Books

A great vintage: Getting older is rich with opportunity

James Roose-Evans, aged 91, documented a year of his splendid maturity

Illustration by Joseph Joyce

When I became 90 it seemed especially important to record my entry into my 10th decade. Often people my age describe themselves as old, and when they do I tell them, “No, you are older, that is very different!” The word “old” with its final ‘d’ sounds like a coffin door closing, signalling the end. Whereas the word “growing” suggests, health permitting, further growth. What excites me is that the journey continues right up to the last moment, for, as TS Eliot wrote, “Old men ought to be explorers… we must be still and still moving.” And, without a doubt, I am still exploring.

In my long life, I have known failure, despair, bleakness, lack of work, lack of money, betrayals and disappointments, and yet, at each impasse, by learning to be patient (and here the regular practice of meditation is a great help) a door has always opened, inviting me to make new discoveries. And so even now in old age I rejoice that I am still learning, and also unlearning! For it is important to shed if one is to put on new growth. There is a pattern and a purpose that makes each life unique, though sadly many never learn this. 

Looking back I am aware that the first 20 years of my life were fraught. Like so many people, my youth was disorientating, dizzyingly so. For so long I searched to little avail for a sense of acceptance, a sense of peace. Because my mother loved moving I went to some 16 schools, all around the country, and we lived in many more homes. Every time I felt settled, I was soon unsettled, and every ounce of hard-won clarity was soon lost to complications and confusion. It is unsurprising therefore that I had a breakdown when I was just 20 years old. The pace of life when one is young can be so unsustainable, and the directions we are travelling so elusive, which is perhaps why I, and so many others, learn to treasure these slower years.

At that period I didn’t know whether I was meant to be some kind of monk, writer, teacher, actor – I didn’t then even consider the possibility of being a theatre director. In the course of time I came to realise that I am and therefore can be all of these roles, and the challenge has been knowing how to weave all of these seemingly disparate strands into one pattern. I can write and teach and act and also help those in need, watch over people, offer people closure like any monk or priest. It is very much like the task faced by a director on the first day of rehearsal; how to weld a group of highly individual actors into an ensemble so that each complements the other.

Life continues, in all its splendidness and stubbornness, right until the very end

After my breakdown I sought help and was fortunate enough to discover a Jungian analyst who enabled me to assemble the bits of my own jigsaw so that I could become the person I was meant to be. Now, as I look at this jigsaw, with all of its colours and stories, I am aware that there are still pieces to be assembled, even though to many it might seem finished. Some pieces, however, are so crucial, and I cherish them, like the very memory of my love and life partner to whom I was devoted for 54 years. I feel him still, almost every day, and I don’t doubt that so many others who have lost their other halves feel this too – the proximity of those who have passed on, and in fact the emptiness which comes with knowing they are so very far away.

In 1954 a special dinner was held at the Garrick Club to honour the writer Somerset Maugham. Maugham was introduced, took the stand and said in his very bad stammer, “There are many virtues… in… growing old,” before a pause which grew longer and longer, before finally he said, “I’m… just trying to think what they are!” There was instantaneous laughter and applause. However, I have come to understand that there are, in fact, many virtues in growing old, I only hope you can come to understand these virtues too. 

Older, the documentation of a year of being just that, is the best proof I can offer those who fret about ageing that life continues, in all its splendidness and stubbornness, right until the very end.

James Roose-Evans’ Older: A Thought Diary is released on October 2 (Zuleika, £9.99)

Illustration: Joseph Joyce

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw
Books

Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age
Books

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age

Fragile Animals by Genevieve Jagger review – a captivating and original gothic novel
Books

Fragile Animals by Genevieve Jagger review – a captivating and original gothic novel

From castle walls to Banksy: How graffiti has given us the writing on the wall throughout history
Graffiti

From castle walls to Banksy: How graffiti has given us the writing on the wall throughout history

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know