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Counting fewer and fewer blessings

3 December 2005

12:00 AM

3 December 2005

12:00 AM

Late Youth: An Anthology Celebrating the Joys of Being Over Fifty edited by Susanna Johnston

Arcadia, pp.270, 12

The Long History of Old Age edited by Pat Thane

Thames & Hudson, pp.320, 25

One of these anthologies (Late Youth) is small and sprightly, with a pretty, jaunty cover depicting one cheery old person cavorting on a pony and a second catching a fish. The other (The Long History) is large and substantial and uses a detail from an 18th- century self-portrait by Jean Etienne Liotard on its glossy, coffee-table- worthy jacket: the painter, gaptoothed, with straggling grey hair and a maniacal grin on his wrinked face points mockingly at his canvas with a skinny finger. The former collection is light, gossipy, upbeat, based on a well-heeled, well-connected circle of friends and relations mostly aged between 60 and 80. The latter is solemnly academic and surveys the aging process from the ancient world to the present. Both try, with mixed success, to sound an encouraging note.

Susanna Johnston, whose brother, Alexander Chancellor, is a former editor of this magazine, has evidently put the hard word on her family and friends in support of a good cause — this book aims to raise money for the Publishers’ Benevolent Society. Her contributors include three Chancellors in all, a good few writers (John Julius Norwich, Selina Hastings, Jilly Cooper, Isabel Colegate, Francis King, Elizabeth Jane Howard), journalists (Peregrine Worsthorne, Maureen Cleave), painters (Jeffrey Smart, Maggi Hambling) and an actor or two (Dame Edna, who reminds us that her own favourite charity is Friends of the Prostate). All of them have led successful and energetic lives and do not intend to fade quietly into obscurity if they can help it.

None of them, of course, admits to feeling old inside. Many of them offer tips: Jonathan Guinness swears by yoga, Jilly Cooper (declining to give up the habit of a lifetime by becoming an Old Age Pun-shunner) advises not listening to ‘alarmist claptrap’, Mary Keen has taken up surfing and finds five hours in the sea wonderfully invigorating, and Angela Huth has learned to tap-dance. Anthony Blond recommends finding a younger wife and a second home in a third-world country (better climate, cheap staff). Even the unlucky invalids write with exemplary fortitude about not giving in to illness; John Chancellor, a diabetic, finds his cat helpful in drawing blood. Most find work of some kind vital. Selina Hastings also wisely recommends long walks and the avoidance of ‘self-pity and self-referral’.

All this is good, stout-hearted stuff, but it is a relief to find one or two people admitting that they simply loathe the whole business. Christopher Balfour describes getting older as ghastly, and minds not being able to drink as much as he used to or stay up all night. Peregrine Worsthorne points out that real old age only begins when health fails and is therefore bound to be ‘perfectly horrible’.

On turning to The Long History, edited by Pat Thane, a Professor of History at London University who specialises in old age, it is possible to find many of the same themes, albeit buried in dreary academic prose about ‘old age’s stereotypical negative repercussions’. The old have always suffered loneliness and lack of respect; and the notion that there was ever a golden age when they were treasured, looked up to and looked after by loving, extended families turns out to be a myth. In the ancient world, in the Middle Ages, and onwards into the 19th century, so long as you remained fit and useful you were not old. Once you were ill or dotty, you were a tiresome figure of fun, especially if you were a woman who still liked a good time, when you were regarded as a sex- crazed witch. Wealth, health and a good diet made all the difference: what a surprise.

What makes this book worthwhile are the marvellous illustrations, from Roman portraits via Breughel and Goya to Paula Rego, Lucian Freud and Posy Simmonds; there are also some useful facts and figure, including the cheering news that ‘medical specialists’ reckon that 75 really is the new 60. It is also good to be reminded of the wise words of Bernadino of Siena, who summed the matter up as follows: ‘Everyone wishes to reach old age, but nobody wishes to be old’.

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