What We Are Last

Rosemary Hill

  • Crazy Age: Thoughts on Being Old by Jane Miller
    Virago, 247 pp, £14.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 1 84408 649 8

There is something irreducible about old age, even now when, in the West at least, the several stages of life have become blurred. The Ages of Man, which until the 1950s seemed as distinct as the life cycle of the frog, have blossomed into a Venn diagram of intermediate phases. From kidulthood to the Third Age one man in his time can now play several parts at once. Yet nothing can disguise the fact that old age comes last, for it comes not alone but shackled at the ankle in a three-legged race with death. The shadow of mortality that looms over oldness makes it repulsive to some people, morbidly attractive to others. Kingsley Amis, who was only 52 when he published Ending Up, his brilliant farce of old age in all its nuance, went at least halfway to meet it, developing from middle age onwards his own style of old devilry. The bad temper, the dislike of the young, the inflexibility, the walking sticks, what Jane Miller, in her beguiling series of meditations on being old in life and in literature, calls the ‘theatrical props’ of later life, enabled Amis to achieve old age before it could be thrust upon him, dying as he did at 73.

Miller, who is in her later seventies, writes from first-hand experience and has no truck with either melodrama or euphemism, opening her book with the simple declaration that ‘I am old and I feel and look old.’ Her frankness is rare. Old age, as it becomes more common, is talked about less. If old people are praised for anything it is usually for being ‘splendid’ in some unspecified way which really means, as Miller points out, that they don’t look or seem truly old. In obituaries of long-lived public figures there is often, she notices, an ominous gap towards the end. After all the achievements, the marriages, the medals and the anecdotes there may be a decade or more unaccounted for before the date of death. Speculating on what might have filled it Miller lists the terrors of old age, the modern four last things that have replaced death, judgment, heaven and hell: ‘boredom, illness, dementia, solitude’.

And after that ‘what sort of ending?’ The medieval ideal of the good death has gone with heaven and hell, the pious cliché of the ‘long illness courageously borne’ has lost much power to comfort and is anyway more often replaced with a ‘battle’ against whatever it was. Miller writes as one of the many who are left, in increasing numbers, to stare into a void which neither the certainties of religion nor an everyday familiarity with the facts of age and death can illuminate. She speaks for those who have come unprepared, blessedly so in many ways, to age. Her gently discursive account, part essay and part memoir, has a modestly pioneering air, as if old age were a country in which she has recently and unexpectedly come to live and with whose curious and variously appealing customs she is gradually and ambivalently getting to grips. Seamus Heaney, she recalls, once remarked on her ‘comparatively untethered skirmishes with old age and thoughts of dying’. Having been brought up a Catholic, with ‘the drama of last things … there from the start’, he was surprised at her surprise on encountering them. This air of mild astonishment lends freshness to the personal passages in the book, though it also leads to some large and questionable generalisations.

Perhaps one reason for Miller’s unfamiliarity with the experience of age is that she seems positively to have disliked old people when she was young and writes as if this were usual, which it manifestly isn’t. Remembering her parents as ‘that old pair’ she once ‘outstripped so effortlessly’, she now resents the inexorable revolutions by which time’s whirligig is turning her into them. The familiar moment, which usually first comes in early middle age, when the face in the mirror is suddenly someone else’s, that of a parent or grandparent, perhaps long dead and much missed, can be one of the comforts of growing older. But not so for Miller, who saw the old mostly as ‘dowdy and disapproving’ and assumes that the young must think the same of her now.

Dowdy at least she is prepared to admit to. She puts clothes first on the list in her chapter ‘On Not Wanting Things’. The jumper that has worn out at the elbows, rather as its owner has worn out at the knees, is an old friend but, unlike the knees, not worth replacing. More worryingly, her whole wardrobe has taken on an unwelcome archival air and though the cycles of fashion bring flared jeans back, reincarnated as ‘boot-cut’, she knows the rule is that if you wore it then you can’t wear it now. At best you look like a rough sleeper and at worst, with anything involving cotton prints or ankle socks, it’s Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.

Second on the list of things Miller has given up in old age is sex. It is in fact, she says, ‘the main thing’ that she doesn’t want any more, but it takes her some time to get round to spelling this out. It has come as ‘a relief, but also a surprise’ and she finds the whole subject awkward to deal with. Perhaps it’s because the old are so close to death that it is generally considered essential to keep them at a considerable distance from sex. There is no logical reason, if sex is anything other than purely procreative, why it should stop at any particular age, yet the taboo often inhibits the old themselves, its horrors caught with ghastly precision by John Betjeman, an author Miller might have made more use of, who regretted too late that he hadn’t had more sex. In ‘Late Flowering Lust’ the self-mockery of the elderly lover, ‘my head is bald my breath is bad,’ going through the motions with ‘brandy-certain aim’, is brought to a shuddering halt by the mental image that lurks in the very idea of old-age love-making, the embrace of skeletons. ‘The mouth that opens for a kiss/has got no tongue inside.’

Miller, who is ‘astonished’ (again) at the thought of contemporaries who do maintain an active love life, or even embark on a new one via internet dating, wonders if all desire is not a form of narcissism, attributing her own absence of feelings of attraction towards others to a lack of interest in her physical self: ‘I … get no pleasure from inhabiting my body or looking at it, and no excitement at the thought that it might be admired and even desired by someone else.’ The loss, though significant, is not fatal: not more important, she suggests, ‘than the loss of a front tooth’, though one would have to be very free of narcissism indeed not to mind that. She leaves the subject with the implication that all the silver surfers who do go out looking for love are narcissists. Yet might they not just be people whose temperamental and hormonal balances are different from Miller’s?

It is one of several sidelong observations that suggest that at times the effort not to be a disapproving old person is a bit of a strain. In the course of carefully not disapproving of contemporaries who try to hold back time with medical assistance she mentions a friend who looks ‘prettier in her seventies than I remember her in her twenties, as a result of some quite elaborate surgery I believe she is happy to admit to’. On closer inspection it is a very two-edged compliment. Not disapproving of young people is even more important, given her own earlier experiences and her belief that the old are haunted by feelings of unrequited love for the rising generation. In the course of deciding not to show her childhood diary to her grandchildren she protests a great deal about how justifiably bored they would be by it, how they would think of her as ‘lame’, a naive girl who ‘seemed to find everything that happened to me “nice” or even “lovely” … I don’t think that would do at all these days. Nor,’ she adds sharply, ‘would the fact that my spelling was a bit better than most of theirs meet with much approval.’ At this point a good old rant about declining standards of education and bad manners in children today might have offered a variation in the general tone of sweet reasonableness.

She would not lapse into that caricature of age she seems to fear for it is largely a cartoon that she has constructed herself on the basis of her own memories. In the country of old age the natives are as different from one another as anywhere else. More interestingly, as Miller has discovered, they are different from themselves – their many earlier states of being lie around them like sloughed skins. Anyone over 25 has reached a point at which it is possible to have a past that is unquestionably over. By 75 three generations have come and gone and as we get older it is not only the world that becomes stranger, but our own multiplying and discarded identities.

As the future loses much of its allure the archaeology of memory becomes richer and more puzzling. Miller is bad at remembering happiness. She thinks of it as ‘the default position, the norm’, which suggests either an exceptionally lucky life, or unusually realistic expectations. She can however conjure up in retrospect the turbulence of sexual longing and the passionate miseries her younger self endured. ‘The feeling ill from sleeplessness and shedding too many tears’ was accompanied by a fascination with the darker poetry of Lermontov and John Clare. These days, ‘needless to say, I can hardly bear to read either’, but the reason for all this, the ‘events and moods’ that provoked it eludes her. It isn’t the specifics that have gone. As well as the poems she has a clear picture of herself, pre-dowdy, wearing a dress from Biba with matching ‘slightly sinister’ boots and looking at herself in the mirror of a second-hand wardrobe that came from the Salvation Army in Edinburgh. The bones of the memory remain but the connective tissue of emotion has gone. Why was she miserable? Why was she watching herself?

In Ending Up, Shorty, an alcoholic ex-serviceman in his seventies, looks back on a homosexual affair many years earlier with a man with whom he now lives, chastely, in a house with four other old people. He thinks that it is ‘not hard to remember’ the sex or the fact that he enjoyed it: ‘that was all too easy’ – the problem was that it was ‘hard to believe’. Amis, who was not at all worried about being seen as disapproving, illuminates his ruthlessly mechanical plot with flashes of compassion, all the more dazzling in a novel that works through every permutation of dislike that individuals, generations and the sexes can feel for one another. (Although he makes the two young characters more reasonable than the old ones, Amis exacts authorial revenge by calling them Trevor and Tracy and giving Trevor a beard.) Each of the old people embodies a version of the uneasy relationship between past and present selves, summed up in Marigold, who at 73 thinks she can pass for 60 but actually looks like ‘a very, very well-preserved 73’.

In the gap between memory and belief, between the selves of the past and the ability to re-inhabit them and read their consequences in the present, Miller approaches an area of her subject more worrying even than sex: the nature of identity. Who is more real, the Miller in the Biba dress, or the Miller who remembers her but cannot guess at what so profoundly troubles her? Old sorrows and quarrels whose cause has long since been forgotten continue to propel events, as they do for Dame Lettie Colston, in another of her sources, Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori. Having ‘dangerously forgotten’ about the love affair which prompted her lingering dislike of the more intelligent Miss Taylor, she is at a disadvantage in their exchanges. Present selves overlie older, or rather younger, ones effacing them. Miller finds her granddaughter simply does not believe that her grandmother was ever 12. The compensation for those who die young is that ‘they shall not grow old’ as if that were in itself a good thing, and what we are last is truest.

What we are last, usually, is ill. Miller discusses Julian Barnes’s distinction, in his book Nothing to Be Frightened of, between those who fear death itself and those whose greater dread is incapacity. It is a luxurious choice of fears, often academic except for those who arrive at old age, as Miller has, with little experience of bad health. ‘Men who look no further than their outsides’ and therefore ‘think health an appurtenance unto life’ have not grasped the fact that sickness is as normal as health, Thomas Browne wrote in Religio Medici. Given ‘the thousand doors that lead to death’, he concluded grimly, we should be thankful ‘that we can die but once’. In old age even the strongest constitutions come to realise how little difference three and a half centuries of medical advances have made to Browne’s assessment.

Such thoughts are most troubling and least avoidable in the case of those for whom the obituarist’s tactful elision conceals a descent into dementia. In a chapter called ‘Dear Mary’, Miller describes with vivid warmth her ‘oldest, dearest friend’ who is now succumbing to one of the many forms of that dissolution of all selves so often lumped together as ‘Alzheimer’s’. It is an essay written, as the title suggests, both to Mary and about her as Miller is forced to preserve her vanishing friend by re-creating her in the minds of others who do not know her. Despite finding happiness so difficult to recall, Miller makes an effort for Mary, pinning down details of conversation and companionship over 50 years, as if trying to tether her to the present that is slipping away from her.

We see Mary in a green felt skirt, wearing high heels as she learns to drive on her father’s tractor at Gallamuir near Stirling, and we get echoes of the long exchanges of ideas and confidences that have spun this friendship into being since its early days when, as two young mothers, they pushed their babies in one pram down Kensington High Street ‘and they ate in rather a gingerly way the grapes we placed between them.’ Like John Bayley in his memoir of Iris Murdoch, and many other people who have been close to dementia, Miller wonders whether it’s catching. It isn’t, of course, but in such an intimate relationship, where after five decades neither person would be what they are had it not been for the other, the selves are intertwined. As one disintegrates it pulls away parts of its fellow. ‘Everything I’ve written,’ Miller tells Mary, or rather tells us that she would like to tell Mary, ‘has had you in it.’

‘Dear Mary’ slips between cases and tenses, coming loose like Mary herself from time and person, not only as Miller recalls past events but as she writes about the present and the visits to what now passes for her friend. For ‘she is there, but also not there, herself and utterly without herself.’ Who is it then that Miller visits? Mary now prefers a private past that she has invented, a dreamlike world in which ‘People crop up … from before they were born and in places where they’ve never been,’ where she feels at home, though Miller, despite her efforts, is excluded. It is a touchingly honest and generous exploration that concludes with another generalisation which accidentally deprives her friend of yet more of her individuality. ‘Alzheimer’s’, which can only be diagnosed conclusively after death, is but one sort of dementia and it does not rob everyone of ‘an entire system of empathy and imagination’, as Miller writes, though it certainly impairs them. It is difficult to share yet another of Miller’s surprises, that dementia has not been more often compared with autism. The conditions have little in common apart from the painful difficulty of diagnosis.

For a secularist, as Miller declares herself to be throughout the book, she draws an odd conclusion from ‘this strange illness’ and its implications. The Mary whom she visits now, ‘this new version’, is, she believes, a true self, a personality that has ‘lain dormant during all those years’; she ‘must somehow always have had it in her to change in just this way: so that her present self appears to have emerged from the shadows of her earlier life.’ The idea of an essential self revealed in the last stage of existence is surely a metaphysical one. If there is nothing but a brain breaking down, then the later self is no more or less true than the pre-linguistic infant self. The fullness of personal identity would surely be what comes in the middle, or whenever the mind is most active and effective. Even Thomas Browne, who believed absolutely in a soul, nevertheless looked for the self in the ‘consistent and settled faces’ of maturity rather than the malleable features of childhood or the ‘sick and languishing’ alterations of mortal illness.

Although it informs so much of what goes before, Miller leaves the subject of death, or dying, for her last chapter. This makes sense chronologically and she is not one of those, like Spark, for whom the fact of death gives life its shape and meaning or, as for Philip Larkin, its appalling pointlessness. Although she suggests that there is something in the parallel between literary and religious narrative she is not much interested in the idea of ritual as a way of externalising emotional and psychological experience. Death for her is simply the conclusion, or, as she writes, ‘a part of life and the end of the world’, the dark background against which old age is played out whether kept steadily in view, or left, as Miller leaves it, to be the ultimate surprise.