More than a number: Benjamin argues that we can't escape the facts of ageing. Photo: Muir Vidler
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Marina Benjamin: what it means to be a woman aged 50

As she prepares for her 50th birthday, the author and journalist reflects on what it means to be “middle-aged” – and on a journey she knows never ends well.

Life’s defining moments do not always announce themselves with the fanfare of celebration (big birthdays, weddings) or trauma (puberty, divorce). Sometimes they’re like stealth bombers; they come out of nowhere and blow up things soundlessly. Two years ago I experienced just such a moment in the middle of the night. I woke up wanting to go to the bathroom and swung out of bed to stand up. I took a single step in the right direction, then fell to the floor like a plank.

There was the blunt thud of skull hitting wood and the slap of impact that split open the skin on my brow bone. My husband leapt out of bed to put the light on, alert as if the crash had been an intruder. By this time I’d managed to sit up. Blood was dripping from my eye on to my hand and I could feel the throb of nascent swellings at my ankle, hip and shoulder. I remember thinking: “This is the kind of game-changing fall that happens to old people” – bone-breaking, concussion-inducing – not to women in their late forties. I swallowed a couple of painkillers, cleaned myself up and went back to sleep. The following day my eye-socket was a reddish-purple golf ball, lids glued into a slit, and my whole body ached.

In itself, the fall was banal. A clear-cut case of somnambulism; my mind had been awake enough to formulate a conscious intention but the neural pathways of my motor system still slumbered. That day and the next I stayed home, unwilling to suffer people staring. I nursed some angry bruises; but thereafter I got on with things as if nothing had happened.

Looking back, I recognise that the fall registered much deeper. It was sloppy and uncontrolled, as if I were a marionette and someone else, someone malicious, the string-puller. I was a mere player, a pawn, a flimsy vessel bobbing on choppy seas. Worse, like some bizarre prefiguring of my future life, my fall seemed to contain within it every other fall I would henceforth suffer.

From that instant on, I’ve never regained an absolute trust that my body will automatically fall into line with my will: from now on it will falter and fail. I can no longer depend on it to function properly. This, it seems to me, is solid indication that my youth has ended and middle age begun.

These days, when we are persistently told that age is all in the mind, that 40 is the new 30, and 50 the new 40; when entire wings of the cosmetics and medical industries are dedicated to rolling back the effects of passing time; when women are giving birth to first children in their late forties and fifties; when we are all, men and women alike, living healthily for longer, working later and shunning the putting out to pasture we once happily greeted as “retirement”; why, when such things are the new norms, would anyone elect themselves to membership of that most undesirable of clubs, the middle-aged? Shouldn’t I just dismiss my fall as an accident? I still run five kilometres three or four times a week. I work and I parent. I switch and click between being a wife, daughter, mother and friend. I am nowhere near the end of my productive life, as a writer or anything else. And yet I know as surely as day is not night that one season of my life has ended and another begun.

You might ask how I know, indeed, how anyone knows when they’ve arrived at middle age. I’ll admit that it remains fuzzy as to whether middle age qualifies as a biologically distinct phase of life (one that comes with its own neurological and biochemical map) or is just a label we give to a period of mental adjustment that helps us accommodate vague feelings of loss. Then again, perhaps it is merely a socio-cultural construction, no more trustworthy than any marketing category: a shorthand way of dividing people up by their attitudes and lifestyle choices?

When the term “middle age” came into general use in the late 19th century, it was principally in a socio-economic setting. Empire and industrialisation had expanded and enriched the middle classes, and women who had finished raising children could enjoy another decade or two of vigour and relevance. Middle age was actually admired: these women were mature, worldly creatures who had, as the modern saying goes, “freedom to” as well as “freedom from”. The negative tarnish came with the mass production of the 1920s and the theories of scientific management that underpinned it, sharpening our association of youth with productivity and middle age with decreasing efficiency.

You could argue that middle age is thoroughly overdetermined, as Simone de Beau­voir seemed to suggest in The Coming of Age. Writing in 1970, when she was 62, de Beauvoir pushed back against a quiescent society that expected people to grow more “serene” as they grew older. With measured eloquence, she wheeled in whole bodies of literature and philosophy to swat down this idea of resigned acceptance. Instead, she argued, we should accommodate old age through a process of continual, consciously engaged modification. “Life is an unstable system in which balance is continually lost and continually recovered,” she wrote.

This chimes with my sense that we shift this way and that – sometimes literally, as with my fall – before correcting for overzealousness or caution. Though de Beauvoir was writing more about old age than middle age, her labelling of bodily decline, economic redundancy and social marginalisation as important parameters in defining how we age fits with the idea that entering middle age is a kind of subjective reckoning. I’m picturing a Venn diagram that captures the intersection of de Beauvoir’s three factors: middle age is that shady area where the circles overlap. It’s a dappled spot, where the light is fading and the chill of winter starts to set in. The specific age at which we enter this penumbra is different for each of us, but the common quality is a profound sense of alteration and a dawning understanding, dim at first, that there is no point of re-entry to the bright terrain of youth.

In the past year, Penelope Lively, Julia Twigg, Lynne Segal, Anne Karpf, Angela Neustatter and a clutch of their American peers all published books on ageing, attempting to pick up where de Beauvoir left off. These women are a generation older than I am. They’ve been through the wars – menopause, middle age – and emerged unscathed. Now they claim to be wiser, happier, bolder, calmer, more flexible, open and, in some cases, more in touch with youth than before. They offer a relentless good cheer, as if it were permissible to write about late life only by becoming your own superheroine. And they appear to have signed up, one and all, to the delusional idea that you are only as old as you feel.

And it really is delusional. My own mother, youthful in mind as she ever was, would guffaw if, in the face of her ongoing problems with mobility, memory loss and regular if episodic bereavement, I attempted to console her by announcing that 80 was the new 70. In most countries, average life expectancy continues to hover around the late-seventies mark (not far off the Psalmist’s three score and ten) but in developing countries it is much lower. At 82, my mother acknowledges that she’s into borrowed time, like those statistical outliers who live beyond 90 and 100 and skew popular perceptions of this ultimate numbers game. Yes, medicine has increased life expectancy – but not as much, or as broadly, as one might think.

As I gear up to turn 50 this summer what has lodged in my mind is this: that it is a mathematical near-certainty that, with my next birthday, I will have passed the halfway mark. That from now on growing older will be less about marking the age I’ve arrived at than about counting down what is left. At 50 I will quite literally be over the hill; ahead of me, the incline runs downwards. And it doesn’t end well.

Last autumn, some 18 months after my fall, I had a hysterectomy. To be precise, it was a sub-total hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophrectomy. All that’s left is my cervix and I kept that for sentimental reasons. It took weeks to recover from the surgery, during which time I experienced a full-bodied plunge into instant menopause. Joints were popping and bones aching. It was impossible to sleep. Every hour and a half, like clockwork, I’d wake up drenched in sweat, throw off my covers and run to the bathroom window to salute the moon – at least that’s how I now think of my stripped-down attempts at rapid cooling.

A kindly friend put a book called The Wisdom of Menopause into my hands, and I gratefully scurried away to prise out its time-trawled pearls. Sadly, this bestselling book by Christiane Northrup, MD turned out to be an embittered tirade against marriage and family – as if our ties were good only for holding us back, rather than up – and, in the worst tradition of US self-help literature, it was lecturing and strident. More edifying was Jane Shilling’s melancholy and poetic memoir of midlife The Stranger in the Mirror, a book honest enough to acknowledge the effrontery of ageing.

On top of affront, of course, there is grief, bewilderment, alienation, frustration – everything you might associate with being forced to cross a border into a foreign land only to be informed that you can never go back; that your passport has been torn up and your old home ransacked. As a new arrival in this strange nation, I wish to parse the experience before its lessons evaporate or transform. To that end, I have pressed into service oestrogen, my new drug of choice.

Oestrogen is the soft end of age-reversing remedies. It is marketed as “natural” – even though much of it is engineered in the laboratory using horse hormone primers. More slyly, it is billed as a “replacement” therapy not a “supplement”. It replenishes depleted stores, topping up your parched system with nothing more than you already had. Like a debt repaid; you’re entitled to it.

And yet oestrogen’s effects are little short of miraculous. It strengthens nails and bones, boosts energy, lifts libido, makes your skin glow and your hair shine. After taking it for a month, I felt as though I’d been holidaying in Thailand. After two, as if I’d just passed my MOT. And I’ve been evangelising about oestrogen ever since, shamelessly pushing it on friends overcome by fatigue, hot flashes, mood swings and insomnia – friends who, like me, are aghast that instead of gently drifting into midlife, midlife has rudely flung itself at them, exploding like a bag of flour.

Using oestrogen is, however, hallucino­genic. Like taking morphine during labour, it insinuates a languorous pause into an otherwise relentless process. Oestrogen heightens my sense of being at a threshold that demands I make conscious decisions about how to tackle ageing. It is in my power now (for as long as I take the stuff) to call the shots on how rapidly I’m willing to let go of my youth. But what exactly should I do? And where should I draw the line? Choice, however illusory, has entered the equation – and with choice comes temptation.

I can see, for example, how easy it might be to do just a little something. A tiny nip and tuck here, a harmless injection there; a barely noticeable lift, suction or augmentation. These reveries of self-improvement taunt me periodically, though they are quickly checked whenever I come across monstrous images of, say, Madonna, her face distorted by prosthetics or fillers, and the fine line between surgery and butchery is brought home with the thumping finality of a cleaver hitting the block.

Although I can see through such determined resistance to ageing into the inner weakness it betrays, I don’t believe for a minute that the smugness that comes with self-denial is any better – all those go-grey campaigners getting off on feeling superior to women who faff around with hair dye. It’s such a Pyrrhic victory. Unless they ditch their granny-like pieties for the unruly witchiness championed by the likes of Germaine Greer, then I feel they’ve nothing to teach me.

Besides, when I journey down that path of imaginative projection, promising myself I will stop hurling spokes into the spinning dials of my body clock, I find that I’m still far from happy about ageing. I feel unprepared for it. Caught on the hop. Exposed. Most of the time I pretend it isn’t happening, only to be pulled up short by that terrible sense of dissonance occasioned: a) by a chance encounter with a mirror, and b) by friends I haven’t seen in a while, when the unchanging, inner me (source of identity, stability, comfort) is forced to confront a visible exterior that’s been subjected to a Dorian Gray-style makeover.

“You look exactly the same,” a friend I’d not seen in a decade told me recently. “Only fuller.” What stung most was that he did look exactly the same. He didn’t even have the graying temples that supposedly confer “dignity” on middle-aged men. Of course men, accustomed in their prime to greater social and economic power than women, often fall very hard in midlife, not least because there are fewer routes to self-reinvention open to them as they age than reveal themselves to women by way of grandmothering, voluntary work, or the Women’s Institute and its modern analogues of baking, knitting, music or gossip circles. (My mother has developed a whole new eightysomething network through playing bridge, which is a 90 per cent female pursuit, as far as I can tell.)

Lonesome or not, men still manage to remain visible as they age, while women are quietly removed from view, especially in high-visibility professions such as the stage and media. Last year the actress Kristin Scott Thomas was widely reported complaining that in midlife she is no longer seen. “Somehow, you just vanish,” she said. You talk and people affect not to hear you. Or they bump into you in the street. Her disclosure struck terror into the heart of every middle-aged woman I know: if someone as blindingly gorgeous and talented as Scott Thomas could disappear, what hope was there for the rest of us?

The serious point about being invisible is the poverty of viable alternatives. You might think, on the plus side, that if you are beneath regard there is no pressure to conform, or even behave. You can thumb your nose at convention and no one will chide you for it. Like the mischievous old woman in Jenny Joseph’s poem, who promises to rattle her stick along the railings and blow her pension on brandy and fancy gloves, you can make up in midlife for the sobriety of your youth.

But although this – what to call it . . . freedom by omission? – holds out the promise of gay abandon, I’m not convinced that the solution to the painfulness of moving forward is a simple flip into reverse gear. Jenny Joseph’s idealisations of a second childhood (who else but children can be so irresponsible?) are ultimately infantilising. Yet the Loose Women nudge-and-wink alternative of turbocharging sexuality on the other side of fertility feels too much like parody.

The trouble with such attempts to reset the clock is that they play directly into societal pressures that keep women perpetually on the back foot. In our post-industrial society, which demands that we keep redundancy at bay by working ever longer hours for a greater number of years, it becomes imperative to prove that you’re still in the game. That you can keep up with younger colleagues, work nights and weekends. That you can innovate and adapt – else those new brooms will sweep you aside faster than you can say Rip Van Winkle.

I’m not sure how, in this brave new world, where economic efficiency is the true driver behind age-appropriate expectations of how to behave, middle-aged women are supposed to find their way. But I do know that falling is out of the question.

Marina Benjamin is the author of “Rocket Dreams” and “Last Days in Babylon” and is a senior editor on Aeon Magazine. She tweets as @marinab52

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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