Being ninety we are

the generation whose fathers fought

in the First World War

Old age is a bit of a mystery.  How did we get here?  How much further are we going?

I wrote this for Sceptical Scot poetry section, fired by a new poem by an old friend and prose by John Harris which hit a spot. A tender spot. In a looking glass world, the over-70s face indefinite lockdown while Covid-19 rampages through scandalously unprotected care homes.

I’m not ninety, not yet anyway though I have lived in hope that I might have inherited some of the genes of my Great Aunty Ada who survived Spanish flu, served as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, dug her new garden as a ninety-year-old and died at the age of 106 just before the turn of the 21st Century.

Would she have survived Covid-19? I don’t know. But I know she did not really consider herself old until she was nearing her 100th birthday. So I also delight in the robust letter of Hella Pick to the Guardian in protest at ‘an insult against a massive group of able-bodied, hard-working people who are making important contributions to society.’ She is 91.

And look to France where plans for Monday’s (11 May) cautious opening up initially excluded the over-70s but government backed-off after a deafening uproar from the ‘soixantehuitards’. Ah, 1968 – the year of revolutions. Lets not give in. We will need plenty adventurous rebels of all ages if we are to discover the means to ‘build back better’. Now, please read on and (if you haven’t already done so) take a trip to Sceptical Scot to explore further.

‘Old men ought to be explorers’ – old women too, for that matter. But the line is from TS Eliot’s East Coker, his deeply personal poem written in 1940. Confronting a fear that he might never write another poem, Eliot produced a long muscular discourse on human life, the second of the Four Quartets, full of memorable lines and the lingering refrain.  ‘In my beginning is my end’.     

Eighty years later our days are full of endings.  In a pandemic there is no exploring, not in the wider world anyway. Old men and women restricted to the safety of their own homes are faced with the daunting prospect of endless confinement.  Even worse, the risk of living with an invidious new form of age discrimination: It’s for our own good! So, as John Harris writes in his Guardian column: ‘there is talk of those aged over 70 – millions of whom are fit, active and as involved in their communities as anyone else – being instructed to carry on living under lockdown.’ 

Covid-19 wreaks havoc across every generation. We grandparents fear a blighted future for the grandchildren we long to be near, we foresee the lost livelihoods of so many of our children, furloughed or redundant.  John Harris highlights the injustices and iniquities compounded by life in lockdown but warns of the dangers of stereotyping the old as burdens on society; entrenching a cultural attitude to old age.  He ends with a comment from a Birmingham community worker that stuck in his mind:  ‘Javed Iqbal, explained that he had lost 11 older relatives to Covid-19, a loss not just to him and his family, but to wider society. “These are the pillars of our community: our elders,” he said.’

The elders of any family are a living timeline, the human link between where we have come from and where we are going, a complex collective lifetime, as TS Eliot saw it, ‘burning in each moment’. Perversely, the wars so often evoked by politicians, it was the flaming of the next generation that was untimely snuffed out. Such thoughts emerge from a new poem written before the pandemic, the reflections of a man in his tenth decade, walking by the river near his home. And wondering…

Officially Sir Charles Fraser – he was knighted in 1989 when he was still a partner of the Edinburgh law firm WJ Burness – the name is well known in the Scottish corporate and civic establishment.  A pillar, you might say. But Charlie is a man of many other parts:  bagpiper, gardener and, now, poet.

Being Ninety is the opening shot in a first selection of poems exploring far and wide – nature, urban jungle, global warming, science, war, travel, change, poetry – and published here with his permission.

Alzheimer’s is cruel.

Contemporaries sit in box-like rooms

and stare. No papers, no books.

            Photographs trigger few memories.

            Sentences begun are rarely finished,

            causing frowns of frustration. I too

get annoyed when putting a nut on

a bolt and fail to get the thread the

first turn. Being ninety we are

the generation whose fathers fought

in the First World War. Distant memories

stir. Mention is made of Ypres,

            The Menin Gate, The Dardanelles.

Home again I walk by the river,

sidestepping willow herb and

hogweed. Katie, sniffing as

she goes, scampers ahead.

Mallard dabble in the shallows,

a dipper flits to the next stone.

            As our fathers left contemporaries

            on the fields of war and wondered

at their own survival, so I being

ninety wondered.

Charles Fraser

Featured image: Hogweed by Andy Magee CC BY-NC-ND 2.0