Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The old people

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Some of the old people are going. It has been happening, slowly, over the last two years or so. I go to funerals and memorial services, I write those awful condolence letters where you try your absolute hardest not to fall into cliché and then tumble into it anyway. I have been writing some today. They made me cry. I miss the old people; I wish they were not going.

I know the British have this thing about a good innings. When someone reaches a very grand old age, it is considered unnecessary to mourn them because they have had such a long life, a good shot at it. This is fabulously stupid. The longer they have had, the more of a mark they have left on the world, and the bigger the space will be where they once were, impossible to fill. One of the memorial services which made me cry the most was for a 96 year old. He had a good innings all right. I should have let him go gently into that good night. But 96! By that stage, the magical thinking part of my brain believed he would go on forever. He was like the Tower of London or the White cliffs of Dover. The idea of London without him in it was implausible. He had been there through my teenage years, when he took me to the proms and sent me box sets of Mozart, gently expanding my cultural horizons (not many concertos for two pianos in the horse country where I had grown up), and through my university years. When I could not quite get a first and had to settle for a two one, he wrote me a letter calling it a ‘very respectable degree. Never forget that men are frightened of first class women’. It was the kind of joke he really liked. So I don’t give a damn about the good innings, I miss him like hell.

The old person who has just gone was funny, generous, bigger than life. I remember him always smiling. He had been a respectable naval fellow, with his own ship, but he had a quietly subversive sense of humour. I did not see him so much over the last few years, but he was a big presence in my wild twenties and early thirties; holidays, weekends, always good conversation and excellent claret.

I am going to miss the old people. It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with the young people, I love the young people and think that they are not at all the feral creatures capable only of texting and fighting and saying ‘like’ a lot that some of the media like to frighten us with. But I like there being some people around who remember the war. I love the old people’s capacity for understatement and stiff upper lip. I love that the ones I know could present to the world an appearance of utter respectability while a burning flame of subversion flickered under their three piece suits. I love that they got through the Blitz and the three day week and the craziness of the eighties and still kept their dry wit and quiet elan. I love their blatant unapologetic eccentricity. I love that some of them were so much wilder than anyone now would dream of, running off to live in gypsy caravans or doing unspeakable things in Tangier. I love that they remember the days when you could have a good dinner, see a show, take a cab home and still have change from half a crown. I love that they really knew how to wear a hat. I wish they could live forever.

The picture at the top is of my grandmother, one of the greatest of the old people, painted when she was still young. She died in 1985, but I think of her every day.


  1. Your grandmother was just lovely. What an insightful post! I really enjoyed it.

  2. This is a wonderful post, and very, very British, which of course makes me (an American with a love of British expression - "unspeakable things in Tangier" indeed!) love it all the more.

  3. What a lovely post you are so right. Old people have so much to give in knowledge and experience. My father died 7 years ago at 77 from Cancer . Far too early. I felt cheated his father and his Grandfather lived until the were 90 and plus. He had so much to give to my children. Such a wonderful generous and interesting man. Its so sad they dont really remember him. I think if him everyday.
    I have started to hate funerals as I am going to a lot more than celebration gatherings and a lot are my contemporaries . Rralising my own mortality

  4. The old people have been much on my mind lately too. Last week Ma and I had a similar dream on the same night: she dreamt all her grandparents - fiercely detailed - were all in a room (along with our much-beloved-and-missed dog Gill) trying to tell her something in earnest; I dreamt my long-gone grandfather hugged me and said (no doubt in more profundity than I can right now examine) 'Remember me in the past.' We wondered over the weird sychronicity and what could have prompted it.

    One of my great regrets was that he died while I was living in Germany and I did not get home for his funeral - I suppose I never really got the chance to say goodbye. I think you must value that chance for 'closure', the chance to pay respects, love, and be able to acknowledge the gap they're going to leave. At least there is that.


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