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?

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder