Molly Guinness

In praise and reproval of the elderly: slow, itinerant, violent – and revolutionary

In praise and reproval of the elderly: slow, itinerant, violent – and revolutionary
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It’s been a good week for old people. On Friday, the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra celebrated his 100


birthday, and at midday people in Chile stopped whatever they were doing to read one of his poems. On his annual visit to Skegness, a 104-year-old man called Sid Pope was delighted when he was welcomed by local dignitaries and the town’s mascot (a jolly fisherman). Meanwhile at Sadler’s Wells, the over-sixties are limbering up for a dance festival for oldsters. And in Iraq aged Peshmerga warriors who retired years ago are returning to the army to help fight the Islamic State.

Recent Spectator writers have been rigorously unsentimental about old people. Theodore Dalrymple was grimly intrigued when he met a truly evil woman in her eighties. And in 1995, Tabitha Troughton described how six of her friends had been assaulted by old age pensioners. Two had been beaten with walking sticks, three were punched (one in the head) and one was clawed in the face.

'Somewhere along the line there has been an agreement to ignore ruthless, irascible, violent pensioners. It suits society to believe that the old are intrinsically nice…but thanks to years of practice, old people are ruthless in their use of emotional blackmail, highly skilled in manipulation and have an advanced diploma in expecting people to respect and tolerate them without feeling the need to do any- thing to deserve respect and tolerance in return.

'Legally, they get to play by an entirely different set of rules, as Sarah, the one person who reported being attacked by an OAP, found out. The police, who hardly smirked at all, agreed she had a case, but advised her to drop it. 'Let's face it, love,' they told her, 'no court's going to convict an old granny, no matter what she's done.' Just because there are only a handful of pensioners currently in prison does not mean that more don't deserve to be.

'No matter how you look at it, it doesn't make sense that old people should continue to be either rewarded or pitied for being old. They are lucky to be old. The alternative is being dead.'

Auberon Waugh did pity the old, in his own way, in 1977, asking why politicians of all persuasions seemed to agree it was a good thing to encourage old people to move around the country.

'Of all the problems besetting our poor, battered country, I should have thought that one of the least urgent was the problem of moving its old people about. Anybody who travels a certain amount by train as I do will realise that old people are constantly on the move. In every compartment they can be seen flashing their false teeth from behind their Senior Citizens Railcards, exerting their special brand of dumb appeal to make one carry their suitcases and budgerigar cages for hundreds of yards to where their sullen relatives are waiting to collect them. Those with motor cars usually head for Somerset to drive in an endless convoy, very slowly in the middle of the road, round and round the country lanes as they await the awful moment of judgment when they will meet their Maker face to face.

'Problems of old age can't be solved by putting old people on some sort of British Rail merry-go-round and hoping that under the stimulation of constant movement they will forget their falling teeth and hair, their ungrateful children, their problems of forgetfulness and incontinence and personal hygiene. We need an entirely new policy – something to inspire hope and gladness, a sense of belonging and of usefulness. It is simply not enough to shut them in a train and wave them off from the platform. Quite apart from the cruelty involved there is the consideration that other people — wage-earners, wealth-producers or what you will — have to travel by train as well, and it is rapidly becoming impossible with all these subsidised old people being pushed around, backwards and forwards, for no reason at all. A humane transport policy would try and discourage them from travelling, adding a premium on the price of any ticket sold to a woman over sixty, a man over sixty-five. This would nominally be in recognition of the additional nuisance they are likely to cause to their fellow passengers, but in fact it would be to encourage them to stay at home and acquire a little dignity.'

In 1885, too, The Spectator challenged clichés about old people, pointing out that the most revolutionary men of the generation were well past 60.

'A very old man who was always for change would in literature be considered an eccentric, a separate person, who might be real, but who was not to be quoted as an illustration of the author's general keenness of insight into human character. " Old age," writes even Mr. Disraeli, who was an observer, "old age is a regret." The consensus of opinion on the subject is nearly complete; yet it may be doubted if it has any certain or, at all events, unassailable foundation. The middle-aged and the old have been at least as active in reforms as the young; have, in truth, they being in most countries the monopolists of power, carried through most of the changes that the world has seen. Old Generals alter tactics, old lawyers reform tenures, old statesmen widen suffrages. The breech-loader, which has changed the distribution of power in Europe, was introduced by an old officer and sanctioned by an Emperor far advanced in years. Thiers was past middle age when he declared for the Republic; Lord Beaconsfield was an elderly statesman when he established household suffrage; Mr. Gladstone was distinctly old, past the Psalmist's idea of the term of life, when he advised the great changes embodied in the Hawarden manifesto, and undertook the settlement of that most perplexing of problems, the Irish Revolution.'

Gladstone resigned as prime minister when he was 84.

'It is said, we do not know with how much truth, that one of the first warnings which Mr. Gladstone received of the rapid failure of his eyesight, was his impression that a great mist had made its way into the House of Commons, when he learned from one of his neighbours that the mist was only due to the failing power of his own eyes. Whether that be true or false, the story represents perfectly the dimness which has come over the political vision of all the English world, while it endeavours to realise the change which the passing-away of Mr. Gladstone will produce in the scene of Parliamentary life. His has been so emphatically the leading figure, whether for good or for evil, in the politics of the last quarter of a century, that the mere notion of his departure bewilders and beclouds the vision of every one who tries to imagine the scene without him.'

On his retirement, Gladstone wrote a letter of farewell to public life, which, The Spectator said, was characteristic of that life.

'Its earlier portions are full of stately humility, not unmixed with a sober patriotic pride, and something of that sadness which a statesman of his vast power and capacity cannot help feeling when he looks to the falling of the curtain on the familiar scene as so near at hand; but in this portion of the letter all his admirers, both friends and foes, will feel that they could go beyond Mr. Gladstone in his regrets, and could far surpass his appreciation of that which he had achieved. Few of them indeed would deny that his career had been chargeable, as he says, “with many errors of judgment,” but still fewer would challenge his remark that it had been, “on the whole, governed at least by uprightness of intention, and by a desire to learn;” while they would add what he omits to say, that the splendour of his powers had given to even his worst errors a grandeur of effect which will secure them a great historic interest and an enduring fame.'

Finally, an 1892 edition quotes at length a heartbreaking passage from Macmillan’s Magazine. A father has written an apology from Age to Youth, blaming himself for the way his presence inhibits the easy flow of conversation between his children.

'Presently all four young voices were chiming away on this and on that; but, you will hardly believe it, in that tone of voice which has a back,—the back which strangers in a public place feel is turned upon them when we talk with each other in their presence. Though your brisk conversation may have been only of the cricket-match, of the people at the vicar's garden-party, or some strange story in one of the popular journals, I could but wish myself included in it, if only as an acknowledged listener, just as I used to be before the shroudings of age began. As it was, exclusion, the back of the talk, which, while it seemed so very natural to you, was not meant, I am sure, in unkindness to me. But how could I help it, if it had the effect of unkindness sometimes? Or how if I felt angry as well as hurt when, breaking in with a little talk of my own, I was answered by one of you in the dry respectful tone of catechumen to catechist, and found it wise to cease?'