I went to Mass at the weekend, reflecting that this was probably the last time, for a long while, that I would l join with my little church community. Perhaps for four months. It’s quite a stretch. I’ll be honest: it goes against the grain to be told when to stay in your own quarters and not socialise with anyone. It goes against the grain to be asked, by younger family members, whether I’m washing my hands sufficiently, and self-isolating.
Like Mildred, the stubborn old-girl character played by Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seeking restitution for her murdered daughter, I sometimes have problems with compliance. And I do think it’s a generation thing. Mine is the generation which came to young adulthood in the 1960s when the contrarian reflex was to defy authority, rather than succumb to it. Authority can often turn authoritarian. Give me the information, and I’ll make up my own mind about my conduct, thanks very much.
Contemporaries — some a little younger, some slightly more senior — seem inclined to react to all the rules and regs with a more laid-back manner than younger folk. Madeleine Grant says she cannot get her 79-year-old father to take the warnings seriously. Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday claims that the alarm about the spread of the virus is over-stated, and he doesn’t need to be told when to wash his hands, or whether there are germs on doorknobs. Here in coastal Kent, my friends and peers display a blithely stoical attitude. “If my number’s on the bullet, it’s on the bullet,” laughs Josephine, seventyish. “I feel sure I’m going to get it,” chuckles Colin, born, like me in 1944, and just off to join pals for a night-time pub session. “Face the music and carry on!”
Many of the Irish — who are implementing much more draconian measures, closing down the pubs by diktat — have been complaining on Twitter that the Brits allowed Cheltenham to go ahead. Disgraceful! I asked a horsey friend (78) if he thought it should have been cancelled – 60,000 people huddled together for the legendary festival. “No!” he chortled. “I had three winners!”
No, I know I shouldn’t take a cavalier attitude to the coronavirus — and I promise my family that I won’t. I am diligently obeying all the rules. I am practicing “social distancing”. I am washing my hands on the hour every hour. I am monitoring my health for coughs or fevers — as it happens I do have a slight chest infection, picked up from an Easyjet flight from Belfast (airplanes are full of germs). Altogether, I am acting responsibly — to protect others, as we are told to do, as much as myself. And yet I am still not really aligned with some of the general attitudes around the Covid-19 alarm.
I know my dear family are worried since the “elderly” (please call us “old”, rather than use twee euphemisms) are more vulnerable; and because those of us prone to respiratory problems are particularly in the firing line. But whatever became of the virtues of fortitude and courage? In my convent schooldays, we were taught that in life it is really important to be brave. We were regaled with stories of heroic nuns who willingly embraced lepers — St Catherine of Siena drank a cupful of leper’s pus just to show that she didn’t entertain fear. If we were to be tortured to death for our faith, we should, like Joan of Arc, accept it with a soldier’s valour.
But safety, caution and aversion of all risk are now prized more greatly than these stoical values.
It need hardly be pointed out too indelicately that the graphs and statistics clearly indicate — in Italy, for example — that the greatest proportion of deaths occur among those over 80. The next greatest number are in my own demographic — in their seventies. I certainly think that oldies have just as much entitlement to medical care as anyone else, and speculation about leaving them to their fate is harsh. But facing death in your seventies and eighties is also accepting that nature eventually takes its course. No, I don’t want to pop my clogs quite yet, but I do want to have the fortitude to recognise that at our age, we are moving towards the departure lounge.
I actually don’t mind being old: I can put up with the aches and pains: I don’t share the dislike that some women have of being “invisible”: and I thoroughly concur with the Greek philosopher who said that being freed from sexual desire is like being unchained from a maniac. The one thing I do dislike — even dread — is being patronised. I hate people asking me “Are you all right, dearie?” Or cautioning: “Watch the step, my lovely.” To the prudent counsel, “take care”, my instinctive reaction is to reach for Nietzsche’s “Live dangerously!”
And I know that all sorts of kind and good people are going to be asking me “Can you manage, dear?”, “Are you very lonely?”. I’m just going to have to be a well-behaved old gal, comply, and be grateful.
My philosophy of old age is to do as much as you can for as long as you can, and I fear that the Covid-19 house arrest will put a halt to my gallop, as the Irish say. I already look wistfully at our hi-speed trains, departing on the hour for St Pancras International. Will I ever see the inside of the London Library again? From the beach at Deal, we can glimpse the white cliffs of Calais and the twinkling lights of France: will I ever again board that ferry across the Channel? Will I never again walk by Galway Bay?
Food and loo rolls – who cares? It’s being deprived of the stimulus of life itself that’s so dismaying.