Alive to an old is­sue

Christo­pher Bantick

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Grow­ing Old ( Dis) Grace­fully: 35 Aus­tralians Re­flect on Life Over 50 Edited by Ross Fitzger­ald and Lyn­dal Moor ABC Books, 355pp, $ 35 Some­where To­wards the End By Diana Athill Granta, 182pp, $ 35

‘ IT ought to be lovely to be old,’’ D. H. Lawrence said in his poem Beau­ti­ful Old Age . Well, it isn’t for many. Per­haps it’s more as Thomas Hardy mused in Look into My Glass : look into my glass And view my wast­ing skin. Hap­pily, this is not the case in Ross Fitzger­ald and Lyn­dal Moor’s book. The 35 con­trib­u­tors come at what age means to them from a variety of perspectives. While the ti­tle may sug­gest that age­ing dis­grace­fully in­volves de­bauch­ery, deca­dence and say­ing what you think re­gard­less of the con­se­quences, the op­po­site is true here. Be­ing older does not have to be the end of a pur­pose­ful, ac­tive, sat­is­fy­ing and pro­duc­tive life.

Given that the edi­to­rial brief for the con­trib­u­tors was to re­flect on age, some­times this be­comes more a short bi­og­ra­phy of achieve­ments rather than en­gag­ing with what grow­ing old in­volves. To this end, the book lacks sus­tained fo­cus at times and the edi­tors could have been a tad more in­sis­tent that the 12 women and 23 men whose voices we hear stay on mes­sage. Broad­caster David Lord’s ca­reer re­view piece comes to mind. It is a dis­ap­point­ment. The best of the pieces are, how­ever, ap­po­site about age.

This is shown in a lively, op­ti­mistic and vi­sion­ary con­tri­bu­tion by Heather Beat­tie ( with hus­band Peter Beat­tie). In a piece ti­tled sim­ply Grow­ing To­gether , she ob­serves the phe­nom­e­non of the baby boomer mantra, ‘‘ we can grow older but not old’’. There is noth­ing self- sat­is­fied about the Beat­ties. They have pru­dently stood back from their highly suc­cess­ful pub­lic lives and made a telling as­sess­ment: ‘‘ Grow­ing old for us is not to be a grate­ful few years spent be­tween the bowls club and bingo, babysit­ting grand­chil­dren ev­ery Tues­day and Thurs­day.’’ In­stead, the Beat­ties in­tend to ‘‘ ex­pand our knowl­edge of his­tory, other cul­tures and reli­gions’’.

If there is a com­mon thread link­ing the con­trib­u­tors, it is that they are not about to re­lin­quish be­ing an­i­mated par­tic­i­pants in life. More to the point, many re­alise that be­com­ing older of­fers a cer­tain free­dom. For the Beat­ties, this is ‘‘ not wor­ry­ing about the con­se­quences of pub­lic opin­ion’’.

Where this book is likely to please read­ers nudg­ing 50 or be­yond is in the variety of ideas on age­ing it of­fers. Take poet and au­thor Phil Brown, for ex­am­ple. In his ru­mi­na­tive and very funny piece Old Be­fore My Time , he re­lates how he has felt old for much of his life.

How dif­fer­ent get­ting older is for At the Movies co- host Mar­garet Pomer­anz. In her feisty and de­light­ful re­flec­tion Tran­scend­ing, No Ten­nis, No Taut­ness there is de­fi­ance and al­most bel­liger­ence. At 63, the sports car- driv­ing Pomer­anz con­fronts age with gusto and ebul­lience. She says sim­ply: ‘‘ Age­ing has to be a state of mind. You think you are old, there­fore you are old. I don’t think I’m old.’’

The no­tion of grow­ing old dis­grace­fully is far from the ex­pe­ri­ence of Diana Athill, 90. Her of­ten rev­e­la­tory, at times self- ef­fac­ing and ut­terly en­gag­ing mem­oir Some­where To­wards the End is a deeply re­ward­ing read. Athill is English and a for­mer pub­lisher’s ed­i­tor. For her, grow­ing older is any­thing but a time of ‘‘ re­sent­ment and de­spair’’. Even so, Athill’s look back is not achieved with­out mo­ments of poignancy. She writes with clar­ity and frank­ness about what it meant for her to give up sex. While she can cite the di­ver­sion­ary aids to con­ceal­ing age­ing, such as clothes and cos­met­ics, she de­scribes a pal­pa­ble sense of loss: ‘‘ Mov­ing into my 70s was the dis­ap­pear­ance of what used to be the most im­por­tant thing in life: I might not look, or even feel that old, but I had ceased to be a sex­ual be­ing.’’

Her gen­tle ex­plo­ration of what this meant for her will surely res­onate with many read­ers who may have faced the fact that with ad­vanc­ing years, even in the age of Vi­a­gra, sex is no longer a part of their be­hav­iour or, more to the point, they are no longer de­sired sex­u­ally. But while Athill mov­ingly dis­cusses the loss of sex in her life, she also of­fers in­sights and mo­ments of self- dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour about what be­ing old en­tails. Re­fer­ring to her mother, she notes: ‘‘ You buy and cook the food that suits her, eat it at her set meal­times.’’

The panoramic sweep of Athill’s lens on ad­vanc­ing age in­cludes the im­me­di­ate is­sues of when it is sen­si­ble not to drive a car, fac­ing death, car­ing for a part­ner who is ill and the joy found in the ‘‘ es­cape into the or­di­nary things which have be­come more valu­able be­cause I am old’’.

While Athill’s ob­ser­va­tions will com­fort many, her re­flec­tions are not with­out courage. Preg­nant at 43, she lost a child and says en­tirely with­out maudlin in­tro­spec­tion: ‘‘ The ab­sence of re­gret that sur­prises me most is con­nected with child­less­ness.’’

Th­ese books ex­plore what grow­ing old means and show em­pa­thy for its chal­lenges. They demon­strate that age is what you make of it. Still, there is some un­cer­tainty, too, as this ques­tion from Pomer­anz sug­gests: ‘‘ Have I wasted my time on this mor­tal coil?’’ Christo­pher Bantick is a Melbourne writer and reviewer.

Look on the bright side: Ja­pan’s Kaku Ya­manaka, who died re­cently at 113

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