Penelope Lively

Shop till you drop

Within the past month I have been to an 80th and a 90th birthday lunch, both of them highly festive occasions.

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Crazy Age: Thoughts on Being Old

Jane Miller

Virago, pp. 247, £

Within the past month I have been to an 80th and a 90th birthday lunch, both of them highly festive occasions. And now here is an entertaining, erudite and thought-provoking meditation on the matter of age by Jane Miller (aged 78). The so-called twilight years are no longer quite that, for some of us. This book takes a look at the experience of age, and the perception of age, using the writer’s own engagement with it for the former, and for the latter the promptings of a well-stocked mind to demonstrate how literature has reflected life. Those called in range from Simone de Beauvoir through Bellow, Updike, Roth to Turgenev and Tolstoy. A roll-call that sounds daunting, but is not: Jane Miller writes with an elegance and wry wit that enables her to dip back and forth between old age as seen in books to old age as lived, her own in particular.

It is in a sense another country — and one we never anticipated. This reviewer (77) found herself nodding in agreement: the accumulation of ailments, the awful familiarity with hospital waiting-rooms, the black hole in the head into which disappear words and names. The way in which we no longer want the things that were once central to life: sex and shopping are cited. I was reminded of my father, in his eighties, gleefully recounting the comment of a contemporary of his: ‘D’you know, I used to be extremely interested in pretty girls, and now I can’t for the life of me remember why.’

Jane Miller has been a teacher, and then, for 22 years, a teacher of graduate teachers at the London University Institute of Education. But she more or less fell into a career, she says — a young mother in the mid-century when the expectations of middle-class women were rather different. A good deal of the book is a reflection on changing social mores, with a considered swipe at New Labour and the disappointments, in her view, of the last 13 years, in particular their effect upon the educational system. Not that this is any grumpy old woman; rather, the thoughtful voice of reason and experience. Take note, you confidant young persons in party think-tanks.

She makes the point that meditations on old age have ever been the preserve of the more privileged; there is relative silence on how it has been for the poor. And old age itself is, of course, a relatively recent privilege, and still is in many parts of the world. The view from 80 was rare in medieval times. I spent my childhood in Egypt, where the expectation of life was then around 40. But her particular concern is to point up the stereotypical picture of the condition, perfectly exemplified in those bent figures on road signs that warn of elderly pedestrians. I once judged a children’s writing competition in which entries had been invited on the subject of grandparents; without exception, the people represented were ancient, white-haired, knitting by the fireside. The average granny in this country is likely to be around 60, and still at work.

That said, it does seem to me that there has been a seismic change over the last 50 years in the relationship between the generations. I adored my grandmother, but was aware that a whole aspect of my life was unmentionable — anything that made reference to sex. My own granddaughters know, I think, that nothing they could say would shock me. Where attitudes are concerned, the generation gap has narrowed, for many of us.

Jane Miller reads Anna Karenina in Russian; she also watches Neighbours. She swims daily; she says she likes old age more than she liked being young, despite enduring her fair share of its debilities. Her book makes fascinating and envigorating reading. I would take issue over one thing only: shopping. No, no — we are not done where shopping is concerned. I have just bought my first stick; I don’t really need it yet, but the day will come no doubt. The stick is collapsible, it is adjustable, it comes in a gorgeous shade of sea green and it is painted from head to toe with sprays of pink and gold flowers. It is an exuberant, decorative stick, and I am as enchanted by it as by any flighty purchase 30 years ago.