BOOK REVIEW / Let's hear it for golden oldies: 'The Fountain of Age' - Betty Friedan: Cape, 17.99 pounds and 'Singing in Tune with Time: Stories and Poems about Ageing' - ed Elizabeth Cairns: Virago/Age Concern, 6.99 pounds

IT APPEARS that we are heading for a 12-year discrepancy between the life expectancy of women and that of men. Betty Friedan discovered early on that, at least in America, when a man's wife dies, unless he remarries he is more likely to follow suit within the next two years than other men of his age, whereas the same isn't true of a woman whose husband dies: she goes on living. This might sound like feminist crowing, but in fact Friedan's experience in feminism gives her a lead in her new field: youngish people setting up as experts on the old are no better than men setting up as experts on women.

An indefatigable warrior and energetic collector of grievances and misrepresentations, Friedan cites the Daily Mail's description of Edward Heath as a 'superannuated statesman', and the fact that of 290 identifiable faces in ads in Vogue only one was of a woman of over 60 and only four were of oldish men, Ronald Reagan among them. The old get a bad (that is, skimpy) press, as if, in her words, they need to be quarantined. But, considering what form the attentions of the press often take, this is surely no very painful deprivation. What goes on in nursing homes is a more pressing concern. Friedan is hot on the patronising efforts at 'compassion' observed among gerontologists and in other quarters (hurrah, the old girl has moved her bowels]). As rare exceptions to the horror of age she notes television's Golden Girls. In Britain we could adduce, to more effect, Waiting for God and (if a trifle ambiguous) One Foot in the Grave. But age is too closely associated with death for the screen to blaze with banners or the advertisers to sound their trumpets.

The whole body becomes a penis, one ageing interviewee says, and never mind the loss of vulgar orgasms. That it is easier, so we hear, to talk about sexual activity than to investigate the 'productiveness' of age may be merely a sign that here, as elsewhere, sex remains top of the pops, while being productive, especially at a time of high unemployment, is near the bottom. 'If youth knew; if age could' runs the 16th-century epigram. Friedan insists that age can, as borne out by Beethoven, Michelangelo, Yeats, Picasso, Winston Churchill and Grandma Moses. Alas, many old people cannot. Maybe even talking to Betty Friedan was beyond some of them. In exploring 'late-life art' she finds a growth of profundity in Rembrandt's last self-portraits and T S Eliot's poems. (But Eliot was only 47 when the first of the Four Quartets came out and 54 when the last appeared.) To these euphoric thoughts she appends, in quotes, 'At last, the true distinguished thing?' Yet these were (roughly) the words Henry James heard, seemingly spoken by a voice other than his, when he suffered his first stroke. And, in her account, Edith Wharton commented that signs of deterioration were peculiarly distressing to one so intensely self-conscious: 'His dying was slow and harrowing.' More cheering is Mike, 70-odd, overweight, a smoker and drinker, who came up with the happy phrase which serves as Friedan's title.

There are lots of stories here illustrating the courage, initiative, lively intelligence and humour of old people. Even so, mountain climbing, hot-air ballooning, touring Greece and moving house are not available to all of us, nor are reading poetry and playing bridge within everyone's scope. And although age isn't a disease, it is the breeding ground of sickness. Women claim they enjoy old age, and maybe they do; men say they look forward to retirement, but not all enjoy it when it comes. Not every old fellow can emulate Sam Jaffe, ex-Hollywood agent, and become a consultant 'authority on retirement' at 85. While there is something to be said for the last quarter or so of our lives, let's not be too gung-ho about it. Once you've remarked that some people grow increasingly individual with the years and others lose what individuality they had, there isn't much to add. Whatever the degree of awareness of decline, perhaps there is a measure of mercy for us all.

Though excessively self-regarding for its public theme, The Fountain of Age is packed with good intentions, but at 600 scurrying and tautological pages it can prove tiring for older readers. They may prefer to find their own way, unclouded by so many witnesses.

If you want to know intimately about ageing, all you have to do is live long enough. Short of that reality, and for the sake of a wider perspective, not all old persons being the same old person, you might turn to literature, since (despite some of its practitioners) it is still a repository of reality. In which case Singing in Tune with Time helps to fill the bill, totally female in authorship though it is - a pity, since divisiveness, besides misleading, is a fate as bad as death.

The mood of the collection varies between Penelope Lively's intergenerational party, where the oldest member and the youngest behave the best and enjoy themselves the most, and sad tales about unwanted oldies by Margaret Laurence and Elizabeth Taylor, along with Ismat Chugtai's shocker, Susan Hill's spinster whose life is enhanced by a straying lodger, the unregenerate antics of Muriel Spark's funeral party, and a fearsome granny from that vigorous chronicler, Kathleen Dayus. Colette tells of a youthful husband failing to keep up with his gay old wife, but men do get a look in, sort of, with Stevie Smith's autumnal poem:

He told his life story to Mrs Courtly

Who was a widow. 'Let us get married shortly,'

He said. 'I am no longer passionate,

But we can have some conversation before it's too late.'

(Photograph omitted)