And Her Mother Came Too

Great Britain


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’.

9 comments on “And Her Mother Came Too”

  1. Jo W says:

    “Growing old very disgracefully” – is there another way then? 😉

  2. John Howard says:

    I hope not Jo. I decided a few years ago that I wasn’t going to get older at each birthday, just a little grumpier and a bit more outspoken… Do we really need to be so polite.? Of course being British means there are shades of grumpy in that statement. (We aren’t French you know)

  3. Judi Ducker says:

    Consider myself very lucky to be included without hesitation in events organised by both my children and grandson. I know from experience that this is not the normal.

  4. Kayte says:

    Ageism is definitely a pervasive taboo in the UK. I love the way you use Bryant and May to challenge the assumption that any one over fifty has lost the talents of their youth – Bryant and May’s experiences augment their detection style.

    I have a big problem with the idea of ‘last taboos’, though. I think oppressive forms simply shift in the way they operate. In general, people tend to think of racism and sexism in particular ways – as for example in the descriptions of women you list above – and that means that subtler acts of discrimination are overlooked. I’m not saying that you don’t realize this – your books indicate that you do! – but I think the language of ‘last taboos’ feeds into a dismissive atmosphere.

    On the subject of taboos, I’d love it if you included a transgender character who just happens to be trans, rather than being trans for a plot point, and who doesn’t end up being on either end of violence.

    I hope you don’t think this is an overly critical or pedantic message. I absolutely love your work – your novels are my among my favourite 21st-century fiction.

  5. Judi Ducker says:

    Consider myself very lucky to be included without hesitation in events organised by both my children and grandson. I know from experience that this is not the norm.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    Growing old is inevitable, growing up is optional.

  7. Linda atres says:

    As a child we lived with my maternal grandmother. Housing was short in London in the 50’s and this situation was common. Have wonderful memories of coach trips out with my grandmother and her friends….they always seemed to be full of laughter.
    Its only now in later life that I truly appreciate those women.They had seen some hard times and several had lost loved ones during the war, but they knew the value of laughter.
    I learnt a lot from them I just did not realise it at the time.

  8. Vivienne says:

    Yes, you can be sad or mad when you get old, and I decided mad was the way to go. However, the other day i was thinking of doing something and found myself saying ‘well if you can’t do it when you’re young, when can you?’ – before I recollected that I am well past young. So some of it is in the mind.

  9. Billy Dann says:

    Sadly the attitude of so many older British people these days seems to be ‘I’m alright Jack’. They have done exceptionally well financially, poverty in the UK now sits firmly with young people. And yet, despite doing so well, so many are xenophobic and small minded focusing on the value of their house and their personal wealth above all else. The Brexit vote and cynicism on climate change demonstrates not a generous ageing population in Britain but one that is small minded and suspicious. All very sad. And I say this as someone entering their fifties.

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