As a writer who’s just turned 70, I have to admit that Martin Amis has riled me with his remarks about euthanasia and what he sees as the worthlessness of old people.
As a writer who’s just turned 70, I have to admit that Martin Amis has riled me with his remarks about euthanasia and what he sees as the worthlessness of old people. It’s not just that he is suggesting that at my age I can or should no longer carry out my profession. He also seems to be casting doubt on my right to be alive at all.
Ageism seems to me almost indistinguishable from racism, a point that couldn’t be made clearer than he makes himself: old people are “like an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops”. That’s what racists say about anybody with a different skin colour or an alien headdress: “They stink.” True, there is such a thing as a smell of death. I know it all too well — I nursed my husband through a long and terrible illness — and very ill people of any age tend to stink of it, young ones as well as old ones.
Ageists tend to say the old are stupid. Here’s Amis again: “Talent dies before the body.” But what about the poet John Keats or the cellist Jacqueline du Pré? Their bodies gave out way before their talents. In my own field there are and have been many prose writers writing well past their 70s and into their 80s, some of whom have had a falling away of their talent, but many of whom, like one of Amis’s heroes, Philip Roth, now 76, come roaring back. Lots of people go through bad periods at all kinds of ages. Lots of elderly writers are very productive and at the peak of form: P.D. James (89) and Ruth Rendell (79) come to mind at once.
Which brings me to the question: Should people be allowed to work when they’re older? Of course they should. It’s idiotic to pension off people just because of age. True, some people do need pensioning off. Some of them need it at 40, some at 50. Some should never have been employed at all. And some should definitely be kept on at 70 or 80, especially now with the old skills in decline: writing readable sentences, manipulating basic mathematics, everyday diplomacy in interpersonal relationships.
It’s health that matters, not age. What people are capable of at any age depends partly on that and partly on luck. Some aren’t ever good at anything. Some lose their capacity early. Some don’t. But everybody who lives gets old.
I remember Shirley MacLaine talking to an interviewer about it. “You think it’s not going to happen to you,” she said, shaking her finger at the grinning younger man in the chair opposite her. “You just wait. It is going to happen.” He didn't believe her. But by now, he’s probably as old as Amis. I’m not saying it’s pleasant to get old, to sense the edge coming closer, to know the body is weaker, the energy levels lower. But that’s true of many athletes who have to retire at 30. And many of the very old remain fit and well.
One of God’s nastiest tricks is that often people don’t realise they’re getting old. And here’s Amis, talking like a callow teenager, blissfully unaware that he’s already one of them.
Joan Brady is the author of the Whitbread Award-winning Theory of War