Thursday 30 June 2016

Beloved Old Age - and what to do about it, by Julia Jones and Margery Allingham (publ. Golden Duck)

This is a really unusual book which defies genre boundaries, usually a recommendation in itself. Julia Jones is the biographer of Golden Age crime queen Margery Allingham and as such, has been lucky enough to be entrusted with access to her documents. Among them was an oddity, Allingham's very last book, unpublished, and a departure from her popular murder mysteries. 'The Relay' is about ageing, the problems of ageing, and how to deal with them within the family. Julia Jones has prepared this book for publication but added an enriching layer to it, in interweaving her own account of living with her mother's dementia and the changes it dictates to their and their family's lives. How to deal with ageing - now a hot topic with greater longevity, though there were plenty of tough old birds male and female who'd survived childhood infections and went on living a long long time. Margery had a very highly developed sense of responsibility and though a highly successful novelist, she ended up supporting a useless git of a neither use nor ornament husband and various other family members and hangers-on, while writing her heart out to outrun tax demands and keep them all in the style to which they felt entitled to become accustomed. Still, she never seems to have considered ditching the old dears but ended up evolving a system to enable 'the relay' to continue. By this she means, allowing the experience, wisdom, stories and any other accumulated life material to be absorbed into the family before the old depart.

Uniquely in my experience, she writes of looking after one's own family oldies as a privilege, and a vital part of the family, not just a duty or a burden, though she acknowledges the enormous stresses involved. Poor Margery seems to have had a nasty mother who enjoyed putting her down, but even she gets taken in. So Margery and her sister set up a home for their mother, and two aunts, in a cottage over the road. Margery calls this system a 'dower house' system which nowadays makes it all sound very posh and upper class, but she was referring to an old tradition whereby the older generation live out their days in a nearby house, with support from family. What we'd now perhaps call a 'granny annex' which is patronising rather than posh, not much of an improvement vocab-wise. With great honesty, she describes how to set up such a system - it's vital to have someone professional looking after them, a housekeeper/home help, to take some of the personal stress from family. I was much struck with the points she made, back then when almost everyone had servants who wasn't one, that this person's salary should be the largest part of the expenditure by far, and they should have adequate time off covered by family members. So many people now who work caring for elderly people are on minimum wage. We have no respect for carers either family struggling alone or paid carers.

This would be interesting in itself as a book, but Julia Jones has added her own experiences and her personal responses to her own 'relay race' with her mother in journal-like entries which comment on Margery's writing too.  Many many of us have had to cope with forms of dementia and other disabilities in our older loved ones. Julia writes with searing honesty of when she struggles to cope, when she loses patience, and also of the joys and humour and special moments of intimacy they share. Julia has been co-running 'John's Campaign' with Nicci Gerrard, to fight for the rights of those with dementia to have family or carers with them in hospital to preserve their identities and care for them properly. We still have a long way to run in this race, and this book is fascinating, moving, beautifully written by both Margery and Julia, and really thought-provoking. Sadly, Margery died aged just over 60, worn out, and so didn't become the dowager herself, but her writing passes on the baton of her creativity and thoughts to us now that Julia Jones has written this book and edited Margery's part of it.

I kept wanting to carry on the 'relay', reply to Julia's meditations on Margery's chapters sparked memories of how I coped with my mother's dementia and the research I did into neuroscience to write poetry about it. Perhaps the book could be blogged one day with the facilities for people to add their own wisdom and experience of being old, and being the next one down waiting for the baton. Claudia Myatt who designed the beautiful cover wrote a very moving song about Julia's mum, and so we share our voices and our experiences and express them in art.

Valerie Laws

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