“A couple of weeks ago I spoke at a seminar on ageing and fiction at Brunel University. My interlocutor was Fay Weldon, who in her 80th year is not only still writing herself, but also holds the chair in creative writing at Brunel. I’m not sure we had anything that insightful to say on the subject, but the audience seemed entertained. I hesitate to ascribe to Weldon the wisdom of the aged – because, inasmuch as she is weightily wise, she always leavens this with a wickedly dry wit; and besides, she seemed exactly the same to me as the first time I met her, which must have been 15 years ago, when she was a mere stripling of 65.
“No, what struck me about the seminar was that when the discussion was thrown open to the audience – the vast majority of whom had either grey or white hair – we were asked whether or not we felt it was the responsibility of contemporary writers to present a positive depiction of old age. I demurred – and so did Weldon: both of us thought the character made their own weather, for good or ill. To purposely concoct older characters of a sunny disposition would be as much of a solecism as deliberately fabricating arrhythmic blacks, spendthrift Jews, slacker Japanese and so on. These replies didn’t satisfy the questioner, who seemed to feel that such was the extent and depth of ageism any means of combating it had to be considered.
“Having now read Lewis Wolpert’s chilling little book on old age You’re Looking Very Well, I’m more inclined to agree with the snowy owls of Brunel. Of course, I knew ageism existed, and Wolpert’s mournful catalogue of the abuses and depredations to which many of the elderly are subjected – neglected in care homes, denied adequate medical treatment, effectively denied benefits by Kafkaesque bureaucracy, lost in the atemporal fugue of Alzheimer’s – wasn’t unfamiliar; but there was something salutary about seeing it put down in cold print – seeing it clearly through the reading glasses I now wear since, a year or two ago, my age-related macular degeneration got under way.”
Read the rest of Will Self’s review of You’re Looking Well from Guardian Review here.