As OLD AS THE CENTURY:
V. S. PRITCHETT AT EIGHTY
Since my boyhood I have been vain of being born just before the end of 1900 and at every birthday thinking of myself as pretty well as old as the century. I was at ease with its assumptions for fourteen years: after that, two dreadful wars, huge social changes, technological revolution, the disappearance of British power, the rise of the Welfare State, a decade or two of “peace” in the world abroad, dramatic threats once more.
Now I am eighty I see I have been shaken up like a dice in a box, if not as brutally as people born ten years earlier than myself. Many are still alive and in voice. I am abashed by my survival rather than proud of it; there is no merit in it. The credit goes to those secretive gamblers we call the genes.
I come of long-lived forebears among whom there were few defaulters on the Yorkshire side. Also, because of the great advances of medical science and hygiene, the average expectation of life in Great Britain has enormously increased in the past fifty years or more. The old are no longer revered curiosities; on the contrary, often a social problem. We swarm in cities and resorts, ancient mariners who square our shoulders as we pick one another out at a glance in the pubs, the shops, the park seats, the planes and the tourist buses. Our skins do not yet give off the eerie smell of senility. That glance of ours is often frisky, conspiratorial and threatening, warning you that we could a tale unfold if we should happen to get a grip on your wrist.
Not a day’s illness—we boast—except a winter cough or a twinge of arthritis or gout; we speak of these twitches as medals we have won. Smoke like fish (we go on), drink like a chimney, pity people who do not work a twelve-hour day, who have not ducked their heads through two world wars or known the good old hard times. And as for this new thing called sex …!
As our tongues wag and our metaphors mix we turn into actors on our conspicuous stage. We are good at pretending to be modest; we refuse to acknowledge we are ever in the wrong or incompetent. A brisk eighty-year-old electrician came to do a job at my house six years ago and serenely drove his drill clean through a hidden water pipe I had warned him of. He turned accusingly on me as the water spouted over us. Like all us oldies he congratulated himself and boasted he had never done such a thing to a water pipe. He and I still greet each other as we rush by in the street, equals in conceit and folly, and say how young we feel.
Our acting is, of course, a defence against our fear of senility and death. What shall we be like in our nineties? Are we for the old folks’ home? We have seen so many of our friends paralysed, collapsing in mind and physically humiliated. Shall we escape? Yet, behind our acting there is also the knowledge that age does not march mathematically year by year with the calendar. One’s real age stands still for large blocks of time.
My hair is now white and veins stand out on my temples, I have dark brown spots on my hands, my arms shrink, but to my mind I seem to be much what I was at fifty: at fifty-seven I looked despairingly bleak, ill and flaccid, to judge from a photograph, less brisk than I became in my sixties, seventies or today. Middle age was more agonising and trying than the later years have been, but perhaps my age has always gone up and down because I am one of those who “live on their nerves.” I know one thing for certain: I was far, far younger in my thirties than I had been in my twenties, because my heart was fuller at thirty, my energies knew their direction, chiefly due to a happy marriage. It has lasted forty-four years. There is nothing like a coup de foudre and absorption in family responsibility for maturing the male and pulling his scattered wits together. I became physically stronger after years of bad health. Yet I had not lost what I valued in my twenties: living for the liberation of the moment.
Today I still go fast up the four flights of steep stairs to my study in our tall late-Nash house, every day of the week, at nine o’clock in the morning, Saturdays and Sundays included, cursing the Inland Revenue and inflation, groaning at the work I have to do, crying out dishonestly for leisure, thinking of this year’s holiday and the ten-mile walks on the cliffs of North Cornwall, complaining that surely at my age I should be able to get some time off.
Why, even when I travel, do I still have to work? But the moment I’ve cleaned my pipe and put pen to paper the groans stop. I am under the spell of language which has ruled me since I was ten. A few minutes later—four hours’ writing have washed out all sense of time—my wife calls me down to a delicious lunch. She has spent the morning typing what I wrote the day before, laughing at my bad spelling, inserting sportive words when she can’t read my insectile hand—that has got smaller—and knowing she’ll have to do the whole damn thing over again two or three times because I cover each page with an ant’s colony of corrections; she is a perfectionist too. We enjoy working together; she has a better memory than I have and I depend on her criticism. It is she who charms away the swarms of people who telephone, the speculators who think I exist for reading their theses and books, for more and more reviews, for giving interviews or lectures or signing their applications for grants. She has also driven off the droppers-in, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other enemies of a writer’s life. She is much younger and more decisive than I am.
After lunch I have a nap for an hour, do some household shopping in Camden Town where I pass as an old pensioner called Pritchard—very suited to a writer’s double life—and return to take up tea and then back to work about four until seven and then a couple of Martinis, eat, try to catch up with letters and bills or in good weather go out and work in the garden. Unless we are going out we are in bed by ten. I sleep pretty well, dream wildly; the bad nights are those when I go on writing in my sleep, in English mostly but often, out of vanity, in Spanish, French or in dog-German which I stopped learning when I left school at fifteen. For Latin I have to rely on my wife.
I am a very lucky man, of course. If our pleasant house among the old trees of the quiet terrace is too large for us now our family have grown up, after twenty-five years here where else could we go with thousands of books? Would that frozen Buddha—the freezer that has changed our lives—fit in a new kitchen? Moving would betray our furniture and new draughts often kill old men.
I am lucky to be able to work at home, to commute upstairs instead of by train or bus. It is lucky I am still able to earn my living as a writer which I dreamed of when I was a boy. Thomas Hardy, in his old age, told Virginia Woolf that to write poetry was simply a matter of physical strength. So is writing prose. And that energy I was given by my parents: my Kentish Town mother’s energy was nervous, my father’s had the obdurate Yorkshire self-will. I cannot claim credit as an heir to this enlivening mixture of fortune which has generated in me a mixture of fantasy and wry common sense.
I am fortunate in these times which are hard for many workers—especially the pensioned-off or redundant—to be “in work.” Many a pensioner, forced to be idle against his will, has greater reserves of character than I have. I do have my occasional days of leisure, but for the most part I have to carry what Keats called the indispensable sense of “negative capability” about with me and then, as he also said, work makes “the disagreeables evaporate.”
I look back now at my “evaporations” with astonishment. If I spent my boyhood in the low Kippsian regions of Edwardian Britain, the British assurance and locality had given an elegance to British comedy. The “man of letters” I aspired to be was pre-eminent, if poor, in English periodical writing. Also modest families like mine were beneficiaries of the Education Act of the 1870s. Disagreeable to have education cut short at fifteen, but there had been a brief evaporation into foreign languages at a grammar school, language of any kind being my obsession.
It was disagreeable at first to be put into the malodorous leather trade, but the animality of skins fascinated me and so did the Bermondsey leather dressers and fellmongers. The smell of that London of my boyhood and bowler-hatted youth is still with me. I coughed my way through a city stinking, rather excitingly, of coal smoke, gas escapes, tanyards, breweries, horse manure and urine. Flies swarmed, people scratched their fleas. The streets smelled of beer; men and boys reeked of hair oil, vaseline, strong tobacco, powerful boot polish, mackintoshes and things like my father’s voluptuous cachous.
The smell of women was racy and scented. Clothes were heavy; utterances—in all classes—were sententious whether witty or not. Music hall songs were epigrammatic stories. “Lurve” had not yet killed them. Artful euphemism hid a secret archive of bad language. If a “bloody” broke through, people would say “Language, I hear,” disapproving as they admired. Hypocrisy was a native fruit, if then overripe.
Copyright © 2009 by V. S. Pritchett. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.