The unfashionable face of old age

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


It’s several years since I first read this novel. I loved it then for its subtlety, perception and gentle humour. Those same qualities come across to me now, but as I’m so much older myself, the story of a group of lonely and ill-assorted old people facing decrepitude and death makes more uncomfortable reading. It’s tragic that Elizabeth Taylor was so undervalued in her own time, and is now almost forgotten in a world that is ever more influenced by youth, genres and trends.



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Chicks, Biddies and Breaking Boundaries

I’ve never been much good at fitting into boxes. Just look at my biography and you’ll see what I mean. Academic qualifications, zany life-style choices. ‘What sort of woman is this?’ you might wonder.

My writing meets with much the same response. A fellow student on the MA once said, ‘I can equally imagine Ruth’s work as a fledgling best seller, or put forward for the Booker Prize.’ Now I don’t claim she meant that I’m a genius waiting to be discovered, simply that my writing style doesn’t fit easily into one genre.

‘It’s part women’s fiction, part literary fiction,’ one of my tutors complained. ‘You have to make up your mind which it’s to be.’ Agents and consultants agree. ‘The problem is,’ they say, ‘it’s hard to market a book that blends genres.’

I’m sure they’re right. They know far more about the bookselling business than I do. But I still find it difficult to believe that there aren’t readers out there who have the intellect to enjoy novels with depth, as well as the experience to identify with what might seem ‘romantic and silly’, to quote one Amazon reviewer.

And yet . . . read on to see where the nub lies.

‘I had to persist with this book, but my persistence was richly rewarded. I initially found it romantic and silly, and I was irritated that men seemed to be so poorly understood and represented. However ………. I gradually realised I had been cleverly drawn in. I became sympathetic to this group of very imperfect characters, recognising in them my own silly and vulnerable humanity. I enjoyed the way events surprised me and kept me wondering where we were going. And why. I didn’t want to finish the book and felt bereft when I did. I hope Ruth Larrea will continue with this story. I think this belongs to an important and evolving genre about the life, loves and opportunities for people of ‘the third age’. It left me feeling younger and more hopeful. Thank you Ruth.’

Oh yes, I forgot to mention that this particular reader is a man. As far as I know, the only man — so far — to read it. Don’t men make mistakes in love, too?

So what about his idea that this might belong to a new genre – dealing with ‘the life, loves and opportunities for’ us oldies? After all, plenty of us enjoy reading. As one survey claims, 70% of Kindle owners are over 40. (https://www.cnet.com/news).

Some time ago I coined a possible term for this new genre. One that reviews the silly and romantic mistakes of youth with the wisdom of old age . . . .

Biddy Lit.

Disclaimer: in no way are my lovely friends in the photos related to the silly, imperfect characters in my novel! I simply include them to illustrate the value of long-lasting friendships which Rosie eventually discovers.


Dolor y Gloria

A fascinating interview on TVE this week with Pedro Almodovar about his latest film, Dolor y Gloria, thought to be his most autobiographical yet.

The story draws on events from his formative years.

‘I had to look into the darkest part of myself,’ he said.

‘Although it starts from myself, as I was writing, it transformed into fiction.’

Yes! That’s what I love in novels, too. Stories that grow out of the writer’s experience of life, yet evolve their own reality.

You can keep all your fantasies and thrillers with their cleverly contrived plots. What move me most are stories that sink their roots deep into real-life events, yet stretch their branches towards the sky.

Elena Ferrante? Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Tim Winton?

In my own small way I, too, love to weave fact and fiction in my writing, and find it uniquely fulfilling.

As Almodovar says, ‘Writing is the only therapy to forget the unforgettable.’

Pain and glory, indeed.

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My debut novel Fragments of a Dream is the story of Rosie’s search for lost love, set in Athens and the Greek island of Hydra. It’s a bittersweet tale that will make you laugh, cry and reflect on life’s complexities.

Click the link above, or go to the Home page and sign up to receive the 1st chapter FREE!


My new author website!

After an obstacle course of technical hitches, I’ve at last managed to update my author website, complete with new layout and photos!

As well as this blog, there are now pages on my debut novel, Fragments of a Dream, (set in Athens and the Greek island of Hydra), other novels in progress, writing courses I’ve attended, the joys of ESOL teaching, and some – but by no means all – of my life experiences.

On the Home page you can read all about Fragments of a Dream: a book description, reader reviews, and even sign up for the first chapter FREE!



The immigrant, the bank clerk and the old lady

I’m at my Spanish bank, wondering which queue to join. The one for the teller, alone behind a glass screen, or the one for the gestor, who sits at a desk and deals personally with customers’ accounts? I’m not sure, so I hover between the two, trying to see which moves faster.

Yesterday, in a different part of town, a cash machine swallowed my card and I caused a bit of a scene. I’d already stood for ages in one long line, and when I was left card-less and cashless, I butted in to another and asked what I should do. I must have raised my voice, because several people, waiting patiently, swung round to look at me. 

It turned out that my card had expired. Silly me. I was told to go to my own branch to collect the new one. In England it would have been sent by post, well before the old card gave up the ghost. With blood pressure rising, and already weary from other bureaucratic nightmares, I steeled myself to accept that this was one more of those mysterious Spanish norms I hadn’t yet mastered.

So here I am today, waiting my turn and trying not to get rattled while clients in front of me deal with their transactions — mostly payment of bills which surely they could arrange by direct debit — when the silence is broken by an angry outburst. We all look up. A young man is letting rip in a torrent of broken Spanish, the gist of which seems to be that he has stood for half an hour, first in the queue for the cajero automatico, then in this one, only for the teller to say he can’t help him with whatever it was the machine wouldn’t do.

From behind his glass screen the bank employee, looking pale and frazzled, tries to explain the reasons for this problem and why he’s not authorised to deal with it, but the young man grows more and more upset, his voice louder, his gestures more expansive. The dozen or so other customers, all Spanish, standing in line or resting in comfortable armchairs, are quietly engrossed by the drama. I watch on, aware that this could so easily have been me, exploding with frustration in front of an audience. I feel relieved, restored. It’s as though the young man has taken all my pent-up exasperation and expressed it for me. I have become a detached spectator, like everyone else. 

Despite this I’m uneasy. Because the young man is black. Everyone else is white. And judging by his Spanish, which is even more riddled with errors than mine, he has learned most of it on the street. He addresses the ageing employee with the familiar tu, he calls him tio (literally uncle, colloquially dude). I cringe for the young man, knowing only too well how often my own powers of expression have cracked up in offices with regulations as absurd as anything Gulliver encountered in Lilliput. The occasional joder (f*ck) has been known to escape me. But I am retired, one of the tribe of ex-pats who help prop up this country’s economy. He is a survivor, almost certainly African. Could this turn into one of those ugly racist incidents that I’ve heard about since the Brexit referendum in England, with insults and calls to go back where you came from? 

I glance at the other patrons of the bank, middle-aged, middle-class, prosperous, wondering how they will react. So far all are calm, listening with interest but making no comment. 

The young man is not calm. He is clearly distressed. His voice rises and wavers with emotion as he accuses the teller of treating him differently. He keeps repeating: 

‘It’s because I’m black and an immigrant you don’t help me!’

At this point the woman in front of me steps towards him, tentatively, respectfully. She is old, even older than me, well-dressed, well-groomed and no doubt well-off. Gently, politely, she speaks to the young man. She explains that he is not being treated differently, that the rules are the same for her and for everyone else who comes to this bank. The clerk is only following instructions. Yes, they, the Spanish, think that the rules are ridiculous, too, but there are protocols and protocols have to be followed, and everyone has to put up with them, like them or not.

The young man is appeased. His anger begins to fade. Another employee appears, summoned by telephone, and goes with him to the machine to help with his transaction.

The woman rejoins the queue and we strike up a conversation about how hard it is for foreigners to navigate Spanish bureaucracy. I say that it often seems bizarre and illogical and she agrees.

‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I think we are like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills.’

I’m amused, it’s so true, and I nod in admiration. How deftly she’s defused the tension. But I can’t help wondering how this scene would have panned out in Brexit Britain.

Locked in with the locksmith

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‘Get the lock changed,’ my brother-in-law said. ‘And fix a new security bolt as well since you’ve lost the key.’

Times are hard, and this place has been robbed before, even if they did only take a pile of old blankets. But a poor pensioner with a sick spouse can’t afford to lose the little she has.

I prepare the new vocabulary so I can call the locksmith. Bombin is the lock, cerrojo FAC the security bolt. Never a lover of telephones, I brace myself to explain what I want in Spanish. Serves me right for forcing my ESOL students to make all those phone calls in their speaking exams, I suppose.

After just one ring, I’m through. ‘Of course,’ says a very nice woman, politely overlooking the fact that I’ve said bombon (sweet) instead of bombin. ‘I’ll send the chico. If he can’t do it, my husband will come.’ Like many here it’s a family business, cousins, aunts, brothers, all playing their part.

I give her my address, being careful to pronounce numbers and letters correctly. How well I remember the Spanish students who tripped up on English vowels. It’s hardly surprising when the English letter ‘A’ sounds like the Spanish ‘E’ and the English ‘E’ like the Spanish ‘I’.

But my rendering of ‘E’ doesn’t convince her.

‘English or Spanish?’ she asks.

‘Spanish, Spanish,’ I say, and we laugh. With thousands of British ex-pats living on the costas, she’s clearly come up against this problem before.

We agree a day and a time. Right on the dot, the chico arrives, toolbox in hand, muscles rippling, beaming a beautiful smile.

Communication is fine. We discuss what he should do and he sets to work, removing a long screw from the existing lock. At this point he realises that he hasn’t brought a vital part.

‘I’ll be back in a moment,’ he says and goes out, shutting the door behind him.

A few minutes later I hear his footsteps coming up the steps. He knocks at the door and I go to let him in. The handle won’t turn. I wriggle it this way and that, but without the screw nothing moves.

‘The door won’t open,’ I say.

‘What? It won’t open?’

I try again. Nothing.

‘I’ll pass the key under the door and see if you can unlock it from outside,’ I say.

But he can’t.

‘If I had my tools here,’ he says, ‘I could do it.’

But his tools are on the floor beside me, and there’s no way those will go through the small gap.

Now this is a dilemma that I hadn’t foreseen. I’m locked inside my own flat, with the tool-less locksmith outside.

‘Is there another way in?’ he calls to me.

‘Only through the window. And it’s rather high up.’

I cross to the balcony, slide open the window, and the chico’s head appears below me.

‘Oh, I can get up there,’ he says confidently.

‘Are you sure? I don’t have a ladder.’

I have clearly underestimated him. Even before I finish speaking, his hands grip the rail, his head appears, his shoulders and his torso, and he propels himself inside and onto the floor. Now I know what those muscles are for.

‘Blimey,’ I say, ‘if you can do it, than so can a burglar.’ Mental note: remember to shut all windows when you go out.

Inside, with his tools, he changes the lock in no time and – hey presto! – the door opens.

One job done. Now to the security bolt.

‘Since you’ve lost the key,’ he says, ‘I’ll need to order a new cerrojo FAC. So I’ll come back on Tuesday.’

Sod’s law, I suppose. Not long after he’s gone, we discover we’ve got the key after all. Never mind, we’ll change it anyway, just to be sure.

Of course it might all be a waste of time. If there’s anyone else around who combines the skills of a locksmith with those of a cat-burglar, all the locks in the world won’t save us. Better get that insurance policy sorted.