Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The old people

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Almost every day now I seem to start this blog: I was going to write this, I was planning to do that. Today, I was going to do a piece on prejudice; then that turned into American politics; then there was a moment when I considered a meditation on autumn. Now, I am thinking of the old people. I know I talk about them quite a lot. I am forty-three, and the grown-ups who peopled my childhood are going.

Today, I wrote another condolence letter. I hate writing those letters, because it is the moment when words don't count for much. I am a writer; if there is one thing I believe in with evangelical fervour, it is the power of words. I believe in language itself, as an intrinsic good. Scientists are still arguing over the crucible that makes us human, that differentiates us from animals; is it consciousness, imagination, even the power to imitate? I think it is language. I am daily amazed how scratched marks on a page can take us into another mind, transport us in time and space, make us laugh, cry, change our minds.

When you write a letter to someone in loss, it is as if some kryptonite has come along and drained all those scratches of meaning. I am so sorry, you write, in pathetic inadequacy. I am thinking of you, you say, as if that makes any damn difference.

I know it is important to write. It is still one of the few times when only a letter, on actual writing paper, in an envelope with a stamp, will do. I know it matters because email will not cut it. But really it is a very tiny thing in the face of raw human grief.

That generation, born in the thirties, was not perfect, no more than any generation is. But the ones from it who I know and have known are pretty damn marvellous. They are funny and dry and naughty and self-deprecating. They are uniformly stoical about having been through the war. They have always been unfailingly lovely to the young people. I remember one who used to break out magnums of Petrus for a bunch of us callow twenty-year-olds, as if we were ambassadors or Oxford professors. Petrus! A most venerable wine that had been in his cellar since the seventies. It is now the kind of claret that only the new Russians can afford. It was one of the most elegant things I can ever remember. (And although we were young and idiotic, we did appreciate it.)

I wish they could damn well live forever.

It does make me feel very lucky that my dear old parentals are still buggering on. My mother has just had her hair done, and very glamorous she does look. She rings me up and makes jokes about the wasps. 'I know what the dogs are doing,' she says, with a knowing look. 'Because I read it on the blog.' She's all OVER the new technology. I bless her and all who sail in her.

Pictures of the day are of the drenched autumn garden. We had twenty-four hours of rain yesterday, and the whole place looks as if it is drowning.

The rowan berries, with the first turning leaf:


The elderberries, however, did not get the autumnal memo, and are still resolutely green:


Moss and wall and leaf:


The incredible drenched purple sage:


Two areas of outstanding natural beauty:



Do you see how amazingly autumnish the ground is, all covered with fallen leaves? It is astonishing to think that only seven days ago it was still officially summer. Not that we get anything as vulgar as summer in these parts.

A final viola, because sometimes we all need a final viola:



  1. I find condolence letters and cards extraordinarily hard to write. I know it's important to send them but I can never find the right words to express things and always fear sounding trite.

    Elderberries are coming along beautifully in Liverpool - I picked a huge bagfull on Sunday and they're currently stashed in the freezer until I have the time to make vodka with them.

  2. I agree. Writing condolence cards leaves me feeling woefully inadequate but I know that receiving them means such a lot.

  3. That was a brilliant generation my dad is 79 and has more energy than me and a brilliant attitude. Absolutely nothing phases them. What they lived through seems to have made them stronger somehow. Imagine the teenagers now having to do national service?

    Condolence letters are so hard to write... but you have such an incredible way with words, you will do it beautifully xx

  4. Condolence letters are hellish to write. But you must not beat yourself up about the words you say not helping. Nothing, literally nothing, you say in those letters about grief or sorrow hasn't been said before by thousands of people. But that isn't the point. The point is the story you tell the person you're writing to, of a thing about their beloved that they might not have known, or that they'd forgotten, or were happy to be reminded of. That's what makes it important. I cry as I write them, but I smile too.


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