Crazy Age: Thoughts on being Old, By Jane Miller

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The Independent Culture

Reading Jane Miller's Crazy Age is rather like peering into one of the cluttered-up drawers she talks about being saddled with, now that she's old. It's a shame that those thoughts are presented in such a confused jumble. There's a lot here that should have been put into a bag and taken off to Age Concern. Is this a book about how novelists and writers have viewed youth and age through the centuries? Is it an autobiography? Is it a treatise on old age? And what's all that waffle doing here, linking all these disparate bits together?

Jane Miller is clearly a nice, warm-hearted and gentle 78-year-old blue-stocking with an aptitude for writing. She's a retired English professor. But oh, how it shows! I'm reasonably well-read, but who Robert Storr is and what his views are on Louise Bourgeois do not help me to know anything about old age. And it's hard to feel I have anything in common with someone whose idea of a good time is to read Anna Karenina five times and then plod through it in the original Russian. Miller is cursed with the stamp of the academic. Indeed, she admits that she is "accustomed to using novels and their characters to explain what I mean." Which is a bore when we would much prefer her to explain what she means directly.

I have to show my hand here. I've written a book myself on the pleasures of age completely unlike Miller's – because, despite being only 12 years younger, I feel a completely different generation. Miller is not a baby boomer. She knew nothing about sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. She's an old-style old person, more like my granny, even, than my mother. She never intended to have a career, though she did. She still "hates sitting alone in cafés or restaurants." With young people she is always "uncomfortably aware of being an old person" and says that "I'm not sure that teenagers had been invented when I was of an age to be one."

Her generalisations about old people and how they view death are frankly maddening. "We all sidle up to the fact of death and then retreat, looking at our own shoes perhaps... We, who constantly witness violent death on television, real death as well as counterfeit, also expect to avoid it". Speak for yourself. For me, the prospect of death is one of the most fascinating aspects of being old. Yet here the whole issue of death and euthanasia is seen through a veil of fear.

That's not to say there aren't some excellent bits. Her snippets of autobiography are beautifully written, and there's a rather touching bit of history when she quotes letters from some of her ancestors. There's also a very good account of a homeless person's life and death: he lived by the Fire Station near her home in Fulham. But what it's got to do with old age, I have no idea.

There is, of course, a good book to be written about entering one's eighties. Oh, where is Katharine Whitehorn when we need her?

Virginia Ironside's 'The Virginia Monologues: Why Growing Old Is Great' is published by Fig Tree