by Paul Bailey
'I loathed the patronising sentimentality that was then an essential ingredient in fictional depictions of old age'
started writing my first novel, At the Jerusalem, when I was 28. It was published a few weeks after my 30th birthday in 1967. The principal character is a woman in her 70s, Faith Gadny, who has lost both her husband and daughter and is left at the mercy of her son Henry and his wife Thelma, with whom she lives for a short, unhappy time. It is Thelma who decides that her mother-in-law would be better cared for in an institution for the elderly, and so she is dispatched to the Jerusalem, a former Victorian workhouse where most of the action of the book is set. The other inmates, all women, try to befriend her but she will have little or nothing to do with them. She finds them coarse and common, and they, in turn, decide that she is snooty and stuck-up. I refrained from making Mrs Gadny an object of pity, a plaster saint, because I loathed the patronising sentimentality that was then an essential ingredient in fictional depictions of old age.
I had read two first novels that were also concerned with old age and institutions – William Trevor's The Old Boys (1964) and John Updike's The Poorhouse Fair(1959), both of which impressed me. Then there was Brian Moore's desolate study of loneliness and religious guilt, Judith Hearne (1955), which was later retitled The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne. This book especially haunted me, with its unsparing attention to the minute details of a single woman's day-to-day existence. Judith was somewhere in the back of my mind when I created Mrs Gadny.
I wrote At the Jerusalem in the evening, after working an eight-hour day as a shop assistant in Harrods. Throughout 1965 and most of 1966, I had Mrs Gadny and a host of lively and sarcastic old women to keep me company in the pages of a lined exercise book. I enjoyed being with them so much that the hours I spent in the Knightsbridge emporium seemed to get longer and longer before I could return to them in Paddington, where I was living in a house formerly owned by the racketeer Peter Rachman. Most reviewers of At the Jerusalem expressed astonishment that a young man could write with such confidence about women on the brink of death.
Later, in interviews, I revealed that my father was advanced in age and my mother gave birth to me when she was 42, which was almost unprecedented in 1937. My parents' friends were all over 50 or 60, so as a tiny boy I listened to the chatter of men and women in their prime. After my father died in 1948, I was cared for by a wonderful couple who lived on into their 90s. I didn't regard pensioners as a race apart.
In the late 1970s, during a terrifying winter in Fargo, North Dakota, I wrote my novella Old Soldiers, which is concerned with two survivors of the Battle of the Somme. Once again, I relished the company of the pair I had chosen to divert me as the snow fell and fell and the temperature dropped to 40 degrees below zero. One of the men, calling himself Captain Standish, is in fact an unholy trinity, consisting of the bogus officer, a failed poet and a pathetic tramp named Tommy. The other character is Victor Harker, a retired bank manager whose beloved younger wife, Stella, has recently died. They meet in the swelteringly hot summer of 1976 in a London I had to re-imagine with the central heating turned on to its utmost. I was 40 now, and my long-dead father was in my mind throughout the relatively swift composition. He had fought in the first world war, but it was a nightmarish experience he never referred to, beyond the occasional laconic comment. It was, I understand now, a way of getting closer to a man I hardly knew.
In the early autumn of 2006, the mother of my best friend was taken into hospital in Oxford with acute stomach pains. Some weeks passed before a correct diagnosis was found for her condition. She was injected with morphine, which made her delirious and fanciful. She often became a different person. One of her grandsons said to me one day ,"You're going to write a book about this, aren't you?" and to my surprise I answered yes. My new novel, Chapman's Odyssey, is dedicated to Sandra's memory, most particularly in those passages of humour that reflect something of her beguiling dottiness. I have to say that I felt positively youthful while setting down Harry Chapman's progress to the grave, for the book is essentially comic, like At the Jerusalem and Old Soldiers.
In 2002, I suffered heart failure in a remote part of Romania, and since then I have been determined to delight in living as much as I can, not least when I swallow the innumerable pills I take daily. I suppose, now I think of it, that Chapman's Odyssey is a celebration of the life that nearly escaped from me in the town of Neptun, on the Black Sea. The novel looks autobiographical, but I am a novelist and, though Harry Chapman resembles his creator in several ways – in his admiration of great poetry, Bach and Schubert and Fred Astaire – there are scenes in which he's not like me at all. The preoccupations of my writing career are everywhere apparent – the mysterious nature of other people and the continuing enigma of love. I feel younger for having written it.