I have just spent three years in the company of some of the most remarkable people in Britain. You probably won’t know them personally – or even bother to think about them, yet they are everywhere in our midst. Often they are treated by society with indifference or even contempt – all the more appalling since they, along with their rare human qualities, are rapidly passing from us.
They are what are sometimes labelled the “extremely elderly” and I got close to a large number of them as part of a quest to document the experiences of the last survivors of the generation who served Britain during the second world war. Far from the jaundiced stereotype often projected by society, my encounters yielded a life-affirming picture of the rare and mostly unsung qualities of the very oldest generation of British people still alive. More than a hundred of them remininsced about their experiences, achievements, aspirations and disappointments for a new book as the close of their very long lives draws near.
It is astonishing to think that those who had direct involvement with the 1939-45 conflict will soon be gone. Many of them are quiet heroes and heroines of events that would be unthinkable today, but the signature modesty of their generation would forbid them from ever proclaiming it. Now they are inexorably slipping away, mostly unnoticed in a society that has changed more in their lifetimes than any other generation in history. By definition these wartime survivors are at least octogenarians, and if they were serving adults in 1939-45, are now well into their nineties. These are the last batallions of an army that is now fast marching into the sunset. Soon “those who are left” will be dead, and their memories departed with them.
Great old age makes this generation rare in another sense, too. In his book, The View in Winter, Ronald Blythe remarks that if the folk of renaissance or Georgian times could return they would be as astonished by the number of old people in Britain as they would by a television. In those times, not many generations ago, wrote Blythe, “it was the exception to go grey, to reach the menopause, to retire, to become senile and to acquire that subtle blend of voice, skin and behavioural changes which features so largely in our long-lived times.”
Long-lived and – in the case of many of my interviewees, vibrant and full of energy, too. Among those I met, there was also seemingly little resentment of a society that no longer venerates the old. When I went to meet 88-year-old Richard, one of the most distinguished railwaymen of his generation, he met me at the station in his own car and cooked me lunch in his neatly kept house with well-trimmed lawns while we talked without sentimentality about how he helped keep the trains running during the Blitz. Yes, his wife had died and, no, his children did not live nearby. But he was proud of his independence, and if he was lonely, dignity would not permit him to let on.
Then there was Reg, 89, a former engineer, who had witnessed the bombing of Coventry from his back garden in 1941 before heading out fearlessly the next morning to help get the city moving again. He was now confined to to his small modern house on the outskirts of a Midlands new town, where I suspect too few people dropped by. But he still kept up with developments in his industry and – ever the engineer – delighted in showing off the intricacies of his stairlift.
Housebound, too, was Kathleen, who still lived in her girlhood home near Stratford-upon-Avon. Now at 88 almost totally blind, with her only relative more than 100 miles away and seriously ill himself, she could still giggle about her wartime role as the first woman porter on the railways in a world dominated by men. For some, mental frailty meant the shutters were coming down on what remained of memory. “But when you talk to Mum, you might be surprised at what comes back,” the daughter of 92-year-old Audrey told me. And sure enough, recollections of fearless years as a wartime nurse came tumbling out with astonishing vividness.
One of youngest I interviewed – 82-year-old Alf Norris – defied every stereotype of the elderly. As a boy, he was the last to be pulled from the scene of the worst single disaster of the war in which 173 died in a crush on the steps to Bethnal Green tube station in the biggest single disaster of the war. He wept as he told me the story, as vivid now as it was to him seventy years ago. But there was no self-pity here – Alf was busy campaigning for the erection of a memorial to the victims, and he wasn’t going to “let go” until it was built.
Yet people such as Alf often fail to get the honour they deserve. Maybe this is because, as Blythe remarks, “unable to love the old, we approach them via sentiment, duty and an eye to our own eventual decline. We care for them without real interest and believe they must be unhappy because we would not be happy to be old.” Yet, contrary to the stereotype of grumpy old men and women, a major survey by Warwick University in 2012 of 10,000 people found that we actually get happier when we get older, despite a decrease in our physical abilities.
One of the happiest I encountered was 92-year-old Dick Sheen – who had almost been left behind by history. Having trouble locating a Dunkirk survivor, I approached the Forces charities in vain. One breezy PR woman told me “Oh, the Dunkirk lot packed up long ago.” Then a BBC colleague remembered Dick, a retired printer from west Wales, who had just written and published his own book of Dunkirk memories, travelling the hundreds of miles to his old stamping ground at Dover in the process, not seeming to have paused for breath in a life of more than nine decades.
But this is not to pretend everyone was full of relish. Michael, a retired solicitor, had spent a lifetime of spare moments cataloguing an archive of books and documents. It was a magnificent collection, much consulted by historians. But it had brought him sadness, too, since his grown-up sons were not interested and he planned to dispose of it bit by bit. “You can’t even trust libraries to care for whole collections these days, he told me. “Better for me to sell individual items before I die. At least I know their value”
But this was an exception. I came away from my journey into the country of old age, not dispirited, but with a sense of wonder and humility – the closing words of Shakespeare’s King Lear ringing in my ears: “We that are young shall never see so much…”
‘Steaming to Victory’ by Michael Williams will be published by Preface, a division of Random House, in May