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.
There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
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