John Bayley

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 Work[*] is 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.

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[*] Harper Collins, 198 pp., £15, 1 July 1991, 0 00 215929 5.