Letter from London: Ages

The artist and I popped into the local area’s Age Exchange for coffee the other day. Apart from a young mother and child communing on the sofa closest to the entrance, we were the youngest there. The artist favours the ‘womenism’ of the place, while I am simply inquisitive. One of three adult females in their 80s wearing modish aprons served us immediately, wisdom etched on her face. There remains a shrine of remembrance in the window for well known Age Exchange patron and local friend Glenda Jackson. This place has provided a wide range of support for locals in the area since 1983. One or two others pottered in while we were there. The atmosphere remained calm and knowing throughout. It has a library, too. There is an inside and out. Flowers are present but not overwhelming. Sunlight streams in almost celestially from above. The pace is slow, like very cool jazz. It was actually founded iwith the idea of investing in people’s reminiscences as both a route towards better physical health and a stimulation of people’s spirits and well-being. Creativity and conversation connects well with people living with dementia, for example. Despite declines in people’s facility with words, key bedfellows, art and creativity, remain strong, even as such conditions progress.

Of course, prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age is as old as the hills. Ancient Greeks were not averse to a bit of age-bashing. Youth for them was something beautiful and sweet and heroic. To be old meant being ugly and tragic and mean. As a boy, I was curious about the difference, and how the old often wanted to be young and the young to be old. I read of writer Somerset Maugham’s use of a lamb-foetus serum at a clinic in Switzerland to make himself younger — well, he did live to almost 92. The Chinese on the other hand always seemed bent on elders only for major state decisions. Again, these were conflicting messages to a youngster. Didn’t Thomas Mann’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ kick old age in the teeth, too, with his re-telling of the Faust legend and character Leverkühn’s last creative years spent with a sick obsession for the Apocalypse and Last Judgment — as if we cannot have great youth as well as wisdom in old age? Another tale doing the rounds at school, apocryphal or otherwise, was that writer William Burroughs at the end of his life believed an ageing body created its own natural morphine. But back to Maugham, a man actually sent alone to Petrograd in 1917 to prevent the Bolshevik revolution and to keep Russia in the war, he had in his novel ‘Cakes and Ale’ his regular semi-autobiographical character Ashenden explaining that if we really wish to secure our reputations, ‘longevity is genius.’ Regardless, our elders today still suffer too much, even if the young could teach some of them a thing or two about tolerance.

Action is character. If someone accuses someone of being too old in Scotland, it could soon land them with a pretty hefty criminal record. This is because of new laws about to be introduced by the SNP (Scottish National Party) to wrestle to the ground once and for all the age-old issue of ageism. From 2024 in Scotland, hate crime definitions will include threats or abusive language directed at someone’s age. This means car drivers for instance mocking someone old slowly crossing the road, as I saw by Green Park last week, could land themselves with a conviction for a hate crime — even a prison sentence or large fine.

On a good day here in London, it is our elders who are best. I had the privilege of meeting my elder, a remarkably youthful woman in her 70s last week. This was in the Piccadilly area as the streets had just finished being cleaned from the night before. This person is considered one of Europe’s finest experts on a certain African country. She is deeply modest and far more concerned with others than herself. Where there is conflict, I was thinking, there are men. Where clarification, there are women. On my way to the meeting, I brushed past a cluster of Diana Athill books on a table, whose memoir writing didn’t really kick in until she was 83, after which she wrote a remarkable six further memoirs, until 2016 by the time she was 99. On another table meanwhile were books written by Graham Greene’s favourite, Norman Lewis, a favourite of mine too, especially his ‘Naples ’44’. Lewis also wrote well into his 90s.

The impact of air pollution exposure in London carries on well into old age. Our comparatively young mayor Sadiq Khan has been desperately pleading for councils to push politics aside and allow signage put up warning London’s drivers of the new Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) boundaries. ‘Many more old people will end up dying from solitude and loneliness than would ever die from pollution,’ wrote Michael Valentine in a letter to London’s Metro newspaper. Surrey, Kent and Hertfordshire County Councils are saying no altogether to Transport for London (TfL) installing any kind of Ulez messaging whatsoever. This is fast turning into a nightmare for the mayor, as well as spreading into future national electioneering. Any appetite for a cleaner environment has been turned on its head. But what would I know? I neither have nor need a car. Anyone with sense however can see where the problem is coming from. It is from the right. Less fractious Londoners want greater exemptions for key workers. I can understand that. They also want improved public transport. But it is one of those issues which attracts a lot of people who simply want to bash the mayor.

One of the saddest things about the ageing population in London is that despite it being the wealthiest city in the UK, the amount of so-called ‘pensioner poverty’ in the capital is much higher than compared to the rest of the country. 20% of Londoners in their fifties for example are in fuel poverty, compared to 15% in the rest of England. 50% of older Londoners are more likely to be experiencing food insecurity than those in the rest of the country. As an aside, one link online says it is presently offering suggestions for things to do if you are elderly in London. I tapped on the link and suddenly had crawling all over me — like an army of ants — offer after offer of professional care homes costing the earth.

I used to like being a Brit living in England with Scottish and Danish blood and membership of the European Community. 73 per cent of people between 18 and 24 voted to Remain in the European Union while just 40 per cent of people voted to Remain aged over 65. I must admit, I saw staying in Europe as less about money and more about stability. I used to see one of our roles for example as a friendly counterweight to Germany, which today is debating whether or not to outlaw the far-Right AfD (Alternative for Germany) on the back of a 21 per cent surge in the polls. Even German intelligence is saying AfD members have become dangerously radical, at a time when their economy is not only in recession but has been declining three quarters in a row now. I suppose Germany is still a young country in the so-called grand scheme of things. Or is that ageist of me? German domestic spy chief Thomas Haldenwang says he sees a considerable number of protagonists in AfD spreading hate ‘against all types of minorities here in Germany’. Some of the very elderly in Germany, alas, will have heard that one before.

Finally, what I think makes our local Age Exchange so unique is the fact that it is the only arts charity — as a subsidiary charity of Community Integrated Care — embedded within a social care provider. There is no such respite of course in Ukraine right now, where people over 60 years old represent almost one-fourth of the population, which is why it is described as one of the ‘oldest’ countries in the world. Also, of the 11 or 12 million ethnic Russians still in Ukraine, at least 3 million of them will be elderly. People advanced in years at the same time are dying at the Sudanese border after long and painful journeys from the fighting. There is no end to the misery. They say wisdom and empathy remains available as people grow older. Not forgetting an apparently greater embrace of self and of others. But there are limits.

Peter Bach lives in London.