Finite Variety

The View in Winter: Reflections on Old Age

by Ronald Blythe
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 270 pp., $12.95

When we open our address books we find ourselves wandering among gravestones. How many friends have died randomly when young or in middle age! How is it that we seventy- and eighty-year-olds still frostily survive? Death we know comes to everyone, but what about great length of life? Once the odds were short but now in our generation they have lengthened in our favor—if that is the word—of long life. In Western societies the average expectation of life has jumped from forty years to more than seventy; nothing like this has been known in human history. We are almost a new species. Most of us have to face the prospect of a long old age before we die and as we do so we become less than ourselves: we become part of an anonymous and enormous social problem. Unemployment, they say, is bound to increase, retirement comes earlier, economically we become a burden on the state and psychologically a burden on the young and especially on the middle-aged. In the past a man or woman was justly admired, even venerated, for attaining the Biblical three score years and ten and “seeing his time out,” but those ranks were thin. Now they are crowded.

To this new, gray, and anxious Akenfield Ronald Blythe now turns in The View in Winter, which stretches far beyond the famous Suffolk village which was the subject of his little masterpiece.* Old age is a kind of internal migration our forebears never had to deal with. Renaissance or Georgian men, Mr. Blythe says, would be astonished and perhaps shocked to see the thousands of elderly pensioners sitting on the front at Brighton or some other resort staring vacantly at the sea. Our forebears might almost regard us as parodies.

We counter this by declaring that one was old at forty in those days. Yet one was not—at least, not in the sense of cumulative time, which is what defines actual old age. A vast number of men and women became toil-worn and disease-marked in middle age to a degree no longer seen in Western society, but however exhausted and unhygienic their flesh, it was unlikely to have been senescent when the grave claimed it. Apart from the minority whose mortal clock—the workings of which are still a mystery—went the full round, most were not involved in the aging process and seemed to have lived without thought or preparation for it.

And here he makes the point which is at the heart of his book:

It is one of the essential ways in which our forebears differed from us.

Mr. Blythe’s book is neither a clinical nor a statistical social study. He has read his Simone de Beauvoir, but he is not as tendentious as she was; he is familiar with the work of the gerontologists and the practical efforts that have been made by those who care for the helplessly old who are unwanted by their families: he knows the…

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