Out of the West: Age cannot wither the angst-ridden

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WASHINGTON - The US capital is suffering from some kind of virus that might be called chronic generational introspection. That is to say everyone is even more conscious of age than usual. The fault lies with that super-energised baby-boomer who recently took residence on Pennsylvania Avenue.

At 46, it is not as if he is that young. But everything about Bill Clinton yells young and modern man. He wears shades, plays the sax, eats at McDonald's and has a daughter who made it into her teens only last week. It makes people older than Mr Clinton feel time has passed them by.

This sudden age-angst is fuelled by press articles anointing Washington as the new, unlikely, junction of fashion and funk. They list hot, previously unheard of, night-spots allegedly adopted by the young of the new Clinton White House. Reporting a mini-migration southwards from Manhattan, the Washington Post noted recently: 'New Yorkers have come down with a slight case of Washington envy. These arbiters of hip have read the tea leaves, sniffed the swirling Zeitgeist and concluded that Washington is . . . in.'

Perhaps it was in rebellion against this youth fixation that over dinner on Sunday we and our friends talked almost exclusively about things - and notably, people - old. About Lillian Gish, the actress who died on Sunday at the age of 99. About Russia. About a new film on geriatric romance, called the Cemetery Club. And about parents and grandparents.

The old - those over 46 is the new definition - do, after all, still exist and matter in spite of Mr Clinton; a fact he and especially his wife Hillary will be reminded of a thousand times as they struggle over health care reform. Consider the findings of the last report of the federal Census Bureau on the US population.

A veritable population explosion is predicted for the very old. By the year 2050, the number of Americans over 85 will have risen from 3.3 million today to 17.7 million. And those who achieve the 100-year mark will swell from just 45,000 today to over 1 million by the middle of the next century.

One of our dinner group had returned only hours before from Oklahoma City, where a very old granny had broken her hip in a fall but seemed, against the odds, to be bound for recovery. It would no longer be possible to leave her in her nursing home and a full-time nurse would have to be found. On a previous visit, the granny had been found pottering about her room in the middle of the day stark naked except for a pair of tennis shoes.

Then, over pudding, someone came up with this perfectly absurd and, it should be said, entirely inconsequential, 'true' story about a letter she had been shown which, if genuine, would surely do serious damage to the reputation of 'sweet old ladies' everywhere. The letter, as described, was too priceless to be believable. The whole tale, I concluded, simply had to be aprocyphal.

Although I feel this story is likely to be an urban myth, I have been assured otherwise. The said letter was written by a Mrs Jarvis of Mobile, Alabama, on 31 March 1987, and offers thanks to a couple she had never met but who had in directly helped to brighten her life, in a way you will soon discover.

A copy of it was given recently to Innes Tartt, an antiques dealer in Gulf Shores, Alabama, who sent another copy to his brother Jo, who has an art gallery close to my office in Washington. I now have a copy myself. It is written in the shaky handwriting of an old person and here it is:

Dear Dr and Mrs O'Neil,

God Bless you for giving your old radio to the Salvation Army, who in turn gave it to me. I have lived in this nursing home since my dear husband passed away 12 years ago. I am 87 years old and never had a radio, I get so lonesome. Miss Ruby, who lives in the next room is 85 years old and had a radio for many years, but she would never let me listen to it. Yesterday her radio fell to the floor and broke, so she asked me if she could listen to mine and I said 'Fuck you]'


Mrs Jarvis.

One can only wonder at the reaction of the good doctor and his wife as they read their 'thank you' letter and reached the startling conclusion. But for us at our dinner table on Sunday, it caused much hilarity and a moment of happy distraction from the new doctrine of youth now guiding our city.