x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

You're Looking Very Well could use a touch-up of analysis

Lewis Wolpert takes a scientific approach to this report on ageing, peppered with personal reflections and anecdotes. But his stats don't mean anything without any analysis.

You’re Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Getting Old by Lewis Wolpert (Faber and Faber)
You’re Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Getting Old by Lewis Wolpert (Faber and Faber)

At the end of a distinguished career as a scientist and writer, Lewis Wolpert has turned his hand to the subject of ageing. You're Looking Very Well is the result: a densely packed slew of quotes and facts revealing, among other things, that Trotsky thought ageing "the most unexpected of all things that can happen to a man", Betty Driver was still acting in the long-running British soap Coronation Street at the age of 90, and one quarter of Chinese people will be over 65 by 2050. What Wolpert thinks about these disparate items, we never really find out. His self-assigned task is merely to present the facts as they are, with his scientist's faith that there is such a thing as an uninflected, apolitical fact. It will please anyone fond of statistics, but those hoping for interpretation will be disappointed.

The book is subtitled The Surprising Nature of Getting Old, but contains surprisingly few surprises. At times it is a series of banal commonplaces prefaced with an acknowledgement of their redundancy. My favourites: "Not surprisingly, feeling left out is more common for those without a spouse or with a spouse with whom they do not have a close relationship" and "weight and other factors can affect how one looks".

Arranged into 15 chapters, from "Surprising" to "Enduring" via "Curing", "Preventing" and "Caring", among others, the book gives an overview of the research on ageing with interviews, public-sector reports, scientific papers, Freud, Darwin and so on. It represents an enormous amount of scholarship and erudition on Wolpert's part, but it all comes across as assemblage rather than analysis, with, say, a report by Age Concern and Freud's opinion on the value of psychoanalysis in old age presented with equal weight. Wolpert has many facts at his fingertips, but he rarely interrogates them. No sooner is a tidbit included than he's on to the next pearl of totally decontextualised wisdom.

At 81 years old, Wolpert is clearly concerned with ageing, and we get the occasional, fleeting glimpse of his own feelings and experiences on the subject: "When I meet friends whom I have not seen for some time I sometimes say, 'Shall we start at the top or the bottom?' We then tell about the pain in our foot, and then work our way up the body to describe how our brain has declined." This is Wolpert at his most confessional. Elsewhere, his views are subsumed into generalities sometimes poignant - "We elderly are constantly asking ourselves what makes life worth living" - at other times faintly visible - "It is reassuring that…" It's as though, to write coherently about ageing, Wolpert has had to hold his subjective experience of it at bay. A shame, because in his best-known book, Malignant Sadness, Wolpert delved into his own suffering to give an honest account of depression. You're Looking Very Well so fails to meet that standard of self-revelation that readers may be a little puzzled at Wolpert's announcement that he found the process of writing the book therapeutic. Perhaps ageing is so bleak a prospect that it's impossible to look at it head on.

Occasionally, Wolpert quotes someone else on their actual experience of growing old, and these moments come as a relief. Doris Lessing, for example, is unimpressed: "There are no good things about being old and I am short of everything." Unable to give his own perspective, Wolpert uses Lessing and others to voice the ambivalence he can't quite bring himself to express. He keeps telling us that positive thinking might help you live longer, but the book's salvation is not its moderately uplifting tone, but these brief, bracing moments of honesty.

Wolpert's tendency to flatten all of human life into a dreary list of statistics and field notes extends ever outward as the book goes on, eventually laying its cold, dead hand on whole cultures and religions: "There are modern religious mystics who believe in the possibility of achieving physical immortality through spiritual transformation," drones Wolpert. "An example is the Rastafarian and Jamaican singer Bob Marley." Oh, that Bob Marley.

With a magisterially even hand, Wolpert brings the same mechanical tone to everything from the sex lives of the elderly to the social inequalities that underlie differences in life expectancy. Regarding the latter, he tells us: "Lawyers and priests over 55 die at lower rates than blacksmiths and ironworkers, and at even lower rates when over 75." He touches on this subject a number of times, but ultimately glosses over the economic inequalities that sees the wealthy playing golf at 95 while the poor die of overwork. Extending lifespan for a lucky few is a technologically enabled luxury, not a public health triumph. But Wolpert is speaking for his own tribe: the privileged few for whom the issue is not how to stay alive past retirement but whether or not to opt for euthanasia. He is a fan of the latter. "I once proposed we all should have a gene which ensured painless death when we were 80."

Somewhat self-servingly, Wolpert defends old men against the belief that their performance might flag as they grow older: "It is important to dispel the myth that as men get older their sexual abilities will significantly decrease." Exactly why this is important, we never find out. Sophocles was relieved to have escaped the "mad and furious master" of the libido in old age - Wolpert has no truck with this kind of laziness. He sounds quite stern when he says: "Old age can provide a useful excuse for men whose sexual abilities are failing." It is reminiscent of Slavoj Zizek's rendering of the Lacanian superego, with its terrible command, "Enjoy!" One starts to imagine a not-too-far-off dystopia in which sex is just part of the array of functions that the elderly are expected to keep up for fear of being packed off for compulsory euthanasia.

Wolpert the unflappable rationalist is unmoved even by his own shocking facts. A description of routine neglect of the elderly in UK hospitals and care homes wraps up with the polite observation that "staff and managers blamed bureaucracy for stopping them delivering more dignified care". Just to clarify, that is "more dignified" than an old woman being left naked and covered in urine in public view in a hospital ward. In place of Wolpert's moderate tone, you long for anger, or even curmudgeonly irritation befitting his grand old age. But his passionless, steady delivery improves on its home territory: scientific research.

Wolpert is right that attitudes to the elderly can be dismissive or even abusive. Yet the solution to this might not be to posit old age as identical to youth in every way save for proximity to death. Wolpert points out that the old can still be productive citizens, as if that were the measure of their continued worth. This ever-extending near-eternity of work and energetic leisure pursuits is a dispiriting vision of a pauseless youth, in which neither time nor experience will be enough to get us off the treadmill. Of course, old age is frightening because death is frightening. But a present that stretches on and on without hope of change is scarier still.

Hannah Forbes Black is a writer and artist who lives in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and Intelligence Squared.