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Penny Mirren: On top of the hill (not over it)

Penny Mirren: On top of the hill (not over it)

I grew up in the eighties, which as any nostalgic footage from the era will show, was a decade of contrasts. Whilst the youth strut their stuff in acid-washed denim and chewed on Juicy Fruit gum, many of the older generations loitered in more familiar territory where imperial mints and smelling salts were still the order of the day, along with Bryl-creamed hair and trilby hats and sausages fried in lard. For some, retirement meant word-searches, an episode of Going for Gold, well-tended lawns, hand-buffed Ford Sierras and heart-pills, chugged down with full-fat milk. Many seemed old before their time.

These days, things are quite different. My mum is sixty-nine (sorry Mum), and like most of her contemporaries, she has a smart phone, tablet, laptop and social media accounts. We frequently and accidentally buy clothes from the same high street shops and have to co-ordinate the wearing of them accordingly. If her health permitted, she would still be relishing the job she’d previously enjoyed as a classroom assistant and would be excelling at it too.

The gap between generations has closed, facilitated in part by technology; we are now more connected and increasingly reliant upon it, as – demographically speaking – we no longer live in one another’s pockets, as we may have done in the past. But perhaps the real sea-change is in attitudes. We are now a nation who, if not always in practice, eschew the pitfalls of old age and forge our own paths. We are well-informed. Medicine has advanced. We are living longer.

You need only look at the big screen to see how the perceived barrier of age is being smashed away at every turn. The mighty Emma Thompson, for example, and the phenomenal Dawn French, to name just two powerhouse women, are the same age as Maggie Lawford – the central protagonist of my debut novel The Unretirement, who finds herself widowed in the early days of retirement and adrift in her suddenly changed life. It’s incomprehensible to imagine either Thompson or French ever retiring, they are at the pinnacle of their careers and all the better for it. Indeed, for Thompson’s recent movie Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, she stripped completely nude for a scene (a prospect that has most of us zipping our hoodies to the chin and crossing our legs at the thought). And, speaking of nudity – have we ever thought of the Women’s Institute in the same way, since Calendar Girls burst onto our screens? Women over the age of sixty-five are far from over-the-hill, they are very much standing on the summit armed with buckets of f**k-it’s to lob at anyone who suggests otherwise.

Times have changed, and so have the older generations. Remember the confusing and terrifying days of Covid? If lock-down and social restrictions, coupled with harrowing statistics and hospital TV footage wasn’t enough to scare the bejesus out of us, then the panicked rallying cries for retired doctors, consultants, nurses and care workers to come back into the fold, was. As a society, we needed our elders. We needed their expertise, their resilience and their work ethic. And interestingly, four years later, we are still beseeching our retired NHS workers to consider returning to work to tackle long waiting lists.

I asked my mum recently about her own wider circle of friends. Like Maggie, she is part of a strong village community and a member of the WI (to my knowledge, they keep their clothes on). She knows of many men and women, who since taking retirement, have returned to work. Reasons for this vary hugely. Some desired the financial benefits of returning to paid employment, some have taken voluntary posts as a way to fill their time. Some had been enticed by the lure of a cottage industry, only now having time to explore their suppressed creativity. Others simply couldn’t embrace the prospect of having nothing to do.

How many people out there have spent the best part of their working lives wondering if they could have been teachers, authors, librarians, archaeologists, film stars? OK – so perhaps reinventing yourself as a neurosurgeon in your seventh decade when you’ve only ever trained in bookkeeping is being overambitious, but who is to say it’s ever too late to try something new? Is there an age limit on treading the boards? Of course not. Are we ever too old to teach new skills to others? Or to learn them for that matter. Who is to stop you from joining a local archaeological dig, attending college, taking a job in the Coop? And why shouldn’t you put pen to paper and write your story? You have much to tell.

In The Unretirement, Maggie realizes that her new status as a retired widow, whilst utterly devastating, is also an opportunity. An opportunity to revisit the dreams she abandoned a lifetime ago of becoming a professional chef. Why shouldn’t she get back out there and carve a new role for herself? She trained in catering as a young woman, before embarking on an administrative career instead. She’s cooked all her life. She literally has nothing to lose, apart, perhaps, from her pride, but at sixty-five she has something many younger people don’t have – the ability to not give a damn what other people think.

The swelling shelves of popular fiction featuring later life characters demonstrates that as readers, we want to hear these inspirational character’s stories. We want to see representation of the older people in our lives that we know to be savvy, wise, fun-loving, flawed, experienced and resilient. Check out the brilliant works of Clare Pooley, Kate Galley, Caroline James and Judy Leigh to name just a few. There are so many wonderful authors out there giving a voice to our elders, thank goodness. Because isn’t all of life an adventure? And there are no limits to the number of adventures we are permitted to have. After all, one person’s dream of retiring to warmer climes with a set of golf clubs and an Aperol Spritz, has no greater value than another’s joy at returning to employment and enriching each day with new and meaningful interactions.

Penny Mirren’s debut novel, The Unretirement, is published by Avon on 23 May 2024
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