I was surprised by the young man’s offer, and somewhat amused, wondering what had evoked it. Did he see me as old and doddery? Okay, I’m past fifty, but hopefully I’ve got a few more years in me yet. I might have grey hair but, in a certain light if I’m wearing a hat (which, admittedly I wasn’t), I look like a teenaged boy, only without the pimples. Yet I wasn’t offended. I don’t mind being an unflattering stereotype if it elicits acts of generosity and politeness.
I was reminded of this incident on reading a lovely article by Penelope Lively on turning eighty. Amid the aches and pains and indignities, she finds plenty of consolation:
Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold. People are of abiding interest – observed on the street, overheard on a bus. The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed.
Despite this mine of material, Penelope Lively bemoans the scarcity of memorable and effective writing about old age:
Old age seems to be a danger zone for many novelists, somehow even more of a challenge than the universal problem of writing about and from the point of view of a man if you are a woman, and vice versa.
Yet good writing on old age is available, if you know where to look. A quick scan of only two of my bookshelves yields a May-to-December romance in Mary Wesley’s Jumping the Queue, a daughter’s conflict with her elderly father in The Death of Lomond Friel by Sue Peebles and a seventy-three-year-old contemplating how to spend his remaining years in Anita Brookner’s The Next Big Thing. The next addition to my series of interviews with debut novelists will feature Emma Healey, the creator of a wonderfully sympathetic woman with dementia in Elizabeth Is Missing. Meanwhile, in the blogosphere, Caroline Lodge has a blog series on older women in novels.
There’s lots of scope for elderly protagonists in short fiction also. One of my favourite stories, What Feels like the World by Richard Bausch, features a man caring for his granddaughter. It’s less about ageing than about childhood, and the difficulty communicating one’s wisdom to the young.
The great thing about stereotypes is the fun to be had in subverting them. The main characters of both Cold Calling and Shaggy Dog Story are elderly women playing on the assumptions the young may hold about them for their own entertainment. The old have long histories with lots of potential for dark secrets and skeletons in the cupboard. My protagonist in Washing Dishes at the Old People’s Luncheon Club appears to be a cranky old thing but her past is a story we should all know about, if only she could bear to tell it.
What’s your relationship to old age as a reader, writer, person? Does it intrigue or scare you, or seem irrelevant to who you are now? Are you right in the thick of it, in reality or in your imagination, and how does it feel to be there? Look forward to hearing from you.