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  Camden New Journal

Joan Bakewell: The View from Here:
Life at Seventy, 2006

Chapter One: A Place Called 'Old'

The View from Here: Life at Seventy,
2006 Cover



Part One: Today
One: A Place Called 'Old'
Two: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Three: In the World's Eyes
Four: Rites of Passage
Part Two: Yesterday
Five: Then and Now
Six: Englishness
Seven: Looking Back
Part Three: Tomorrow
Eight: Today's World
Nine: Attitudes
Ten: The Pace of Change
Eleven: Things Begin to Go Wrong

'May you live all the days of your life.'
    Jonathan Swift.





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 Guardian column.

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 valued.

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 sticks.

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 what 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 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 it.'

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 age.

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 audience demographics.

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 your age.

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 generalizations there!


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 compensation.

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 of him.

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 forty-one.

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 myself.

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 music.

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.


Guardian Books

The Tick of Two Clocks, 2021 Stop The Clocks, 2016 She's Leaving Home, 2011 All the Nice 
Girls, 2009 Belief, 2005 The Centre of the Bed, 2003 The Heart of the Matter, 1996

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