Helsinki Talk. Memory and how the young view old age and old people
I did think of starting by showing you the email I sent on my smart phone to Kaarina when she asked me what I might talk about today. It contains about twenty spelling mistakes as well as the news that I was once a professor of English and Education. I’m ashamed to show it to you, and besides, I’d have to use some kind of new-fangled and complicated machine to do so. I confess. I’m no good at these new technologies. I depend on children and grandchildren to help me. That may surprise some of you, but not all of you, and I shall return to the matter in a moment.
It occurs to me that it can’t be right to come to Helsinki from the UK to tell you how we deal with old age in my country. I have absolutely no doubt that just as you’re better than we are at educating children, you’re likely to be much better than we are at making life tolerable for the old.
We often get told in my country that there are just too many of us old people, that there are going to be even more of us in the future and that this is a problem for everyone. So far, no government has come up with any very good ideas about how to deal with its ageing population, nor is it willing to listen to those who are campaigning for assisted dying, which is quite popular as an idea with people my age and would reduce the numbers a bit. So I’m certainly not going to tell you how to deal with old age, either individually or collectively. I’ll start somewhere else.
The question I’d like an answer to is: ‘What do the young really think about old people and about old age?’ Perhaps we could begin an answer to that question by trying to remember what we thought about such things when we were young.
I should say, in parenthesis, that I live very happily with two grown-up grandchildren. One a teacher, the other finishing a higher degree. They’re in their early twenties and I’m more than sixty years older than they are. London is currently an almost impossible city for young people to buy or rent places to live. So it’s a good arrangement for all three of us. Yet there are ways in which I feel we inhabit different worlds, different times and different ways of thinking about our lives. What separates us from the young? Do they wonder what it’s like to be my age? Do they look forward to getting older? Perhaps they dread being as old as I am. We think we know what it is to be young. We were all young once too, after all. But perhaps we don’t know what it’s like to be young now. And when we were young, what did we think about the old people we knew?
Could we, did we, ever imagine being old ourselves?
The saddest thing for old people is losing your memory. I forget names constantly, I hate introducing people to one another because I will have forgotten at least one of their names, and my memory sometimes feels like an overflowing wastepaper basket, too full, too disorganised, though still full of stuff that interests me, particularly from childhood. For instance:
I had three very old great aunts and a great uncle who lived together. As children they’d read Shakespeare plays with Karl Marx’s family in the 1870s. One of those aunts remembered in her old age how Marx himself had once helped her with her German homework and talked to her about the play, Julius Caesar. He disapproved of her admiration for Shakespeare’s Brutus. The real Brutus, Marx claimed, had an ‘itchy palm’, a curious phrase, which means that he was too interested in money and probably corruptible.
Those three great aunts and their brother lived on the south coast. They’d retired from London and moved to Sidmouth. None of them had married, and though they lived together they didn’t talk to each other much. There was a large sitting room in their house on the cliff, and each of them sat in an arm chair at a small table in one of the four corners of the room, reading, dozing, doing puzzles. Two of them had been schoolteachers. The one who remembered Marx was one of the earliest women civil servants. I’m not sure what my great-uncle did, but his room was full of golf and cricket mementos and I once found a book he’d written about water softening.
But my memories of those four don’t include their youth. I thought they’d always been old, always worn strange clothes and looked askance at me and my sisters as frivolous, unserious beings. I never wondered about their work or their earlier lives. That’s just how they were, I thought. I don’t think I thought of them as particularly likely to die soon, nor did I expect them to have any particular handicaps, though one of them was certainly in the early stages of dementia. I thought them lucky, as all adults were relatively lucky, for not being young. Nobody told them to stop doing whatever they were doing. Many, many years later I came across letters and diaries which made it possible for me to meet them all over again as young and then middle-aged people. I allowed them whole lives and change and a history.
One of my sons once told a friend of mine rather disapprovingly that she couldn’t run very fast for a 50-year-old. He believed that people should go on getting cleverer and faster as they got older just as he was expected to do. But then he was about 7 at the time.
I think I grew up with quite a benign view of old people. I thought some of them were wise and kind. But I don’t think I thought they were like me or had been young once or had changed or had lived through historical events that had had a profound effect on their lives. I’m also pretty sure that I never imagined that I’d ever be like them. And therein lies one of the oddities about how we are thought of and treated. It is as though we’ve always been old, as though old age is now our principal identity. Our past has become a kind of tag or label that may from time to time get attached to that identity, but it’s never quite a part of it. It’s as if we’ve stopped moving in order to have a look around at a world that’s rushing by at speed.
I talked to my granddaughter about all this recently. She’s just started her second year of teaching and is 23. She can’t, she says, imagine being old herself, but she thinks my generation were luckier than hers and luckier than her ten-year-old pupils. She thinks we benefited from having fewer choices and no social media and that her generation and the generation of the ten-year-olds she teaches are overwhelmed by choice, by competition, by comparison. And it’s true that growing up in the second world war meant that there weren’t many alternatives to climbing trees and reading.
Has reading, has literature helped us to understand what it is to be old? I’m not sure that it has. It’s certainly full of warnings. I can’t help thinking of characters like Pushkin’s Countess in The Queen of Spades. She is made a horrific spectacle, indeed a loathsome one, for trying to cover up the depredations of age and pretending to be young.
The countess no longer had the slightest pretensions to beauty, which had long since faded from her face, but she still preserved all the habits of her youth, paid strict regard to the fashions of the seventies (that’s the 1770s), and devoted to her dress the same time and attention as she had done sixty years before.
Stripped of her wig and what Pushkin calls ‘the loathsome mysteries of her dress’ she seems less hideous and revolting. Raw old age, unadorned, is – just - permissible.
Balzac’s Cousine Bette, unmarried and getting on in years, is the personification of malice and envy, and Shakespeare’s King Lear of foolishness and vanity and, finally, dementia, though in his case we are allowed to pity him in the end, and we do. Literature warns us not to pretend to be young, not to get in the way of the young and not to imagine that we know better. Does it tell us what might be positive for the old?
When I was thinking about all this recently I could hardly think of a single likeable old character, though Dickens has a few sweet old souls and some comic ones. There’s Wemmick’s father, his ‘Aged P’, as he calls him in Great Expectations, who doesn’t get much of a look in, and I’m sure we could find some kindly grandmothers apart from Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, who merges frighteningly with the wolf who gobbles her up. There are one or two wiseacres, but I can’t help remembering Princess Mary’s father in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, who terrifies his daughter with his obsessional determination to teach her mathematics and other things. I grew up thinking I’d never be clever enough for my father or my grandfather and I’d never, ever know enough. Simone de Beauvoir wrote a long book about old age, but she is clear that old age is not a subject for a novel,
If an old man is approached subjectively (she writes) he will not be a good hero for a novel; he is at the end of things, fixed, with no expectation of hope or development. The die is cast for him and he is already inhabited by death, so that nothing that may happen to him is of any importance. Moreover, a novelist can identify with a man younger than he is, because he has already been that age himself, but he only knows old people from the outside. So he gives them only minor parts, as a rule, and his portraits of the old are frequently sketchy or conventional.
So is that it? De Beauvoir wrote that book when she was in her sixties. Did she already see herself as past it, uninteresting? It’s surprising too that she doesn’t refer to old women novelists or old women characters in novels. I do think that some of us old women feel freer and stronger in old age than we did when we were young. But perhaps that’s a subject for another day.
I’ve recently been reading the wonderfully original autobiography by the French writer, Annie Ernaux. She remembers what she calls ‘a young woman’s arrogance vis-à-vis older women, a condescension towards the post menopausal.’ She also remembers that it was the ineffectual efforts of the old to understand the young that most irritated her, that convinced her she would never grow old herself. Perhaps the young simply avert their gaze from most of us. They can manage the few old people they know and are inclined to avoid generalising from them.
So here’s another question: What would we like people younger than ourselves to think of us? And what do we think of ourselves?
I’m particularly fond of the statistic (probably nonsense) which tells us that we can look forward to living for ten years longer than our parents, but that we will most likely have to spend about eight of those extra years in hospital or doctors’ waiting rooms.
So far, I’ve enjoyed being old. I’ve been lucky: I’m pretty healthy and hardly ever lonely. Plenty of old people are unlucky on both counts. Family has dwindled, friends are dying, and without work and a workplace, there may be no opportunity to be in touch with other people. The worst aspects of my old age have been other people’s illnesses and deaths, but those are painful events for young people as well as old. It’s very easy to feel pointless, purposeless, and to feel that whatever we’re doing is, in that awful phrase, ‘keeping busy’, doing things to fill the day, pass the time, rather than for their own sake. Loneliness can be excruciating. I visited an old friend recently and was pained to see her waving to me from her doorway up to the very last minute that I was still in sight. It was as if she was putting off to the very last possible moment the solitude of her own house.Her husband died only a few months ago,and she is still shocked by her loneliness.
Then there can be times when staying alive and young and active becomes something like a duty and a responsibility we ignore at our peril, to be rewarded with the occasional ‘wonderful for her age’ but also punished with contempt for our lethargy, obesity, flabby limbs and muddle-headedness. We’re bound to wonder at times how we should live these extra years, for that’s what they seem when so many of our friends and acquaintances have died before us.
For the last four or five years I’ve written a monthly column for an American journal. My column’s called ‘From the old country’, a pun, as you’ll appreciate, about the UK and about my age. When some of the pieces were collected and published as a book a year or two ago, I called it In my own Time, which also had a sort of double meaning for me. In the words ‘All in my own good time’ I hear my mother and other adults in my childhood telling me to be patient, they’d attend to my request for help/attention/favours when they could, when they had a moment to spare, when they had time. But I also wanted that title to carry another meaning. That this time is my time too, just as it is yours and everyone’s. Age is only one of the differences we have to learn to live with, after all.
I think what old people want is to be included, and not just as frail bodies and minds in need of compassion and deference. Everyone needs compassion, and everyone needs respect. I hate words like care and compassion and dignity when they are used to mark us old people as special, different, uniquely touchy. I’d like to think too that the learning of history would include our histories.
When one of my granddaughters was learning about the Second World War there was a moment when I became a useful source of information for her. I responded with a welter of evacuees and ration books and dried eggs and years of living without oranges or bananas. Her teacher even thanked me for some of my offerings, which were added to the class archive on the subject, rather as birds’ eggs or rare wild flowers may be added to the nature table.
Of course, my granddaughter could have got a lot of that information from the Internet, but I like to think that it might have meant more coming from her grandmother.
Let me return finally to my embarrassing email to Kaarina. Even if I were better at sending emails on my phone I would not be part of the world inhabited by my young relations. I would not be considering dating people I’ve never met or conversing with them digitally rather than in real life. I would not be ’tending’ or ‘posting’ or ‘streaming’. I would not be sending my friends photographs of myself and asking them to like or dislike them. I would still prefer to write and receive letters and talk to people face to face or on the telephone. I prefer to go on relying on old friends and family rather than collecting new friends on Facebook.
Far from feeling superior about wanting some things to stay the same, however, it goes with a feeling of loss. That is what old age delivers. Not grief, not horror, but a sense, perhaps, of living on the edge of the world, spoken for rather than speaking. We are governed by people half our age. An old student of mine has just proposed a wonderfully radical plan for the future of education in the UK. It’s hard not to feel a little envious of her as well as proud & admiring.
So why should I expect people younger than me to be able to imagine what ageing is like? We are and always have been out of step, not grossly so, of course, but slightly, sometimes imperceptibly. Every effort I make to understand these young human beings has to be tempered by this adjusting inner eye, this metronome, reminding me that there’s something I can never know about being young now, and that my grandchildren can hardly help seeing my childhood in sepia tones, fixed by bad snapshots and perfunctory history lessons.
But this goes on being our world, our time until the end. Perhaps we need to be clearer about what that means, what we really want in our old age. But we should also protest a view of the old that is static, generalising, patronising, unimaginative. Our time co-exists with the present. It is full of memories and the experiencing of change. We should insist on its value.
I wrote Crazy Age ten years ago, and one of my sons said recently that it was probably time to write Crazier Age. We’ll see. But I thought I’d end with a piece I wrote just over 5 years ago, when I’d just hit 80. It’s called Extra Time. Perhaps it’s best to see these years after 80 as extra time. Not quite ‘Extra Time’ as at the end of a football match: time, that is, to get a winning goal or to rely on a ‘penalty shoot-out’. But more time than we have a right to expect, time that is unlikely to yield opportunities to score off anyone else, let alone to triumph. I wake up with a confused sense of foreboding, the relics of dreams in which everything is in need of repair and it’s my job to do the mending. This year friends have died in what seems like mid-conversation. There are questions I haven’t asked, feelings I haven’t admitted to.
‘Change and decay’ are all around indeed, catching and hard to alleviate. My moth-eaten clothes smell of the moth balls that have failed in their purpose. Part of a tooth falls out and the dentist charges me the equivalent of a month’s pension to see to it. Montaigne wanted to believe that losing a tooth didn’t matter. ‘Look,’ he wrote, ‘here is a tooth which has just fallen out with no effort or anguish: it had come to the natural terminus of its time’. And he wasn’t even 60. A mouse dashes across the kitchen floor and then runs insolent rings round me as I try to entice it with peanut butter into an old cigar box. A leaking pipe in the cellar, and the plumber can’t fix it. The pipes are of a size and material, he says, no one has seen in a London house for sixty years. Apparently, I narrowly missed electrocuting myself as I bailed out the cellar and whisked my buckets past the main electrical meter and plugs, which were hanging from a damp brick wall by a single nail. You could put a finger through the rust patches on my galvanised water tank, he tells me, and is about to prove that this is so, but I beg him not to. I spend some of most days mending the plates and cups I’ve dropped, the chair seats we’ve sat through, the sleeves that have frayed, and tripping over the hopeless piles of books we are always meaning to give away.
And we’re failing to keep up with technology. What on earth would we do with Facebook and all those improbable friends it finds for you; let alone Google Glass, where you could read rude stuff on your spectacles while chatting amiably to those friends? And then so many actual friends are ill. A ten-hour operation followed by chemotherapy seems preferable to ‘the alternative’ for one. Another is prey to hallucinations. I am reading Oliver Sacks on the subject to find out if there are ways of defying my friend’s dreamed-up monsters, with their ‘malign and mischievous mockery’. We’re all worrying about dementia and whether forgetting names and faces and listening to the BBC World Service through insomniac nights are signs that we’re losing it.
A report from the Institute of Economic Affairs has just announced that when we retire from work our physical and mental health improves for a while, but then it deteriorates rather quickly. There’s a suspicion that the report is meant to persuade people to go on working into their seventies: a foolish plan given the appalling youth unemployment figures; though plenty of old people would have liked to retire later, I know. There must be those who play golf or bridge and go on cruises until they’re 100, but the rest of us may run out of things to do. I haven’t quite reached that point, though I spend too much of each day doing crosswords when I should be mending things, and I listen to a good deal of radio. It is from the radio that I learn the extent to which we extra-timers have become a heavy burden on the state. The National Health Service, which was working well a few years ago, is now brought low, and it’s mainly our fault, it seems. We fill hospital beds other people need more than we do; and we account for nearly half the money spent on benefits, though it’s the young and the poor and, of course, the ‘scroungers’, who get the blame for that.
More and more of us are crowding into this extra time, hoping there’ll be lots of young people to look after us. But the young are getting fewer and may not want to or be in a position to help us. My mother used to wince a little at the ‘marvellous, marvellous’ her sheer age could elicit from strangers. There’ll be no ‘marvellous’ for my generation, but perhaps some serious discussion about the legalising of assisted dying.