Read Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir Online
Authors: Penelope Lively
Dancing Fish and Ammonites
Penelope Lively is the author of many prizewinning novels and short-story collections for both adults and children. She has twice been short-listed for the Booker Prize: once in 1977 for her first novel,
The Road to Lichfield
, and again in 1984 for
According to Mark
. She later won the 1987 Booker Prize for her highly acclaimed novel
. Her other books include
Next to Nature
City of the Mind
Beyond the Blue Mountains
, a collection of short stories;
, a memoir of her childhood days in Egypt;
; her autobiographical work
A House Unlocked
Making It Up
, which was short-listed for the 2009 Costa Novel Award; and
How It All Began
. She is a popular writer for children and has won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Award. She was appointed CBE in the 2001 New Year’s Honours List, and was made a dame in 2012. She lives in London.
By the same author
The Road to Lichfield
Nothing Missing But the Samovar and Other Stories
Treasures of Time
Next to Nature, Art
Corruption and Other Stories
According to Mark
Pack of Cards: Stories 1978–1986
City of the Mind
Beyond the Blue Mountains
Making It Up
How It All Began
The Presence of the Past: An Introduction to Landscape History
Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived
A House Unlocked
JACK – in memory
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Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014
Copyright © 2013 by Penelope Lively
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First published in Great Britain as
Ammonites and Leaping Fish
by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin Books Ltd.
Photographs by Anna Lively
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following copyrighted works:
“Book Ends” by Tony Harrison (
, Penguin Books, 2007) reprinted by permission of Tony Harrison.
The Sense of an Ending
by Frank Kermode (2000) reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, USA.
The Long Life
by Helen Small (2007) reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, USA.
Having It So Good:
Britain in the Fifties
by Peter Hennessy (Penguin Books, 2007). Copyright © Peter Hennessy, 2006. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.
Excerpts from “In a Room and a Half” from
Less Than One: Selected Essays
by Joseph Brodsky (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986).
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lively, Penelope, 1933–
Dancing fish and ammonites : a memoir / Penelope Lively.
1. Lively, Penelope, 1933– 2. Novelists, English—20th century—Biography. 3. English literature—Women authors—Biography. 4. Autobiographical memory. I. Title.
Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.
This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.
And a view of old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise – ambushed, or so it can seem. The view from eighty, for me. One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here. That, and the backwards glance – the identifying freight of a lifetime.
A lifetime is embedded; it does not float free, it is tethered – to certain decades, to places, to people. It has a context; each departure leaves a person-shaped void – the absence within a family, the presence lost within a house, in a community, in society itself. We go, but hang in for a while in other people’s heads – something we said, something we did; we leave a ghostly imprint on our backdrop. A very few people go one further and are distilled into a blue plaque on a building.
I began on a spring morning in the Anglo-American Hospital in Zamalek, which was a residential suburb on Gezira, the island in Cairo’s Nile; 17 March 1933. Elsewhere, things were going on that would lead to turmoil in North Africa in a few years’ time; my parents’ lives would be affected, and mine, but they were comfortably oblivious that morning, and I was tucked up in a crib, the feet of which stood in tin trays of water, because there had been instances of ants getting at newborn babies.
Toward the end of my own stint I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me but interested in this lifetime context, in the times of my life. I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.
These, then, are the prompts for this book: age, memory, time, and this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to – how reading has fed into writing, how ways of thinking have been nailed.
There can be a certain detachment about it; the solipsism of writing about oneself tempered by the more compelling interest of general concerns – what it means to be old, what the long view does to us, or for us, how we mutate with our times. But a report from the front line has to be just that; this is my old age, so I have to get personal, as well as consider the wider implications of where I am now. Which is something I have not done before; like, I think, most people, I have not paid too much attention to old age. To individuals, yes – family, friends. But the status has not been on my radar. Give up my seat on the bus – of course; feign polite attention to some rambling anecdote; raise my voice, repeat myself with patience. Avoid, occasionally, I fear: that hazard light worn by the old – slow, potentially boring, hard going. Now that I wear the light myself, I am nicely aware of the status. This is a different place. And since I am there, along with plenty of my friends, the expedient thing seems to be to examine it. And report.
We are many today, in the Western world: the new demographic. I want to look at the implications of that, at the condition, at how it has been perceived. And then at the compelling matter of memory – the vapor trail without which we are undone.
And my own context – the context of anyone my age. The accompanying roar of the historical process. I want to remember what those events felt like at the time, those by which I felt most fingered – the Suez crisis, the Cold War, the seismic change in attitudes of the late twentieth century – and see how they are judged today, with the wisdoms of historical hindsight.
And, finally, some pure solipsism: one person’s life as reflected by possessions. Books; and a selection of things. Mine. But a story that anyone could tell; most of us end up with an identifying cargo – that painting, this vase, those titles on the shelf. I can give eloquence to mine – I know what they are saying. Not so much detachment here; more, a flicker of memoir proper – a voyage around the eighty years by way of two ammonites, a pair of
American ducks, leaping fish . . . And a raft of books.
Years ago, I heard Anthony Burgess speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival. He was impressive in that he spoke for an hour without a single note, fluent and coherent. But of the content of his talk all I remember are his opening words: “For me, death is already sounding its high C.” This was around 1980, I think, so he was in his early sixties at the time, and died in 1993. I was in my late forties, and he seemed to me – not old, exactly, but getting on a bit.
Today, people in their sixties seem – not young, just nicely mature. Old age is in the eye of the beholder. I am eighty, so I am old, no question. The high C is audible, I suppose, but I don’t pay it much attention. I don’t think much about death. I am not exactly afraid of it, though after reading Julian Barnes’s book
Nothing To Be Frightened Of
, with admiration, I felt that I had not sufficiently explored my own position on the matter but have perhaps arrived at the state of death-consciousness that he distinguishes with the argument that we cannot truly savor life without a regular awareness of extinction. Yes, I recognize that, along with the natural human taste for a conclusion: there has been a beginning, which proposes an end. I am afraid of the run-up to death, because I have had to watch that. But I think that many of us who are on the last lap are too busy with the baggage of old age to waste much time anticipating the finishing line. We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation. We feel much the same, but clearly are not. We have entered an unexpected dimension; dealing with this is the new challenge.
The extent of the challenge depends on when and where you experience old age. Social context is crucial. You don’t want to be old when circumstances mean that anyone who doesn’t contribute but requires support is a drag, and there is therefore a grim logic in failing to sustain them. Nomadic groups existing at subsistence level did better without the encumbrance of anyone who couldn’t keep up. The district nurse in Ronald Blythe’s
talks of the Suffolk cottages in the last century where a decaying grandparent was stacked away somewhere and nudged toward the grave. The anthropologist Colin Turnbull has given a horrific account in
The Mountain People
of the Ik, a Ugandan tribe whose flexible way of life was curtailed, forcing them to live in one area with insufficient resources, at starvation level. The effect was the erosion of any care or concern for others, with the old forced to starve first, and children also (further stark logic: keep the breeding group alive, you can always make more children if things improve). But the old, in this corner of Uganda in the mid-twentieth century, were around forty; “old” is never a fixed feast.
There is anthropological evidence from elsewhere that in a hunter-gatherer society the old are valued simply for experience – they have a bank of hunter-gatherer knowledge. That again makes sense; you may not be all that fond of Granny, but she knows where to find those roots you need. Elephant groups also depend on the matriarch, it seems, to know where to head for water and for food; I like this elemental link with animal behavior.
Things aren’t quite like this in a world powered by technology; just as well that increased affluence means that nobody disposes of the aged just because they can’t cope with a computer or a cell phone. Rather the contrary; at the time of writing there is a heated debate about the quality of care for the elderly in hospitals, and a scandal about conditions in a failing group of residential homes for old people. Things can go wrong, but it is beyond question that society assumes a responsibility toward the old; you don’t leave them by the wayside, you don’t push them into a cupboard and forget to feed them.
This may not be due entirely to a more enlightened attitude. Old age is the new demographic, and you can’t ignore the problems created by a group that has been getting steadily larger – alarmingly larger if you are in the business of allocating national expenditure. The poor have always been with us, and now the old are too.
We have not been, in the past, and we are not so much around still in some parts of the developing world. But in the West we are entrenched, bolstered by our pensions, brandishing our senior discount passes, cluttering up the doctors’offices, with an average life expectancy of around eighty. But our experience is one unknown to most of humanity, over time. We are the pioneers, as an established social group gobbling up benefits and giving grief to government agencies. Before the early modern period, as historians like to call it, before the sixteenth century, few people saw fifty, let alone eighty. Scroll back, and average life expectancy diminishes century by century; two thousand years ago, it stood at around twenty-five. That said, the old have always been around – it seems that perhaps eight percent of the population of medieval England was over sixty – but not as a significant demographic group, rather as noticeable individuals. And sixty today is not seen as old.
The Bible blithely allowed for threescore years and ten – where on earth did they get that from? You’d be lucky indeed to make that in the Middle East in Roman times. Life expectancy is of course a slippery concept. The trick is to get through infancy, then the next four years; notch those up, and you’re in with a fighting chance, your statistic rockets – if you are a medieval peasant (or in much of sub-Saharan Africa, or Afghanistan, today) you may well hang in there till forty or beyond. But chances are you won’t leave toddlerhood; the underworld is a teeming sea of tiny ghosts, with, dotted among them, out of scale, inappropriate and incongruous, the exhausted figures of the old. Think Sparta (babies exposed on hillsides), think Coram’s Fields (London hospital for foundlings), think Hogarth, think Dickens. Think
Archaeology recognizes old bones as likely to have been powerful bones. If you survived the demands of warrior culture and managed not to get picked off while leading the tribe into battle, then you got the lion’s share of resources: food, creature comforts. Bones are intriguing, illuminating – this extraordinary surviving evidence of a life, for those who know how to read it. A recent television series did just that; an erudite expert homed in on a skeleton, and from it lifted the story of a Roman gladiator in first-century York, of the mother of triplets dying in childbirth, of the Iron Age sacrificial victim. Bones found in neolithic Orkney tombs indicate that people in their teens and twenties had osteoarthritis, brought on presumably by some repetitive physical activity (hauling all that stone around for the tombs, maybe). And I wince – arthritic young are an affront. But I am making the mistake of assuming a twenty-first-century perspective; these were not young, in their terms, or, rather, a lifespan was not long enough for the luxury of the seven ages of man – just an instant of childhood, a brief flare of maturity, and then into the chambered tomb with the ancestors.
A recent survey by the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions, which is somewhat obsessed with the question of old age, for good reason, found that most believe that old age starts at fifty-nine while youth ends at forty-one. People over eighty, on the other hand, believe sixty-eight to herald old age, while fifty-two is the end of youth. Of course, of course – it depends where you happen to be standing yourself. And youth has expanded handsomely since Charlotte Brontë wailed, “I am now thirty-two. Youth is gone – gone, – and will never come back; can’t help it.” It still won’t come back, even after a century and a half of scientific advance, but there is plenty of remedial work on offer by way of nipping and tucking for those feeling a bit desperate. The rest of us settle for the inevitable sag and wrinkle, and simply adjust our concept of the climactic points. Actually, I’d step out of line and go for seventy rather than sixty-eight as the brink of old age; I have too many vigorous and active friends in their late sixties and anyway the round number is neater.
By 2030 there will be four million people over eighty in the United Kingdom – out of a population of around sixty million. No wonder the Department of Work and Pensions is getting rattled on behalf of its successors. I will have handed in my dinner pail and my transit pass by then, I sincerely hope, though I can’t quite count on it. I come from a horribly long-lived family. My mother died at ninety-three; her brother made it to one hundred; their mother reached ninety-seven. I look grimly at these figures; I do not wish to compete.
Suffice it that we are too many. That’s one way of looking at it: the administrative point of view, the view perhaps sometimes of the young, who have inherited the world, quite properly, and may occasionally find themselves guilty of the ageist sentiments that are now proscribed. Actually, I haven’t much come up against ageism, myself. There was an occasion, I remember, a few years ago, when a teenage granddaughter was advising on the acquisition of a cell phone and the salesman’s enthusiastic attention turned to disdain when he realized that the purchase was not for her but for the old granny, who had no business with any mobile device, let alone the latest Nokia. But more usually I find that age has bestowed a kind of comfortable anonymity. We are not especially interesting, by and large – waiting for a bus, walking along the street; younger people are busy sizing up one another, in the way that children in a park will only register other children. We are not exactly invisible, but we are not noticed, which I rather like; it leaves me free to do what a novelist does anyway, listen and watch, but with the added spice of feeling a little as though I am some observant time-traveler, on the edge of things, bearing witness to the customs of another age. I am dramatizing, of course – I am still a part of it all and most of what I see and hear is entirely familiar because as society mutates – language, behavior – so have I mutated, in assumptions and expectations. This is something I want to talk about in a later section – the way in which you change your skin, over a lifetime, change and change again. The point here is that age may sideline, but it also confers a sort of neutrality; you are no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider.
The other view, the counterview to the administrators and the ageists, is that this is the human race adapting again, and how interesting. How significant, how challenging that there is now this new demographic, this hefty group of people who have notched up seven or eight decades and counting, many of whom are still in good health, with all their marbles, able to savor life.
Up to a point, that is. I am a diarist. It is a working diary, mainly, in which I jot down stuff that might possibly come in useful at some point. This means that I can never find anything I think I may once have noted, but during a trawl recently I came upon my visit to a specialist in 1994, around the time the spinal arthritis first struck that has plagued me ever since. “‘Anno Domini, I’m afraid,’ says the man kindly. ‘Whoever designed us didn’t make sufficient allowance for wear and tear.’ Which chimed nicely with my view of the Great Designer in the Sky – a piece of malevolent sabotage to ensure that when the human race gets to the point of discovering penicillin and sanitation and generally prolonging life those prolonged won’t find it worth living anyway.”
I beg to differ, eighteen years on. One does; today, and for a while, perhaps. Most of my friends of my age group would agree, I think, and most of them have been slammed with something: hips, knees, teeth, eyes . . . We do indeed wear out before our time. The science of aging is complex and intriguing. The gerontologist Tom Kirkwood gives a technical but lively account in his book
Time of Our Lives
. He quotes John Maynard Smith’s dry definition: “Ageing is a progressive, generalized impairment of function resulting in an increasing probability of death.” Quite. But what is going on? Why do we age?
The short answer seems to be: because we are disposable. And we are disposable because our own genes have decided this; their interests in keeping us going do not coincide with our own. The maintenance of certain cells most affected by the aging process takes many resources. If this is reduced, then energy is released for growth and reproduction, so natural selection favors such a mutation. This is called the “disposable soma” theory; my digest of it is inadequate – please go to Professor Kirkwood for a proper account. There is a cool rationality to the process (of course, natural selection is always rational) and while this is not exactly a palliative (it remains a natural response to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”) at least you can see what it’s all about. And what would be the alternative? Swift’s Struldbrugs in
, born to immortality, were condemned to an eternity of senile decay and estrangement from society. They presumably suffered from some genetic derangement; I think we must prefer genetic normality and accept the consequences.
Society is stuck with us, I’m afraid, and it will get worse. In countries with high life expectancies, a third of today’s children may reach one hundred. In 1961 there were just five hundred and ninety-two people over the age of one hundred in this country; by 2060 there will be four hundred and fifty-five thousand. Consider those figures, and gasp. Old people were of interest in the past simply because there weren’t that many of them – the sage is a pejorative term suggesting that old age necessarily implies wisdom. That view may have changed radically toward the end of the twenty-first century, I’d guess, when the Western world is awash with centenarians. Goodness knows what that will do for attitudes toward the elderly; I’m glad I shan’t be around to find out. I am concerned with here and now, when I can take stock and bear witness.
One of the few advantages of writing fiction in old age is that you have been there, done it all, experienced every decade. I can remember worrying when I was writing at forty, at fifty, that I didn’t know what it was like to be seventy, eighty, if I wanted to include an older character. Well, I didn’t know what it was like to be a man, either, but you have to stick your neck out – use empathy, imagination, observation, all the novelist’s tools. But it is certainly a help to have acquired that long backwards view; not only do you know (even if it is getting a bit hazy) what it felt like to be in your twenties, or thirties, but you remember also the relative unconcern about what was to come.