Friday, 3 July 2015

Book review: The Invisible Woman – Taking on the Vintage Years

“Middle age is not the problem – how we think about it is”.
There’s this weird thing that happens when you’re on Twitter. You follow someone because it looks as if you’ve got things in common, maybe even chat now and again, and then you find out they’re someone. Which, in my world, means they write for a proper newspaper or have a book out (both of which I aspire to).
The Invisible Woman felt like a friend before I realised she had a Guardian column (The Vintage Years) and she feels even more like one now that I’ve read her book.

Not just because she likes swearing, Twitter and salted caramel ice cream. But also because she speaks for me and all the people like me.
There are many times when I have nearly screamed at a young person – usually on the crowded streets of my nearby university town – “Am I fucking invisible?” That’s one of those true clichés, but the book isn’t just about that.
Invisibility means being written off. It means being ignored if you don’t conform to stereotypes.
One of the most unrealistic stereotypes is that older people are “gilded with comfortable privilege”. People who want our money would like to think we are all like that.
Well, Helen (who wrote the book) isn’t, and neither am I. The day I finished reading her book I saw this on Twitter: “Over-55s are more likely than anyone else to try new things, so, what are you waiting for?” Turns out their idea of new things is going on an expensive holiday. And the article’s in a magazine that exists to sell things to people who’ve got that elusive “grey pound”.
Well, there’s a lot of us who don’t have anything like that kind of money. And even if we did, we’d do something more interesting with it.
Helen’s philosophy of “carpe the fuck out of the diem” is a different sort of “trying new things”, and it’s at the core of the book – part memoir, part rant, slightly inspirational (but not in a bad way), and very much in the “personal is political” field.
There’s so much in this that rings true. Not admitting you’re middle aged til you’re almost out the other side. Being annoyed by cheerful coffee shop staff (“You do not know me and I do not know you. Let’s keep it that way.”). And some childhood memories (going to a birthday party in your old bridesmaid’s dress).
Then there’s the deeper stuff. She’s honest about the problems that come with age. The “little griefs” as you say goodbye to your younger self, the bigger ones as you face losses of different kinds. The culture of “ageist misogyny”. The patronisation and the prejudice, particularly in the job market. She’s got research to prove her points (medical, political, sociological, the lot), and her own life story to illustrate them.  Like many of us, she went from having a good job (PA to the editor of the Guardian) to having none – even after 500 job applications.
There’s the plus side too: the chance for self-affirmation and reinvention. And the knowledge that it’s not us who are the problem: it’s “a world that hasn’t caught on to the worth and brilliance of the middle-aged”.
It’s a good read, because she writes with energy and humour. There’s also sorrow, frustration and anger but ultimately defiance and hope. It ends with a rallying cry.
So what happens next? What are we rallying round?
Is it Gransnet? There are some good things happening there, although I hate the name because excludes the childless and the men. Is it the Age of No Retirement? It looks very bureaucratic. It’s probably not the government or PRIME. Is it us? Probably, but I don’t know how it’s going to happen.
I think there will be more books like this. There have been some already: Jane Shilling gets it right; India Knight gets it wrong. There are more things to be said about the reality of ageing and the knowledge that it’s not us that’s the problem.
The cult of youth must end some time. After all, the average age in Britain is now 40 (and guess what: it’s a problem). I don’t know where that leaves those of us closer to 60, though. And I expect 40 will become the new 20, or something.
Anyway, I’m ready for a fight and I know I’m not the only one. So what happens next?

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