OUT OF TIME

December 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Listening to the radio a few weeks ago, I heard someone I know make a throwaway remark about being middle-aged. She is 64, but some years have gone by since I saw her last, and I momentarily wondered whether she’d got off lightly and still had the joy of an unravaged face in the mirror. Then I remembered how hard it’s become to place ourselves on the spectrum of age. We talk about being ‘no longer young’ while carefully avoiding the word ‘old’. We’re not frail enough for that, and in any case we don’t feel it, and even if the young make the mistake of seeing us that way, it doesn’t count because they’re not in a position to see us as we really are: not old underneath, even if we’re grey on top.

There may be many reasons why we delude ourselves about ageing. It’s not an easy thing to accept: it involves loss, actual and prospective, of all kinds. Need I mention diminished eyesight, hearing, memory, stamina – of small account when compared with the loss of those close to us, deaths which shock us all the more in our 60s now that we’re supposed to be living into our 90s and beyond. To age is also to become less visible, to be displaced and superseded, to be viewed as a burden. So why be old when you can just be older?

Lynne Segal’s new book, Out Of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing, is a helpful and hugely bracing antidote to these interesting confusions, and it tackles the subject from every possible perspective.

Starting with fundamentals, Segal explores age differentials in the experience of growing older: between men and women, between the financially secure and the great number who scrape by on a state pension, between those who welcome a longer working life and those in physically demanding jobs that put impossible strain on ageing bodies. Ageing, undeniably, is a feminist issue – men suffer less for their grizzled locks (or the lack of locks at all) when it comes to finding a partner or keeping a job; they can still be deemed attractive, while for women the time-honoured image of the witch and the hag dies hard. Ageing is also a class issue, in terms of health and well-being, standards of housing and diet and many other things.

These discrepancies are not unrelated to the problem of what she calls ‘generational warfare’. For those of us born in the immediate post-war years (the so-called baby boomers) this division, manufactured by politicians and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic (not all of them right-wing), is particularly acute. Because of free university education in the 60s and 70s, we are charged with having used up resources that are now unavailable to the young, yet the privatisation of higher education and the institution of fees are political decisions that date back to the Thatcher era and are driven by free-market ideology. Likewise, house price inflation was not engineered by the mass of home buyers, but by speculators and bankers, all in the wake of Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ policy that depleted social housing, and in the absence of secure rent controls. Those who talk about pensioners having it easy should consider that the UK state pension is one of the lowest in Europe, both in real monetary terms and as a proportion of average earnings.

Scapegoating the ‘baby boomers’ as greedy and privileged conveniently implicates us in the debt crisis and recession. But as Segal points out, it is ‘the growing inequality within, not between, the different age cohorts that underpins the current economic and social crisis’, and she names Keynesian economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman who have been making this point for years.

Her arguments are cogently made, and much needed. For me though, the book’s most fascinating sections are those where she delves deeper, into the experience of the ageing self, using fiction and memoirs to investigate how it feels to face a short future, while having a past crammed with experience and memory. Our sense of time alters, accelerating yet also expanding. I know that the further I get from my childhood the more I feel I’ve led many different lives, and I’m not alone in this.

In her search for the manifold realities of ageing Segal draws on a mass of authors and commentators. A central thread is the work of Simone de Beauvoir, whose early writing, notably The Second Sex, was a startling inspiration to many of us in the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, and whose book on old age far fewer have read – until now. Beauvoir was a towering figure but no unblemished heroine; this made her insights all the more valuable in our own struggles to reconcile the theory and practice of female independence.

Doris Lessing is another fruitful source for Segal as she looks at how women have responded to all that is entailed by ageing, not least the loss of youthful beauty, the waning or stifling of desire. While in the broader picture suggested by her researches many women see their romantic and erotic lives as over, there are others who persist in falling in love, in finding and being objects of desire. She believes, and I agree, that life beyond middle age can still be intense and discover its own quickening in many kinds of relationships and experiences, in art and nature, in work, politics and friendship (it is wonderful to have long, long friendships and still be able to make new ones). These, and a strengthened sense of self, count among the pleasures of ageing.

Out of Time makes no generalisations and it continually asks the question of what it means to age well: denial or acceptance, defiant or serene. Ageing is individual and for each generation has specific characteristics, and the book sets out to embrace this wide diversity. It’s also very personal and honest, at times exuberantly so – not a quiet, gentle reckoning, which makes it all the more welcome.

Shortly after I finished reading it I saw Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska. What begins as the stock situation of a confused, elderly man dividing his family over whether or not they should put him in a home, develops into a fierce and funny road movie. The man (Bruce Dern) and his son drive through a monochrome Midwest whose landscapes are lingeringly shot as a kind of timeless dereliction, something already there before recession. In fact the whole film has a quality of being out of time, not just because the silky black and white evokes another era and mobile phones seldom intervene, but because old characters populate its spaces, it looks like a film from their time and it’s their narrative that prevails, displacing the young to the margins as the life inside their parents erupts with ancient histories and renewed emotions. Their past is not over and settling which version is true incurs plenty of foulmouthed recall and knockabout argument. It’s a brilliant discarding of Hollywood myth, be it western or musical. In this Nebraska nothing is cosy. And the old are well and truly alive.

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