By Invitation
Ageing for Beginners: An Unrepresentative Guide

We all know we can move between ages: the bank manager and the brain surgeon screaming in the members' stand at the football club, the sombre academic taking to ecstatic dance at the post-conference night club, the OAP who falls in love, the police people hiding tats beneath their uniforms. Does this pin-ball capacity to flick between several different ages we carry ready and waiting their turn within ourselves serve any evolutionary purpose? No doubt, but it could just as easily be an evolutionary residue, like the coccyx, or one of those glands - the appendix? - that serve no purpose, an entropic capacity to regress instead of evolve.

There is also the capacity to forget what it was like to be young, which is less excusable than failing to imagine what it will be like to be old, since one has been through it, or at least through what it was like to be young THEN, which might be completely different from NOW in different places and centuries (and is it not possible to regress from an elderly youth into a cultivated puerility? What of the eternally and unnaturally young, or the prematurely ancient, like certain schoolboys who sport a jaded stoop).

Remember the middle-aged masculinity of 1940s Hollywood films before you typecast the young as sexy. It changes, historically, as the nature of childhood does.

Here is what I learned about the changing representation of children over time at one of the exhibitions I went to in Paris, 'Art et enfant: chef-d'oeuvres de la painter francase' at the Musée Marmottan Monet.[1]

The first image of childhood, and the most widely reproduced, is the image of God as a child - meaning in Western culture, Christ. This was later joined by the king as child, the heir to the throne by divine right. It was not long before aristocrats and then the upper bourgeoisie were imitating this model. By the nineteenth-century, whatever their social origin, children were considered to be as worthy of portraiture as adults. All these portraits of children also inspired artists to reflect on the spontaneous creativity of the young, a notion that inspired much productive thought and work in the twentieth century when child art came into its own and adults tried to paint like children.

In the seventeenth-century the important thing about representations of childhood was hereditary. Children were dressed as adults in pictures. In the eighteenth-century there was a new value to family feeling that was distinct from dynastic concerns. Rousseau advocated breast feeding to counter child mortality in De L'Education in 1762. This was a period when children in paintings gained in responsibility and autonomy and there were new images of suckling mothers. At the turn of the nineteenth century children were shown studying: books for boys and practical and pious instruction for girls. After the French Revolution in 1789 the innocence of children gave way to the child as hero and fighter. From 1830-70, city schools took children away from the home, but not in the country. From 1870 to 1900 we get contrasted childhoods of the rich and poor. Berthe Morisot takes us to the heart of the family showing children at play, whereas by contrast Bastien Lepage and Fernand Pelez show children left by the wayside. In the early twentieth-century children's drawings join the avant-garde. For this generation, children mark the origins of art, while art emulates the naivety and awkwardness, the simplified forms and clumsy lines of children's art (Paul Klee, Picasso, etc).

Transcending or cutting across the ageing process itself is the distinction between people who constantly change and people who remain just the same, which is particularly apparent in people who move to new countries or new parts of the same country, and either do change their accents (sometimes overnight) or do not. I knew a very conservative tutor at Cambridge, U.K.  with a very upper class accent who one supposed was born in a manor house with a silver spoon in his mouth. In fact he was born on a working-class council house estate in Bristol with an accent he 'changed on the train' on first arrival in Cambridge. But then he was gay at a time it was illegal to be, so he was used to concealment.

Then there is the giving up of youthful bad habits, such as alcohol and cigarettes, or there is the failure to change and reconstruct oneself, which ages people before their time. This inability to change with the times is the failure to develop a rich and supple inner core on whose integrity mythical maturity blooms, balancing (at least at first) the relentless progress of physical decay. Such people are either feckless weathercocks, changing with the latest puff of wind or tortured geniuses who, as was said of Peter Sellers, are 'more seriously fucked up than a chameleon crossing a kilt.' There is a book by the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion whose title has always interested me more than its contents: Learning from Experience - one either does or doesn't or does so in some respects and not in others or thinks one has when one hasn't or doesn't think one has when one has.

Other people's views of you come into this, though the same thing is happening to them, for they all see you differently, and to differing extents, at different times. You get to know someone and then forget them in favour of just living with them as a kind of wallpaper bursting into flames from time to time, a process which is either good or it isn't. I put it to you that, for people growing old like me  (70 - those in their eighties call me a spring chicken of course), old age is sometimes thrust upon you by the young (or younger), who need there to be someone between them and the grave. One finds oneself coerced into serving all the purposes that old people are supposed to, like exerting authority or standing in their way or knowing everything - a stance the old (or older) involuntarily find themselves complying with, because that's how you're treated. The old did it too, but they forget, and the young will find it happening to them.

But once you are old - or older - you don't give up your preconceptions towards the older still, or the dead, or those who might be your age but look how what you used to think was old. Sometimes I try mentally to photograph and become conscious of my pre-cognitive reactions to old people. There can be something medieval about our ingrained preconceptions about them. Just as sickness used to be interpreted as a symptom of sinfulness - think of how lepers were treated! - there is something about being old which one holds against them. The old cannot be forgiven for being old, for reminding us of how we will be. 'You brought this on yourself', we think before thinking. We do not see ourselves in their shoes, hence the beginning and the end of Philip Larkin's ‘The Old Fools’:


What do they think has happened, the old fools,

To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose

It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,

And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember

Who called this morning?

Can they never tell

What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?

Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout

The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,

                           We shall find out.


Their ugliness and decay is unpardonable, because, if we're lucky, it will one day be ours.

There is little recognition that in relative terms the frail and elderly are all Olympians, perpetually performing feats of effort, agility and endurance that real athletes only manage fleetingly. The accurate lifting of a spoon of porridge to a gaping mouth. The eventual recall of a face or a phone number or what one was saying. An awe-inspiring ascent to the top of a staircase, without a flag to plant on its pinnacle. An arm will eventually become heavier to lift than a dumbbell. Avoiding a fall will become a perpetual tight rope walk along the flexing cable between supposedly undemolishable twin towers.

It is wrong, though, to think the elderly incapable of the greatest evils, simply because they are physically weak. Beware the little old lady with the bomb in her knitting bag. She's heading for her place in an Agatha Christie novel. It was malice, not senility, that prompted that old timer to plough his Lincoln Continental through the crowd in the shopping mall. Elderly tyrants and dictators want to take the world with them as they go, and push the ladder over with the young still climbing it. Merely consider the age distribution of Brexit voters, in whom stupidity and psychopathy became weird bed fellows. What is it some comedian said? ' I can't believe it took a referendum for Britain's youth to find out that old people hate them.'

Yet the young cannot fathom the wisdom of age. As a late adolescent I distinctly remember looking at middle-aged politicians far younger than I am now in suits on television and thinking 'why on earth does anyone let those ugly old gas bags actually rule us, looking like that?' Why should the ugly be powerful? Now I am older than nearly all politicians except the resurgent gerontocracy of the current United States, I often register a shock of recognition when I find out that some old trout is actually younger than me, - and probably looks it! I suffer equal shock in discovering that a good friend is eighteen years younger than I am.

In some respects there is not much difference between some people over 40, though hugely so in others. My mother thought her default setting was 26 right through to the age of 96, and I believed her. I love helping young people when they let me, but I keenly feel how limited their curiosity about me is. Younger academics sometimes automatically assume their work is hipper than mine, but I can often date their intellectual formations back to the early 80s and see them reinventing the wheel. Yet the elderly have no idea to what extent they patronise the young. How could the young be genuinely curious about the old? Well because there are exceptions - I met a twenty-six year old I felt I had always known -, and because I like to think I am interested in the experience of those who are older than me. At a house outside Norwich I felt an enormous privilege sitting in an English garden beside an old lady with all her marbles at the age of 95. Just imagine what she had seen that will always be beyond exact imagining (When I learned she had gone to her car and was driving herself home I ran to wave farewell, but was prevented from doing so by her family members worried lest I distracted her and caused her to collide with a gatepost.) But then how much can I remember now of all that is unknown to the young? How spongey memories are, but not the feelings that attach to them (though they are often replaced without our knowing it. Someone said that memories are like index cards that are always changed and put back in a different place.) And even if one can remember, how can one explain? There are ways, but one has to find equivalents, 'objective correlatives,' which, again, replace and change the originals. I have prejudices against certain types of younger people who probably remind me of younger selves I wish I had never been. The bloated bacchus who hasn't learned he cannot keep drinking that much. (Sometimes they never learn and sail right through to senescence, skipping middle age.) But then the physical experience of age varies immensely. It is quite unlike a slow decline into debility, at least for me. When I lost 25 kilos and got fit before my operation I literally felt 'ten years younger' and the same after convalescence. I reactivated skills that were buried and forgotten in neural pathways, like cycling. Then I began to catch up with my real age, and sometimes there is a change of kind, like needing glasses when you're 40, or is it 50? However fit you are (and doctors say that 50 year olds are often fitter than 20 year olds), there comes a point when getting up off the floor, pulling your socks on or keeping soup off your shirt or blouse front becomes problemmatic. The portcullis falls for almost everyone, except certain freaks who win marathons at 104 whose secret is … (fill the gap). In the opposite direction I couldn't believe that I could be turned by the surgeon's knife from a middle-aged athlete running five hours a day into an instant geriatric, snoozing all day long due to the unthinkable energy consumed by the immune system during convalescence.

I have discovered that there is a kind of international club of people of a certain age who, whatever the differences in country, background, profession and experience, give each other a break in recognition of the fact that they've been through the wringer and come out at the other end and might as well show each other kindness and a smile. It is like a playground experience when the barriers drop in recognition of another joyful child. It also has to do with the grateful recognition that you are not unique after the incredible pressure of having had to differentiate yourself in the work force has ended. There is no longer any point in having to prove yourself.

Though in another sense that never stops. It even intensifies. Let no one think that the quest for status stops after retirement. Class distinctions, Simone de Beauvoir argued, ‘govern the manner in which old age takes hold of a man;’ ‘any statement that claims to deal with old age as a whole must be challenged, for it tends to hide this chasm.’[2] How well did you do? What is it that stops you from being useless now? What cars, houses, holidays differentiate you from those trapped on state pensions or with nothing at all? I have been to parties of people largely older than myself where someone is bragging about running a vineyard or an avocado farm or is on the board of this or that or is commissioned for their expertise on this and that. What's so great about running a boutique vineyard? At the same party an old Greek man advertised that his ambition in life, which he was clearly able to fulfil, was to sail his yacht back to the seabord town of his childhood and dock it in front of the hovel he grew up in. 'Look how well I've done', was to be the point of his life. I can imagine that the old people's homes of Florida's super-rich have untold means of discriminating gradations of wealth. There really are right wing cruises where you sing karaoke to the music of the Beach Boys (who were young when they were!) substituting 'Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb-Iran' for 'Bar-bar-bar, bar-barbara ann'! I love the idea of such things and want to go on one, just to see, but would be found out, and thrown overboard. There is an over-used African phrase about a dying old man being a library on fire that I heard an African man object to: which old man? which library? - he asked, and went on. I can't remember what the rest was and I can't think of an elevated note on which to conclude. But I do think what Ruskin says of history might also apply to memory and the stages of wo/mankind (actually I just like the quote, regardless of its pertinence): 'There is no law of history any more than of a kaleidoscope. With certain bits of glass - shaken so, and so - you will get pretty figures, but what figures, Heaven only knows...The wards of a Chubb’s lock are infinite in their chances. Is the Key of Destiny made on a less complex principle?'[3]

I think perspectives on age change inexorably through life, though in different ways. I also want to write about that strange phenomenon of everything feeling the same for a long time and then experiencing a sudden, unaccountable shift, wherein every thing familiar feels strange. Is it just a feeling or does it represent a lurch towards the end game on the conveyer belt of ageing?

In the buffet car of Eurostar on the way to Paris at the end of April this year there was a white woman in her 60s in fashionable clothes, a smartly dressed young black man and the rest of us. It was these who emerged from the blur into a sharply focused memory. I guess I was eyeing the woman, who though well ‘past her prime,’ must have been very pretty once (I would never wish to use these terms, but read on to find out who she was) and quite stylish - nothing special, mind – but, yes, stylish. I assumed she was French, but she wasn't. Oh no. In an abrasively upper class English voice (I can say this because I’m English) she asked the young black man, also English, where he had got his shoes. They were black and laceless with white rubber surrounds. I found them, later, in a Parisian departmental store and presciently took a photograph of them to illustrate this story, which sadly I can no longer find. Though no Idris Elba, he was tall and thin, with a well-barbered skull and the topiary of a goatee beard contoured to match the lines of his face. He enthusiastically named the London suburb where he bought them and she proceeded to applaud his whole outfit, which I therefore became aware of. He was all in black except for the white rubber around his shoes, but on closer inspection his trousers were a dark green plaid in good wool and his light jacket had tailored pockets, which went with his black t-shirt. She loudly praised them all in front of others, especially the laceless shoes, which made me feel awful, for what about the elastic laces in my dark blue Campers??? Her praise served to insult everyone else in the carriage, and was a vehicle for broadcasting a great deal of status information about herself. Whether we wanted to or not we learned she was a rich and successful fashion curator with a flat in Paris and a son in a successful band, whom her young interlocutor 'probably knew', because it was 'making it' in band world. He didn't know it, but he took out a notebook and made a note of it. He was completely seduced by her initial praise of him as a fashion star and since he was in banking or something, he was, she said, 'to come and see me when you've made a lot of money.' What for? It was beyond her ken that anyone around her could hold different values or conceptions of success. She was a narcissist using this young man to out herself as a star to the whole carriage. Why couldn't he see she was using him? What stopped me walking out with a scornful laugh was that I wanted to hear enough to be able to tell this story. It was a high price to pay. As I left they got set to talk all the way to Paris. He was her accessory during the journey. He stopped her feeling so old.

At around the age when the preposterous proposition of my future decease began to seem credible – 30 is given as the average age at which humans start to think about death ten times a day - it oddly coincides with the age at which the young John Lennon said you should no longer trust people – though in my case I think this daily volley of deathly thoughts came later – I began adopting an attitude of detached amusement in which to read a few books written by the elderly about what old age is like.  Though highly revered, Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Atthil, the retired long-term editor at André Deutsch who had coaxed the troubled genius of Jean Rhys into being, leaves me only with memories of graceful writing about what she could no longer do and how it did not matter.[4] I think one reads such books to know what to expect, which was less than the example of cheerful fearlessness of death set by my beloved mother after her long career as a nursing sister easing the decease of countless others. Reading books to know what to expect, however, has a drawback that Marcel Proust discovered in books themselves:

a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with bodeom when one speaks to him of a new 'good book,' because he imagines a sort of  composite of all the good books that he has read, whereas a good book is something special, something unforeseeable, and is made up not of the sum of all previous masterpieces but of something which the most thorough assimilation of every one of them would not enable him to discover, since it exists not in their sum but beyond it.[5]

This applies to books about ageing, but not in a good way. The philosopher Daniel Klein’s Travel with Epicurus is erudite in summarising wisdom on ageing from distinguished authorities across the ages – Epicurus, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Mencius, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Camus, Satre, Bertrand Russell, Yeats, William James, Freud, Aldous Huxley, Mahler, Fauré, Eva Hoffman, Erik Erikson, Lars Svendsen, Ernest Becker, Dylan Thomas, Frank Sinatra, Susan Jacoby (so not many women) - but when towards the end I read: ‘Yes, I smoke – shamelessly,’ the book particularized itself in a way that took the wind out of my enthusiasm for reading it. To discover that a torment I relinquished decades ago was still bringing this septuagenarian ‘great pleasure’ was a punctum that arbitrarily punctured the wisdom of the general thesis.[6] Yet, since I relish the devil-may-care attitude of adventure and diverse trajectories – perhaps all leading nowhere - demonstrated in Goya’s etching and drypoint of ‘A Way of Flying’ at the beginning of this essay, there is no consistency in my position.

As for old timers' speculations on what awaits them after God’s waiting room, whether we imagine eternal bliss in union with loved ones or an interminably terrifying void, both Freud and Shakespeare’s Hamlet remind us that no one returns from this ‘undiscovered country’ to tell us what it’s like. It therefore seems we have some choice about which fantasies we entertain about it, for that’s all they are.[7]


[1]L’ Art et l’enfant. Chefs-d’œuvre de la peinture française,’ Musée Marmottan Monet, 10 March to 3 July 2016.

[1] L’ Art et l’enfant. Chefs-d’œuvre de la peinture française,’ Musée Marmottan Monet, 10 March to 3 July, 2016.

[2] Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of Age, trans. Patrick O’Brien (London: Andre Deutsch & Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1972), p. 10.

[3] John Ruskin to James Anthony Froude, February 1864, Letters, in The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols. (London: George Allen, 1903-12), vol. 36, p. 465.

[4] Diana Atthil, Somewhere Towards the End: a Memoir (New York, 2009: W. W. Norton & Company).

[5]  Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, 3 vols (London: Penguin, 1989), vol. 1, pp. 705-706.

[6] Daniel Klein, Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Seach of an Authentic Old Age (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2012), pp. 106 and 108.

[7] Dr Don Carveth, ‘On Death,’ Pscyoanalytic Thinking, Apple Podcast, February 5, 2022.

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