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 historic attitudes and is especially interesting on the sources of the Greek disgust for the elderly. His book is essentially an unflinching, inquiring, and reflective essay, graced by wide reading of the poets, novelists, and philosophers and brought sharply to life by interviews in which the old cottager, farmer, miner, the matron, the nurse, and others of all classes talk about their experience and their dreads. These are survivors of that almost extinct “brotherhood,” the men who fought in the 1914 war, an engineer, a senior neurologist, an actor, many widows and priests—all add their story—and between these voices which are rich in the accent of real lives looking back on their memories, the essay advances an inquiry which is tender and subtle, and happily without dogmatism.
The memory of the old finds a fast and garrulous pace in the recollection of childhood, but has little in maturity. Still less, in the present interests them. (So, at least, we find in most of Blythe’s talkers.) Many of them had rough starts in life and only scraps of education. In the working class, since the establishment of the welfare state, all have seen startling improvement in their material lot and most have seen their children prosper. The traditional dread of the work house has long gone. They describe hardship without rancor, indeed are proud of it. They are often merry. Yet some find that now is the time of deprivation. They are disturbed by a special kind of material or spiritual impoverishment. On the other hand,
A few dropped the mask by which the world—and this could include their families—had known them and confessed to what they really were. These masks were primarily those of orthodoxy hiding the married homosexual, the church-going unbeliever, and the heretic in the political party.
The opportunity for sly truth-telling has come. There is that well-known conspiratorial look in the eyes of the aged. They are successful conspirators rather than cowards. They like to boast of what they got away with. What they are not reconciled to is the destruction of the progressive factor: they are halted; rarely do they fear death. What they want is what they have had. They desire.
Old age is not an emancipation from desire for most of us; that is a large part of its tragedy.
Most of all they want to be wanted.
The hope that sexuality itself would wither away and not add its desperate frustrations to agedness has long since been turned into the quite unfounded assurance that, with age, we naturally become asexual…. We tell the old, if you do not conform to the negative ideal you will be either ludicrous or indecent, that people will be frightened of you, or think of you as pitiful, or as a nuisance, for you are engaging in what is next to impossible or unthinkable…. These rules and attitudes are among the very last of the superstitions to be overturned by our society in its urgent quest to understand the realities of old age. The notion that the aged are beyond sex or unsexed still governs most public and private systems to house them….
The old have to pretend to a seemliness they do not feel. (It is curious that these eager talkers of Mr. Blythe’s reports nevertheless stick to this seemliness, although the sixties and seventies are very often nowadays healthy and even buoyant years. Perhaps what they really miss is their authority?)
The young and the middle-aged decide what is unbecoming in the old and not the old who feel it. All passion is not spent at seventy or eighty, but it pays the old to behave as if it were so. In fact they may find themselves in a troubled revival of adolescence and here, Mr. Blythe notes, teenagers are inclined to be more amused than disgusted (as young and middle-aged people are) by geriatric sexuality, and they will often listen to the reminiscences of courtship from among the old and be as racy in reply to the speakers. Elderly people who are prim with their middle-aged children are often sexually freespoken when they talk to their grandchildren. Especially nowadays, one would add, because of the “shocking” use of once forbidden words and the precocity of sexual knowledge in the modern child. Sex education is not only for the young.
Mr. Blythe’s talkers were not simply hardened egotists experiencing “a senescent liberation of the libido” as they speeded on. They wish to display some aspect of the self that can be loved:
As that eloquent Swiss geriatric apologist Paul Tournier flatly declares: “I have come to the conclusion that there is one essential, profound, underlying problem, and it is that the old are not loved. They do not feel themselves to be loved.”
We care for them without real interest. We may even hate them. We have given them what we think is good for them and what will keep them apart from the rest of us. They wish to be known for themselves, not for their “official” category as persons in the new bureaucracy of care. Yet, according to the reports of the British organization called Age Concern, most of them say they are happy in their “homes,” except in matters of detail—there is a general dislike of the landscape windows in the modern old folks home: they fuss about curtains; they resent the clinical. As for the spiritual loss, the enormous changes in society have robbed them of their traditional role as repositories of ancient wisdom. This is noticeable, especially in the English village which is often now divided into two groups: the old villagers whose children work outside the village and the newly retired from the towns who have settled there. The old villagers feel themselves to be superfluous and out of date. Even the plain old pub has become plushy and carpeted.
As an essayist Mr. Blythe is very much a back and forth writer, gathering what he can with both hands where he can, and we find him returning often to the novelty of the new relationships between the old oldies, the new oldies, and the new young. In an excellent chapter on the literature of old age, he rejects Simone de Beauvoir’s political argument that the novelists and poets of the past ignored the working class. All classes are united by the same experiences in old age. What was said of Lear is true of all. Mr. Blythe easily sees the revived relation of Greek ideas to our present condition. It was “part of their realism not to expect anything worth having during the latter part of the journey.” Sophocles said that long life redoubles our sorrows; yet intellectual vigor lasting into his nineties saved him from this fate and made him attractive to the young. Contemporary youth since the Fifties has something of the drastic Greek view and is certainly closer to it than it has been for centuries—perhaps the nearest in time (I would guess) is the Elizabethan age.
Since the 1950s, youth has become increasingly conscious of its own specialty and, assisted by many sophisticated industries catering exclusively to its tastes and demands, has formed itself into a multinational club with pitiless rules…. What they dread most is not being young to the young—that awful day of exclusion when, somehow, they have to go on living outside the perfect category…. The advantage of our times over all others is that, due to modern hygiene, limited work and incomparably improved health standards, once we no longer qualify for the youth cult, we can stay “young” virtually until we are old. Society no longer requires the posture and attitudes of age in a grandparent or retired person. But when old age does come, after such a protracted period of permitted youthfulness, it is often shocking.
All the life stories in this book are interesting, especially when they recall the tricks of young rustics or the day’s work in the mining valleys. There is an admirable account of a geriatric ward by a matron and an astonishing self-portrait of a Salvation Army colonel whose energies led him to seek continually dramatic change—no drift into transience here. Even going blind stimulated him to new fields of rescue work. A widower, he rescued a grieving widow, fell passionately in love with her, and married her! If age damages our narcissism, it has not damaged his. There is a more skeptical contribution by the neurologist who discovers the slowing down of his own intellect and the failure (so common in writers) to do more than rewrite his old ideas, though he grants that the creative or imaginative gift does survive in many gifted people. (One thinks of Duncan Grant and other painters, or of Yeats’s rebirth in old age, and of Henry James.) Until the intellectual faculties fade they are a fortification even when talent is condemned to repeat itself. An intellectual like this neurologist is chiefly concerned because it takes far longer to read or write his papers than it used to do.
The chief peril we full-timers have to face is the often longed for day of retirement. When it comes there tends to be a euphoric period which soon passes; for we are sustained by the discipline of work, which is a sensual energy. Retirement is a great evil; purpose and authority are snatched from those who retire. The happiest are those in trades and professions, or the self-employed who are lucky enough to be able to work until the end. To amuse people—it is true—they may talk about the past as all old people do, but seriously they live actively in the present. The greatest fear the old in any group have is that they will turn into “a cabbage” and that medical science may for some perverted religious, humanist, or scientific reason prolong this state.
One thing I do miss in Mr. Blythe’s book is an examination of the sadistic rages and hysterical fantasies that many of us old people are subject to, especially as the new world outside becomes a jungle of terrorism, massacre, and violence in the streets. And I miss that tolerant delight in the follies of their friends which seems to me to have increased among my fellow irascibles. The elderly are usually aware of the comedy of their condition. One remembers the ninety-year-old E.M. Forster’s description of old people bobbing round each other like quizzical dolls.
November 8, 1979