Women weren't designed to grow old gracefully

It's all to do with vanity. We women become termagants, battle-axes and shrews
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The Independent Online

Why do men grow old so much more gracefully and generously than women? The unfortunate couple from Surrey currently suing their 75-year-old neighbour Mrs Jones for aggravation, are probably asking themselves the same question. Mrs Jones is alleged to have netted the ornamental carp from the couple's garden water feature and then, as they watched horrified, cooked them over a barbecue and shared the fry-up with a friend. She also, the couple claim, threw wild parties, threw rubbish into their garden and barricaded their drive.

I cannot imagine any of my male septuagenarian acquaintances behaving so appallingly but I can picture some of my crabby old aunts and most of the terrifying viragos who play bridge with my mother cackling toothlessly at Mrs Jones's alleged exploits and even offering to accompany her on the next carp raid providing they can get their Zimmers over the fence.

No, that's unfair. My mother's bridge cronies don't have Zimmers and do have teeth almost as sharp as their claws. If you looked through the window of her drawing room and saw them playing cards, sunlight glinting on their spectacles and angora cardigans hanging on the backs of their chairs, you'd probably smile and think: "Aren't little old ladies sweet?" Draw nearer and listen to what they are saying and you will soon realise that they are about as sweet as aloes or nitric acid. Little old ladies are killers, character assassination being their speciality, followed by carp.

Years ago, when I was guru-hunting in India, I sat at the feet of a minor Maharishi who told me that the Hindu code for a perfect existence was as follows: for the first 25 years of your life you learn how to survive as an individual. For the next 25 until you are 50, you learn how to survive marriage, career, getting and spending. And then on your 50th birthday you renounce the world and its vanities, go off into the wilderness (Wales will do) and meditate alone. Twenty-five years later you return to society and eke out your last quarter century – my guru was assuming we'd all be getting our telegram from the Queen – bestowing the wealth of your life's experience on your students.

For some reason, men seem far more able than women to follow this discipline. It's all to do with vanity. We become termagants, battle axes and shrews in old age because we find it difficult to accept that we are no longer desirable.

This is the time to tell you the story about the young woman who went to hospital for an operation. Half-way through surgery she saw God in a vision. "Am I going to die?" she asked. "No," said God, "in fact I've got good news. You're going to live for a long time." "How long?" she said. "Until you're 87 years, seven months and 16 days," he said. Delighted at the news, the woman withdrew her life savings and spent it on a refit, reckoning that it was a good investment if she was going to live to such a ripe old age. She had all the usual treatments, face-lift, silicone implants, a nose job, liposuction, collagen in her cheeks, buttocks in her lips. When she left the hospital after her final treatment she was run over by an ambulance. As soon as she got to heaven she cornered God.

"Listen," she complained. "You told me categorically that I was going to live 87 years, seven months and 16 days. I'm only 32. what happened?"

God shuffled his feet nervously. "It was a mistake, I'm terribly sorry," he said. "The fact is I just didn't recognise you." If only women could mellow into old age like men they'd be a lot happier. When you're mellow you have no time for malice.

My role model for a perfect old age, is or rather was, Tommy the Chelsea Pensioner I used to visit at the Royal Hospital down the road. He was 90 when he died and I miss him because he was quite simply the best company ever.

We would sit on a bench in the sun and he would tell me swashbuckling stories about surviving the battle of Mons and even more swashbuckling stories about his four marriages. Not once did he say an unkind word about any of his wives, even the one who ran off with his best friend who was still, incidentally, his best friend.

Tommy was quite simply a gent, the antithesis in every way to Madame Romola Nijinsky, widow of the legendary Russian dancer, who is, or rather was, quite simply the most poisonous old woman I've ever met. Please God don't let me grow old like Madame Nijinsky.

It's nothing to do with the bright red wig she wore at the age of 80 or the thick white mask of makeup. It was her vitriolic tongue which bad-mouthed everyone she'd ever met from Pavlova to Balanchine to Diaghilev to Stravinsky and not least to the waitress who was bringing us tea. Compared with Madame Nijinsky, Mrs Jones is a bunny rabbit.

Women were not designed to be old, Madame once told me. Look at me, she said. And I did and she was right.