Autumn Voices: Scottish writers over 70 talk about creativity in later life is soon to be published – probably late March or early April of this year (2018). John Gillies kindly wrote the Foreword. He is Deputy Director of the Scottish School of Primary Care, Senior Adviser Global Health Academy, Co-Director University of Edinburgh Compassion Institute, and former Director of the Royal College of General Practitioners. He was awarded an OBE in 2015 for services to general practice.
In 1972, my mother’s aunt, Flora Macaulay, reached the age of 100 years. She was a weaver of blankets and tweeds and spent most of her life in a thatched house in Baleshare, North Uist. To reach 100 then was quite uncommon. Among many letters from friends and family, she received a handsome message from the Queen, handwritten by a private secretary.
Now in 2018, it is not uncommon for people—still many more women than men—to make it to 100, and I would be surprised if the Palace issued handwritten messages now. This is true across the UK, and indeed all rich Northern countries, as life expectancy continues to grow. It is a big success story, due not just to some extraordinarily effective medical advances, but to less arduous occupational practices, better food, reduced smoking, education, less overcrowding and warmer better housing. As a GP working for nearly 3O years in rural Scotland, it was heartening to see this happening at an individual and community level. Not only length but quality of life has got better, and many 80-year-olds are much fitter than their predecessors of a generation ago. We should not ignore, though, the fact that there are still gaps of up to 20 years in both life expectancy and healthy life expectancy between the most deprived and the most privileged Scots. In Glasgow this is obvious even in adjacent postcode areas; it diminishes our standing as a society. This theme, of continuing and avoidable injustice and inequality, features strongly in several of the interviews.
Autumn Voices is a Lapidus project which explores promoting reading and writing for wellbeing. Both the Autumn Voices website and the book ask the question: ‘What gifts has ageing brought to you and how are these reflected in your writing?’ At the heart of the project, therefore, is an assets-based approach to getting older. My experience as a GP is that this works for many. Those who engage with, explore and articulate what happens to them as they age often have later lives of better quality.
Autumn Voices explores creativity through interviews by Robin Lloyd-Jones with writers over the age of 70 who are living in Scotland. He was 80 when he began, 83 when he finished, and the successful completion of the project is testament to his own curiosity, creativity and stamina! Yeats’s idea that creative energy stems from ‘the quarrel with ourselves’, quoted by the editor, emerges strongly through the book. The writers laugh, celebrate, mourn, curse, complain and create in their own unique and personal voices.
The Portuguese doctor-writer Miguel Torga called his fictionalized autobiography The Creation of the World. ‘We all create the world to our measure. The enduring world of the long-lived and the short one of the ones who depart prematurely.’ These interviews with some of the longer-lived show these different measures very clearly. Some are more passionate, some more scholarly and some are both passionate and intellectually provoking.
I was fascinated by the way that that Torga’s different measures appear through the dialogues with the editor. Loss of friends and loved ones, illness, disability and the fear of dementia figure largely of course, but our human ability to survive, not undamaged but each creating the future in some of sort of complex emergent way, is both moving and encouraging. The joys of grandchildren, nearby or far away, are often mentioned. As George Mackay Brown, who never had any, said ‘they sweeten our old age’.
It is hard to pick out individual contributions but I will. I found the creative energy of the 92-year-old David Donnison awe-inspiring. He plays in a ceilidh band, draws, paints and writes. His maxim ‘If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly’ is a good minding for perfectionists. His ‘Die-a-logue’ group to reflect on death is a model of how to approach this ‘distinguished thing’. The poet and children’s writer Diana Hendry has ‘an eight-year-old in her head’, surely a wonderful way to retain and reflect her creativity. Kaddish, her poem to the Lord about her mother ends: ‘May she be dumbfounded by love.’ Amen to that for all of us. And as an Uibhisteach, I give thanks to the Yorkshire woman Pauline Prior-Pitt for her celebration of her later life in North Uist. ‘Rinn thu gu math!’
This book is, as the cliché goes, for all ages. Read an author every night. You too may laugh, mourn, complain, celebrate, curse…… and learn a lot.