BOOK REVIEW / A siren song for the old: Christina Hardyment on Betty Friedan's affirmation of old age. 'The Fountain of Age' - Betty Friedan: Jonathan Cape, 17.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE finally classified Betty Friedan. She is a ranter, an agnostic female Billy Graham, with all the charisma, seduction and madness of that ilk. Thirty years ago she sang the siren song that persuaded a generation of bored American suburban housewives that they could give up Tupperware parties and fly to a vaguely defined heaven in which neither housework, children or husbands would interrupt their self-fulfilment through higher education (The Feminine Mystique).

Twenty years later, a little alarmed at the tiger she had shaken awake, she suggested it lie right back on the hearth rug and tend hubbie and children while they needed it (The Second Stage). Now, aged 72, she has let rip again with her biggest book yet, an offensive /defensive exploration of the joys of being old.

Do we need this? Despite our growing active 'n' elderly population, The Fountain of Age has not been greeted with rapture by critics, and few people will have the temerity to give it to a senior citizen.

This may well be proof of Friedan's claim that the old are in denial about ageing and the young don't give a toss about wrinklies. But it is also because the book, though readable enough, is far too long (635 pages), and repetitive to boot. If its copy-editor had been equipped with a scythe rather than a red pencil, this review would have been finished weeks ago.

Friedan has not lost her old skill in making us look again at what we take for granted - she debunks assumptions and reframes preconceptions. Her statistics and acquaintances prove that everything you thought you knew about age is wrong. Only 22 per cent of the elderly report themselves as lonely, no more than any other age group, although 90 per cent of us think of them as unwilling solitaries. Only 4 per cent of over-65s are living in institutions, and 60 per cent of those who do are suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

The good news is that retirement is not the death sentence it is made out to be. The crucial factors which govern its happiness are work satisfaction, choice and control. Innumerable zest-filled geriatric marvels testify to success 'second time around' in some sort of creative ambition, unusual career, or new relationship.

A grey-haired army of backpackers is setting off around the world; Elder hostels are opening to welcome them. Women, it seems, are particularly good at flourishing after the initial grief of widowhood - men too often risk heart attacks while engaged in a futile chase after the lost fountain of youth by marrying younger brides. It was Jung who pointed out the problems of those who try to live 'the afternoon of life' by 'the chart of the morning'.

Friedan talks good, if euphemistic, sense about 'living wills' and 'dying with life', and also questions, quite rightly, the extraordinary fashion for hormone replacement therapy, a craze which is lining the pockets of American drug companies very nicely, thank you, and is growing in popularity over here, even though the long term consequences remain extremely doubtful.

But there is at the core of this book a question which needs addressing, and that is the nature of wisdom as a by-product of age, and how we are to retain respect for it in a culture which worships youth. Unfortunately, Friedan is not the person to answer it. In the last resort she doesn't want wisdom to be given its due so much as equal rights for oldies to stay young, a campaign she tub-thumps home in familiar phrases: 'affirming the after years', exposing the 'dread mystique of age', and - wait for it - celebrating 'the strengths that have no name'.

The trouble is that, for all the cheer-leading, both the idea of this book and its contents betray Friedan's own deep ambivalence about growing old. It is she, rather than the reader, who is 'in denial' about age; she insists that physical and mental degeneration need not take place with an intensity that betrays how much she cares that it has. Her symptomless climacteric will surely join Shere Hite's press button orgasm and the dextrous juggling of Shirley Conran's Superwoman in the feminist apocrypha.

This is no calm reflection on the insights of age, but a defiant challenge to youth. Not for Friedan the passive resignation of Ronald Blythe's The View in Winter: 'To be old is to be part of a huge and ordinary multitude.' Her favoured role model is neither Gloria 'This is what 50 looks like' Steinem, nor our own evergreen Germaine, irascibly pontificating from Stump Cross, but Charlotte Buhler - 'in her eighties but with wonderful creamy Viennese skin, red hair and a sporty new American car'.