"YEARS AGO WHEN YOU were in a lonely spot and you wanted to jump or run, then you did so. But when you are seventy or more -- oh dear! You could still do it, but you don't. You worry that they would think you were around the corner.'"
Most all the old voices Ronald Blythe listened to while he explored the other side of the curtain that falls between the old and the rest of us shared the joyful impulse still alive in this 70-year old farmer's wife, or indeed her physical vigor. Many express bitterness, or at best a difficult stoicism; and though they may appear to the world brisk, well-occupied, enjoying the rewards of their earlier achievements, only a few can say, as does one man: "I am well and strong and busy and happy -- and old" There are others like the charming 84-year-old who wanted to know "how one gets off the hook." They've had enough.
It is a strange new world that Blythe examines, one in which average people live to be 70 instead of 40. Ten years ago he wrote Akenfield, a vivid oral history of an English village. In it an agricultural past was resurrected in the memories of its survivors by a writer with a keen ear for the poetry or common speech. Here he is back among country and village people, but others as well: sophisticated, highly-educated men and women who have been teachers, doctors, priests. He is looking not so much for the past -- though he cannot help but learn a great deal about what old people cherish most -- as for the common experience of an entirely new class of people.
The sight of multitudes in their seventies and eighties sitting at the seaside "in their preponderantly white and palely colored clothes" would astound a time traveler more perhaps than our technology. Before this century the majority wore out before reaching old age. Now faced with so many old people at once, their juniors, the middle-aged, acknowledge responsibility for looking after these impaired legions while barely masking a revulsion from their continued and unseemly sharing in the liveliness of life. "How well old people come to know that peculiar look of suppressed disgust which their obstinate concentration on some restricted sensual pleasure excites," John Cowper Powys wrote. It's the middle-aged far more than the young who feel this hatred for age, as if they might be sucked into its slipstream.
Cut off from the future by retirement rules and by social attitudes that remove them from the midst of life, they turn to the past -- not the past of their mature achievement, of their commitment to ideas now outmoded, but to childhood, which assumes a detailed and thrilling clarity. Memory must console them for the loss of authority ("You still feel your authority even when it isn't there. It is like amuputees feeling pain in their sawn-off leg"), of love, of the right to feel the desire that still troubles them.
"Old age," Blythe writes, "is not an emancipation from desire for most of us; that is a large part of its tragedy. The old want (but their sensible refusal to put such wants into words suggests to us that they have given up wanting) their professional status back, or their looks, or their circle which is now a lot of crossed-off names in the address book, or sex, or just a normal future-oriented existence. Most of all, they want to be wanted."
Segregated, "wounded in their narcissism" (as psychiatrists say), unable to arouse our interest, much less our love, they have for consolation only the television screen (as once it was the window overlooking the street) or that lighted screen inside their heads on which bright, fragmentary memories of themselves as they once were play over and over. Or if they can find a listening ear, like Ronald Blythe's, they never grow tired of remembering -- not just because they're wrapped up in themselves or have lost self-critical brakes to the rush of recollection, but because they want to piece together an image of who they really were.
They have had to give up so much that they ought not to have to give up their own homes too. Reluctant, too often helpless in the fact of wellmeant interference, they are shoveled into "homes" to be deafened by Muzak and television, robbed of privacy, patronized and "managed." "They gradually stop being who they are in those places," someone's young grandson says. "For the family it's the final solution, isn't it?". But the matron of a good "home" -- a rambling Victorian house instead of a trashy modern barracks -- thinks she offers her people something worthwhile. "We are the poor odds and ends of a great many families. But we are a community." A very old woman still at home, says, "I'm a problem for someone if I stay here, and I'll be a problem to myself if I leave. An old people's home, what is it really? Just somewhere to die in."
Yet staying home can be a nightmare. A retired engineer whose "new life of old age" is centered on concern for other old people speaks of a blind woman utterly marooned in her cottage. No one ever came, not even the rent collector, though she had six months' rent waiting. "Poor old girl, she couldn't make it out. It was uncanny for her. Old age is uncanny -- it's weird."
It's weird for the 85-year-old ex-soldier whose memory went on "a landslide scale" five years before. He speeds about on a bicycle, but the great events of his life are gone beyond recall. He can only smile and say,"If you've got anybody and you can call them a friend, that's important."
Most of these old men fought in World War I and it remains an absorbing experience. "I feel its drag still," says one who was severly wounded and has lived with pain ever since. "You've no idea how pleasurable it is not to die when you are young!" The physical burdens of old age are hardly noticed, because his body has been a burden to him since he was 24. A woman, crippled in infancy, echoes the thought: "Old age, for me . . . is just a progressive crippling."
An old farmer relates how the clerk in a store asked. "Senior Citizen?" "I hate the term," he says. "Dreadful. I felt the resentment rising inside me." What would he say to such other obscenities in the cant of old-age management as "Adult Home?" The squeamish dread of calling things by their right names isn't one these people suffer from much. "I will say things that I wouldn't have done 20 years ago," says one, "although they were in my mouth. But now I don't care . . . now I speak." A 90-year-old lady tells herself: "Do something today about Patsy [her dog] so that she'll be all right when you've gone. Don't say when you've gone , say when you're dead. Dead -- say it!"
Though so many put up brave fronts, some express their bitterness raw. A man says: "Unless you're a bloody idiot, if you've lived for 80 years you must know something ! But for some reason you're not supposed to know what you know, or what the young know -- not any more. But you do." Or an 86-year-old female academic: "You take a simple thing such as whether somebody likes you or they don't. It doesn't cross your mind when you are very old. I don't expect to be liked or disliked.I don't expect anything ."
Another teacher, aged 91, rejoices in her mind, though her body has let her down. "The inside person who can't walk very far is still the same young woman who rambled for miles and miles." And though she can't keep her head in one position for long, she can see well. "Thankfully, I read. Oh, books, how I love you!"
A brilliant 79-year-old neurologist appreciates every day of his life, but doesn't pretend to be what he once was. He says it is important to recognize that the time comes when you can no longer do research. "You have to tell yourself, no, you cannot do this work because you are old. You must not deceive yourself in these matters." One must settle for being useful, not original. "It is a great shock to relinquish it all, and terrible to have to behave as if there were no shock."
Among members of a religious community there is no fear of isolation and abandonment, but they are not spared a fear felt by those outside: "What I pray is that my body will not outlive my mind," says an old Cowley father. The decline of caring about things that once meant everything is expressed by another. "Terror for the old religious comes when . . . the ascensions and apirations originally set in his heart, though still subjected to all the familiar and beautiful disciplines, fail to life it." Another father says: "I have to be honest and tell myself that often I hear and feel nothing . . . I don't really care two hoots about a lot of things now."
The an actor, born a Catholic, retains his sharp pleasure in having left the church: "It is an appalling religion, and it is still wonderful to wake up in the morning and feel emancipated from it. Thrilling." And a recently blind Salvation Army colonel describes his joy in his marriage to a widow who had lost all interest in life. Now they are both vital. "We are not just an old couple. We are deeply in love." Another, an 87-year-old wife and mother of Welsh coal miners, for whom living was never a bed of roses, says, "Life is so very sweet, isn't is? . . . I don't resent being old at all -- except it would be nice to be forty again!. I would then have so much life to come. You know new things when you are old and you say to yourself, "I wish I had this much brains when I was younger." Wisdom, you know." This life-lover doesn't even worry about being unloved or left out: "I liked the old people when I was young, so I hope the young like me."
There isn't one of these old people one doesn't like. Their testimony sweeps aside the curtain dividing us. If anything can get through our heads the truth of what Alex Comfort once pointed out -- that the old are the only abused, disadvantaged group in society that we are all certain to join one day if we live long enough -- reading Blythe's thoughtful, imaginative, beautifully written book can.