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September 12, 2006

Harry Phibbs nominates Virginia Ironside for "Oldie of the Year": No! I don't want to join a bookclub - Virginia Ironside

Posted by Harry Phibbs

No! I don't want to join a bookclub
by Virginia Ironside
London: Penguin Fig Tree, 2006
Hardback, 12.99

This fictionalised diary of a 60-year-old single woman makes for absorbing reading. At last we have an antidote to the obsession with the anxieties of the young, the thirtysomethings and the elderly. At 60 one is typically too able-bodied to just stay at home all day - But too sensible to traipse around randomly in the manner of the spontaneous young. Some 60-year-olds have families under the same roof for companionship but some do not. As an agony aunt Virginia Ironside has amassed ample material on people's anxieties.

Here is the character, Marie Sharp reflecting on dinner parties. They are:

like the lottery. You rarely win.

The first problem is that:

the men who do attend are spare for a very good reason: they are either completely hopeless or completely mad.
The second is that:
as you get older you don't - well, I don't - actually want to meet anyone new. There are quite enough people I know whose friendship I would like to consolidate - and other people's favourite people are very rarely my favourite people, and vice versa.
The novel is set in Kentish Town, although some may well suspect it has more in common with that other London district Shepherd's Bush where Ironside happens to live. She writes:
Kentish Town may be an "eccentric and delightful mix of ethnic diversity" (I'm quoting from one of my many letters to the Kentish Town Gazette), but the drawback is that the pavements (just tarmac we haven't yet risen to paving stones round here) are thick with chewing gums and the streets swarm with hoodies.

Kentish Town is one of those places that have always been "up and coming" but has never actually up and come. Like those promising writers. True, it is not exactly down and going, but it has never arrived.
Part of the aspect of oldie pride in this volume is the self confidence to avoid euphemisms. References to "University of the Third Age" are made with well deserved contempt.

Other aspects of modern life that attract scorn are the self check in mechanisms at airports. She manages to resist doing so by claiming to be unable to. She says:

I paid for all this, of course, by appearing to be a fool, buit it was a payment I was delighted to make. Because one of the great pleasures of age is helplessness. If my tyre blew open the motorway, I wouldn't, now, lose any pride in flagging down a bloke to help me. The days of struggling with a jack and a handbook, with ones hands covered in oil, just to prove something, are completely over.
There is just as much romantic angst as there is with teenagers. There is a brilliant parody and dissection of a entry by an older man on a dating agency website:
"Hello," they say, reading off a script which they have, it's clear, been practising at home. "I'm 65 years young and have a good sense of humour and still, I hope, a sense of adventure." This is usually said with an artificial chuckle.

"I hope I'm presentable - my female friends say that for a bloke with a bald head and a bit of a paunch, I'm very attractive! But that'll be for you to decide!"

Invariably "wining and dining" is included on such entries. The question is posed:
And what exactly, might I ask, does the verb "to wine" mean?

Does it mean to get pissed? Or does it mean ordering a glass of warm Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio at the Goat and Duck from a bottle that was opened last July?

But the character Marie combines forthright contempt for all this with sneaking romantic feelings for her friend Archie. She curses herself for being overly self deprecatory when he rang to flatter her, telling him:
"Kind? Me? I'm horrible!"

"I'm deceitful, manipulative, the niceness is just a pretence...."

Later she reflects in her diary:
Why couldn't I just sit back with a serene smile on my face and say, whenever anyone paid me a compliment: "Thank you so much," like the Queen.
It's not all laughs. The expressions of joy at the discovery that she is going to have a grand-child or then of her encounters with him, are touching.

Other thoughts are shocking. There is the welcome given to the death of her parents, for instance:

Both my parents are dead, luckily missing the "live for ever" generation from which I also hope to escape with a mixture of bravery and cunning. And sad that it is that they've gone, it's good too. After all, I don't think you ever really become yourself while your parents are alive. Until they go, you're still, at some level, someone's child.
Even more shocking are the 60 somethings clambering up for sex after a gap of a few years:
Penny rang saying she had made an odd discovery in the bath. Her clitoris seems to have disappeared. No sign at all. She wondered where it had got to. Did I think it might come back?
Marie's attitude about the prospect of sex in later years also is unenthusiastic:
Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!
There is a magazine called The Oldie, which makes a series of annual awards the most sought after being for Oldie of the Year. Virginia Ironside is my candidate for the next one.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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Does Harry Phibbs (let alone Virginia Ironside) actually know what the University of the Third Age is like? Ours has grown from nothing to 880 members in under seven years. It provides a wonderful opportunity to socialise, exercise and take up all kinds of interests which we didn't have time for when we were working, all for 15 per annum. It attracts men and women from around 55 upwards, from a variety of backgrounds. Maybe Virginia Ironsides' (fictional) characterwasn't interested, but thousands are and many widowers and widows regard it as a life saver: there's no call to be rude about it.

Posted by: Janice Foster at September 22, 2006 08:35 PM
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