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.

We must all know of sad cases in which retirement, and the disappearance of a resented yet steadying routine, have been followed by a collapse into apathy and decay. When you cease to work, you can lose your status, your meaning, virtually your identity. We know of happy cases too, where an erstwhile hobby more than makes up for a relinquished career, or vegetation seems to equal contentment. Perhaps they prosper best under retirement whose employment has been of a modest kind, who have seen themselves as useful rather than important. Here is a meaning for the third beatitude: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit a happy ending.

Belonging to a race unremarkable for meekness, writers tend not to retire, though they may fade slowly away, hidden under jottings for some huge ultimate masterpiece, or lost in a cloud of disobliging words. Are there any literary prizes reserved for people over 65, or over 70, or ...? (Oh, very well, it appears there is soon to be an award for ‘first novelists’ of 60 and over, which at least will reward continence.) No, but there is the old age pension. And there’s also posterity, now much nearer and rather less promising than it once looked.

So much for my review sight unseen. When the book arrived, the first thing to be seen was a publicity sheet (now in my time there weren’t any such things), surely composed by someone in his or her ebullient youth. ‘This,’ it declared, ‘is the moment when a feeling of immense gloom comes over the reader’ – possibly a euphemism for reviewer – ‘not ANOTHER depressing book about how miserable it is to be old!’ No, I don’t feel old is different: it presents ‘an encouraging view of old age’. The suggestion that we need encouraging to grow old is a little quaint, but the rest of the sheet is pertinently informative.

To give a full overall account of any human condition is barely possible, but the authors have made a good job of combining statistical abstractions with first-hand individual testimonies, some of them of a striking and – yes, the epithet is valid – encouraging nature. The testimonies come primarily from a group of 55 men and women, aged between 60 and 80-plus, all of them grandparents, and from their children and grandchildren when possible (Two ‘important minorities’ are thus left out: people who never married, and couples who had no children.) ‘Unless they are ill, or miserable, they do not feel, in their real selves, that they are old. And, considering how most of us think about old age, they are absolutely right.’ The last sentence intimates that the book will not be a poker-faced taxonomy but is imbued with a particular and (why not?) missionary purposefulness. It is to be free from the prevailing stereotypes, which range from sweet old granny to dirty old man, it will stress the resilience, courage and imagination displayed by the elderly, and will not concentrate, as some other researchers quite legitimately have, on the more vulnerable, including those in the two categories omitted from the study.

Statistics give with one hand and take away with the other. Many elderly people are variously ill or disabled, but there are lots of elderly people about, so many of them enjoy ‘reasonable if not perfect health’. The same goes for poverty, but less cheerfully: a ‘far from insignificant’ number of older people have comfortable incomes (the ones who always did?), but nevertheless a third of the retired live at or below the poverty line (and perhaps never lived far above it), in part because of their ‘exclusion’ from work. (Once they would have worked till they dropped.)

One statistic that blazes out has it that beyond the age of 75 women outnumber men ‘by almost two to one’. This preponderance, for which nature is not held responsible, is somewhat unconvincingly ascribed to ‘the uneven advances in medicine and the lesser exposure of this particular generation of women to health hazards such as smoking or industrial injury’. There must be more to it than that. I would venture that if women last longer it is because they have always worked, they never really retire, they are built better, more supple in spirit at any rate. (One woman interviewed here complains quite bitterly that her retired, hyperactive husband has moved out of the garden and into the kitchen; she has been made redundant: ‘It’s murder ... I’m bored to tears.’) Perhaps by and large they have been more humble than men in their expectations – outside the great albeit ambiguous distinction of motherhood – and their ‘sense of identity’, or their pride, has been less demanding and therefore less precarious. (Whether, in that case, their preponderance will last very much longer is open to doubt.) I fear the authors of the present book would dismiss this theory as ‘romanticisation’, since it is not quantifiable, and it has to do with ‘nature’, something held in disrepute these days and always, for sociologists, a bugbear, threatening their very livelihood. I had only wanted to be, with the help of memory, down-to-earth.

Sex is a subject on which informants were rather surprisingly ready to inform. For the most part, the women express themselves as glad to be shot of it (‘I never liked it, I think it’s an overrated pastime, myself’) and set far more store by affection, companionship and care during times of illness, while the men are less than devastated to have given it up or been given up by it. One admirable widow, after a hard though full life, treated herself to a trip to Canada in her seventies; during the voyage she met an old man from Vancouver who, in making his advances, improved on the old ploy: it wasn’t exactly that his wife didn’t understand him but she happened to be a lesbian. The widow told herself, ‘They’re not tampering with me, mate,’ and managed to have ‘a lovely time on the boat’, and on her own terms. A green gallant of 80 gets an approving nod, but other interviewees are scolded for their negative attitudes. ‘We’ve had enough, let’s face it,’ says a wife of unspecified age, ‘I wouldna gie ye a bit o’ steak and chips fir all the sex that wis ever thingmy.’ And her husband, less forthcoming but in agreement, remarks ‘I wouldn’t say ye’re not interested, the point is ye’re not able.’ The authorial comment, ‘Fortunately not all the accounts of the later years of married life are so gloomy,’ seems wide of the mark, since no gloom is in evidence. At times the authors remind me of a hearty young woman on a P&O ship whose job was to jolly passengers into abandoning their chairs, where they were contentedly snoozing or reading, and throwing themselves into healthy deck sports.

The chapter on ‘Freedom and Fun’ is quite exhausting: it features climbing, coach outings to stately homes, bowls, golf, snooker, knitting for the church sale or for grandchildren, flower-arranging, voluntary work, political pursuits, adult education (a Scots widow took courses in Gaelic, astronomy, lamp-making and leatherwork), Darby and Joan clubs (not always favoured: ‘O my God no. I’m not old enough for that’; often regarded with suspicion: ‘They patronise you’), singsongs (the soul, as Yeats exhorted, singing louder for every tatter in its mortal dress), bingo, watching television, writing poetry, photography, travelling (old people ought to be explorers, if they can afford it) to Australia, Singapore, Tunisia, or just going to the pub (a regular visit ‘may boost morale’, the authors say, ‘but unfortunately has less happy long-term effects’). Particularly commended is dancing, since it involves ‘exercise, and a skill, and companionship, and a romantic echo of youth, all in one’.

Some of the interviews bear out the milder stereotypes. A man of 79 confesses that ‘one of the things that I know about old age is that it takes a lot of enthusiasm away from you. You see, when I go to put my socks on, I put one on all right, but I can’t get the other one on and then I know that I’m old ... Old age is not really – is not such a marvellous thing.’ However, a former butler, now 86, doesn’t feel comfortable unless he changes his clothes three times a day: ‘Oh I like to look proper; properly dressed ... I’ve always had to change two or three times a day. In service, of course, you had to.’ Much of the evidence is of a ‘yes, but’ character. Good to busy yourself in the garden, but what when the weather prevents you? Nice to go for long walks, but what when your legs give out? A 70-year-old says she doesn’t feel old, ‘only for the fact that you can’t do what you’d like to do.’ One man muses that death ‘is bound to happen’ and that’s that, while another regrets that it will put an end to watching rugby and would like to be taken while at a match. All quite reasonable, as when, apropos of grandparenting, a ‘sphere of fulfilment’ but a tricky one, a grandmother points out that you can spoil the kiddies ‘and then send them home to mum and dad when they want disciplining ... you get the best of both worlds.’ Or when a man takes his grandson’s hand as they walk through a churchyard and tells him: ‘Don’t fear, the dead don’t hurt you, it’s the living that hurt.’ Indeed, the most cheering aspect of these testimonies is their clear-headed good sense, part and parcel of the aforesaid courage and resilience, though with the imagination held prudently in check. Job wasn’t utterly wrong: in age there can be wisdom.

I don’t feel old is a valuable corrective to the misery-mongers, and abounds in sheer human interest. That it is splintered and discrepant in both the life stories and the authorial commentary, and hardly lives up to its sunny title, can be taken as a sign of the book’s authenticity. We can’t altogether avoid stereotypes, and, as the authors note, we embrace myths ‘because they help to make sense of life’. But the rules, mythical or otherwise, set off the exceptions. For all time’s blurring and homogenising effect, old people remain individuals, and cannot well be lumped together, however humane the intention, under banners, whether of doom and despair or of hope and glory.

I dare say many people’s views on age, especially their own, vary from day to day, even from hour to hour. One thing is unlikely to change, though it may grow more acute as numbers increase: like the poor, some will always be with us who are denied the mercy of shifting moods and the privilege of views, for whom the evil days have truly come and fears and worse are in the way. Neither compliment nor exhortation will serve: they have to be cared for, unless what we still think of as civilisation is to yield finally to ‘market forces’, a phenomenon once known more romantically as the law of the jungle.