Ronald Blythe: The View in Winter

November 18, 2016

51idp2y8lzl-_ac_us160_I’ve learnt a few things as I’ve grown older. One was that nobody prepares you for how long the middle part of your life lasts, when you have the career and the family and the home… work goes on for years and years. At least I was lucky in enjoying my job immensely. And nobody prepares you for growing gradually and inexorably older, and what this does to both body and mind. So I approached this book with both interest and trepidation, and it was a real eye-opener – frank and open interviews with elderly people from all walks of life in which they speak of their experiences of becoming older and what this has done to them…

Blythe’s lengthy and reflective introduction considers the change in age, ageing and attitudes to ageing that have taken place over the past century or so: pretty nearly everyone now grows old, whereas in past centuries, old age was an extraordinary thing. Although I came across an interesting reflection on Russia the other day, where women reach pension age at 55, men at 60 – and average male life expectancy there is 59…

The interviews are collated thematically in chapters, interspersed with Blythe’s commentary and sharply perceptive analysis – or so it seemed to this ageing reader. There’s a wide range of views and comments, which are sometimes quite shocking, even more so when you remember that the book is nearly forty years old, and always enlightening. I found the thoughts of the matron of an old people’s home quite frightening and scary because she revealed angles on ageing and older people which I had never imagined. And some sixth-formers’ perceptions of the elderly were a bit of a shock, too.

A chapter which interviewed veterans of the Great War was revealing, giving quite a different picture from more recent interviews with the very last survivors; far less about the horrors of the front. The dullest – and most surprisingly dull – chapter was the retired and elderly religious (priests and monks) recollections: dry as dust and empty of any real spiritual depth, I felt.

For me, the most interesting chapter was the one where ageing teachers spoke of their lives, with an astonishing account from a teacher in his eighties – so born at the end of the nineteenth century – in which he describes his own schooling, which might have taken place in Shakespearean times, so primitive did everything sound. And then off he went to university to get a second class joint honours degree in English and French, which was a bit near the knuckle for yours truly.

There are times when I can’t believe I’m past sixty: where did all that time go, can I have some more please, there’s so much more I want to do? And then I start to think about all the places I’ve been, all that I’ve done and the people I’ve met and I’m astonished by it all. At the moment I’m enjoying relatively carefree time and trying to live adventurously (after a fashion), but I do think I could quite easily put together e programmer for my next existence…

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