We don’t live in the world of Logan’s Run – we, generally, don’t know how long we get to live for. We can affect our lifespan in many ways – by trying to live a healthy life, by avoiding life-threatening situations and so on – but in many ways it is out of our hands. It seems that life expectancy is increasing and more and more of us will live for over a hundred years but what will that be like? Will we value those who reach such an advanced age, and how will they be cared for when they can no longer cope on their own? We don’t know but we can read the Six Loves of Billy Binns and find out about the life, and loves, of one man…
Billy Binns is 117. He was, as he reminds us through the book, the same age as the century, born just after midnight on New Year’s Eve just as 1900 began. He is living in a small care facility in West London and is fully aware that he is coming to the end of his, admittedly, long life: so he decides to think back over his life, focussing on the really important parts. He focusses on those he has loved. From the older woman who taught him about sex, to the woman he asks to marry him, and from his son, via a co-worker with her own tragedies to a woman who, in his later life, introduces him to the truly swinging Sixties. Five loves. Not a lot for such a long life but some have endured right through to Billy’s extreme old age although, of course, to have loved and then lived on so long means that Billy has also experienced many losses. His life wasn’t all about love though – like many lads of his time Billy lied about his age to sign up to fight in the Great War and his experiences there are horrific. He experiences great passion but also injustices and terrible sorrow: he has had experiences which seem both unbelievable and quite, quite possible given that he has lived through two world wars and great social change.
Of course, as well as Billy’s memories of his past life and loves we also see his present – his day-to-day life in The Cedars, a small privately run nursing home. Like the past the present isn’t shown idealistically – we see what life is like for the residents in a home run with an absolute minimum of staff. Billy is fond of the two female carers, who are obviously very fond of their charges but overstretched, and has built up some friendships with other residents but the descriptions of the home – to those of us who have only ever known such places as visitors or staff – is slightly grim and depressing: over-heated, slightly shabby, with a hint of a stale smell and the television on far too loud. Although Billy’s early and middle-aged years are obviously a work of fiction his present is very plausibly real. Which proves to me that we need to hear the stories which older people have to tell before the lives which they led become nothing more than fiction to us.
After my previous post’s musing on age it seemed appropriate that my next read was on a similar subject. Older protagonists have become the new ‘thing’ it seems – The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window started it, Harold Fry and then Hendrik Groen took up the baton – but, I’ve noticed that most of them seem to be men. Which is slightly odd given that, on the whole, women outlive men (try buying a 100th Birthday card – lots of florals, very few views of cricket/trains/sailing ships…). Since my older years are rapidly approaching (well, I hope they continue to approach but they can slow down if they like!) I was interested to read Judy Leigh’s book in an effort to even up the gender balance.
Evie Gallagher is 75 and is quietly living out her days in a care home. Until she reminds herself that she is only 75 and, despite being very recently widowed, she isn’t dead yet. She walks out of the home and, helped by a big win on her very first visit to a bookmakers, into a new adventure. First she travels from her native Dublin to Liverpool and then on to France, ending up in a small village near Carcassonne. Along the way she meets a variety of people who help her to realise that she still has plenty of life left to live. By contrast her son Brendan, and his wife Maura, seem to be getting older by the minute: their marriage seems to be a matter of habit rather than love, neither of them is happy and they are, understandably, concerned about Evie herself when she disappears from the care home. They decide to follow her to France, with the intention of rescuing her – bringing her home to her old, safe life – only to find that she has other ideas. For Evie seems to have found the love and happiness that Brendan and Maura have lost. She has also been reminded (despite what some are still trying to tell her) that 75 isn’t old – it certainly isn’t too late to start living.
This is a feel-good book, but not without its moments of sadness. We all hope to live to a healthy and happy old age (although we won’t all manage this) but many will get too caught up in everyday pains and sorrows to achieve this. We can’t all escape to live in the South of France but I hope to keep Evie’s energy and joie de vivre in mind as the years creep up on me. She makes growing old disgracefully look so much fun!
I first made the acquaintance of Hendrik Groen back in August 2016, when he was 83 and I was, well, younger. Hendrik is now, in this second book, a couple of years older (which I guess I am too…) but, I’m happy to say, he hasn’t decided to reform and become a model for demure old age. With his fellow Old-But-Not-Dead club members he is still a thorn in the side of the authorities running the old people’s home.
The group is now short of two of its original members – Eefje, with whom our hero fell in love, has, sadly, died and Gretje is now living on the floor of the home used for those with dementia – but they find some excellent replacements. Geert, who continues to encourage Hendrik to explore on his mobility scooter, and Leonie, a big woman, full of laughter and inappropriate jokes, join the group as they continue their monthly outings and begin a series of culinary adventures as they explore Amsterdam’s restaurants. A reminder, once again, that older people are not fossilised – it’s just easier for us if we assume that they all want to live back in the days of their youth and eat soft food. They also take on the management by reviving the Resident’s Committee and discover that the home itself may be at risk as the government pursues a policy of helping older people to be cared for in their own homes (even if that is not the best for them…). They also have to deal, once again, with loss as a one of their number falls seriously ill.
This is book is about the lives of a group of people in their 70s and 80s so it is a bit light on sexual shenanigans, car chases and explosions. Fair enough – there are enough of those around in other books, films and tv shows. What is does show is realistic people – with all their ordinary faults, idiosyncracies and digestive issues (let’s be honest, when was the last time you read a book not aimed at children that mentioned when people farted?) – living lives which could, one day, be ours. We will, hopefully, become old people ourselves one day – when we do I hope we are like Hendrik: accepting that we may need to give ourselves a bit more time to do things but never closing ourselves off to new experiences. It would be easy to see a book about older people being old, and living in a care home, as depressing. But if you think that you’ve never come across old people as vibrant and, well, full of life as this lot.
Looking back at a fair chunk of my recent reading (Lily and the Octopus, On the Other Side, Language of Dying, The Empathy Problem) and I’m sensing a bit of a theme. To be frank I seem to be getting through a lot of stories about aging and death. Some of this may be because as I, and my family, get older the ideas of being old and dying start to become less a matter of theory and more of an inevitability. Obviously I’d prefer it if I (and all those who mean a lot to me) could avoid death for a good long while but there is no way to stop time flying like an arrow (or, in the end, its effects on the body and mind). I don’t have a problem with getting older – although I do wish my hair would hurry up past the steely grey stage and get to that lovely Judi Dench silvery white – and I’m certainly too lazy/scared to bother with surgical interventions or magic potions. I’d say I want to grow old gracefully but it would be the first graceful thing I’ve done in my life…
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen is a Dutch bestseller, written from the point of view of an elderly man living in an Amsterdam old folks home. Hendrik Groen is a pseudonym and there has been a huge amount of speculation over who he actually is – a famous writer, a comedian or maybe, just maybe, an actual octogenarian. As Hendrik says himself “Nothing is a lie, but not everything is true”. I’m not sure his identity matters because what he has written seems to be so real: in a way that most stories about the older generations usually aren’t. In the world of fiction the elderly always seem to be either having unlikely adventures ( like Allan Karlsson or Harold Fry) or they are passive characters there to act as a foil to younger, more active protagonists. Possibly by imparting wisdom and then dying (like Yoda….) but this book seems to more of a warts and all view of everyday life in a residential home. Or maybe a warts, and incontinence, and nose hair, and Alzheimer’s and all view.
Over the course of a year we meet Hendrik, his friends (the wonderfully named Old-But-Not-Dead club which includes the incorrigible Evert and sensible Eefje) and less pleasant contemporaries in the care home. Bullying, it seems, is ageless. We are also introduced to staff – the sympathetic and the more mercenary – and to the everyday joys, frustrations, challenges and sorrows of an often forgotten group. We see that friendships, respect and love are still important and, of course, this should come as no surprise. The elderly still have the same interests they always did (and just think, our care homes today are now filling up with Mods, Rockers, Punks and Flower Children), there is the same range of interests and beliefs as in the population at large. Of course some older people (and many younger ones too) want to look only to the past – Hendrik and his friends are a group who retain the ability to look around themselves and to look forward. He muses on Dutch politics, world events, pap television and health with wit and without taking any prisoners. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments, quite a few home truths about attitudes to the older generations and, inevitably, sorrow. I’m pleased to hear that a second volume has been published in the Netherlands – I’m thinking of adopting Hendrik Groen as my new Dad and I want to hear as many stories as he wants to tell.