‘I like being old at least as much as I liked being middle aged and a good deal more than I liked being young,’ Jane Miller writes on the first page of Crazy Age. It is an encouraging start, promising a thoughtful, individual and particular take on ageing.
A former English teacher and professor at the Institute of Education at London University, Miller has written a wry, graceful book that makes room for both the tribulations of ageing and its less often explored pleasures. Miller’s seventysomething beady eye observes life from the perspective of one who has seen a lot and is occasionally dismayed, but more often charmed and amused.
Her book is subtitled Thoughts on Being Old but might equally have been called The Consolations of Literature, because her thinking has been developed and honed by a lifetime’s reading. The wisdom and emotional acuity she has drawn from novels and poetry is what gives her perceptions such easy authority and humanity.
Poems by Rochester and Robert Burns inspired the ‘crazy’ of her title – which refers, she explains, not so much to madness as to ‘what is outlandish, erratic, unpredictable, unreliable about old age…it means falling to bits, being broken, impaired, mismatched, jagged, out of kilter.’ Old people, in her view, are a bit like crazy paving. Trailing bits of this and that, losing things – even themselves on occasion – they are still ‘impudently here in what is after all our time and space too.’
Miller doesn’t minimise the drawbacks of ageing, noting that the highest number of suicides occur in men over the age of 75, and writing, quite matter-of-factly, about her best friend’s dementia. She reminds us of the more or less constant presence of hospitals in older people’s lives, along with the inevitable forgetting of names. (I was delighted to find that ‘agapanthus’ gives her particular trouble, because it has always given me trouble – along, for some reason, with ‘euphemism’.) She also, though, takes a wicked delight in the ridiculous paraphernalia, what she calls the theatrical props, of old age: ‘the pills and sticks, the shrieking hearing aids and dental weaponry, the tricks for countering the loss of names and threads and glasses and for circumventing insomnia, the visits to The Back Shop.’
Writing about getting rid of a box of family letters, or about reading Anna Karenina in Russian (which she does every morning, a dictionary beside her,) she offers insights that you feel you couldn’t quite have got without her. Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, she notes almost in passing, is that rare thing, a work that deals with the unrequited love of the old for the young, especially of parents for their children. She observes (I had never quite thought this before, although I’d felt it) that accepting that someone really has died can feel like letting them down.
There is a lovely passage in which she returns to the school where she used to teach to find it ‘festooned in captions’ offering moral guidance and lists of contemporary virtues: achievement, effort, excellence, leadership. ‘Not much talk,’ she notes drily, ‘of subtlety, humour, negative capability, sympathy. Nowadays you can just ‘achieve’, you’re expected to, without specifying what exactly you’re achieving.’
The qualities whose absence she notes are some of her own writing’s best characteristics. Jane Miller is sceptical, rational, ironic. But she is also subtle, sympathetic, humorous, open to possibilities beyond the one that most immediately presents itself. Her writing is elegant and nuanced. She never thumps a tub; she’s not interested in prescriptions – knowing, perhaps, that age is too complicated and personal to be solved or remedied. It can, however, be salved, and often positively enjoyed. There are some things, she suggests, that change for the better as you age – readings of novels that never would have occurred to your younger self – and some things you simply need to have lived a bit to understand.
Crazy Age is published by Virago, £14.99