See It To Be It
I have a recurring fantasy during which I take my long dead grandmother Hilda’s hand and show her round a modern house in order to explain all the wonders that we now take utterly for granted. For a woman born in 1898 who lived her whole life in a small cottage in rural Norfolk with no mains water and no central heating, I suspect that Hilda’s first gasps of delight would be for the indoor bathroom and toilet with both hot and cold running water, warmed by a gas boiler and lit by mains electricity. All she had was a cold water pump in the yard, an outdoor ‘privy’ and an open coal fire to heat her draughty home. The other luxury that she didn’t have was worrying about what might happen to her in old age. Poverty in the form of rheumatic fever had weakened her heart as a child and she died well before her sixtieth birthday.
A female born like Granny Hilda around 1900 could expect to live on average for 48 years. By the time I was born in 1947 life expectancy for women had increased dramatically to 75, whilst my granddaughter Freya, born in 2010 can hope to live well into her 80s and, most likely to 100.
Which begs the question what to do with all of this extra life? Unlike my poor old Granny Hilda I have had both the luxury and privilege of an indoor bathroom for my whole life and now I have the luxury and privilege of a great deal of time that was denied to her. As I head towards my seventy-fifth birthday on Christmas Day, I have been casting around for inspiration by looking at some women who are further down the tracks than me but who seem to be living later life on their own terms in a way that inspires both hope and admiration. I look at them and think “if that’s what 80+ looks like, then bring it on!”
Icon Number One: Dame Judi Dench (87)
Did you catch the recent Louis Theroux interview with (as he put it) the best actor of her generation, the inimitable Dame Judi? This was a delight on so many levels. Neither interviewer or interviewee takes themselves remotely seriously. They both deadpan when Loius says that this is the first time in his career that his father, famed novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, has been impressed by anything he has done. Dame Judi pulls faces as Louis lists all her many acting accolades and calls her “a very beautiful woman”.
Throughout you can feel an undertow of giggling and quiet hilarity which descends into chaos when Louis tries and fails to do a Tik Tok dance with Judi and grandson, Sam (millions and millions of views on Tik Tok during lockdown and counting). There is pathos too when Dame Judi recalls the death of her beloved husband Michael Williams over twenty years ago, and when she mentions her own compromised vision thanks to macular degeneration. The inspiration I take from Dame Judi is that yes, there are inevitable losses in a long life, but fun, enjoyment of family and an appreciation of the ridiculous never leave us if we retain our sense of humour.
Icon Number Two: Dame Prue Leith (82)
Image from BBC. CREDIT - Photo: Mark Bourdillon, Channel 4. See here
Dame Prue inspires me as a successful entrepreneur, but that’s not the main reason that I look to her as an older age icon. According to Dr Julia Twigg’s book ‘Fashion and Age’ later life dressing is associated with a ‘toned down' aesthetic and an embrace of pale and pastel colours especially cream and beige. And we can all remember widows who wore black clothes for the remainder of their lives as a symbol of mourning when they lost their husbands. So I love Dame Prue for her total resistance to bland, beige, boring or black when it comes to how she looks whilst on TV as a judge on The Great British Bake-Off. To say that she embraces colour would be an understatement. From her glasses to her lipstick to her clothes, Dame Prue is a riot of vibrant colour showing that old can also be bold. A couple of years ago, and inspired by her example, I bought a bright red coat which I wear with pride as a symbol of defiant visibility on a grey winter’s day.
Icon Number Three: Dame Mary Berry (87)
The first TV cook may have been Fanny Craddock but the one who has really lasted the course is Dame Mary Berry. Many women of Berry’s generation did not expect to work beyond marriage, especially ones like her who struggled at school after succumbing to polio when she was thirteen. She was fortunate to have been encouraged by her Domestic Science teacher and her father who pronounced her first steamed treacle sponge to be ‘as good as her mother’s’. I don’t share either Dame Mary’s ability to produce delicious food nor her enjoyment in doing so, but I do share her determination to carry on working at something I love for as long as I possibly can. She has just graced our TV screens with a new series called ‘Cook and Share’ in which she travelled to some of her favourite UK destinations to whip up recipes ideal for eating with friends and loved ones. So, will I still be writing this blog in 12 years time? I see no reason why not and Dame Mary gives me great hope that it might be possible!
Icon Number Four: Dame Miriam Margoyles (81)
Dame Miriam is undoubtedly the most hilarious of my later life icons and is also by far the most outspoken. Proudly gay, Jewish and plump, she is a brilliant actress with a beautiful speaking voice. She’s also someone who has had a late flowering as a guide on various travel shows on TV where she engages easily with total strangers by having an open and enquiring mind. The two reasons that she inspires me are her fearlessness and her feistiness. Some of you may find her rather too bluntly and rudely outspoken for your taste, but I love that she’s prepared to speak her mind. To me Dame Miriam typifies someone who is totally true to herself. What you see is what you get, and if you don’t like it then that’s your problem. However all of that candour is leavened by her terrific sense of humour and wonderful storytelling.
Icon Number Five: Dame Joan Bakewell (89)
I have followed Dame Joan’s career from the time she was labelled by Frank Muir as ‘the thinking man’s crumpet’’ whilst being the very beautiful, highly intelligent presenter on the BBC Arts programme ‘Late Night Line-Up’ (1965 to 1972). Since then she’s had a long and illustrious career in broadcasting culminating in her becoming a member of the House of Lords as a Labour peer in 2011.
Over her long life Dame Joan has espoused many liberal causes and in 2008 she spoke out about the absence of older women on British television. At the time she said “There’s a whole segment of the British population that does not see its equivalent in serious broadcasting and that is women over 55. Now that is not healthy for a broadcasting organisation's relationship with its audience. The public should be represented on the screen in various colours, forms, sexualities, whatever.” We all owe a debt of gratitude to Dame Joan for raising the issue of age, race and gender diversity on TV. Maybe the fact that Dames Prue Leith, Mary Berry and Miriam Margoyles are now regularly seen on prime time television is thanks to her passion and advocacy on behalf of older women.
I do hope you approve of my quintet of octogenarians. I am a passionate believer that you have to ‘see it to be it’, which is why these women inspire me so much. The fact that we have so many people living longer should be a celebration of all the ways that our lives have been better than those of our grandparents. My five Dames are testament to the fact that in older age you can become the fullest expression of the person you have always been. Their example helps me to look forward with confidence and hope rather than fear and trepidation as yet another candle is added to my birthday cake.
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Friday 25th November
Friday 25th November
Film Club: Brooklyn
Available on Amazon Prime
Watch the film before the event and then join us for a discussion!
Day: Friday 25th November
Meeting ID (if needed): 861 0928 8705
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB