Since 1991, International Day of Older Persons has taken place on the 1st of October (next week). As a person no longer in middle age – my 60th birthday being firmly in the rear view mirror – it seemed a good time to take a moment and consider the depiction of older people in fiction.
My perception is that those currently in their older years are generally relegated to the smaller supporting roles – the doting grandparent for example – and even when an older person is the central character, the focus is often on looking back over the past. While that can be a glorious reading experience, as it was in Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side, it is not the story of an older person’s current experience of living and of life.
Something I found especially refreshing about Joanna Cannon’s Three Things about Elsie, is that it’s unashamedly a tale of old age – about physical frailty, the potential loss of mental sharpness, of confusion, about loss and death. And yet I remember it with a smile, with affection, and with enjoyment.
Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman is Barry Walker – grandfather and closet gay, an Antiguan living in Hackney – a character to both adore and want to smack. Yes, bits of the story are told looking backwards, but the bulk is told in the here and now. Irascible, charming, infuriating and a total dandy – Barry is a main character to treasure.
Pere Goriot, Honore de Balzac’s re-working of the King Lear tale is another unflinching portrait of an older person. It’s a long time since I read it, but while it may have been the sad tale of an old man and his daughters, my standout memory of the experience is being absolutely blown away by the beauty of the writing.
Another delightful depiction of an older person is Daniel from Ali Smith’s Autumn. When the book opens, Elizabeth is an adult and Daniel is assumed to be dying. Elizabeth has known Daniel since she was a child and, even then, he was an elderly man. In an amusing twist of thinking, while Daniel is undeniably old, Elizabeth’s mother assumes he is also gay and therefore safe for Elizabeth to spend so much time with as a child. What she doesn’t expect is that he’ll encourage Elizabeth to think, to examine and to question, for Daniel is a mentally vibrant man, even when his body is letting the side down.
I read at least 50 books every year, and despite these examples, there are strikingly few examples of older people in a central role. Yet I cannot recall any single depiction of an older person in a central role which left me feeling meh – so why don’t we see this happening more? As writers, do we shy away from old age with its potential for death? Do younger authors not feel able to accurately capture the experience of old age? Do older authors only want to re-visit their youth? Or is it that readers genuinely do not want to read older characters – unless they’re of the implausibly fit variety? Has there been some form of reaction against the proliferation of Miss Marple tales from the pen of Agatha Christie, and multiple episodes of Angela Lansbury playing Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote?
One reason I love the tales I’ve mentioned is there’s none of that nonsense you find when old film or TV stars play the action hero, despite being past (long past) their ability to physically do so. Yet the latter type of tale abounds, whereas beautifully observed tales of older people depicting a genuine experience of old age are rare things – and dare I say it, all the more beautiful for it.
Censorship is a touchy subject, and rightly so. No one wants to wake up and discover that they are living in 1984, and that they’ve committed seventeen thought crimes before breakfast. No one wants to wake up and find that the firemen have come to burn your books. No one – well, maybe recent events suggest that there are those who would like to move in one totalitarian direction or another, that they would quite like to give up free thought and just do what they are told.
I don’t know about you, but for me a mix of books is essential in order for different ideas to collide, for inspiration to spark when two concepts get short circuited by adjacent neurons in my brain. The best ideas come from the bringing together of widely different precursors, like the BFG mixing dreams. On that basis, reading different kinds of books is crucial.
But is there ever a case for banning a book? Anne Fadiman mentions in one of her essays that her father turned a book around on the shelf because he didn’t want her reading it – which of course gave the book added glamour and allure. Parental censorship has a time-bound quality to it: once you are of age, if you still have the will you can look up anything that your parents stopped you from reading when you were younger. And of course, teenage rebellion will see to it that a ban is defied. This is writ large when the State assumes that parental authority and decides that it is in the public interest for a book to be banned.
Some people have played the system: James Branch Cabell’s sales went up dramatically when he was taken to court on obscenity charges by the League for the Suppression of Vice. On the other hand, Banned Books Week is an international effort to raise attention to the practice of censorship that is going on around the world at this time.
But I return to the question, is it ever justifiable to ban a book? Last year I read the amazing ‘Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire’ trilogy, by Rod Duncan (which, incidentally, I cannot recommend highly enough). At the heart of the story is the International Patent Office, which is suppressing knowledge and stifling invention, for reasons that only really become clear towards the end of the trilogy. One of the things that can be said as a criticism of this suppression is that it leaves social change almost completely stagnant. Imagine if, living today, women didn’t have the vote, indentured service was still a very real possibility for those not paying their debts, and anyone who doesn’t conform with the societal norms of two to three hundred years ago is a pariah at best. But a justification can be made.
As a younger man, I would have said that there was never a reason to ban a book, but now older, and more appreciative of nuance, I begin to wonder if there can be a case for banning a book. This new view is perhaps informed by the changes that we have seen in how experts are viewed. Back in 2016, Michael Gove declared that the public had had enough of experts, in part because no economist would back his view of Brexit. It’s the kind of meme-worthy idea that has taken root, but it is not always clear when it is being used ironically.
I’ve seen a couple of books recently that have the potential to be quite harmful. The worst part is that they come from people who are positioning themselves as experts, but have no authority for these expertise (except the ‘University of Life’) and provide no literature for the support of their views. I feel that there is a case to be made for banning them – but perhaps the better stance is to ignore them, to promote the good books.
What’s your view? Is censorship ever justifiable? Who gets to decide? Are there any books you would ban?
It was somewhere we went from time-to-time. Nowhere exciting, just a place to stretch the legs, to take a snapshot or two, and to get a breath of fresh air – a breath of sea as it came up the mouth of the river, but without having to endure the crowds at the beach. We visited in all seasons, in all weathers except pouring rain, and nothing exceptional ever happened – until our trip to catch sunset.
We’d gone with the intention of capturing the sun setting over the airport, for it’s a gorgeous Art Deco building, and the fading light meant the outlines of the modern aircraft wouldn’t spoil those gorgeous strong curved outlines. We got there early – it wouldn’t do to be ill-prepared, and scouted the area, crossing back and forth over the bridge to check out the best vantage point. Eventually, we left the bridge and walked along the riverbank closest to the airport, taking our shots as the sun made it’s magnificent progress across the airfield. The setting sun blazed against the turquoises and pinks of the sky, and as the windsock gently fluttered in the breeze and as the light faded, it was all too easy to picture the black and white hues of an old film – men and women walking across the tarmac having dressed formally for travel, their outlines showing off the hats which were de rigueur at the time, and although It wasn’t possible to see, you just knew the women were wearing gloves and carried those big structured handbags over their arms.
As the photographic possibilities of the airport were exhausted, we started to walk back. As we strolled, light escaped via those windows with undrawn curtains in the houses on the opposite bank, the striking reflections they created in the water catching my eye. Giving the appearance of hundreds of fairy lanterns, as the movement of the water in the gentle evening breeze caused the reflections to flicker. Snapping off a few more quick shots, I took a moment to stop, to just look around and to listen.
The bridge itself formed a stark outline against the darkening sky for there were no houses to backlight it. The old timbers taking on a somewhat sinister appearance in the darkness. Worrying about the uneven path back to the car, I called out that I was starting to walk back. A wave acknowledged I’d been heard, but seeing the tripod being set up, I realised he’d be awhile yet. Deciding it would be wise to retrieve the big torch from the car and return, I drudged off, lighting up the path ahead using my phone.
Approaching the car, I could just make out the outline of the cable telegraph signpost it was parked beneath – although I could barely see it, it was so familiar to me, I could all but see the strands of ivy curling around its once bright paint, now faded and rusting. Packing away my camera, I collected the torch, switching it on to ensure it worked. No trouble there – it threw great pools of light ahead of me, picking out details in the darkness. The skeleton of that wrecked old wooden boat alongside the bridge gave a ghostly feel in the torchlight, the seed heads lining the bridge doing likewise as they swayed gently in the breeze.
Without cyclists, dogs and walkers there to distract me, my thoughts drifted to the memorial on the bridge, placed there for those who’d lost their lives in the plane crash a few years before. Earlier that afternoon, we’d visited the new memorial on the other side of the bridge – a reflection of the many wooden boat skeletons, it had been fashioned in highly polished steel, engraved along the ribs with messages from the loved ones of those who’d died that day.
For the first time, it became clear why the bridge had been selected as the location for the memorial. Not only was it where people regularly walked, but in the quiet and dark, I could easily imagine hearing the voices of the recently lost, as they joined in with the voices of those lost over time – perhaps from those old wrecked boats. Although the rapidly fading light and stark outlines would normally cause me a sense of unease, I was surprised to feel in good company, as I picked my way back along the riverbank to where the darkness was about to totally engulf him and his tripod.
The Detective Inspector shifted in her seat slightly but overruled the temptation to look at the DC r s sense the waves of confusion directed at her, and made a note to do a proper debrief afterwards. Normally she would have let the constable ask some questions, but the interview had gone in an unexpected direction and so she kept the reins to herself.
“Right. I think I’ve got this straight, but I’d like to check a couple of details.” Opposite her, the young lady who’d been in party clothes a matter of hours before, sat dejectedly in paper coveralls. She gulped, nodded, and went back to staring at the dried blood that crusted her nails.
Alexa hated her name. The teasing at school had been mercilessly, with a grinding barrage of requests from the banal to the kind of lewdness that is peculiar to 16-year olds. She’d had the opportunity to reinvent herself, and had tried the casual ‘Lexi’ and a couple of other variants before settling on the uncompromising ‘Alexandra’. As she had chosen the name, so the name had shaped her; her mannerisms and mode of speech became more appropriate to an Alexandra, and her circle of friends changed too.
She’d been coming home from a night out clubbing, walking familiar, well-lit streets, although with less directionality than if she’d been entirely sober. She’d meandered towards her shared digs having got separated from her housemates at some point in the evening. If she’d had a few more drinks then what happened might not have happened at all.
The fresh air was, well, refreshing, but only the liver and kidneys can make you sober again. Thinks started to go wrong for Alexandra when she entered the Market Square. This was definitely not on the direct route home. She’d started to feel uneasy, but for no particular reason. It was a full moon, and very bright, causing all sorts of shadows that you wouldn’t get at any other time. The exit she should have taken made her more uneasy, the one that would lead her further off course somehow seemed to be the right one.
On and on, into the night. Error compounded error, as unease blocked her from going home. Buildings seemed to loom over her like a headmaster towering over a child sent for correction. Deep shadows held nightmare creatures. And so she’d reached the courtyard. She’d never been there before, and the alleyway she’d taken to get there was one she would never normally have taken drunk or sober, especially at that time of night. But her she was, and as she emerged, something came at her and instinctively she pushed it away. Anxiety had given way to fear, fear to terror: the selection of ‘the right path’ had done nothing to assuage this. Somewhere, unarticulated, buried beneath the haze of alcohol, obscured by the staccato drumbeat of her pulse, was the feeling that she was being herded. Terror lent her a strength she didn’t know she had and the lurching figure went stumbling backwards, tripped over a doorstep, and hit the cobbles far too hard. Alexandra screamed at that point and timidly went to check on the prone figure. The hand that she put down to support herself as she kneeled found a sticky pool, and she realised it was blood seeping from the figure’s head. She screamed again. Lights came on in the windows overlooking the courtyard.
In daylight, the detectives tried to follow the route that Alexandra must have taken from the nightclub to the scene of the…incident. Some of the choices she’d made, turning off one street and onto another, taking this exit from a square or small park rather than that one, seemed completely bizarre. The Detective inspector tried to block out all the noise and hubbub of normal life, all the thoughts trampling around in her head, and just take in the surroundings.
But the effects felt by Alexandra were not to be found by daylight, nor even simply by moonlight. The streets themselves awoke only rarely, begetting fear and terror on those few capable of feeling the consequences of the way the architecture of this part of town had been moulded. And with the blood sacrifice, the shaper was propitiated. For a time.
No, that tree isn’t a whomping willow come to life to try and kill you, and no, the street isn’t turning into some sort of cthonic entity!
Psychogeography is the interaction between psychology and geography. I’m not going to put it any more strongly than that, but if you want more detail, then you should check out this explanation by fabulous folklorist @icysedgwick.
So for this month – our fourth anniversary – the prompt is to imagine yourself taking a walk – it could be somewhere you are very familiar with, it could be a place you want to go, it could be somewhere you found on Google Maps. Bonus points though if it is the first place that sprang into your mind when you started reading this post. The story can be any genre you like, but usual caveat of not NSFW.
500-1000 words please by 8am GMT – Sunday 13th September.
A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below. If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line.
Two caveats if you want to go down this route: if you want to retain the copyright, then you will need to state this, and this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.