Alive to an old issue
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