‘Winter Fires’ publication date

Winter Fires, Art and Agency in Old Age will be published by Baring Foundation on 27 November 2012 and will be available shortly afterwards.

Winter Fires draws on meetings with about thirty artists who were born between the 1920s and the 1940s to explore how artistic creation can shape the experience of ageing. It argues that art offers those who practise it a distinctive and  empowering form of agency – and one that need not diminish with age. It includes full colour portraits by Mik Godley of some of the contributors.

The final revisions are being made over the next two weeks and then the text will go for design and printing. The book will be available through the Foundation (details will follow) and a PDF version will be on this website.More information will be posted as it becomes available.

Frightening ourselves silly

It is not easy to resist the frightening stories of old age that dominate contemporary culture. Even when programme makers set out with good intentions, the results can be rather different. The BBC series, When I Get Older, illustrates the problem. In it, four media figures, themselves in their late sixties, spent time with old people living independently and in residential care. The documentary was part of a season of programmes designed to encourage debate about old age. At one point, Marsha Tuffin, Manager of the care home where John Simpson spent three days, explained her hopes of the film.

‘I think it’s going to be fantastic having a celebrity stay here so they can understand that life doesn’t end coming into a care home.’ [8:03–8:11]

When I Get Older, Part 2 BBC 2012

The resulting film was brave and moving. It also respected the genre’s conventions, showing the celebrities being challenged in their attitudes and growing into a wiser understanding of old age. John Simpson was clearly affected by the experience:

‘What I’ve learnt probably most of all today, is how valuable, how worthwhile, it is to work with people with dementia. I suppose, before, I thought­—that’s it, they’re finished, really, as human beings. They’re kind of like sucked oranges, and there’s just the sort of outer signs of what they once were, and so actually, frankly, not much point in doing anything with them. I’ve now come to realise how wrong that is. That person is still there, somewhere, if only you can just find a way of just reaching… reaching through.’ [42.03-43.12]

When I Get Older, Part 2 BBC 2012

Even so, he told journalists at the programme launch that he would take his own life rather than face such misery: the headlines were foreseeable. Tony Robinson, another participant in the programme, was reported  on the same occasion as saying:

‘I don’t think it’s too over-dramatic to say that I think care homes, by and large, are prisons that people are sent to as a punishment for being old.’

These narratives sit on discussion of old age like a fat man on a beach towel. They gnaw at the imagination and sap confidence. And yet they are mostly recycled by the young (and middle aged), since it is they who are dominant in the media, politics, academia and the arts—those places where life is measured, analysed and described. Perhaps we should recognise at least that they are shaped more by apprehension than experience.

The experience of old age can be difficult, even terrible. But we do not wait until old age to suffer: war, accident, misfortune and disease can come at any time. What matters is how they are met. Tony Judt, who died of motor neurone disease at the age of 62, wrote two books while paralysed and described himself in The Memory Chalet as lucky.

But the experience of older artists I have met during the past year has little in common with those evoked in the media. They lived very different lives—including some in residential homes— but there was as much creativity, engagement, fulfilment and autonomy as you might find among people in their 40s or their 20s.

The stories we tell articulate our hopes and fears, and without them we would not be human. But they are not neutral. They do not only go one way. They shape our imaginations, consciously and unconsciously. We might be better to open ourselves to the influence of other stories of old age. There is no reason not to believe Cicero. Indeed believing him might help make it so.

So old age, you see, far from being sluggish and feeble, is really very lively, and still busy with the pursuits of earlier years. Some people never stop learning, however old they are.

Cicero, On Old Age, II

Living in language

Mohan Rana is an Indian poet who has lived in Britain for over 20 years, but always writing in Hindi and, until recently, publishing his work only in the land of his youth and education. Our conversations for Bread and Salt are a fascinating exploration of the difficulties and the new perspectives that can be associated from such a relationship with languages.

His poetry is admired in India but is almost invisible in the UK. The Poetry Translation Centre published a chapbook of his poems, translated by Bernard O’Donoghue and Lucy Rosenstein, but this is a tiny sample of his work. The Translation Centre’s website presents some of the poems in three versions: the original Hindi, in a literal translation and in a version by Bernard O’Donoghue. Even without being able to read, still less understand, the Hindi, the pages offer a tantalising glimpse into the instability of meaning.

Yesterday, when we spoke again about the challenges of rendering his poetry into English, he observed:

‘I think any ‘language’ is a translation of an experience. What really is the real language I translate from and how I process the poem as it appears in the dark room of my mind in the language known to me, that is ‘Hindi’, is a mystery.’

He used the image of being on the other side of a window. I imagined him speaking poetry from other side of a river, so that I don’t catch all the words and, even then, they are distorted by being called out.

Mohan’s latest book was published on 29 August. It is called RET (Sand) kaa (of) PUL (bridge) so…’Bridge of Sand’.

A short interview with Mohan appears on this website. The experiences and questions about language we have been exploring will be appear in Bread and Salt, which I hope to be able to complete and publish next spring.

A majority of human beings speak at least two languages, albeit to widely different degrees. Because English (or as it is sometimes called ‘Globish’) is the leading language of international communication, especially among professionals, many native speakers don’t appreciate that their monolingual identity puts them in a world minority. Like Romans encountering Latin speakers in far-flung parts of the Empire, those who rely only on English may have a specially unreliable view of what the natives think.

There is something deeper in this than understanding other people though, essential as that is. Anyone who has grown up in two languages, as I did, has a multiple sense of their experience and of reality itself. The word ‘table’ (English) is not the same as ‘table’ (French), though they seem identical and signify objects of comparable appearance and function. They just don’t mean the same thing because a French table is, in so many ways that articulate a culture, different from an English one.

Developing a consciousness in two languages makes it much harder – for me, impossible – to hold a unitary interpretation of the world or to divide people into Greeks and Barbarians. Far from inspiring any pride in one’s knowledge, the ability to understand more than one language teaches humility in the face of incompatible but equally undeniable realities.