Love songs in age: Fabulous Fashionistas

Old age doesn't have to be a case of moving into a care home and "sitting in a circle with one's mouth open."

I can’t remember the last time I saw a documentary as inspiring as Fabulous Fashionistas (17 September, 10pm). Agreed, it had an awful and misleading title. It was also incredibly uneven and disjointed. Its director, Sue Bourne, seemed not to know exactly what to do with her wonderful interviewees and there were about a thousand questions she should have asked but didn’t. In the end, none of this mattered. Her subjects, whose average age was 80, made the film for her: funny, clever, deliciously stubborn and startling to look at, they have given me a blueprint for the future, of which I intend to make full and proper use when the time comes.

In essence, Fabulous Fashionistas – eew, I can hardly bear to write it! – set out to demonstrate that old age doesn’t have to be, as Bridget Sojourner put it, a case of moving into a care home and “sitting in a circle with one’s mouth open”. Sojourner was one of six women in the film and, at the age of 75, she looked extraordinary: straight-backed and flat of stomach and with a style that seemed to be channelling (as the fashion people have it) Mary Portas and Diana Vreeland. You could no more imagine her in a pair of zip-up sheepskin booties than playing crown green bowls.

However, as Sojourner’s main source of income is her state pension, her magnificent appearance owes nothing to Bond Street and everything to Oxfam. Socking great cocktail rings, crimson turbans, Grecian-style T-shirt dresses: all of these things had come to her courtesy of charity shops.

Sojourner kept company with Daphne Selfe, an 85-year-old model with cheekbones like geometry and eyes like Parma violets whose face I recognised from the fashion pages of the Guardian; Sue Kreitzman, a 73- year-old cookery writer-turned-artist with a passion for colour, kitsch and Crocs; Gillian Lynne, the ballerina and choreographer who, at the age of 87, has a devoted husband more than 25 years her junior and is still working all over the world; Jean Woods, a 75-year-old fashion boutique assistant with a Sylvia Townsend Warner haircut and a fine collection of sequinned high tops; and the 91-yearold Baroness Trumpington, the working peer extraordinaire and mail-order addict. (“Is this minister aware that I not only knew Lloyd George but I was also his land girl?” she once said in the Lords. Cue much rumbling laughter on the cross benches.)

Everything these women said and everything they did moved and cheered me, whether it was Gillian performing her morning stretches, legs akimbo, or Sue informing us, “Beige is the colour of death,” or Jean explaining how, on being widowed, she walked into Gap and asked for a sales job (she was given one).

Oh, the splendid sight of Trumpers excitedly ripping open her latest parcel, inside which was hidden a mustard-coloured handbag. Bourne asked when she might use it. “Every day!” replied Trumpers, her fingers working, not even bothering to look up. Daphne the fashion star was interviewed in a fluffy Afghan waistcoat with diamanté bits on its shoulders. It suited her and she knew it, which made me smile. How brilliant to be listening to someone talking about the prospect of illness and death – it would all be rather a bore, she thought – and at the same time to be envying their innate style. In front of my computer, I began to feel quite dowdy.

As I watched, I made notes, which is what I usually do when I am reviewing a programme. This time, it was with extra purpose. I found myself writing a list of all that these remarkable women had in common, the better to work out how one might – luck allowing – not just endure old age but enjoy it, too.

First of all, they had been loved, and even though some were now widowed their long marriages were still in the background, a kind of larder of happiness, to be visited in lonely moments. Second, they were all slim and fit and put some effort into staying that way. Jean still goes running. Third – and most important – they had a sense of purpose: work or a hobby that got them out of bed however much their bones ached.

“It has filled my life,” said Sue of her art. As she told us this, her face flushed. Enthusiasm can make a woman seem positively girlish, whatever her age.

Old age needn't be miserable. Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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A L Kennedy Q&A: “Of course we’re all doomed"

The novelist talks wise politicians, time travel and Captain Haddock. 

What’s your earliest memory?
I’m not sure my early memories are that real. I recall pulling a doorknob off in the hallway in an attempt to leave home, because I was walking away from salad and was never going back . . . Salad back then was limited and scary.

Who was your childhood hero?
I was fond of Captain Haddock. And impressed by Henry Dunant. My heroes were mainly in books. My adult heroes would be numerous. The Lakota (and other) folks resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline are amazing. Bill Nighy is quietly doing amazingnesses on behalf of others. The whole of Médecins sans Frontières – they’re extraordinary. Lots of people do amazing things but don’t get mentioned. We are constantly given the impression by politicians and the media that everyone else is a bastard. It’s not true.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?
I don’t think that’s ever happened. I’m always happy to read a wonderful book. But I guess I have envied writers who have been to amazing places or lived in amazing times and been useful. Rebecca West, then, Chekhov, Robert Louis Stevenson.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
Nelson Mandela was very wise about a number of things. Václav Havel and Gandhi also. In the present, the mayor of Düsseldorf is pretty impressive. So is Nicola Sturgeon. They’re people you can stand to be in the same room with – which is unusual in politics.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?
Anything I enjoy knowing would get spoiled by having to sit and spit out chips of it. Plus: my memory is on temporary leave of absence while I have the menopause.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
I’d like to have visited Shakespeare’s London – awful to live there. The UK in 1946-50 would fascinate me. And I’d like to have been in the US for the Sixties.

What’s your theme tune?
Depends. Bits of Dylan, lots of Elvis Costello, “Bread and Roses”, some First World War songs.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I was told that if I held on and passed my forties, life would be infinitely more fun. I did and it is.

What’s currently bugging you?
Don’t get me started. Let’s boil it all down to ambient cruelty and stupidity. We seem intent on becoming extinct. And if we go on as we are – we kind of should.

What single thing would make your life better?
I can’t tell you. But it would.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
No idea. I quite liked bits of acting – that’s tough, though. I like painting, in the sense of decorating. I wouldn’t mind being a painter.

When were you happiest?
I would imagine it’s all the times when I’ve forgotten about being me entirely and been completely involved in something other – nature, writing, giving a shit about someone else . . .

Are we all doomed?
Yes, of course. We always are. We all die. That’s why we ought to be kind. 

A L Kennedy’s “Serious Sweet” is newly published in paperback by Vintage. Her children’s book “Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure” is published by Walker Books

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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