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.

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