Withered but not aged: two memoirs from women flourishing in old age

Joan Bakewell and Diana Athill have both written books which prove the richness of work produced later in life.

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Four years ago I wrote a book called A History of Fiction in 294 Lives. Finishing it, I realised, aged 74, that I had outlived about 260 of the authors I had written about. What could Dickens (died aged 58) or the three Brontës (who between them didn’t have a team score of a century) have done with my superfluous years? Novelists, if they are moderately lucky, can now fondly expect their fifth act. Le Carré, Roth, Byatt, Drabble, Morrison can complete arcs begun half a century ago. At 70, Julian Barnes is barely (God willing) on his last lap. Literature and art generally (including memoirs such as these two books) will be richer and so shall we, the consumers.

Ripeness is all, says Shakespeare’s Edgar. Nowadays there is the expectation of a full ripeness. With, of course, the horrible Shakespearean forecast of “sans everything” hovering over it. In his pentateuch, Back to Methuselah, Shaw proclaimed stoic indifference to time’s theft of hair, strength, vision, taste, facial beauty, genital vitality (even continence) – baggage not wanted on the voyage. Shavian “long-livers” remained fulfilled in the possession of the one needful thing: brain. The ability to think.

Who thinks most, lives most. It’s nice to record that Shaw died, a ripe 94, after falling from a ladder while trimming an apple tree. But Shaw’s gerontopia overlooked the filthy fly in the ointment. Brains all too often have a shorter life expectancy than biceps. Swift was closer to the mark with his Struldbrugs:

At ninety, they lose their teeth and hair; they have at that age no distinction of taste, but eat and drink whatever they can get, without relish or appetite . . . In talking, they forget the common appellation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations.

It happened to Swift at 71. And got worse. The book by Joan Bakewell (82) opens bleakly: “I am one of the oldest people I know. My generation is dying off . . .” She now sleeps in the centre of the bed (the title of her teasingly tell-not-quite-all autobiography, published in 2003), between town and country houses – largely alone. Time has robbed her of company, in bed and out of it. But in her ninth decade, she is still in the game. She has two high-roller jobs: Dame Joan the lawmaker, in the upper House (she enjoys upness), and president of Birkbeck, University of London. And she writes.

Bakewell has had more than a fair share of luck. In her country garden there is a memorial stone with one word inscribed on it:  “Susan”. Her younger sister was neither an intellectual (no high-flying “scholarship girl from Stockport”, unlike Joan) nor beautiful (as photographs in this volume remind us Joan was and is). Above all, Susan was not lucky. She died, aged 57, from cancer.

The subtitle describes the book’s contents as “thoughts”; Pensées was Pascal’s title. Bakewell is no Pascal, but she is a great hoarder of the kinds of objects that inspire thoughts about time passed. Half the book’s length is a riffle through her “souvenirs” – those Proustian things for which the English have no word.

She writes as sensitively as George Orwell about her vast collection of postcards. Among her stuff she has, apparently, every book she ever owned, from Jemima Puddle-Duck onward, and she is, by any definition, formidably well read. But Bakewell chooses to write most thoughtfully about her collection of Elizabeth Davids: Penguin cookbooks still odoriferous with rich spillage from the dishes they long ago inspired. It’s like reading The History of Joan Bakewell in a Hundred Objects (some stained).

Cross-examining lawyers, it is said, should never ask questions to which they don’t know the answer. In Late Night Line-Up, Heart of the Matter and all the other programmes she hosted, Bakewell asked intelligent questions to which she had no answer. Possibly no one did. There are many such questions left hanging here. Women’s liberation has liberated, but has it made men more abusive? The Sixties, of which Bakewell was a mascot, ruptured the moral strictures on marriage she was raised to respect. Was the human wreckage from her adulterous affair with Harold Pinter worth it? Barred from his funeral, she left the day’s entry in her diary blank. Was that what she amounted to, a bit on the side? Her mother smacked her. Her father bathed her as a prepubescent girl. Those experiences, she says, did her no harm. Right or wrong?

Her indecisiveness could give the impression of moral confusion. It’s not that: it’s constitutional open-mindedness. On her stone there should be a large question mark. It’s not the worst way to face life. Or its end.

There is, however, one big thought pulsing through this book. Bakewell is not, she affirms, a believer in any life to come. After a characteristically uncertain rumination on the break-up of the UK, she looks at her garden. The ripening of the apples soothes her. Autumn is, somehow, the answer she is looking for. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the Earth abideth for ever. Her book is dedicated, tenderly, to the coming generation, her children and grandchildren.

Bakewell is an advertisement for active survival. So, too, is the hyperactively authorial Diana Athill (98), who also offers a short book of memoirs. Alive, Alive Oh! opens with a recollection of the gardens in Ditchingham Hall, where Athill was brought up.
Hers was the last family in the direct ancestral line to live there. But Ditchingham’s cultivated earth – the garden – abides: which, like Bakewell’s apple tree, is a comfort.

The opening chapter, beautifully written, testifies to the extraordinary (and wholly useless) exactitude of old people’s long-term memory. One remembers – can even still taste – grapes stolen eighty years ago from the hothouse, but one can’t remember where one’s specs are. There follows a series of self-revealing reflections. The Athills, she is pleased to inform us, are of strong stock. She recalls her 82-year-old uncle, “who was at a meet of the Norwich Stag Hounds enjoying a drink with friends, when crash”! He fell off his horse, and was dead before he hit the earth – on his way to the happier hunting ground. She, too, wants to go out “enjoying”.

As Bette Davis said, “Old age isn’t for sissies.” The Athill who emerges from these thoughts is no weakling; nor is she a dear old thing. She lost her virginity early and deliberately. She defiantly resolved not to follow the family script. She would vote Labour,
get a job, be her own woman, not marry.

There is a long affair with a married man. When “Barry” divorces, and can make an honest woman of her, she breaks it off. She does not want “attachment”. There is a long, and bloody, description of a miscarriage in her early forties: her last chance of having children. She is not sorry. Motherhood would have brought a loss of the freedom that is more important to her. There is a pen portrait of the author as an old woman. She has installed herself in the Mary Feilding Guild in Highgate, north London – a care home that is as civilised as they all should be and, scandalously, aren’t.

Diana Athill is perfectly happy in her wrinkled skin. Her mind is needle-sharp. Her best friend, Nan, went soft in the head. It was something of a relief when she died. Diana’s affairs are in order. She will not hang around for Struldbruggery.

Long live long life, say I, if it produces books as brave as these. 

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill is published by Granta Books (168pp, £12.99). Stop the Clocks: Thoughts on What I Leave Behind by Joan Bakewell is published by Virago (296pp, £18.99)

John Sutherland’s books include How to be Well Read (Random House)

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming