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How to grow old disgracefully

Flirt with whoever you like - no one will take you seriously anyway. Avoid wearing white - it shows up yellow teeth. Forget about going to university - didn't you get enough of that when you were young? And whatever else you do, don't even think about joining a book club. Just because a woman is older doesn't mean she has to lose her lust for life. There's an art to enjoying your golden years, and Virginia Ironside, herself a sixtysomething (never lie about your age - you'll only get caught out) has it sussed

Tuesday 19 September 2006 00:00 BST


These were my mum's rules for the over-60s, and I still adhere to every one of them.

Never wear white. It makes yellow teeth look yellower.

Always keep your upper arms well covered. Those bits of flesh that hang down at the sides (known, appar- ently, as "bingo wings") are hideous - and so are those strange rolls of flesh that appear between your under-arms and your body.

Get a new bra every six months at least and keep it well hitched-up. You don't want to be one of those people whose boobs touch their tummies when they sit down. Or, worse, when they stand up.

Don't disguise a lizardy neck with a scarf or polo-neck. They always look as if you have something to hide - and the imagination always conjures up something worse than the reality.

Never wear trousers after 50, unless they are ludicrously well-cut and slinky, and never wear short skirts.

Make sure you possess and wear the most glamorous dressing gown in the world.

Never wear trainers (especially stone-coloured ones), or any kind of sports clothes, trackie bottoms, tops etc.

Keep impeccably clean. Check skirts, ties and trouser bottoms hourly for stains. Wash your hair every day. There is nothing more repulsive than a dirty old person.

A friend recently complained that after 60 she felt invisible. I felt like saying to her: "Well, stick on a purple hat, you old misery!" Just because you're a ruin doesn't mean to say you have to look like a vandalised community hall in Hull. Try to look like Tintern Abbey.


There's a big fashion for anyone over 60 to claim they have just as much sex as they ever did. Really? Really, really, really? Most women, when I mention sex, wince in agony at the thought of it. Although it's taboo to say it, sex for an enormous number of women, after the menopause, simply gets more and more agonising.

But there's an amazing plus side to giving it up or at least cutting down. None of that desperate craving. When Sophocles was asked, at a great, age, whether he missed sex, replied: "Heaven forbid! I was only too glad to escape from all that, as though from a boorish and insane master."

No sex means that you can flirt much, much more without the risk of it all going too far. It means you're less of a threat to married men. It means that you can link arms with men as young as 25 without them thinking anything's up. And if, occasionally, you do have sex, well, what a treat. Even if you have to live on cranberry juice for two months afterwards.


The terrible truth is that the older you get, the more friends you acquire. By the time you're 60, your address book (that is if you keep one, which, if you're like me, you do, dreading risking them being stored in an iPod that might crash at any time) gets to be huge, and your writing tinier and tinier. Some names, sadly, have to go. I mean are you ever really going to contact that delightful gay couple you had such fun with on a trip to Mongolia in 1978 again?

It's worth remembering, as you cull the poor creatures from your life, that other oldies, in other places, are excising you with just the same ruthlessness.

Book clubs

If your idea of fun is sitting around over a cup of tea with a lot of other elderly women droning about The Bookseller of Kabul, The Kite Runner or The God of Small Things, then go ahead and join one. But wouldn't it really be more sensible to spend the time doing something new? Like just sitting and looking at the view? I suspect most women - and it's usually women - join book clubs because they imagine that by reading books and discussing them they'll keep their brains alive. But you can't keep a dead brain alive just by poking it with a stick.

My view of books is that if they're bad you should toss them into the wastepaper basket with a loud expletive (see Swearing, No 14) and, if they're good, you buy millions of copies and give them to all your friends saying: "You must, must read this. I insist!"


Death, like grandchildren, is one of the extraordinary new and exciting perks of old age. Over 60, it's time to get acquainted with it. No use dreading it or being frightened by it. People are always wringing their hands when their friends die but frankly, what did they expect? That they'd live for ever?

What you don't want is to let death take you by surprise, or you're going to be like people who find that when the car comes to take them to the airport for their holidays, they have forgotten even to start packing. Visit the dying. Look at dead bodies. Write your will. Face up to it. It's an adventure.

As one who's regarded life rather like one of those ghastly day-long jobs at the National Theatre where you have to take sandwiches, I am jolly pleased, when I look at my watch, to see that the end is nigh.


The weird thing is that in the very stroke of being 60 I changed from being someone who was fundamentally suspicious of other people, feeling everyone was guilty until proved innocent, into someone who feels ludicrously warm and friendly to everyone. Well, perhaps not men with beards, but that's another story. This ridiculously benign confidence brings other perks. It means that you dare ask people to explain if you don't understand what they're saying, that you can burst into wreaths of smiles at strang-ers in the street (much, often, to their consternation, but who cares about that), and that when you order a rare steak in a restaurant and you're brought a piece of leather, you have no compunction in, very kindly and sweetly, sending it right back.


There's a reason there's a name for oldie affluence - the grey (or silver, preferably, since grey sounds so dingy) pound. It's because huge numbers of us are extremely well off. In the same way as there was this huge untapped market in the Sixties of young people with money to spend (us), similarly there are now old people with money to spend (also us). Are we the luckiest generation in history?

New technology

My own adventures into new technology ended when my son left home 10 years ago. So, although I know how to set the video recorder (ner ner ner ner ner), I am baffled by DVDs and digital cameras. Like many other oldies, I'm waiting for my grandson to reach the age of eight to tackle the new stuff. "Oh, granny," I hope he will say, taking some incomprehensible gadget away from me as though I were a drivelling idiot. "Let me show you how."


They told me that grandchildren are the reward you get for not killing your children, but why did no one ever tell me what pleasures were in store? Why anyone wants to travel, or study, or go bungee jumping when they've got grandchildren is a mystery to me.

With grandchildren, you suddenly turn into a different person - a grandparent! Since most of us had lovely grannies and grandads, we find ourselves reliving that blissfully secure and loving relationship. Who cares that you're the granny rather than the grandchild this time round? And grandchildren are far more fun than your own children. Tormented with anxiety and post-natal depression, I spent most of my young mumdom wondering why I'd ever given birth in the first place. But, now, while watching a child spend three hours pootling about among leaves in the park, instead of thinking, as I did when I was a mum: "Oh, God! Why can't I get a life!" I realise that this actually is the life.

Never balk at being called "granny". It's not a dirty word, even though a friend of mind insists on being called "Glammy". It's a badge of honour. Even when, like me, you're called "Gaga".

Telling your age

I'm all in favour; for one reason and one reason only. If you lie, you'll be caught out and you'll look a total idiot. Sixty two, since you ask. Which is, as you know, the new 62.


I find old people swearing a bit of a turn-off. I do it myself, too often, but it always jars. It always feels, as the word pops out of my mouth, as if I've turned into an old person with leggings and a leopard-print top. Naff. Far better, I think, to stick to "Crumbs!" "Crikey" "Blasted" and "I say, that's going a bit far!"

An 80-year-old woman turned to me recently at a funeral and said: "Do you know, I think I've fucked about 20 per cent of the men here." Funny, but it made my flesh crawl.


You were at school when you were young. You even might have gone to university in your teens. Do you really, really, really want to go back to learning dates and writing essays? If so, what, might I ask, is wrong with you? Why go back on the same old treadmill? Why not take drugs? Or start knitting? Or do something odd and independent? Are you incapable of boning up on the history of ancient pots all by yourself? If the answer's "no", then my advice to you is to grow up quick. Anything rather than attend the University of the euphemistic "Third Age". What, I might ask, is wrong with that perfectly simple English word "old"?

What IS wrong with the word 'old'?

Search me. Every book I pick up that addresses anyone over the age of 60 is titled something cunning like, The Time of Your Life, The Harvest of the Years, Late Youth. There's even a new magazine out for oldies called Heyday.

I wrote a piece recently for an American magazine put out by the Association of American Retired People, with a circulation of something like 55 million. When I got the proofs, every time I had used the word "old" it had been removed. Why? "At AARP we don't like to use the word 'old'," they replied.

But why not? It's so lovely.

Diminishing senses

Old people can see a third less than young people in the dark. Something to do with the amount of light that they can let in. They also suffer from floaters, making walking about a bit like groping through a forest full of falling black leaves on an autumn night. Not much good when someone young points out a lesser spotted red tit in a tree, but extremely useful when faced with a check-yourself-in machine at the airport. "I'm so sorry, I simply can't possibly do it myself. I can't see a thing!"

Most old people hear when they want to. When the conversation turns to tragically boring topics like the wonders of alternative medicine, or how dangerous London is getting these days, it's easiest simply to shake your head in despair, claiming you can't hear a word.

Many people I know say they suffer from something they describe as "Alzheimer's' lite". Sometimes they have CRAFT moments (Can't Remember a Fucking Thing). I find the reverse. Being more relaxed and happier, my memory is actually getting sharper every day.

But if names elude you, try this. If someone comes up to you and says: "Hello Virginia! [or whatever your name is] How are you? Long time no see!" and you can't for the life of you recall having ever seen them before in your life, I suggest you put your hand on their shoulder and draw them towards you warmly. "I can't remember your name!" you should shriek. "Isn't it awful! All I can remember is that I like you!"

Young people

Oh, aren't they just bliss? And yet I remember the older people who found me bliss in the Sixties giving me utter creeps.

But you can talk to them as long as you watch your language and don't try out any embarrassing slang. When you talk to them, don't preface everything you say by the remark: "Of course you wouldn't remember...", or "When you're an old lady like me...".

Try, too, to avoid topics about which they know absolutely nothing - which seems to me almost everything. I've had blank looks from anyone under 30 when I've mentioned Andy Pandy, or even Cecil Beaton. Indeed, the other day when I regaled someone with a great evening I'd had seeing Jerry Lee Lewis at the Shepherd's Bush Empire recently, I was appalled to hear them ask, at the end of it: "But who is Jerry Lee Lewis?"

Medical problems

Arthritis is a common topic among the old, as is blood pressure, warfarin, glucosamine sulphate, wobbly teeth, liver spots, acid reflux... all extremely interesting topics once you get to understand them. Only problem with ailments is that so often when you go to the surgery, you find that the lovely old doctor you've had for years and years has retired (they all retire eventually, these rafts of supportive professionals in your life: even my vet is handing over to a younger man, along with my solicitor and accountant, and even the dustbin men are slowly dying off to be replaced by new and younger versions...).

So it's very important to establish yourself as a Mad Old Person right away. "I know your old doctor was happy to prescribe you valium on demand," said a recent one in my surgery, "But I'm afraid I don't think that is a very good idea."

"My dear young man," I said, in my grandest and most Empress of Russia voice, putting my hand on his knee and grinning my most hideous and elderly smile. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks, I'm afraid."

"Old?" he said, staring at my notes.... "But you're only...." "That's what you think!", I replied. I went out with the prescription.

No! I Don't Want to Join a Bookclub by Virginia Ironside is published by Penguin on 28 September at £12.99. To order your copy for the special price of £10.99 with free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

Keeping fit

Oh yes, I, too, have joined a gym, and even once employed a personal trainer. But why? Did I really want to live an extra couple of years beyond my normal life-span? What would I do with the time? I'm already starting to re-read the classics for the second time. I've eaten enough meals. Travelled to enough countries.


Tricky one, this. Have to say I'm rather keen on face-lifts, Botox, the whole shebang. But then I'm intolerably vain. If you're not one for the knives, money and needles approach to beauty, then make a feature of the lines and crags, like an old air-raid shelter in an otherwise charming garden, rather than disguise them.


Is it wise or clever to dance the hokey cokey at the age of 90 with two new hip replacements? No it is not. Being old is not about trying to be young. Nor is it about moaning about being ill and miserable and old. It's an entirely new, and very entertaining and rewarding experience.


Nature. Funny how it creeps up on you. I used to say, like Rev Sidney Smith: "I have no relish for the country. It is a kind of healthy grave." Now, older, I see all its charms. I can walk for miles, letting the views leak in. I love the rain, the sun, the seasons. And gardening, a chore I used to regard as outdoor housework, is now a pleasure. Is it because we have nothing left to nurture but our geraniums? Or because nature is calling us: "Yoo-hoo! You're going to be part of all this mush and earth, soon! Make yourself acquainted!"

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