The Sunday Times

February 17th, 2013

To go on or to give in? The awkward age has arrived

‘At 63, a time of life when most women would be thinking about taking it easy, Ms Amazingly Enterprising is about to take up the very demanding position of …” I read no more. While scanning the newspapers last week, my eyes had settled on this first line of an article, only to move quickly on in search of something important and memorable.

But actually I have remembered — been unable to forget — what lies beneath that unremarkable story. It is the painful question of when the time has come to start thinking about taking it easy — when it is time to hang up one’s dancing shoes.

When I first saw that article, the figure 63 struck me as perfectly ridiculous. Most people will need to work until they are much older than that, and will consider themselves lucky if they have work. But I have been wondering ever since.

A friend of mine who is prominent in the media, and working hard at sixtysomething, told me rather wistfully last week that she wondered when, if ever, she should or could give up trying to squeeze herself into skimpy designer frocks and spending her evenings relentlessly networking.

And did she really want to? She feels weary at times, and not always amused by the human comedy, but should she resist the dismal temptation of flatter shoes and a quiet existence? Is taking things easy tantamount to giving up on life? Will letting her hair grow grey lead her straight to the retirement party, whether or not she can afford to retire? These are the awkward questions of a new awkward age — the later middle age of the powerful baby-boom generation. Baby-boomers (born 1946-59, in my opinion) grew up thinking nothing mattered as much as youth. To be young was very heaven.

Now the baby-boomers are beginning to get old and they find it rather hellish. (I say they, but I should say we: it is just that, as part of a generation obsessed with the young and the new, I can hardly bring myself to renounce youth altogether.) And they — or we — are having a hard time letting go of youth and power, or even of middle age and power. Baby-boomers are in denial about old age.

We are surrounded on all sides by baby-boomer propaganda. Fifty is the new forty, we were told some time ago. Now sixtysomething is the new fortysomething. There is some truth in this. Better health, better diets and exciting new hormone therapies all make old people who can afford them seem much younger than they are — and feel it too.

Then there is cosmetic enhancement: the number of stories about famous older men and women who are ageing gracefully without “help” makes me laugh; there can hardly be an ageing celebrity praised for avoiding the knife who has not, in fact, had a lot of work done, including surgery. And why not? No elixirs of youth and vigour, however, no hormones or hair replacements, are entirely proof against the awkward age. This is that difficult period between the moment a person senses the fleeting of youthful middle age and the time when he feels acutely the signs of old age and can no longer disguise them from other people: for a woman, as Oscar Wilde almost said, it is the difficult time between being a ruin and becoming a monument.

Thanks to all the developments of modern science — there’s even a new technique of making a person’s voice sound younger — the awkward age has been greatly, perhaps rather painfully, extended. A fit man may look great in a bomber jacket and astonish ticket collectors with his senior railcard, but, unknown to others, his skiers’ knees may be crocked and his memory less sharp.

A busy woman of sixty something might still be as thin and energetic as her daughter, but she could have arthritis in her manicured hands, winter in her heart and trouble hearing other networkers braying at parties. The constant nagging question throughout the awkward age is how long to go on denying the inevitable, before giving in.

One can hardly describe the present Pope as a baby-boomer and I am not for one moment suggesting that he has used cosmetic aids, but he — rather like my generation — is someone who thought he could and should go on for ever, but had to realise in the end that he couldn’t. It was all too horribly stressful and tiring, and he had to accept that he couldn’t hack it any more.

This terrible realisation will come to most of us sooner or later, though there can be few workplaces in the world quite as unpleasant as the Vatican: one day we will (or ought to) realise we no longer have quite the necessary energy or quick wits or hormonal drive for our work.

This knowledge comes to ice skaters and mathematicians sooner than to most of us, but it will come. There will be plenty of people anxious to point it out — or there would be if ageism were not illegal; they are the younger people who understandably see the powerful baby-boomers as job blockers.

There are some stout spirits who gallantly embrace old age. The writer Virginia Ironside, now 68, is one. For some time she’s been writing funny novels and articles about how wonderful it is to leave behind the hurly-burly of youth and middle age and sex, and embrace senescence, ideally spending long hours in a well-chosen dressing gown.

She’s right that there are many, many consolations and pleasures of older age, such as being rude to people, but I simply don’t believe she really means it. After all, she herself at the age of sixtysomething decided to become a stand-up comedian and is now touring the country with a successful one-woman show called Growing Old Disgracefully. I can’t think of any more obvious protest against old age than that; few young or middle-aged women would have the necessary energy and drive.

Actually, I think the baby-boomers will mostly be spared the decision of when to give up gracefully. Most of us belong to the sandwich generation, between struggling, impoverished adult children and extremely frail ancient parents and their constant need of funds. And at the same time, the welfare state is rapidly running out of money. So most of us won’t be able to choose to give up.

The generation that shopped till it dropped will have to work till it drops, to help support the generations on either side. The baby-boom generation will never have a time to think about taking it easy: it isn’t going to be easy.

The Sunday Times

January 20th, 2013

Hands off, lefties: calm, rational Austen was no Guardian gal

Like Shakespeare and Orwell, Jane Austen is a writer whose admirers all claim her for their own point of view. Janeites, as many seem to call themselves, are extremely possessive of her, complaining loudly about films and novels based on her work that are, in their opinion, all wrong. I am devoted to Jane Austen too, and have reread her novels many times to the extent that I almost think of her as a voice in my head, but I had until last week thought that I was tolerant of other readers’ claims and almost prepared to share her with them.

A few days ago I was proved wrong. January 28 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, and some Janeites have declared it Jane Austen month. A particularly good new book, The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne, was read last week on Radio 4. In response, The Guardian published an astonishing article on Wednesday headlined “Meet the real Jane Austen, the prototype Guardian gal”. Austen month, the subhead ran, “is a good time to ditch the wilful misogynist misreadings of the revolutionary novelist’s life and work”.

Austen a Guardian gal? One has to agree, of course, about ditching the wilful misogynist misreadings, but the blessed Jane a revolutionary? Claiming Austen for the Guardianistas and the revolutionary left could hardly be more absurd. How she would have laughed.

It is true that at a stretch one might call her novels rather unconventional, in that she deliberately avoided writing the gothic fiction that was so fashionable at the time. Gothic novels are extreme, exaggerated and full of shocking, improbable drama. Austen satirised them in her novels: she was determined to write, as she did, without exaggeration, wildness or improbability. There was also something unconventional in making one of her heroines, Fanny Price, unappealing. In this she might have been seen at the time as slightly avant-garde, but certainly not as revolutionary.

Austen knew a lot about revolution, perhaps more than most Englishwomen of her day. She lived through the time of French revolution (1789-99) and was closely conscious of its horrors; her much-loved older cousin Eliza Hancock was married to a Frenchman, the Comte de Feuillide, and often stayed with the Austen family, describing the terrors of Paris and her fears for her husband. He remained in France and was guillotined in 1794, when Austen was 19.

Hardly surprisingly, Austen was against revolution, and rather against the French as well. She did not mention revolution in her books at all, apart from a couple of brief references to French émigrés. “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” she wrote in Mansfield Park.

She led a much wider life than the one described in the novels, was well informed and knew a great deal about the slave trade, and about war, poverty, scandal and lust. But she chose not to address such things in her novels, or, rather, to do so only indirectly. Whether that is a strength or not may be debatable, but it certainly makes her far from a revolutionary writer.

It is a quaint idea that Jane Austen is a Guardian gal — but it’s worth considering what might be the characteristics of GG.

Hannah Betts, the author of the Guardian article, considers the “prototype GG” to be “intelligent, assertive, humanitarian, engaged, not beyond an interest in the latest bonnet”. But that could apply to any vicar’s wife of the past 200 years, and to a great many women today who would loathe The Guardian and vote UKIP.

The real GG is surely quite different and quite distinctive. In no particular order, she is highly political, inclined to the new and experimental and usually irreligious. She is preoccupied with guilt and misery (unlike Austen) and an advocate of radical social change. She’s frank, open, outspoken, prepared to be loud and frankly a bit shouty at times. She is an enthusiastic member of the confessional culture, and inclined to celebrate vulgarity as “of the people”.

Custom, convention and ceremony have little appeal, as do the ideas of duty, discretion and self-sacrifice, and she insists on the right to follow her feelings and fight against taboos wherever possible. Nothing could be more unlike the Jane Austen of the novels. I’m not talking about the Jane Austen of real life, insofar as anyone now knows her: fascinating though that is, it’s not essential to an understanding of her novels, with her unmistakeably clear, elegant, disabused and understanding authorial voice. This Jane Austen is certainly critical of her own society, but without a radical social programme: the wretched dependence of women upon men is all too clear, as with poor Miss Bates in Emma, but no alternatives are even hinted at.

It’s true that in Persuasion the heroine comes to understand that she should have followed her own heart, but only — in truth — because the man she longed for was perfectly suitable all along. Austen makes Fanny Price question whether it is right to own slaves, but what remains is only the question. She’s not indifferent to the harshness of her society, or to the heartlessness of the rich, or their decadence at times, but there is no hint of any remedy.

What concern her most are the individual’s feelings and morals within the constraints of society as it actually is. This is partly what makes her work universal. She puts duties before rights; she values reticence, modesty, privacy, discretion and self-control; and she cherishes family values even when extremely burdensome.

Above all she values rationality, the importance of moderating feelings with reason. The best and most anguished embodiment of this conflict comes in Sense and Sensibility, with the heartbroken Marianne’s stifled scream of anguish at its centre: feeling is not always a good guide, and can often lead a person badly astray when not checked by good sense, and also by social convention.

There’s something lonely about several of Austen’s heroines: they have to negotiate their roles in society without much help or guidance, particularly as they are often constrained by discretion and good manners.

The novels are often about not saying things — so very different from our culture of confession and therapy and our indifference to privacy. Far from being revolutionary, this world-view would be considered highly reactionary by Guardianistas.

So let’s reclaim Jane Austen. Whatever she may be, she is not the prototype of Guardian gal.

The Sunday Times

January 6th, 2013

Under the swish of Grey’s cane is comfort reading posing as porn

‘Call yourself a journalist,” said a fellow guest with festive aggression late one night over the new year, “and you haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey?” I certainly had not. I had spent months deliberately ignoring it, as far as possible. Of course that has been difficult. It has become Britain’s bestselling book to date, with 5.3m copies sold here and 65m copies worldwide; the entire Shades trilogy will soon be turned into a film.

The Travelodge hotel chain claims that of the 21,800 books left in its rooms last year, 7,000 were Shades of Grey; that is almost one in three and a striking indication of market penetration. However, mega-success is not necessarily a recommendation — I can’t bear Harry Potter, for instance. And as Fifty Shades has been widely mocked as appallingly written, mass-market mummy porn and sadomasochism lite, it had seemed a book well worth avoiding. Only the angry protests that it was a betrayal of feminism had aroused my interest.

I did ask my most literary (and glamorous) friend whether she had read it; to my astonishment she said she had and thought it rather good because it dealt with what most women really want. That being a highly contentious question, which has baffled countless people including Sigmund Freud, I demanded to know what it was; she replied that it was submission to a dominant man. So one way and another I thought, perhaps I ought to start paying attention to Fifty Shades of Grey. Reader, I read it.

At first it seemed dull as well as badly written and — oddly enough for a book widely hyped as sexually transgressive — nothing even faintly erotic happens until page 51, when the young heroine Anastasia Steele realises she wants to be kissed by the rich, handsome hero Christian Grey. This seems rather slow going for a dirty novel. It isn’t until nearly page 100 that the hero takes the heroine’s virginity in an entirely wholesome, responsible and romantic manner — what he would call vanilla sex. The brimstone and treacle rough stuff is presumably yet to come.

Although the hero does reveal at this time a glimpse of his “red room of pain” and a list of his alarming sexual demands, along with repeated warnings against himself, anodyne vanilla prevails for page after page. Anastasia wonders at great length whether to sign his sado-masochistic sex slave contract and whether pain and submission are what her secret self truly craves; meanwhile, the hero impatiently waits.

During this time the reader, like the heroine, is treated to a mid-market excursion round the alpha-male billionaire life with mentions of sleek cars, first editions, sharp clothes, private planes and an egg-shaped bath. She is impressed: this is an aspirational book. It’s not until the final pages that the suspense is ended: at last, even though Anastasia has not signed the contract, Christian goes much, much too far with a cane and Anastasia rushes out in pain, rage and grief. This assault makes her see finally that Christian is incapable of love. He has always said so. They part. The end.

Why has such stuff sold so astonishingly well? About a third of the way in I began to understand. Either by design or by accident, the author has managed to weave together all kinds of archetypal and/or bestselling strands from all kinds of writing, both good and bad. Simple and unsophisticated though the story seems, it works on many levels and there is something for almost everybody — at least for almost every woman.

Most importantly this is a how-to book for women, of how to enjoy sex from vanilla to a taste of brimstone and treacle: oddly enough, the wilder shores of BDSM (bondage, domination and sado-masochism) get no more than a mention in Fifty Shades but — to judge from my sometime reviewing of how-to books — this one will be for many women a useful sex manual gently presented under the respectable cover of a romantic novel. I suspect this is a large part of its appeal.

At the same time, threads of several fairy stories are interwoven in the stuff of the book, lending it their hidden power with their themes of transformation. (Transformation is the holy grail of the how-to book, so this is where the two genres meet.) Anastasia is Cinderella: she is poor; her father is dead; her mother is far away on husband No 4. She must borrow clothes from her rich friend to go to her first ball with the prince. Christian is King Cophetua, plucking the beggar girl from obscurity and her worn-out VW Beetle to the fantasy life of the alpha male and the executive plane.

Anastasia is also the ugly duckling of fairy tale: she is pale, underconfident, skinny, scruffy and clumsy, falling inelegantly through a door onto the prince’s feet at first meeting and vomiting copiously in front of him soon afterwards. Yet before long she is revealed to be a beautiful swan. Meanwhile, the prince turns into a deviant frog because he doesn’t please the princess.

As well as the frog, Christian is also the little boy lost who has been unspeakably damaged in childhood — the industrious author of Fifty Shades even manages to get child abuse in. This puts him in line with a long bestselling fictional tradition of the abused and damaged male — Heathcliff, Max de Winter — who is always exciting in his mysterious harshness and raises the question of whether he can be saved by the love of a good woman: much of Anastasia’s hesitation about signing the sex contract has to do with her wondering whether she can change her damaged frog.

There’s also a moral or two for most people, even for feminists. Anastasia may fantasise about submission and even experiment with it a little, but she walks out on the man she loves because he is obsessed with dominating her. This is hardly a celebration of violence against women or of female subordination, as some have claimed.

So Fifty Shades could be seen as a feminist text. But equally the book indulges (up to a safe and hygienic point) the feelings of women who don’t accept feminist strictures about female sexuality — who are intrigued by submission or who do not always want to wear the feminist trousers. Finally, the heroine gives up riches and passion in favour of self-respect. The author has skilfully covered almost the entire female book market, apart from the tiny literary sector. If this was by design rather than by accident, she has worked out a winning formula. It’s comfort reading posing as porn.