Third Age: A Lot Going On In The Head

We are told by soothsayers and Facebook memes to let the past go and live in the present. Like most do-gooder advice, that is rubbish.

The problem with the past is that it won’t stay where people think it belongs. As we get older, the past becomes more insistent, more present in our lives, whether we wish it or not. It sneaks in to whatever chatter is going on silently in our heads.

I think this is marvellous so long as I don’t trip over the mat, the sort of penalty that comes from not being in the present quite enough. We are told by soothsayers and Facebook memes to let the past go and live in the present. Like most do-gooder advice, that is rubbish.

I am not sure we have a choice about the presence of the past, anyway; we are our past – and it is jolly good, free entertainment. I am glad I have lived to be old so that I can revise some of the views, particularly of people, that I had accepted over the years.

The experience of extra years allows me to place those last pieces in the jigsaw and to see the whole scene afresh. It can be quite shocking in your 70s to see, suddenly, your mother in a different light, almost free of the reverence, residual sadness at her loss and received views of the wider family. I find myself thinking,

“If I hadn’t lived to be old, I would never have worked that out…” I am certainly at odds with a prevailing idea that old age softens the past and its people. I sometimes think I am looking at relationships with people long departed from my life as though they were in high relief. “My god, how gullible was I?” is one reaction. And “So that’s what he/she was really on about…” followed by “the old darling,” or “the BASTARD.”

Knowing how old age affects you personally is a gateway to seeing people in your past differently, and I would claim, more accurately. But it’s for personal satisfaction only.

We oldies are smart, but re-writing formal history and biography may be a task too far. Mention of the past is embarrassing and even upsetting to children. I thought nothing of telling my young granddaughter that I had been caned at her age, in early primary school, until I saw her face. Happily her older brother was there to reassure her: “We are talking last century here,” he told her kindly. That past was not going to catch up with her!

Of course I didn’t tell them about poring over illustrated English history books as a child, seeing the beheadings, but feeling absolutely confident and happy that such hideous practices were in the past and could not happen again. I can’t bring back that confident feeling now, can I? The gardens of our mind are a terrific way of understanding or reviewing the past.

I realise only now that the garden I grew up in was a map of my parents’ deteriorating marriage. The first 15 or so years were full of planting – fruit trees, ornamentals, shrubs, roses… By the time I came along, it had dwindled to a dusty rosemary bush and a poinsettia which neglect could not kill.

I didn’t really see that message until old age. But houses are the great enduring repositories of memories, even when they no longer exist. Houses disappear, flats are built over them, but the houses of the mind do not change. It could surprise some people that I don’t see their enormous house on the street, but the little cottage and its rose garden that were destroyed to make way for it. My own newish place no doubt trespasses on someone’s memories of its predecessor.

The sisters in Tessa Hadley’s new novel The Past (Jonathan Cape) revisit their old house, long after their parents’ death. Along with their brother they need to decide its future. There is a lot going on under the surface at the little, last house party, and not much has to do with whether to sell or not. The presence, the disturbance, of the past and its secrets in the house distort their memories. It is an unsettling, dreamy book.

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Peter Goers, in his Fringe show, spoke about Adelaide’s theatrical past in a loving but clearsighted way. How daring of him to describe his show as “for old people”. Very up-to-date. For I believe that as more old people survive longer in our communities, the mood will change, and making the past come alive, as Peter did in his show, will be even more acceptable.

If I am right about the brutal way of life that seems to threaten us from the future, places of the mind will become necessary retreats for everyone. Jeanette Winterson has another way of dealing with a gloomy future.

The author of wonderful novels and memoirs, including Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), she believes that some malign dictator or regime could destroy all the books (I imagine e-books would be the first to go). As insurance, she buys first editions of her favourite books – and memorises them. @mollyfisher4

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