Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: I will go to my grave with my knickers in a twist

I hoped with age I would become wiser and calmer, but at ninety, I feel no more stable than I did when I was young
April 5, 2023

The start of my 90th year has been eventful. My way of life, far from falling into “the sere, the yellow leaf”, has been frantic. In a few short weeks, I have experienced a deluge of treats, outings and affection from family and friends, spent a few days in intensive care with pneumonia, -staggered onto the stage of the Palladium for a riotous charity show and packed up my beloved home in France in preparation for its new owner. There have been times when I have agreed with Shakespeare that “I have lived long enough”, mainly because people have been so loving and complimentary that they can’t possibly keep it up if I linger for several more years. They will remember what I’m really like.

My 90th birthday has proven to be a massive turning point; overnight, people  started to offer me help to get up a kerb, look worried if I forget a name or struggle for the mot juste, and surreptitiously note down the name of a piece of music that I like because, I suspect, they think it might be nice at my funeral.

Most people dread old age. And to be honest, it’s not much fun. After lying in a hospital bed for a week, I became feeble and doddery. Decay sets in quickly when you are old. With increasingly long daily walks and trips to the gym, recovery is slow but sure. Daily crosswords are a must to keep the old brain turning over. “National Treasure”, “Inspiration”, “Oldie” are categories that must be eschewed. It is a fight to hang on to your real identity. 

During my life, I have had to adapt to radical changes brought about by work, bereavement, illness. One would hope for a bit of stability and quiet contentment in old age. Well, don’t count on it.

Take my last month. For 30 years I have spent half my time in France, in a house in a hamlet that I love. Having accepted that air travel is now environmentally wrong and too stressful, and the house is full of hazards, I decided to sell it. The sale made me face some unexpected truths. The strangers inspecting my home made me realise that the house in which I feel so happy is actually subsiding and full of cracks. Being ancient, it has no foundations and is unstable. Like me, really. Potential buyers sneered at the proximity of my delightful neighbours and did not find the attempts at crowing by the tone-deaf cock as funny and delightful as I did. Showing people round felt like a betrayal. Eventually, a buyer was found, however, and I spent a week packing up my life there.

I wept at the certain knowledge that I will never again see my 89-year-old neighbour Denis, that I won’t sit reading in Saignon at Chez Christine, with the sun on my legs and the scent of lavender making me sleepy. Chiswick High Road is no match.

One of the cafés in the nearby town of Apt is full of hard-drinking men gesticulating and shouting and being very French. No Frenchwoman dares enter their doors, but for some reason they have always welcomed me—a slightly batty old Englishwoman. We embrace, and laugh, and I pretend to understand them as they tell me probably lewd stories. Where do I find that in Barnes?

My heart broke as I left the house for the last time, but I had accepted the necessity for one last big change and to embrace living only in England. Then life took another twist. The same beloved neighbour Denis has gifted his property to a niece who has decided to close the road through their land to my garage. My buyer is not happy, so as I write my sale has collapsed. Another volte-face. Why does life keep doing this? Because that is what life does. It shows no mercy. You have got to be on your toes. But old toes can be painful.

If I had the expected wisdom of old age, I would settle down and accept that I can’t work a 14-hour day, that I may take piano lessons but I will never play like Martha Argerich, that my hair is thinning and make-up no longer helps my wizened face. Above all, that in my 90 years I haven’t changed the world (oh God, all those bloody petitions and marches!) and I’m unlikely to do so in the paucity of time I have left. So why don’t I calm down and become a gentle, wise, benign old lady? Am I really going to go to my grave still confused, unsettled, shaking my fist at the world? As my dad would have said, “Getting my knickers in a twist”?

Probably. Oh, Lord…