Camden New Journal
Joan Bakewell: The View from Here:
Life at Seventy, 2006
Part One: Today
One: A Place Called 'Old'
Part Two: Yesterday
Two: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Three: In the World's Eyes
Four: Rites of Passage
Five: Then and Now
Part Three: Tomorrow
Seven: Looking Back
Eight: Today's World
Ten: The Pace of Change
Eleven: Things Begin to Go Wrong
'May you live all the days of your life.'
Each of the landmark decades in life offers a frisson. Our culture
operates by numbers and 'the big 0' offers a chance for a larger than
usual party as well as for a little introspection. But the approach of
seventy seemed, for me, more laden with significance than any other
birthday had been. It gave a public label to something I didn't feel:
being old. Rather than let it slip by, I thought I would do something to
mark a new departure in my life. So I began a column for the Guardian
newspaper called 'Just Seventy' , a title named in gentle mockery of
the teenage magazine, Just Seventeen, now defunct, as is the
The effect was exactly as I had hoped. I felt a renewed sense of purpose
about life, a sense that I still belonged to the community of journalists
among whom I had worked for many decades, and also that I had a role that
connected me, on a broader level, to other people.
These are things that tend to fall away as you get older. A sense of
purpose that drives the young and directs the mature seems no longer
needed in later years. The effect is to leave you stranded high and dry,
out of the mainstream of ideas and activities that animate the working
population. It takes real effort to reconfigure your life to stay within
that community. Being a freelance as a journalist and a broadcaster is to
be free of the daily constraints of consistent, unvarying employment.
That, given the Byzantine managerial intricacies of today's media
operations, is often a blessing. There is to be no sudden lurch at
retirement from diary-heavy commitments to wandering aimlessly around the
house. But on the whole society still believes that the old should have
better things to do than insist on being as active as they ever were.
Although, under pressure from the pensions crisis, a move is now afoot to
keep the population working longer, there is no genuine consideration
given to how people's later working lives might be made a source of
fulfilment and satisfaction. Given our longer life expectancy and falling
pension pay-outs, how this can be done needs to be positively addressed.
My limited experience so far tells me that involvement with other people
is a major pleasure that the old take in life. Its converse is the
isolation and loneliness that afflicts so many.
This is, after all, merely the third of the three ages of man. Its span is
as great if not greater than the earlier two. The distance from sixty to
ninety is as far as from twenty to fifty, a fact that the old, their
behaviour and their attitudes sets in perspective. That's why this book
doesn't make such generalizations. It is not about issues; it is not a
how-to book of advice and homely wisdom. It is
rather a personal record of how I feel about being over seventy, based on
and augmenting those Guardian columns. The responses to my e-mail
address printed at the end of each column show that I struck a chord. Many
people wrote to me of their own lives, added to my arguments, corrected my
mistaken memories and took up many of the points I wanted to raise. I
liked that. It convinced me that there is a huge communality of interest
out there in society that remains somehow untapped and unappreciated. I
look forward to the day when the old are not referred to as 'them', a
problem to solve, but as 'us' at the heart of an active and lively
community. I hope this book does something to bring that time forward.
Chapter One: A Place Called 'Old'
'For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.'
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
PREPARE TO BE OLD, to be very, very old. Projections made early in 2006
promise that many more of us will live to be a hundred. Some ten thousand
do so already; indeed, the question arises of whether, twenty years hence,
the Queen will be sending herself a congratulatory card. The number of
centenarians could increase tenfold in the next sixty-eight years. By 2074
there could be 1.2 million people over one hundred. According to that
admittedly speculative calculation anyone now in their thirties has a one
in eight chance of reaching that age. So how do we view the prospect? I
have in recent years hit the problem head on, writing about my own age and
ageing in regular articles that to my delight have prompted an
enthusiastic response, proof if it were needed that the old are still
engaged in ideas and eager to exchange them. This book collects and
extends some of those ideas, giving them a more recent perspective and
adding others that have occurred to me. Each day seems to bring new
experiences and insights that are just not available to those who haven't
travelled this far in life.
To most people old age is a bad smell, a nasty place of bedpans and stair
lifts, of bleak care homes and nurses who call you 'love' and 'dear'
simply because to them all old people are alike. The public image of age
is grim too, reinforcing a cosy contempt: too much 'grumpy, old' this and
that, and songs that ask, 'Will you still love me when I'm sixty-four?'
while expecting the answer 'no' of course. Headlines that harp on
pensions, euthanasia and neglect may be justified but they aren't the
whole story. I know plenty of old people living feisty and fulfilling
lives. My oldest friend, aged ninety-four, is currently enjoying the
writing of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and no, she isn't a graduate or a
middle-class professional. She's simply a very intelligent woman whose
humdrum life hasn't inhibited the use of her wits. I like to think there
are many like her; it's a condition I aspire to in the coming decades.
We need, each and every one of us, an entirely new attitude to being old.
It is, after all, the destination we deliberately set out for, the result
of all those diets and exercise crazes, the purpose of the acres of health
advice and food labelling. It's the natural outcome of flu jabs and health
and safety inspections. What was it all for if not to live longer and
remain fit? We are living in a far healthier world, a cleaner environment
than in my grandmother's day. At the turn of the twentieth century the
average life expectancy for a man was forty-five and for a woman
forty-eight. How far we have come is nothing short of miraculous. Science
has helped and is going on helping; stem cell technology is now at the
threshold of developing body part replacements than can keep us regularly
repaired. Body MOTs are not out of the question. We are living through a
quiet revolution that is transforming the trajectory of our lives.
And in old age we are reaping the fruits: not a sudden lurch into a smelly
decline, but vistas of years ahead of modest pleasures; horizons that are
no longer set by the needs of family, the career ambitions, the immediate
and intense business of daily survival. Hip replacements, cataract
operations, heart pace-makers are rendering us active, even spry. As
someone in the lower foothills of old age, I can bear witness to the
abundance of energy and enthusiasm waiting to be used by people in their
sixties and seventies. The University of the Third Age flourishes. The
Open University is full of oldies. Literary festivals throughout the
summer are thronged with grey-heads keen to know and question, learn and
debate. 'Learning for life', a government slogan, now extends well after
retirement. In their leisure time, the old aren't just boozing and
cruising: the hardier spirits are climbing mountains, visiting the Pole,
meeting sponsored challenges. I have a friend in his late seventies who
has recently taken up tap.dancing. How's that for bravura!
People in power who now decide how we live need to be more aware of how
the culture is shifting. As more live longer the changes can only
accelerate. Even the young need to look beyond the stereotypes. Little
Britain may be funny but it's sometimes also insulting. 'Old' is not
another country, a place you're shunted off to when the real business of
life is done, where you're parked in the ante-room of death and live in
expectation of its imminent arrival. It is an era, as vividly a part of
living as any other. It may be situated at the other extreme from youth
but being old is not being ill. Life can be as full of value and delight,
of incident and insight, as it is for a twenty-year-old. And now every
twenty-year-old is likely to arrive there eventually.
The sudden watershed of retirement will have to be modified. There must be
more varied and adaptable options than simply working full tilt until
sixty, then slamming the door on all your wisdom and experience. We shall
all certainly have to work longer. The whole economic house of cards will
collapse unless we do. But that doesn't mean we have to stay in the rat
race, with the stress and competitive thrust that gives middle age its
ulcers. We need to plan for part-time, less hectic working lives, in jobs
that society needs and welcomes, yet in which we also feel needed and
The numbers of friends and contemporaries will thin out as the years go
by. Death takes its toll in the face of even the most optimistic
statistics. So we will need to stay close and grow closer. Families, local
friends and neighbours will take the place of business colleagues and
working contacts in their daily importance. At the same time, old friends
across the globe can now be in touch via the internet. I have had more
contact with old school chums in the last ten years than in any earlier
decade. Yet it is also a time for the different generations to get to know
each other. The existence of those apparent barriers that keep them apart
- text jargon, say, or crazy clothes - can't be denied, but the two sides
can be teased into some mutual respect. And the dangers of depression and
stoic resignation that plague the lonely can't be ignored. I'm not saying
old age is a bed of roses. But now we're all going there, let's fix it so
we enjoy the journey.
THINGS WERE SO DIFFERENT IN my grandmother's day. She was born in the
1870s and when she had her seventieth birthday in 1947 I wrote a poem in
honour of her great age. I was a gym-slipped schoolgirl at the time, much
in love with Tennyson and Browning, and the embarrassing lines of my rhyme
bear the unhappy traces of their influence. I speak of the 'flame of
youth' - that's what she'd lost, and 'life's dwindling rays' - that's all
she had left. The whole was written out in faultless copperplate, lending
dignity to its callow sentiments. The tone was elegiac, giving thanks for
a life dutifully spent and now nearing its end. It wasn't; she would live
to be eighty-six, but to a child she seemed ancient at seventy, a stooped,
white-haired figure crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, walking with two
Years roll by and it was recently my turn to hit threescore years and ten.
Seventy: an ominous number by any reckoning, but nowhere near as bleak as
in my grandmother's day. In my turn I duly received a clutch of spirited
home-made cards from my grandchildren, admittedly younger than my pious
thirteen-year.old self. No copperplate now, no tone of slightly fearful
respect. Instead my greetings - conflating the graphic freedoms of artists
Cy Twombly and Bridget Riley - were an uninhibited riot of colour, with
the casually expressed wish, by one of them, that I should 'have a good
day at the beach'. As indeed I did. How times have changed.
Seventy years: landmarks don't come any heavier than this. We giggled at
thirty, with mock angst at saying goodbye to youth, but sharply aware that
we were coming into our prime. At forty we glowed with busy lives going
well or frowned with doubts as the options narrowed; we called it early
middle age. We preened at fifty with some things well done and mistakes
made and buried; we laughed at sixty in the warmth of a lifetime's circle
of friends. Those of us who go through life keeping in touch, never quite
leaving behind each era, probably had the greater reach. But most of us
have that close-knit group of around a dozen or so whom we keep close.
And surely this was still late middle age. But at seventy there's no
denying that even by the most generous reckoning, it's the beginning of
getting old. And note how even now I'm pretending it's merely the
antechamber to age.
For the ominous day itself, I tried going into denial. I tried to pretend
it wasn't happening. No party this time round. Instead, I fled the
country. I went to France for a week with the immediate family, disguising
it as little more than an Easter holiday. Easter - a moveable feast - has
always been entwined, via ancient calendars and phases of the moon, with
my actual birth date. Jesus may have returned to earth from the dead on
Easter Day, but it was on Easter Day that I first arrived. What's more, I
was christened at Pentecost, so I feel that the Church's celebrations have
me in their shifting grasp.
Here I am reaching that age so particularly marked in the Old Testament,
with its resounding threescore years and ten. But there's hope within its
pages too. It's here that Methuselah lived to be 969 years, fathering his
son Lamech when he was 187. His father Enoch lived to be 365 and his
grandson Noah 950. All of their forebears lived for between 895 and 962
years, filling the gaps needed to trace the line of Joseph, Jesus's
father, back to Adam and hence God, who is older than time itself. Quite
religious fundamentalists who believe in the literal truth of the Bible
make of these statistics I don't know. But perhaps they show that even in
Judaic times when mortality rates were low - what with famines and plagues
and such - certain people lived to a great age, though none of them
appears to have been female. So not much comfort there.
Today we have bright modern statistics of our own. In the developed world,
life expectancy has been increasing steadily since the 1840s. Currently
women are living longest in Japan, on average until they reach the age of
84.6; France is nearly as good with 82.4. In Britain life expectancy for a
woman is 79.9. Because I've survived thus far, my own is something more
than that, though not by much. Not surprisingly, for me these figures have
ceased to be mere statistics. At what point, I wonder, do I begin to
reckon on just ten more springtimes, ten more Christmasses? Can I, medical
prognoses being what they are, estimate the ages my grandchildren will be
when I reach the final shore? That way I can scare myself silly into, you
might say, an early grave. But it's no way to have a life. After all, at
the age of eighty-five my father bought a brand-new car, giving up his
ageing Rover for a foreign model. He was of a generation who, ever since
the war, had refused to buy either a Japanese or a Ger.man car. 'I don't
forget what they did to Ernie Edge in that prison camp,' he would explain.
Now here he was, finally moving on and conceding that world trade had
superseded even the most legitimate grudge. He also regularly played nine
holes of golf a day, skirting the other nine, to meet up with friends at
the reassuring nineteenth. His mix of healthy exercising and cheerful
socializing seems to me an excellent way to live. I hope I have inherited
his optimism. Perhaps there's something in my psyche that is editing out
the future finality, and leaving me no older than I feel.
Certainly, at the age of ninety-six, the Brazilian architect Oscar
Niemeyer created a wonderfully designed pavilion for London's Serpentine
Gallery. In the same week in 2003 the then Tory Chairman Theresa May, when
asked in some glossy questionnaire 'When is it too old to wear a
micromini?', replied: 'Probably sixty, though if you have the legs, go for
Which leaves me considering several options: I can convert to Judaism and
claim ancient lineage; move to Japan to join their statistics; train as a
New World architect; or buy a micromini. Suddenly I feel that in my
seventies life still has lots of possibilities.
ORCHESTRAL CONDUCTORS MUST take the same approach. They don't have a
problem with age. If they are any good, the world assumes that they will
go on being good. The words 'mellow', 'wisdom' and 'experience' feature in
reviews of their concerts. Toscanini and Klemperer conducted well into
their eighties; Leopold Stokowski gave concerts in his nineties. In my own
day Bernard Haitink continues at the helm of the Dresden Staatskapelle in
his seventy-sixth year. Charles Mackerras's eightieth birthday celebration
concerts continue into 2006. Both remain the toast of critics and
audiences love them. No age discrimination there, then.
Nor do we expect conductors to retain their youthful looks: Simon Rattle's
tousled locks gave him a boyish charm when he was younger. Now that those
tousled locks are grey they bestow a certain eccentric gravitas. Such
looks go down well with all who love his work. Pierre Monteux went on
conducting the London Symphony Orchestra well into his late eighties,
towards the end perched on a stool and making minimal movements. From
Monteux we don't expect flamboyant gestures, merely wonderful music, which
he regularly delivered.
There was another prominent grey head, recently conspicuously displayed on
a number of billboards around the country. It was that of an elderly man,
faceless and anonymous, his grey hair thinning, displayed below the
message: 'Ignore this poster: it's got grey hair.' And the strapline:
'Ageism exists: help us put a stop to it.' This was a campaign run by Age
Concern to tackle what it believes is the last form of legal
discrimination and it's begun to have an effect. It has, until now, always
been perfectly legal to sack someone for being old. A routine retirement
age of sixty had the force of employment legislation. However, new age
discrimination regulations, coming into force in October 2006, set a new
default retirement age of sixty-five. Compulsory retirement below
sixty-five will still be allowed but only if it can be objectively
justified and an employer must inform the employee between six and twelve
months before the intended date of retirement and give them the
opportunity to request to continue working if they so wish. By mid-March
2006 there was a massive response to union calls for strikes among public
sector workers who resented the new directive that many of them would
still have to work until sixty-five. It isn't everyone's ideal old age,
just to go on working in a job that has become routine.
There are many paradoxes in the way our society sees the old. They are
somehow regarded, if they're thought of at all, as a minority group who
have problems with pensions and varicose veins. The image of them in the
media and in advertising is often insulting and contemptuous. I blench
every time I see film of aged couples ballroom-dancing in some church hall
in what is obviously mid-afternoon. There's nothing wrong with their doing
it, it's just that it's such an overused image by newsrooms as a quick
shorthand for 'the old'. What about those mountaineers and hill walkers
among us? Younger people need reminding that the over-fifties hold 80 per
cent of the nation's personal assets. Forty per cent of the population is
over fifty and that percentage is growing steadily. Many of us are
actively working and there are plenty who resist the mandatory retirement
This image of each generation as it is held in the popular imagination is
shaped and coloured particularly by the highly persuasive power of
marketing and advertising. The difficulty is that these industries are not
merely dominated by the young. Their workforce toils in environments where
the next new thing - new styles, new idioms - are idolized. The culture of
advertising agencies, media enterprises and television companies is of
bright, ambitious young people, slickly dressed, groomed to the last
eyelash, setting their values by the world of design and appearance, the
fashionable, the immediate, the dispensable. And it is they who write and
create the advertisements for household goods, for foodstuffs, for leisure
pursuits that furnish the visual background to much of our lives, our
streets, shops, magazines and programmes. It's not surprising that they so
thoroughly misrepresent what the demographics of the country really are.
Those with the money and time to enjoy it are the over-fifties.
To redress this damaging mismatch, Age Concern turned to a group of older
advertising wizards to create their new campaign. The voluntary team led
by Reg Starkey had an average age of fifty.
five. Reg himself admited his industry is ageist: 'Creatives and
marketers who are over fifty are treated as has-beens. In advertising,
older people are under-represented or portrayed as stereotypes. The cult
of youth in advertising is laughable in a society that is growing older.'
What's surprising is that we all know this to be so and the evidence is
there to demonstrate that this is the case. Age Concern's own research
shows that 49 per cent think the market takes no notice of older
consumers. And the outlook is not good. Of those surveyed 75 per cent
think that age discrimination against the old will not get better, with 25
per cent actually expecting it to get worse. There are other areas where
ageism exists: in matters such as car insurance, job recruitment and
breast cancer screening, the old are disadvantaged without any reason.
Their needs are as pressing as those of the young, and they are frequently
a safer risk. These attitudes simply persist because no one has set out
deliberately to change them. Well, they have now.
GOOD NEWS! I have two friends who are separately about to become parents.
The surprising news is that they are both over fifty: one is fifty-seven
and the other sixty-four. The sad news is that while one is surrounded by
love and encouragement, the other is being subjected to public abuse and
humiliation for daring to want a child. The great difference is, of
course, that the fifty-seven-year-old is a woman - the writer, producer
and all-round impressive achiever, Lynda La Plante - and the
sixty-four-year-old is a man, whose partner, in her forties, is a
professional woman with responsibilities outside her home, which she will
now be abandoning.
Lynda is the subject of disapproving press comment on every front; my
other friend, who lives in Brazil, has a home and a community of happy and
supportive relatives and friends eager to help with the baby's care. It's
currently the received wisdom that it's fine for men to go siring
offspring into their years of senility, while a woman who seeks medical
help to conceive after the menopause or, as Lynda has done, seeks to adopt
a child whose parents have chosen to give him up, is vilified and scorned
as self-indulgent and cruel.
Consider the line-up of wrinkly old men who have become fathers: Pavarotti
was sixty-six when his daughter was born; the former Argentinian president
Carlos Menem was seventy-three when his beauty queen wife had their child;
Clint Eastwood's most recent children came along when he was sixty-three
and sixty-six, American author Saul Bellow proved fertile in his
eighty-fifth year and incidentally in his fifth marriage. Julio Iglesias
Senior became a father at eighty-seven, Des O'Connor is another late dad,
as are broadcasters John Humphrys and John Simpson, plus legendary
photographer Don McCullin.
Our response? We may find it out of the ordinary - which it is - and even
a bit odd - which is also true. But we somehow forbear to pass judgement.
We give these men the benefit of the doubt that they will, indeed, love
and cherish the child and provide for it as they are able (ageing parents
who catch the headlines are often conspicuously rich) and we generally
welcome them into the community of doting fathers ready to swap
photographs as well as to exaggerate the accomplishments and the beauty of
the newcomers to their families.
Not so the older mother. We don't hesitate to judge her and find her
wanting. She is selfish in satisfying her need for a child while setting
aside concern for its future welfare. If she isn't already an old hag she
will be by the time the child is at school, where it will bear the brunt
of mockery and ridicule, simply because of her. She will be too tired and
clapped out to run sports day races against the other mums, she won't have
the patience to stick and glue, to crayon and paint. She will live in a
time warp, not knowing the names of current pop groups, or how to handle
computers, text messaging and iPods. In fact she is an all-round social
menace and it shouldn't be allowed. It just isn't natural.
But what is natural isn't 'natural' any longer. Infertility treatments and
donor semen aren't natural either and such medical interventions are now
generally accepted as ethical and benign. Men remain fertile throughout
their lives, of course, but advances in science now allow women to bear
children after the menopause. That buccaneering Italian Dr Antinori
treated women in their fifties; in the 1990s I met two of them and
accompanied one as she took flowers to lay in gratitude at the shrine of
the Virgin Mary. Clearly the local Catholic church had no qualms at the
time. Yet when Dr Antinori's other patient, a farmer's wife aged
sixty-two, earned her way into The Guinness Book of Records as the
oldest woman ever to give birth, the Church hierarchy condemned it as a
'horrible and grotesque act'.
Such discrimination between the sexes intensifies with age and is based on
stereotypes that, we all acknowledge, are already out of date. Mothers are
no longer sweet and tender stay-at-homes who devote every living moment to
their children's needs. Their lives must strike a balance between work and
family, far better than do those of men whose sense of self is so often
determined by their job and their status among their working peers. Women
are more flexible in their lifestyles, more capable of multi-tasking,
better at networking among other women. They are also more able and
willing to ask for and take advice. Above all, they live much longer than
men, and will be around for the graduation ceremonies when other
youngsters are putting flowers on Daddy's grave. So the odds, as ageing
parents, are in the woman's favour. Why then do we smile knowingly at the
sexy old fathers, but come over all sanctimonious when older women seek to
add a little to their own and other's happiness?
IN A DIFFERENT CONTEXT ENTIRELY, that of work, I know when I'm beaten. I
know when there's no defence. I know when I'm up against powers beyond my
reach, however determined I am. Currently the particular authority is
demographics. In 2005 I was unceremoniously dropped by Channel 5 from a
new series of theirs called Rant because, as they stated baldly
(and thanks for that) I am not within 'their audience demographic'. It was
a polite - actually not very polite - way of saying I'm out because I'm
old. Odd that, because it was they who had approached me and had all but
signed me up. But those nice producers I dealt with had been overruled by
anonymous people upstairs, the ones with the charts, the statistics, the
The danger, I believe, is one of ghettoization. There is an assumption
that young people - say, under thirty-five - want to watch programmes made
and presented by young people. There are plenty of them, they swarm across
the screens in all their garish colours, foul language and simplistic
opinions. But where are the programmes targeted specifically at older
people? I challenge you to name just one. I happen to know how the debate
among television folk goes because I've been party to some of it. Old
people watch all sorts of programmes, tending to the more serious and, in
style terms, the more staid. They like documentaries and David
Attenborough. It's assumed that programmes made especially for them
wouldn't get a larger audience so they don't get commissioned or made. A
contemporary of mine, a former distinguished magazine editor, has
formatted a promising series called The It's Never Too Late Show
and is having trouble getting it to a screen near you.
When it comes to age, it isn't the numbers that matter. It's attitude.
Research undertaken by the BBC indicated that when people are asked which
mindset /age group they identified with, they almost always thought of
themselves as belonging in outlook, taste and lifestyle to that group just
a little younger than themselves. When I ask the question, and I ask it
quite often, 'Why no programmes for older people?' it was crisply
explained that no one wants to be identified with such a group, and that
older people themselves prefer programmes tailored for a broader audience
among whom they are happy to belong. My own breezy claim that seventy is
the new fifty bears this out. It is a way of reassuring ourselves that we
are not out of date or out of touch.
At the same time controllers and their ilk declare that they take the
issue of the old seriously and ask, 'How can we make a series that is
about the old, even for the old, but doesn't alienate the rest of the
audience?' What they come up with is Grumpy Old Men and a programme
that I took part in, Twenty Things I Wish I'd Known before I was
Twenty. Both were lively and popular, but they treated the old as
'them' not 'us', and confirmed a stereotype of old age as being miserable.
Grumpy Old Women followed. Both Grumps are now bestselling
books. There's no doubt that the independent company that conceived them -
Liberty Bell - has created a winning formula. But is that to be all?
Demographics lead to such stereotypes. I am sure I lurk as a statistic in
numerous marketing surveys as someone not likely to wear jeans or high
heels, to drive a sports car or drink cocktails, but to prefer cocoa and
sherry, to carry a handbag rather than a rucksack, to prefer gardening to
rock concerts. Some but not all of these are true. I'm conscious of my own
contradictions: I am pleased when such profiles are used by the NHS to
offer me flu jabs, but not so thrilled when I'm identified as the consumer
of retirement packages and stair lifts. Demographics may itself be
judgement-free but it can be taken in evidence and used to make you feel
At Christmas time I am caught by yet another such lasso. The government
sends out £200 to old people living alone, to help them with their winter
heating bills. Very kind too. Except that payments like this aren't meant
for people like me, with the central heating roaring away, insulated lofts
and lined curtains at the windows. They're meant to help those living hand
to mouth on a wretched pension without money to spare for an extra bar of
the electric fire. Last year I tried to return the gift, but the
authorities replied that they had 'no mechanism for taking it back'. There
must be many like me, and there are certainly plenty who could do with
more than the £200. My cheque goes to charity in the hope that it'll reach
the needy by some other route. Yet this doesn't obviate the problem, for
receiving charity often feels demeaning, whereas when dispensed by
government it comes as a right.
Demographics are a blunt instrument. They corral people into their
generalizations and treat them as 'the old', 'the disabled', 'the ethnic',
'the rich'. From these spring such concepts as 'middle England',
'disaffected youth', 'the pink pound'. In the process they tend towards
the consensual, dragging us kicking and screaming towards the average. I
suspect the aged are particularly vulnerable to being so dismissed. 'An
ocean of grey heads' I heard one theatre director describe his audience.
And he said it with a hint of regret. Yet the old are as diverse,
individual and eccentric as any other group. We include Mrs Thatcher, Mick
Jagger, Tina Turner, Doris Lessing, Tony Benn and Cleo Laine. No easy
TURNING TO MORE DOMESTIC ISSUES, I have a fridge full of food well past
its sell-by date. I shall be cooking and flavouring, feasting and enjoying
yoghurts, cheeses, bacon and wilting vegetables long after many a younger
person would have binned the lot. Young people do what labels tell them. I
am cannier. 'Cui bono?' I ask of my label. To whose benefit is it that I
should throw away marginally stale produce and buy shiny bright
replacements? Why, the food industry, of course. I regard a sell-by date
as its way of avoiding litigation should one of my drooping ingredients
give me a tummy bug. 'We told you so, we are not to blame,' the
manufacturers will proclaim in court, as I clutch my gut and beg for
Not so the younger generation. At the stroke of midnight the food
languishing in their fridges turns to rotten pumpkins and next morning is
unceremoniously thrown out whether edible or not. The spirit of the Blitz
still has me in its grip; nothing that can be turned to tasty - or even
bland - nourishment should be wasted. There used to be a wonderful stall
in Bury St Edmunds market that specialized in food past its sell-by date.
It did a roaring trade. Their French cheeses were especially good, the
point about French cheese being that the pungent smell is part of its
deliciousness, whereas the English are snootily suspicious of anything
giving off the faintest whiff.
In 2004, as things were gearing up for that year's general election, the
question arose as to whether Michael Howard - at the age of sixty-two -
was already past his political sell-by date. Ted Heath, crusty old
parliamentarian that he was, suggested that Howard would be too old at
sixty-four to be prime minister. My whole instinct was to back the idea of
someone in my age range being considered eligible for power. Consider
Gladstone, four times prime minister, first at the age of fifty-nine, then
subsequently when he was seventy-one, seventy-seven and eighty-six. He
made his final speech in the House when he was eighty-five, and still went
on to speak out against the Armenian massacres at the age of eighty-seven
in the 1890s. Had he shown similar stamina - and got elected - Michael
Howard would have had some twenty-three years of parliamentary life ahead
In fact there were reasons that made this all too unlikely. Gladstone was
a giant of the Liberal Party with a vision that looked forward towards
universal education, a broadening suffrage and even Irish Home Rule.
Michael Howard came with a record that suggested attitudes already out of
date. In 1988 he was responsible for Clause 28 that banned the 'promoting'
of homosexuality. He voted against the lowering of the homosexual age of
consent to sixteen. He voted in 1988 in favour of David Alton's private
member's bill to limit abortion to eighteen weeks, then went on to oppose
giving women statutory maternity rights and refused the EC Directive on
maternity leave. Gays and women have moved on since then and don't look
upon Michael Howard as someone who helped get them where they are today.
Despite his modest attempts at rapprochement with gays, his outlook was
basically one that looked backwards towards earlier values. Indeed, he and
Gladstone might only have had in common shared views about sex and virtue.
In drawing attention to Michael Howard's age, Edward Heath invited us to
examine exactly what that meant. Did his values point forward to the way
the world is going, or hark back to less tolerant and less equal times?
Would his sell-by date give us a pain that we came to regret, or would he
grow into the full maturity of a ripe and satisfying French cheese? In the
event, after the agony of another electoral defeat, the Tory Party ditched
the oldies and opted for a thirty-eight-year-old much in the Blair mould.
But by this time most of us had realized that we already had a Tory prime
minister in Blair himself.
Next up for serious ageism was Sir Menzies Campbell, going by the jaunty
name of 'Ming' - running at the age of sixty-four for the leadership of
the Liberal Democrats, against relative youngsters, Simon Hughes,
fifty-four, Chris Huhne, fifty-one, and Mark Oaten, a mere stripling of
In my eyes Ming's grace and rigorous mind looked well against his less
stylish competitors. The fact that age had little to do with leadership
skills was evidenced in the retirement from the job of Charles Kennedy, a
mere forty-seven-year-old, but already flawed for the burdens of office.
Next to fall was the closest to him in age, Mark Oaten, ambushed by a sex
scandal. In the event Ming, the elder, had the staying power and won the
day, and those of us in his age range stopped feeling quite so jumpy.
I HAVE ALREADY QUESTIONED THE validity of demographics. Now my grouse is
with questionnaires. I have just completed one with a good deal of tongue
in cheek. Yes, I said, I travelled to the theatre by tube. My age?
Twenty-five to thirty-five. Occupation? Florist. All these lies had one
good purpose. It's time to begin subverting the system. I grow
increasingly suspicious of surveys. There are just too many of them, all
packaging and pigeon-holing us into neat marketing categories. Any minute
now that particular company will be reporting a rise in theatre-going by
London florists in their late twenties, a trend given credibility solely
as a result of that survey.
I believe that surveys themselves need examination. They are not
value-neutral, laboratory-style findings. They are often compiled in the
most infelicitous of circumstances, a passing street encounter, in bad
weather between people brandishing clipboards who'd prefer to be doing
something else, and the victim passers-by doing their best to avoid eye
contact but relenting before the pleadings of the supplicant's 'It will
only take a minute.' So why is this far from exact method used as reliable
evidence for claims that can frighten us, threaten us, cajole us but
rarely reassure us?
Surveys are undertaken for a specific purpose by institutions that
consider it money well spent to make an impact. Surveys , if their
findings are startling enough, are sure to make headlines and create news.
It's a sure way for advertisers and public relations companies to deliver
something tangible for their clients, the more startling the better. They
already battle to catch the public imagination, promote feature articles
and discussion on afternoon television. They seek to fill space - column
inches - rich with speculation. What better than a survey: 'Let's get some
statistics, issue a report, catch the headlines' - you can hear the cry
echoing round the white offices and white desks of trendy promoters. And
it works. Over the years they have helped fuel a popular addiction to
health and diets that is surely unhealthy in itself. I'm well aware that
they can even be used to promote television programmes; I've been party to
it myself. Remember the claims: 72 per cent of the population believe in
God' and '70 per cent of women give up sex at fifty'?
Not long ago Cancer Research UK told us that only one in five women takes
enough exercise to gain health benefits. The same organization posted to
me three alarming pieces of paper threatening that 'One in three of us
will develop cancer at some point in our lives.' Panic sets in. Am I
among the one in three or the one in five? Or possibly both? And if I'm
the one in five, will this stop my eventually being the one in three?
Charities are in the business of raising and dispersing funds. The thought
arises that it's in their interest to make the facts as threatening as
possible. Only then might I divert my funds from helping the blind, or the
mentally handicapped into helping, say, any one of the several cancer
charities. And which will it be: breast or colon, prostate or lungs? You
just can't have it all.
Surveys and questionnaires often tell you what common sense already
suggests for a lot less money. A ludicrously obvious report published
findings that show fewer children nowadays join in sport at school than
once they did. Well, of course they do, because their playing fields have
been sold off. What's more, young people prefer sport that is
competitive. That can hardly be surprising in a culture drenched in
competitive enterprises. Children are caught up in everything from
simplistic quizzes and lottery promotions to school league tables. An
apparently contradictory finding tells us that the amount of time young
people spend taking part in sport has increased from 7. 5 hours a week in
1999 to 8. I hours in 2002. Are these the same children or others? How
rigorous are the terms of reference under which such surveys operate? Do
they leave loopholes for bored children, faced with having to tick yet
more boxes, to subvert the system? Or is it the teachers who tick the
boxes? It could make a difference. Of course, none of this reaches the
press reports that we read so gullibly. Only the conclusion drawn by some
self-important director tells us that 'more must be done' to get young
people involved in sport.
Indeed, 'more must be done' is the conclusion we can expect at the end of
every survey. 'More' usually means money and possibly, further down the
line, yet more surveys. Surveying is a self-perpetuating industry dredging
for evidence that will legitimize the claims being made for more funds,
money to be raised from us, as taxpayers and individuals, to be spent in
our own interests. Frankly, if £2 billion can't make children enjoy sport
I suspect nothing can. You'll find them, instead, kicking an old tin
around the few remaining recreation grounds, or turning their fleeces into
goalposts in some muddy patch of wasteland. Sometimes people just have to
invent games for themselves.
Meanwhile four in five women need to get out there gardening, cycling,
walking - keen to defy the one in three prediction, doing something that
raises the heart rate at least five days a week. How about sex: does that
count as exercise? Are you one of the 70 per cent of women who gave up sex
at fifty? Don't worry. I simply made that one up.
SLOWING DOWN IS HARD TO DO. Now another blow has been struck at the lazy
life. A whole swathe of Channel ferries that made the long crossing to
western Normandy and Brittany are being cut. And with them go the long
lingering pleasures of being at sea with all the prolonged expectation of
arriving in a new country. What excitement the five-year-old Mary Queen
of Scots must have felt when she stepped ashore at Roscoff - in
westernmost Brittany - on her way to marry the Dauphin. And with what
different sensations the fleeing Young Pretender landed there after his
failed pitch for the English throne in 1746. Arriving in Roscoff - after
some eight hours at sea - may soon be an experience lost to us all, at the
very moment when more of us with the time are wanting to relish it slowly.
Crossings to Cherbourg, Caen and Le Havre take, by comparison, a mere four
or five hours, long enough to savour the pleasure of the journey, even the
romance of it all. The noisy loading at the quay, the gradual unwinding
that comes with the steady throb of the ship's engines, the gorgeous
splash of the sea in the ship's wake, the call of the seagulls, the long
view of England's green coastline, the sense above all, that we are an
island and an island people still.
Ferries are losing out to the rail link and cheaper flights in the frantic
rush to be there, to arrive, to get the journey over and done with.
There's little sense that the journey can be part of the enjoyment in its
own right. Some twenty minutes were recently cut from the scheduled time
on the London to Manchester route by the new tilting trains. I had the
chance to try it out. Luxury, indeed. Standard class is so commodious that
we felt we had fetched up in first class by mistake. But as for the time
saved, what kind of gain is that? Whose life is so significantly improved
by being at a meeting, attending a conference, fixing a deal twenty
minutes earlier? You might instead have been deep into a good book, or
catching the transient beauty of the countryside, a horse frisking in a
field, say, or the sun breaking from behind clouds. But no, those in
pursuit of career schedules would, even on a train, be deep into laptop
calculations or noisy planning on their mobiles.
It's different for those of us on the cusp of work and retirement. We're
learning to give up the hustle and bustle of the highways and enjoy the
less frantic pleasures of the byways. The clock ceases to be such a
tyrant. The step slows to a saunter. It is the time to be, rather than to
do. This has some practical consequences for me. In my rushing lifestyle I
would always grab the quickest way to get around and one that allowed me
to continue working for all but the minutes it took to move from house to
taxi, from taxi to destination, especially when the cost could be credited
to expenses. This impulse vanishes with age, too. Now, more and more often
I get around London by bus and tube. And I can feel it doing me good; my
freedom pass allows me totally free travel the length and breadth of the
city. I also get the exercise of walking to the station and the bus stop.
So by opting for less speed I am benefiting both my pocket and my health.
Of course, I'm familiar with the torture of rush-hour crowds and the
squalor of many routes, but slowing down means I travel out of peak hours,
and some parts of the tube are getting better. There's good busking too.
Slow is already a growing movement. The notion of slow food goes back to a
campaign begun in Italy to protect the delights of the table against the
depredations of fast food. It's no accident that it all began in Italy.
The Journal of the American Medical Association recently hailed the
Mediterranean diet as beneficial to the elderly. Along with the wise
choice of foods goes the habit of eating at a relaxed pace, making the
meal an event among colleagues or family, and reducing the need for
constant snacking all through the day. I'm signing up for such habits
So how else do I plan to slow down? One way is always to turn up early.
There's nothing so exhausting as rushing to be on time, the sweaty panic,
the mislaid papers, the careless clothes. If I turn up half an hour early
for the train, there's time for a coffee, and don't I need a pair of
socks? If I arrive in good time at the theatre or concert hall - the
National, say, or the Barbican - there's time to read scholarly programme
notes that come too late once you've seen the production or heard the
As to the cross-Channel routes, I predict these will make a comeback as
luxury outings. They'll get the cruise treatment, decked out with gourmet
food, on-board lectures, bookshops and luxury goods; they'll be as much
fun as the Orient Express in conjuring up how things used to be. And as
we sail away in full view of the white cliffs of Dover, we'll be reminded
yet again that we are still an island people.