‘Of a Certain Age': Wisdom Through the Eyes of Some Fascinating Old People

A Mark Clarfield, MD, FCFP, FRCPC

As a geriatrician, I was initially put off by the idea of a book full of interviews with famous people&emdash;just because they had attained "a certain age."

But I was wrong.

"Of a Certain Age" by Naim Attallah (Quartet Books, 1992) is well worth the read. The 14 people featured all have had fascinating pasts. They are now quite old (average age 70) and are just as--perhaps more--interesting for having aged so well.

Mostly Bruits, they represent primarily the English uppercrust--a group once described by a wag as "a bunch of crumbs held together by dough."

And some are indeed crumbs--Clause von Bulow and Lady Diana Mosely are two excellent examples. Many are wealthy, but all are worth the listen. There are professors, judges, writers, publishers and sophisticated hangers-on--all expertly interviewed by the British writer and publisher Naim Attallah.

I am not the kind of Jewish reader who divides up members of humanity depending on their attitudes towards my ethnic group. However, in this book it is difficult not to be struck by how these old grandees self-differentiate so clearly into two groups: anti- and philo-Semitic.

At one end of the spectrum stands Diana Mosely, one of the celebrated Mitford girls and the wife of Oswald Mosely, leader of the wartime British Union of Fascists. Today, she lives a quiet, unrepentant life in southern France. Her interview really is a bit awe-inspiring. In it, Lady Diana speaks in such a matter-of-fact manner about her close relations with things Nazi.

For example, relating to her friendship with Hitler. "Unity (Diana's sister) loved and adored him, thought him utter perfection. I never felt like that about him but I did admire him very much for what he had done."

Standing in stark contrast is the Irish politician, writer and editor, Conor Cruise O'Brien.

He is so unabashedly on the side of the Jews: "...[My] degree of sympathy for Israel is based on the realization that Israel is the result of horrendously extreme conditions ... it's an emotional issue with me."

A more "balanced" view is noted by many of those interviewed.

For example, Lord Deedes, an eminent Member of Parliament and publisher, in describing his father's views:

"He had what you might call the Edwardian, old Eton conscience, and I look back on him as a very respected Christian socialist. He was left of centre for what might be described as inner reasons rather than ideology.

"There was one period, for example, when he bought every book he could lay his hands on about Mussolini. There was an endearing enthusiasm about my father's political beliefs and in the early stages he even thought Hitler might do Germany a bit of good."

Another experience, which so many of these famous oldsters seem to have in common, was that of an unhappy childhood and/or a fearful disdain for their parents. Return for a moment to Lady Mosely, not unlike many children of her time and class: "In a way, the person who meant most to me ... was my nanny. I loved her far more than I did my parents.."

[Far more bizarre experiences seemed to have "dogged" young Diana. In answer to a question relating to her father who on occasion would chase the children with the family canine: "I don't think that he was nearly as eccentric as people imagine. You see, he had a bloodhound, and it was rather fun to hunt with him. And we children were there, available…"

She goes on to reassure us that "he didn't hunt us very often... and in any case the bloodhound died."]

A less bizarre, but equally characteristic description of the childhood suffered by so many of the upper class comes from Lord Deedes. He is ashamed "to this day" that his relationship with his own son did not differ significantly from the cold and distant rapport Lord Deedes had with his own father.

"Frankly I was neglectful and I treated my children as my father treated me." And so typical of his generation and class: "...of course, there were nurses and governesses to look after them."

The oh-so-Anglo temperament of these old-timers is much in evidence. Their command of the Queen's English is one of the delights of the book. (And keep in mind that these are merely interviews.) For example, take Lord Deedes once again. In describing a pessimistic view of mankind, he characterizes our species as "being born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards."

There are also many examples of the classic British use of understatement. One of those interviewed, by any estimate a brilliant and supremely accomplished man, is asked a question about his weaknesses. The response: "Every now and again, I get mildly alarmed at the extent to which someone of my rather limited intellectual capacity has succeeded in doing certain things."

The interviewees in the book are all old people and surprisingly, a few have some interesting things to say about aging. One elderly lady talks about a fear greater than that of dying itself: her concerns relating to the manner of her death.

"I'd like to be somebody with a weak heart and then I could simply have a heart attack. But alas, it won't be like that."

Publisher John Murray is asked if he is more or less certain of his opinions as he ages. He responds, "Less sure" and goes on to offer a beautiful quote by Goethe on the subject:

"To be uncertain is uncomfortable, to be certain is ridiculous."

He offers another tasty little quote on the subject of aging: "Man is not old when his teeth decay. Man is not old when his hair turns grey. But man is approaching his last long sleep when his mind makes appointments his body cannot keep."

On the question of the possibility of an afterlife, one that I am sure becomes more pressing with age, Lord Shawcross (chief British prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials) offers the following delightful response:

"It may be that as I get nearer the end [he was 90 at the time of the interview], I become more hopeful that the end will not be final, that there might be something beyond it. But it doesn't absorb much of my thinking even now. All I can say is that I have a little hope that I may meet 'round the corner' those who have preceded me."

The same Lord Shawcross goes on to confirm my non-clinical impression that mourning for a beloved spouse often goes on much longer than is commonly supposed, even among those who are well adjusted:

"My enthusiasm for life did rather come to an end with the death of my second wife, which did come as a terrible shock to me."

And, in response to whether he believes he will ever see her again: "I hope I may. I carry in my pocketbook, even today, something that one sees quoted much more often in memorial services: 'Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I and you are you. What we were to each other we are still. Call me by my familiar name.'

Not surprisingly, given the age of those interviewed, some will have had some interesting childhood memories of people long dead, and places inexorably changed. A particularly evocative example relates to John Murray (the sixth in a line of namesake publishers).

His grandfather (John Murray IV) was ill and young John was a schoolboy home on holiday. Grandad mentioned that a distinguished author was coming to visit.

John IV to John VI: "I think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is calling today. Will you be kind to him? I hope he may be bringing another typescript."

Conan Doyle did, in fact, come that day, to deliver the very last volume of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and, "I was so staggered by this distinguished man's courtesy to a young whippersnapper like me that I thought: if this is an author, let me spend my life with authors."

And he did.

Also on the issue of aging, we read one of the funniest lines in the book. Lord Soper is quoted as stating that the continued existence of the House of Lords has, among other things, reaffirmed his belief in life after death.

The question for Canadian readers, of course, is whether milord's comments are relevant to our own Upper House.

One of the most poignant expressions, also by Lord Soper, happens to be contained in the last two sentences of the book. In answer to whether he had any regrets, his Lordship responds: "An infinite number. At my age one's sense of failure in the past is an interesting and solemnizing experience. You haven't much time in which to put things right. Which makes me say better prayers than I used to."

This book is a lovely read. Especially if you are interested in the wisdom (and sometimes cant) of an extraordinary stable of old people who aged along with the past century.

Dr. Clarfield, MD, FRCSC, is the Chief of Geriatrics, Soroka Hospital Centre, a Professor and Sidonie Hecht Chair of Gerontology, Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva, Israel , and an Adjunct Professor in the Division of Geriatric Medicine, McGill University and Jewish General Hospital, Montreal, QC.