How old is too old for any job? The age of 88 clearly isn’t too old for Clint Eastwood, who not only directs the new film, The Mule, which opens tomorrow, but plays the lead as a crusty octogenarian who takes to drug-running. Fair enough: when you are Dirty Harry and won the Oscar for Best Director at the age of 74, it’s you who makes the rules.
For others, it takes luck and determination to stay at the top (or anywhere near it) in your final decades. Not to mention physical robustness: the ballerina, Alessandra Ferri, calmly preparing to star at Covent Garden at 55, reflected that: “The difficulty is to be in the present and not compete with myself in the past. I can’t jump any more but instead of saying, ‘Oh no, I can’t jump’, I go, ‘That’s all right, I will do something else.’ I can portray the beauty of a human being in her 50s.” In the same way, Eastwood knows from inside how to portray an old man. And, presumably, the crustiness involved…
Survival in the gruelling art of ballet depends as much on others as on Ferri herself. If programmers create work for such mature swans, younger ones can embrace at least the hope of delaying the harsh moment of retirement.
In a society where longevity is increasing, we need to reflect on how to extend activity, and not least on how individuals face the sense of loss when their career ends. It is something élite athletes know well. In the week Ferri’s casting was announced, Andy Murray, at only 31, began to step away, reluctant and in pain, from his tennis career. “You cannot recreate the high of winning Wimbledon or winning a Davis Cup,” he said.
His bleak admission brought to mind Geoffrey Wellum, one of the last surviving Second World War Spitfire pilots. He was 18 when he began three years of intensive frontline flying; and in his thirties when he left the service. His book First Light expressed all the elation, fear and brilliance of his fighting years. I asked him whether anything in our ordinary world of business, marriage and parenthood had ever had moments to match it. “No,” he said. “Not once”.
The arc is familiar. Youth glories in improvement, overcoming pain and fear and occasional failure. Later comes a plateau, a place where you know who you are, and feel well tuned: you can dance or fly or sing or tell jokes or report from war-zones as well as you ever will. Or, in less visible lives, you simply reach the point when you know your tools and your trade and the qualities you bring. It is deeply satisfying. Sometimes it brings on an urge to teach, and that is a new skill for master-craftsmen to learn, ratcheting up the satisfaction again.
Sometimes, though, it means decline and loss.
In a few careers, of course, it is gloriously possible to carry on regardless. Actors such as the tireless Eastwood are the obvious example. Judi Dench is in demand at 84; Ian McKellen has just performed King Lear at 79 and in the final scenes he actually carried Cordelia in his arms (a task some younger Lears have eschewed) Glenda Jackson, having given up acting for 23 years to be an MP, returned at a similar age to that role and found that her seniority itself enabled a new perception of both age and gender. “What I find really interesting about getting older is that those gender-defining barriers begin to fray. They get mistier, less absolute. There’s a … mystery in it,” she said.
Such people are lucky. David Attenborough – with new knees and a pacemaker as he presents television programmes around the world in his tenth decade – became one of only 40 people ever to climb to the summit of the Shard in London like a steeplejack. (“There is a lot of naked metal around. It’s very windy and smells of drains.”) So is Mary Berry, rediscovered by television in the 21st century at an age most people are well retired. In other areas too there are odd strokes of reanimating luck. When my husband first started farming experimentally in the 1980s with Suffolk Punch horses, a lorry arrived with building materials for next door. I found the driver leaning on the gate, watching the great dun giants in the horse-yard. I told him the breed and he laughed. “I know. Worked those hosses, for years.” We sprang on him, and for a decade Derek revived his old skills with harness and plough, and taught them to us. Other, old, men appeared, who had thought their intricate skills with harness and horse-drawn machinery would never be wanted again. Their joy was patent.
But sometimes there is no way back. Athletic champions sometimes balk at the idea of playing at a lower level, being regarded as impressive “for their age”. Musicians can be betrayed by their bodies. Julian Lloyd Webber, a marvellous and deep-feeling cellist, at only 60 found a herniated disc meant the end of his public performance. He did not, at the time, know whether he would bear to play his Stradivari even privately. At his level the keystone is the concert, the ability to make a connection with an audience which runs deeper than tears. Lloyd Webber said: “It’s like some emptiness. Coming up to the last concert, there was a kind of horrible, hollow, empty feeling.”
If infirmity or age can deprive people of their skill, so can simple circumstance. An impatient society expects workers to fit into any slot which suits the system, and never mind how they feel about it. One of Boris Johnson’s better moments – years ago – was to scorn the gung-ho excitement about new technology replacing industrial jobs. “So, what are all those middle-aged miners and steelworkers supposed to do? Sell one another cappuccinos on the internet?” he asked.
Not enough weight is placed on the bewildering grief felt by a skilled riveter when a shipyard closes. Soldiers leaving the forces, seafarers coming ashore, often find difficulty. Dying arts like bookbinding and letter-cutting get a certain respect, and can be carried on quietly at home, indeed for profit. But sometimes a need simply vanishes, automation takes over or your industry moves you out. How can a disc jockey or television (and, yes, radio) presenter who has done nothing else for decades find a use for that skill? Some are glad to throw off the headphones, others take to podcasting in hope of an audience. Without something, the years of deprivation can stretch to the horizon. So writers go on writing, artists paint, even when nobody cares. After Oliver Hardy died, his lifelong comedy partner, Stan Laurel, continued devising new routines and gags for the pair of them which would never be seen.
Many, though, echo the lost cry of Shakespeare’s Moor: “Othello’s occupation’s gone!” One case struck so deep in onlookers that they refused to accept it. Michael Richey, a war veteran and navigational expert, was a famous single-handed sailor. He competed in every Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race from 1968 to 1996 —generally coming nearly last in his starkly bare 26ft junk-rigged boat, Jester. But, in 1988, the original Jester was lost: “An occasion of immeasurable sadness,” he said.
In the sea he had found his way, endured all weathers, meditated and prayed, read St Paul. It was his still, private space in the whirling universe, maybe not so different to what Lloyd Webber found in concerts, poets in the perfect phrase, dancers in effortful moments of grace. He inspired others in that world. So although Richey was 71 already, fellow-sailors could not bear the story of the old man and the sea to be over. They built him a replica Jester for five more lone Atlantic crossings.
Age will get us all; exertion become harder, trades change, usefulness fade. If we are to be a continent of nonagenarians, practical geriatrics and compassionate “care” are not enough. Not for the spirit and the mind, which despite our fear of dementia very often endure right to the end. Bette Davis was right to aver that “old age is not for cissies”: at the age of 80 she starred in The Whales of August, memorising not only her own lines but everyone else’s, and delivering a performance described as “like a testy old hornet on a windowpane, snarling, staggering, twitching – a symphony of misfired synapses.”
Her sharp wisdom echoes that of history and the aged Anglo-Saxon warrior, Byrhtnoth, in the poem The Battle of Maldon: “Hige sceal the heardra,” he cries to the warriors overwhelmed by a Viking horde. “Let our spirit be higher, our heart keener, our courage greater, as our strength grows less.”
Maybe the answer is to keep moving onward, like a shark, into newer waters. “There are things I find amazing about being old,” Glenda Jackson again. “One is realising how little I know … it just astonishes me. The more you live, the bigger the library of stuff you don’t know.” Scholars in old age seem happy, perhaps for that reason.
So listen at last to Merlyn in TH White’s The Once and Future King: “You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn … That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
Libby Purves was the first female presenter of the Today programme on Radio 4 and presented Midweek for 34 years