by David Donnison
David Donnison, aged 92, is an Emeritus Professor and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow in the Department of Urban Studies. He previously held the Chair of Town and Regional Planning at Glasgow. Before coming to Scotland he lectured and conducted research at the London School of Economics. David’s professional interests, passions and areas of considerable influence cover urban planning, urban poverty and inner city regeneration, social policy and administration, social exclusion and the quest for social justice and equality, and the advocacy of health and social care. David is the oldest person I interviewed for my book Autumn Voices (due out in March of this year). The essay below is not from this book, but has been adapted by David for this blog, from a book his ‘Diealogue’ group is working on.
We are often told that if we keep our creativity going that will help to keep us healthy, postpone dementia and prolong our lives; and some people have done research that supports these claims. So creativity has to be an important theme in a book of this kind. But what can I add to this literature? Not a lot, but I offer a few thoughts that may be helpful.
When people talk about creativity they are usually thinking mainly about such things as literature and the arts: poetry and prose, singing and music, drawing and painting, architecture and interior decoration. All of them creative, and sometimes therapeutic, art forms. All calling for hard labour and fierce concentration if they are to be done well. Which is why the best performers tend to be members of their households who do not have to take the main responsibility for bearing and raising children, doing the housework and caring for the sick. Men, in short.
I want to shift our attention from the activities and products – the painting and pictures, the writing and poetry – which we tend to think about when we talk about creativity, to the ways in which we do these things and their impact upon our society.. Almost anything can be done creatively. Or uncreatively. Including cooking, gardening, child rearing, dress-making, and making love (specially making love) and we all have opportunities for being creative until close to the end of our lives.
What makes an activity creative? We pour our own unique energies into it; put our own mark – imprint our own style – upon it; and occasionally produce something special that no-one else quite achieves. You remember your granny’s bubble and squeak, her marmalade, her Christmas puddings if they were different and special – in short, creative.. You recognise your favourite poets’ work when you come across poems they wrote that you had not read before. You recognise a particular musician’s work when you hear a recording of it coming from a radio in the next room. It has personality. It vividly expresses, and evokes in us, powerful feelings. It communicates. Indeed it’s a sort of conversation. An inspiring one.
And usually – but here we must be cautious – creative people want to share what they produce with other people – when it’s finished, while they are creating it, or both. We must be cautious because there are some people who produce wonderfully creative work that was only published after they died. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, for example. But the best writers usually want to publish the poem or the novel they have written - to share it with the world and learn from the responses they get The best cooks enjoy feeding their families and guests, or the customers who come to their restaurant, and talking with them about food. In short, creative people often want to discuss what they are working on with others who do the same kind of thing. It’s not surprising that the liveliest cities often have an artists’ quarter - a neighbourhood where they can meet and talk in the same pubs.
Teaching can be a special form of creativity, building a lasting fellowship with the teacher’s students. Having had, for most of my life, the privilege of teaching in good universities, I formed life-long friendships with some of those who were my graduate students – now scattered around the world. We worked together, learned from each other, shared life-changing experiences. And when they die I grieve for them. I recall one of my school teachers saying that it was terrible to be a teacher during the world war that was then going on. He was constantly losing sons.
So creativity is a builder of friendships (sometimes enmities too) enabling us to carry on a richer conversation with the world. When my 94-year-old father lay dying, his most loyal visitors – apart from close relatives – were people he had played music with or sung with in choirs. A common pattern, I think. Whether it is the comradeship, the conversations or the act of creation that protects us from dementia and prolongs our lives I cannot tell. Perhaps a bit of each.
It is often assumed that creativity dwindles as we grow older, and it’s true we shall eventually decay in ways that make some creative activities harder. We are less good at jumping on and off stages; our hearing begins to fail, our singing voice becomes embarrassing, our memory seems to get full of holes and we are no longer driving a car. But we may have compensating advantages too. I think particularly of two.
We have achieved the things we are most proud of and have gained some recognition for doing so. We no longer need to compete with anyone or to prove anything. So we can try some new things without feeling we have to produce a polished professional performance. I can still hear my mother’s demanding mantra: “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” she would say. I now give this a twist of my own, telling myself “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” Which has helped me through many a gig in the ceiliidh band in which I play a slightly stumbling concertina. The privilege of amateur status.
We are also likely to have more of that great privilege: time. Before exploring that I must pause to recognise that there are neighbourhoods in the city in which I live – violent, drug-riddled neighbourhoods – where grandparents are caring for the young because no-one else in their family can be relied upon to do so – which must restrict their opportunities for creativity. There are also neighbourhoods – often the same ones - where social workers and the police are rarely seen and the health services are under-staffed, because we have a government that is bringing public debt under control by cutting services that the poor depend on rather than increasing taxes on the rich. (This is not an essay about politics, but we should recognise that some of the things I’m writing about are the product of decisions made by those in power, not the unavoidable natural order of things.)
Most of us “oldies’”, however, are benefitting from years of the “triple lock” on state pensions – another political decision - which uprates our pensions every year on the basis of three factors which together ensure that old people are no longer the poorest group in this country. The incomes of those with a good occupational pension have gone ahead even faster in the past ten years while those of people in work have, on average, fallen. Pensioners’ incomes are at last catching up with those of the rest of the population. So we have more time without having to work for it than pensioners used to have.
We should use some of this time and money to help our grandchildren, now struggling harder than we did to find housing and a job that will enable them to pay for it. But most of us pensioners find that we no longer have to get up early to go to work each morning; or to get home each evening to make supper for children and help with their home work. So we have more choice about how to use our time. There will eventually be a deadline for completing this book: the deadline of death. But, for the moment, I can choose whether to go on writing it, to go out for a walk because the rain has stopped and the sun has come out, or to pause for a nap; and that should give me more creative opportunities than my predecessors had.
Is there more to be said about how we use these opportunities? We should learn to make good use of them. If you want to write poetry, start by reading some. If you want to paint pictures, go to exhibitions of them and buy books full of interesting prints. If you can find a teacher you can work with, get some instruction. Don’t copy the poems or pictures you see or the work of your teachers, but learn some techniques and gain inspiration and ideas. Creativity calls for discipline and practice.
You will spot that I’m still the son of my mother, who died fifty years ago.
If doing things creatively and sharing that creativity with other people make life worth living, as I believe they do, we need to consider when and why those life-giving pleasures may be taken from us. Memory loss, depression, loss of friends and loved ones and pain all threaten our creative capacities. So we need to think how we can best defend ourselves against these things, all of which tend to become more threatening as time goes by.