Christina Patterson: Lessons in living from some (considerably) older women

The Saturday Column
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In her extraordinary new memoir, What to Look for in Winter, Candia McWilliam talks about the love she has for the Queen.

"I like the Queen because she isn't dead," she says. "I like her because she defers, as far as one can see, most gratification." What she doesn't add, but doesn't need to, is that the Queen is dignified, modest, hard-working, private, frugal, public-spirited and about as far from self-indulgent as it's possible for a human being to be.

It's a passion, I think, that's quite widely shared. My mother (brought up in a social democracy where royals are expected to cycle and, no doubt, fill out their own tax returns) weeps over her every Christmas at three o'clock. Some years, if I'm with her, I weep, too. It wasn't just the annus horribilis which made us want to hug her. It wasn't the clipped, Brief Encounter voice, or the furrowed forehead, or the mouth that could switch, in a moment, from disdain to bounty. It wasn't even the fabulously frumpy glasses. It was the whole damned package: the gravitas, the fortitude, the calm sense of duty and an upper lip so stiff it made us, her subjects, feel like the bunch of screaming hysterics we'd become.

P D James is older than the Queen. She is, in fact, 90 this week. "At 90," she said in a wonderful interview on the Today programme on Tuesday, "you turn your attention not to ambition, but what you should do with your life and how you should live it, for the little time you may have left." She had, however, been talking about her own plans for the future, the novel she's currently writing and the play she hopes to write next. As a follow-up to the devastating demolition job she'd done on the BBC's Mark Thompson in a guest-edited edition of the programme on New Year's Eve, she dispensed some firm advice on the future of the corporation, which included the curt assertion that salaries paid by the public should be public knowledge.

She was, as always, precise, sensible, witty and wise, but it was the last thing she said that brought tears to my eyes. "We cannot," she said, "foresee the moment of our going, except it can't be very far ahead, and therefore one lives for the day, and just to rejoice in being alive, which I do. I know," she added, "that I'm an extremely fortunate person."

Not too many of us go round thinking that we are "extremely fortunate" people. Particularly not when our body isn't functioning that brilliantly any more, and we live in a culture where old people are regarded as a nuisance or a joke, and when we've been on our own for nearly 50 years. P D James has worked extraordinarily hard all her life. As a young woman in the 1940s, she worked full time as a civil servant in order to support a family and a husband who suffered from depression. When she started writing the crime novels that made her name, it was in a domestic situation that was extremely challenging and on top of a full-time job. Since her retirement, 30 years ago, and in spite of her still burgeoning literary career, she has continued to devote herself to public service. And I have never, ever heard her make any utterance about her own situation that could be construed as a complaint.

Diana Athill is 92. In a TV documentary a few weeks ago, she said she still wrote every day. After 50 years as the director of a publishing company (and one of the best editors, literally, in the world) she has, in retirement, pursued her own literary career. She has written three best-selling memoirs after the age of 80. She has never married. Her first great love died during the Second World War, but only after he dumped her – an experience she wrote about with devastating honesty in her first memoir, Instead of a Letter, published in 1962. She brings the same forensic gaze, and utter absence of self-pity, to her later memoirs, including the one which, at 90, won her the Costa Biography Award. It's called Somewhere towards the End and it ends with a discussion of last words and the hope, "foolish though it may be", that "the occasion" on which she has to say them "does not come very soon".

The documentary was called Growing Old Disgracefully, but the title offered the one false note. Athill may have lived an unconventional life, and adopted some extremely unusual domestic arrangements (one with a Jamaican ex-lover and his girlfriend), but it's one, like P D James's, and the Queen's, that's actually an object lesson in growing old gracefully – growing old with your lust for life, and passion for work, and curiosity about the world, intact.

At a time when we're all meant to be delighted if a woman over 45 is allowed on the telly, and when it's some kind of national triumph when an actress beyond the first bloom of youth – like Helen Mirren, Felicity Kendal, or Joanna Lumley – looks "marvellous" (ie for her age), a time, in fact, when women are more than ever rated for their looks rather than their achievement, and, indeed, a time when we're all going to have to work until we drop, it's nice to be reminded that it's possible to live your autumn years with the zest of spring. "One does hope," said Diana Athill in the programme, "that dying can be done decently." And so, one hopes, can living.

How do you solve a problem like Berlusconi?

David Cameron has clearly been having a lovely time visiting his foreign counterparts, offering a little lecture here, a little pat on the back there and generally revelling in being one of the Most Important People in the World. If some of them can't quite match his background, well, one wouldn't want to make them feel awkward, and some of them – Obama, actually – have other qualities that make up for it.

But Berlusconi. Oh dear, Berlusconi. How the hell do you conduct a meeting with the biggest joke in international politics, a man so surgically enhanced that he now looks like a ventriloquist's dummy? How do you talk to a man who can't even have a snack without a bevy of luscious lovelies? How do you do that and retain a micro-molecule of dignity?

Cameron's solution to a challenge that might defy Debrett's lacked his usual lightness of touch. He turned up late. Almost an hour late. He skipped the planned talks and went straight to the dinner, and skipped a press conference, too. In the photos, Cameron weirdly managed to look like Berlusconi's taller, plastic twin. He also managed to look something he's rarely looked before: deeply, excruciatingly embarrassed.

It's time for a (Labour leadership) holiday

When Gordon Brown stood on the steps of Downing Street and announced that he was relinquishing the thing he had fought for all his life (the attainment of which had been a textbook demonstration of that Chinese proverb about being careful what you wish for), he can't have known what he would unleash. I'm not sure, in fact, that anyone could have anticipated the Thousand and One Nights that would ensue in municipal buildings around the country. Like a certain former prime minister's wife, the poor Labour leadership candidates have had to juggle an awful lot of balls: balls about Iraq, balls about Blair, balls about Brown and balls about Balls. And the whole thing feels more like one of those pilgrimages that involve shuffling along on your knees than anything that might actually be relevant to the future of the country.

So it's a bit of a relief all round that they're actually taking a holiday. Diane Abbott hasn't yet said where she's going (though, to be honest, no one cares). Andy Burnham is flaunting his northern roots, and northern stamina, in Scotland. The Miliboys, in a competitive, but polarised assertion of patriotism, are off to Northumberland and Cornwall. Only Balls has had the balls to get the hell out of here, and spend some time where the sun might shine. Perhaps in New England he can forget, for a while, about New Labour. And perhaps when they get back, it will all seem better. Perhaps.