Winter Fires: Book now available

Winter Fires: Art and agency in old age is published today.

Old age haunts the human imagination. Nowadays, it also haunts the politics, sociology, medicine and economics of an ageing world. Art has taken age as a subject since ancient times, giving its unique insights into other experiences. And artists have always shown that ageing does not mean stopping or even slowing down.

Winter Fires explores how the practice of art can change not the fact but the experience of old age. Art confers agency on its creator. It offers a capacity to act in the world by making something that did not exist before.The book is based on conversations with artists of all kinds who, whatever else retirement has brought, are as creative as ever. Illustrated with portraits by Mik Godley, Winter Fires offers an unusual, optimistic glimpse of creative ageing.

Winter Fires is published today by the Baring Foundation and is available free of charge from the Foundation.

The Baring Foundation, 
60 London Wall, 
London EC2M 5TQ

Tel: 020 7767 1348 

The book can also be downloaded as a PDF from the links below

Winter Fires (Download high res, 4.5 mb)

Winter Fires (Download low res, 1.7 mb)

Also available – Where We Dream

To download a copy of the first book in this series, Where We Dream: West Bromwich Operatic Society and the Fine Art of Musical Theatre, follow this link

Mik Godley’s portraits of older artists

Here are Mik Godley’s final portraits, which are reproduced in Winter Fires. They start with photographs I made, in discussion with the people they portray. Mik used these as the basis for his portraits, again in discussion with me and, indirectly, with the sitters. The results are as important a reflection on the experiences described as the text itself: different, certainly, and using their own allusive methods to communicate, but absolutely central to Winter Fires.

The images do not illustrate the text, any more than the text describes the images. They stand alone but the interaction between text and image, which one might metaphorically describe as a dialogue, creates a third kind of understanding: a regular marvel. The book would be much poorer without Mik’s contribution and I’m very grateful for the huge commitment he brought to this process.

For more about these drawings, including a discussion of the process between Mik and myself, see this post.

The second book is (nearly) here

Winter Fires is printed, and copies are on their way to London for the launch on 27 November. The work has been beautifully done by the Russell Press, which was established by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in 1968 and specialises in work for the voluntary sector. The book will be available through the Baring Foundation from 28 November, and from this site as a download.

An immodest proposal

In 1729, Jonathan Swift published A Modest Proposal, his brutal satire of English policy in Ireland; in it, he proposed that the ruling classes should solve rural poverty in their nearest colony by eating surplus children. After 300 years, this little pamphlet has lost none of its capacity to shock. Sadly, nor has its attack on the attitudes of governments lost its relevance.

Swift’s satire came to mind when I read of Lord Bichard’s visionary proposal that retired people should ‘earn’ their pensions by providing personal care for those older than themselves. After all, he asked,

‘Are we using all of the incentives at our disposal to encourage older people not just to be a negative burden on the state but be a positive part of society?

One wonders what a retired civil servant with a pension worth over 20 times the maximum state pension means by ‘a burden on the state’. Perhaps a legislator should know that a pension is a fund saved by people throughout their working lives, not a wage, a benefit or a favour. It might be hoped that a member of a committee on ageing would understand that people who have worked for 40 or 50 years, and who have the illnesses and frailties of their age, are not well suited to providing care for those who cannot look after themselves.

What’s most offensive about this idea, though, is the implication that retired people have nothing more to offer than low paid and undervalued labour. Lord Bichard suggests that:

‘Older people who are not very old could be making a very useful contribution to civil society […] if they were given some incentive or some recognition for doing so.’ (Uncorrected evidence 23 October 2012)

Perhaps he might lead by example and recognise not just the value retired people bring in volunteering, childcare and supporting families but also their knowledge, wisdom and skills.

The old may not contribute through employment (although many do). They may not dig roads, drive trains or clean other people’s toilets (although they have). But their contribution to society is no less great than it was. It is just different. Any anyone who cannot see that has not much to contribute to debates about our ageing society.

First words (from ‘Winter Fires’)

A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Aristotle, 335 BCE

When Edward Said died in 2003 he was known and admired, not only as a literary theorist, but as a public intellectual. A gifted musician, he had founded with Daniel Barenboim the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together young musicians from Israel, Palestine and nearby lands. He died young by today’s standards. At 67, he was not far advanced into the third age. Nevertheless he had begun to turn his mind, in a series of essays and lectures, to the experience of art in old age, which he called ‘Late Style’.

His thought on this subject is rich and complex, and will be alluded to again. But one of its roots is the recognition, expressed long ago by Aristotle in his Art of Poetry, that a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. And human lives, whatever else they may be, are stories.

They are stories our parents tell us about our origins and the time before memory. They are stories we tell ourselves as we acquire language and develop self-awareness. They are stories others tell about us, while we are still alive and afterwards. Each one of these complex, overlapping, fluid and unstable stories is an attempt to make sense of our own lives—even when they are about someone else’s.

Edward Said saw human beings as engaged in a ‘self-making process’ that was defined by ‘three great human episodes common to all human cultures and traditions’. The first of these is experienced in childhood and youth. It focuses on origin, the starting point in time and space that defines both the possibilities and the limits that will shape a life. The middle concerns the unfolding of that potential, how adult actions fulfil or fail to fulfil the promise of youth, how a character is shaped by its history. The third, final episode is the story’s end, the descent of the dramatic arc in which resolution is achieved or denied, meaning found, lost or perhaps both. Sense is made, in the end. Sometimes, it is also true.

It is this stage of an artist’s life, shadowed often by illness and always by mortality, that leads to the work Said calls Late Style. But the physical effects of age and nearness to the end are only part of the story, and perhaps not the most important or interesting. What comes last, in the continuing search for sense, is necessarily, inescapably, in dialogue with all that has come before—with origins, hopes and potential, with actions taken and avoided, with people known, loved and lost, with success, triumph, failure, sadness and everything that makes up a life. It is not surprising that memory is so important when it is, in Paul McCartney’s image, ‘almost full’. Where youth’s vacancy was a promise that middle age hoped to fulfil, old age has the challenge of making sense of what has been, in the knowledge of what must come. It is the end of the story and bears the responsibility for bringing the whole, if possible, to a satisfactory conclusion.

Thus can the story of Shakespeare’s serenity or Beethoven’s struggle be told in how their last works are interpreted: Late Style.

Children and young people want to be thought older than they are because with adulthood comes agency—the ability to act autonomously in the world, to make our own decisions, to pursue our desires, to write our own story. And it is the loss of agency, above all through mental incapacity, that is most feared as old age advances.

Art is a remarkable source of agency. Through its practice, human beings bring meanings into the world, impose interpretations on it and find common spirits. Through its practice, they persuade, seduce or frighten others into sharing their imaginations. Through its practice they act and induce others to act.

Shakespeare and Beethoven are rare. But a capacity to create, to acquire and to use artistic skill, is in all human beings, including those who do nothing to develop it after primary school. Art is a capacity for agency that, as the conversations described in the central part of this book show, can continue throughout life, can flourish, indeed, in old age and can help preserve individuality and autonomy to the very end.

Winter Fires is not concerned with whether old people who engage in art practice live longer or healthier lives, whether they make new friends or even whether they are happier. There is evidence to suggest that all of these are true, but my interest here is in a simpler, more basic question: whether having an identity and a practice as an artist helps people retain a sense of agency in old age.

Does the ability to make art, of whatever kind, scale or ambition, change the experience of ageing? Does it help that process of self-making described by Edward Said, through which we become ourselves?

These are the opening pages of ‘Winter Fires: Art and agency in old age’, which will be published by the Baring Foundation on 27 November 2012.
The book will be available free through the Foundation or as a download here.