And Her Mother Came Too
Recently I went to dinner with a publisher who brought along his 85 year-old mother without even thinking to mention it. She proved to be sharp and funny, and enhanced the table considerably, preventing it from descending into an endless discussion about book rights. She certainly knew the square meterage of her home. (‘You must come visit. My lounge is 82 metres. Try the prawns.’) I need hardly add that this was not in the UK.
Ageism feels like one of the last taboos in Britain, along with the mention of ‘the working class’ (to be discussed next week). It’s still unthinkingly prevalent in British novels and newspapers. It’s possibly the last great taboo we’ve yet to deal with; US papers are far, far better on this. I hope one day soon we’ll look back with horror at ageism in print in the same way that we once accepted descriptions of women in newspapers – ‘pert blonde’, ‘voluptuous redhead, 23,’ etc.
One of the reasons why I made my detectives Bryant & May senior citizens was because I had become increasingly aware of how sidelined everyone over fifty was becoming in London. As medical care improves the government raises the retirement age, but as we are now a city of invisible services (75% work in some form of media or hospitality) the workforce also grows younger, and peer pressure creeps in. It’s understandable, I suppose, that the young prefer to work with those of a similar age, but how can older people remain in employment? When was the last time you saw a senior waiter in London?
The problem goes deeper. In Britain a number of factors shut older people away. The anti-savings economy, the unpredictable weather, property prices, changing neighbourhoods, social mobility and the end of families living together mean that the old can be forced into a lonely existence. In much of Europe multiple generations eat out regularly and live in the same building, and dinners automatically add family members.
A friend of mine working in theatre in Northern England found their group wasn’t reaching older patrons. It turned out seniors were living in an area that was now experiencing hard times and they no longer felt safe going out alone after dark, so he asked them not where they felt most comfortable, but when. As a result the theatre now runs shows on a Sunday afternoon at 5pm, and even drops some patrons home afterwards. This kind of thinking reconnects communities.
One clever move used in Barcelona is for the council to pick up half the installation cost of lifts in apartment buildings, meaning older folk don’t move out and the area doesn’t simply gentrify itself to death. Compare this with Notting Hill, once filled with multiple-generation families, then wrecked by bankers who complained last year that they’re moving out because the area has ‘lost its atmosphere’!
It has become almost unthinkable outside of Europe to have your grandparents living with you. Instead the opposite has happened; most Italians don’t leave their parents’ homes until they’re in their late thirties. Perhaps now the young can repay the gift when the tables are turned.
Bryant & May are fictional, of course, but I use them to express my opinions about age and society. Rest assured they’ll be growing old very disgracefully indeed!
The drawing at the top is by Keith Page, and shows Bryant in the grip of his hallucinations in ‘Strange Tide’.