confused with guilt, though it’s possible to experience both at the same time. Could shame be encouraging my strange behaviour? For instance, I studied Russian at university, but then allowed myself to forget it. I had other things to do. Shame prompted me more than fifty years later to do a GCSE in Russian and then an A level. I still can’t say much in Russian or understand Russian speakers who aren’t talking to me, but I read two or three pages of Russian every morning before trudging off to the swimming pool. At the moment I’m reading Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead. There is a great deal about flogging and floggers, whom Dostoevsky found fascinating as well as unspeakable; and there is a glorious scene where the prisoners in their fetters put on a play and another where they clamber on top of each other in the communal baths in doomed and desperate efforts to reach a trickle of water and wash themselves.

I read the Russian text on my computer, on a website that has just about everything that was written in Russian before the 1905 revolution. I’ve read almost everything by Turgenev and Tolstoy and Chekhov in Russian, and a good deal of Dostoevsky, whose work I thought I knew and understood when I was young, but which seems strange and hard to understand now. I don’t know why that is. It may be to do with his belief in God. The website also has Turgenev’s letters, which were legion and often in French, though they’ve been translated into Russian here. There is one drawback. The Russian texts have no page numbers and you can’t mark where you’ve got to. So I have an English translation by my side at all times, in order to find my place, but also, of course, to help me with words I don’t know, and there are plenty of them.

The strangest thing about all this compulsive rule-making and recording is that I don’t think I’m inventing rules or keeping to them in the interest of either health or virtue. I do sometimes swank about it all, but usually to a puzzled audience. The compulsion is sui generis and not concerned with consequences. Just as I list and tilt a bit when I walk, so I teeter on the edge of losing energy, structure, purpose. The letters and numbers and ticks, the need to do extra lengths if I lose count of how many I’ve already done: these are tactics, I think, to provide relief rather than satisfaction, to fill all this time I now have at my disposal by telling myself that something has been done that day; that I haven’t slipped entirely or disastrously; that I haven’t wasted all of the long desert hours when I’m awake.

I was often bored as a child. Sundays were impossible: too much family, no school, no shops. But that boredom is studded with memories. Visits to the newsagent by the station, for instance, to buy my two-ounce sweet ration and a copy of the People, which ran Forever Amber for weeks and weeks. Quite a long stretch of my adolescence was occupied by efforts to be as philistine as possible in protest at the innocently highbrow tendencies of my family: two novels a day by Denise Robins borrowed from Boots lending library during one summer holiday.

I don’t think I was ever bored once I’d left school, and never again until now. There were other people and work and family and there was never enough time. If there were rules, they came from outside, and I didn’t think of them as rules. Yet those years are harder to remember. They were so full of activity that I struggle to single out moments. Boredom, perhaps, breeds memories. Perhaps I am back to where I was in my restless teens, only now I counter boredom with routines and regularity. I am battling pointlessness, embroidering the flatness of a life without work or duties or demands.

I read forty books last year. Once I probably read more than that. But now it seems too many. I read too fast and forget the endings. I was inspired to read Clive James’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy by my neighbours moving to nearby Paradise Walk for almost a year while builders buzzed and clattered and drilled and hammered in their house. For all those months my poor house rattled and shivered and filled with dust, the wall between the two houses apparently paper-thin. I’ve enjoyed sending indignant emails to my neighbours in Paradise from my Inferno, but they weren’t impressed and I fear now that it may never stop. They will think up more essential, modern alterations to punish me. Then a new translation of the Aeneid appeared in the house, by Shadi Bartsch. It wasn’t quite as magical as Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book Six, but it was wonderfully clear and lively and more bloodthirsty than anything I’ve ever read: heads sliced in two, and the halves flopping sideways to become epaulettes and the earth carpeted with blood and severed limbs.

I think quite a lot about dying and death, but I have very little to report on the subject, or at least nothing that my age could be said to have revealed to me. I find it impossible to believe that I will be dead fairly soon and not there to comment on the fact. That’s not because I fear it, but because I simply can’t imagine the world I know without me in it. Various clergymen insisted when the queen died in September that life was eternal and she’d live for ever. Do they really believe that? I occasionally imagine my children and grandchildren sifting through the contents of my house and deciding that they don’t really want or need very much of it. What will they do with the rest if I’m not there to make suggestions? Then who will explain my absence to the cat, properly explain it? Will someone buy my house and do to it what my neighbours have done to theirs? I still haven’t managed to picture these things going on while I’m lying peacefully in a coffin (wooden, I’d like to suggest, rather than wickerwork) at the undertakers’ at the end of the street.

There are moments when I’m happier now than I remember being very often in the past, though these moments gleam out of a new solitude. I am hors de combat and usually feel lucky to be. I am freer than I’ve ever been, yet I quite often feel edged out, and it’s clear that I have become actually and metaphorically deaf to significant contemporary sounds. My spectator’s view of it all doesn’t fail to remind me that other people are not so lucky or so detached, that some of them are sad beyond hope, that there are young people who don’t want to stay alive and people who worry to distraction and despair or who suffer all kinds of untreatable pain. I became an adult just after the end of the Second World War, and I think of the 1950s, so often described by younger generations as bleak and impoverished, as a time of idealism and optimism. I find it difficult to detect that sort of faith in the future now, though I hope against hope that it’s there in some form I’m simply too old to recognise.

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