Tag Archives: Ageing

All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageI was initially attracted to Elizabeth Hay’s memoir for the same reason I read Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage: I’d enjoyed several of her novels very much, in particular Late Nights on Air. Truth be told, though, aren’t we all fascinated by other people’s families, perhaps looking for similarities with our own or thankful that ours isn’t anything like the writer’s? Hay’s relationship with her parents had always been a tricky one but when they move across Ontario into a retirement home just down the road from Hay and her husband, she finds herself struggling with their slow decline into decrepitude. All Things Consoled is a recounting of those years and the family history that came before.

Gordon and Jean Hay married in 1943 when they were twenty-four. He was a history teacher, proud of his long career but never confident, strict both at home and at school. She became an artist, painting pictures of the natural world and enjoying a small degree of success while determined to carve out some space for herself. Hay was the third of their four children, seemingly locked in a difficult relationship with a father who found it impossible to praise her achievements and whose temper resulted in violent punishments until she was twelve. When the family spent a year in London, the world opened up to her, paving the way to university. Visits home to her parents were hedged about with disappointment and dismay at her mother’s apparent inability to stand up to her father’s irascibility. Her parents seem determinedly hunkered down in the family home but after a medical crisis and the beginnings of her mother’s dementia, they agree to move. It’s Hay who steps forward, taking responsibility although she’s unsure quite why she’s done so. For three years, she visits her parents daily, trying to cope with the sheer grind of caring for two people, themselves slowly ground down by the long slow process of extreme old age. Several years after her parents’ deaths, Hay sets down her reflections in the hope of coming to an understanding of her relationship with them.

I arrived at their rooms and here were the two vivid giants in my life – still massive no matter how shrunken they had become, while for them I suppose I had grown huge  

Some of Hay’s descriptions will be all too painfully familiar to those whose own parents have endured a long decline or seen others at close quarters – hard enough when the relationship has been a good one. Inevitably, her book is as revealing about herself as it is about her parents, their scratchy yet close relationship and her attempts to understand them, particularly her father whose approval she’d craved and, eventually, realises she’d had all along. Hay’s use of langauge is as graceful in her non-fiction as in her fiction, and her demented mother’s poetic expressions are both poignantly apt and beautiful. It reminded me of Blake Morrison’s long-ago bestseller And When Did You Last See Your Father ?, no small compliment. We’re all unreliable narrators of our own stories but Hay’s memoir has a loud ring of truth about it. Let’s hope the writing of it helped soothe her hurts.

Ammonites and Leaping Fish: Ageing with grace and eloquence

Cover imageBeing of a certain age, I have several over-80s in my life and have lost several more dear to me in recent years. Some have aged well – I have a lovely memory of my 90-year-old aunt executing high kicks in her kitchen a few months before she died, delighted when H couldn’t match her – and some not so well. Penelope Lively seems to be managing it with grace and eloquence. The first part of her evocatively named Ammonites and Leaping Fish is a meditation on how it feels to be old: the loss of a beloved husband, the bodily aches and pains, the solaces and the changes seen. It leads us to a chapter on Lively’s life, an essay on context: her childhood in Cairo, her experience of the Second World War, how it felt to view the Suez Crisis from Britain while feeling more affinity with Egypt and bringing up a family in the Cold War. The chapter on memory talks of Lively’s fascination with the way that memory works and how that fascination has played into her fiction. We learn more of her own life through a series of snapshots – her most vivid memories from each of her eight decades – illustrating the way in which our memory changes as we get older. Perhaps inevitably, my favourite chapter is on reading and writing. Reading has always been a fundamental part of Lively’s life. She talks eloquently of the way in which reading feeds into writing, of finding what you like often through reading what you don’t like, of the books to which she returns and names her three desert island novels – Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, William Golding’s The Inheritors and, much to my delight, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, a personal favourite. I defy any reader not to enjoy a warm cosy glow when they read the sentence ‘To read is to experience.’ The final chapter takes six of her favourite possessions, including the eponymous ammonites and leaping fish, illustrating them and explaining why they are so important to her. It’s not so much a memoir as a series of carefully considered reflections which together form a beautifully expressed illumination of a long life.

The Observer’s New Reading column mentioned several reviews on Amazon complaining about the rip-off price of £1.99 for Lively’s short story, Abroad, which both saddened and annoyed me. As H pointed out £1.99 will buy you around a third to a half a glass of wine depending on the quality, and I’m sure the quality was high. We’ve all become used to paying very little for books but perhaps we forget to consider how much enjoyment, and some times enlightenment, we’re buying, and how many people need to be paid to produce a book, not least the author although they often are at the bottom of the pile. What do you think? Is £1.99 too much for 4,000 well-chosen words or do you think it’s fair?