Being very old isn’t much fun. I don’t have personal experience of elderly life yet, but I have it on good authority that it can be far from a picnic.
Before she died two weeks ago, my 96 year old grandma told me that old age was like inhabiting a tiny inhospitable island, with iPads, selfie sticks and Taylor Swift swarming around on the mainland in the distance, looking blurry and strange. Friends had almost all gone, and the memories of them slowly fading, too.
But as unsettling as it was for her, being left behind by the world, she did find something to relish about old age. Yes, her family, books, newspapers and the radio – but above all, she took great pleasure in saying exactly what she thought.
Several years ago she leant over a game of Scrabble and revealed to me, in hushed, gleeful tones, that she was stepping up her Old Age game. “I’ve realised that in your 90s, you can get away with not being diplomatic.”
I was reminded of this while writing a speech for her funeral, and Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess kept rattling around my head. Maggie Smith’s disapproving, ruthlessly opinionated and irreverent Violet Crawley was what kept me, and lots of others people, tuning into the period drama for so long, even when the plot lines were questionable.
Even if we knew who was going to betray who, or which new member of staff would sabotage the table decoration, we never quite knew what sharp-witted truth the Dowager would say next. And therein lay the thrill.
Some of Violet’s finest moments?
“Oh, it is you! I thought it was a man in your clothes.” – To Lady Mary after she got a 1920s bob.
Sir Richard Carlisle: “I’m leaving in the morning, Lady Grantham. I doubt we’ll meet again.”
Dowager Countess: “Do you promise?”
“I’m so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.” – To her American daughter-in-law, Cora.
Yep, the Dowager Countess was the, well, queen of Telling It Like It Is. And my granny’s decision to do the same wasn’t a massive shock to anyone who knew her. She’d never exactly kept her opinions to herself, but this was something else. From socks to dinner to euthanasia, it was all fair game. When I took her to the theatre I would grip my sweat-saturated limbs in fear her interrupting the actor mid-monologue to tell him he was mumbling too much.
But she was right. She could say what she wanted – and she did – and nobody could get too upset about it because she was old.
Apart from a few tricky moments which resulted in my dad having to formally apologise to friends and neighbours on my granny’s behalf, her honesty was mostly very refreshing. Even my mum, who was told her nail polish colour made her look like “a loose woman” and her newly re-designed garden was “neither practical nor aesthetically pleasing”, found it hysterically funny.
Because it’s actually quite exhausting being diplomatic all the time, isn’t it? I hadn’t realised how much time Brits spend being tactful until I spent a year living in Germany. When asked by a kind but shockingly dull colleague whether I’d like to visit a tapestry museum, rather than telling her I’d rather dive into concrete, I ended up on an extra-long guided tour with her and her entire family.
I soon realised this wouldn’t have happened if I’d been German, because I could have politely declined and said I wasn’t into embroidered canvas. I’d have been having a nice time somewhere, unfettered by extreme politeness.
So maybe Downton’s Dowager and my grandma, had the right idea. After all, on the WikiHow to ‘Being Diplomatic’ there are eight steps (eight!) and really, who has time for all that tact? Clearly neither woman ever read that website — and that’s how they got their kicks on their isolated islands of old age.
So watch out, family and friends – because thanks to Violet Crawley and my granny, I know exactly how I’m going to seek my thrills in old age…