Sunday, 5 April 2009

Aging (Dis)gracefully

The story of a 'dirty old man and a sluttish young woman' as Peter O'Toole described 'Venus' doesn't perhaps sound like the beautiful tale it became in the skilled hands of Hanif Kureishi. The topic is 'off' - taboo, an impotent OAP lusting after a young girl is the stuff of awkward cliche. As a teenager I remember being chased round a cocktail party by some charming old dear in his seventies - his wife apologised as I left 'He doesn't mean any harm. He is awful,' she said, 'but I do love him'. Kureishi took the cliche of the harmless old flirt a step further. O'Toole plays a celebrated actor and old roue on his last legs. His character retains the essence of his youthful self - the good and the bad. Lusting after his friend's young niece is his swansong. He takes his long-suffering ex-wife a final champagne feast, but takes his dying breath with Venus on the beach at Whitstable after a last supper of oysters.

Hanif Kureishi's work is always challenging. I love the way he makes you look at a subject with fresh eyes. Maybe you remember - 'My Beautiful Launderette', one of the first films of my generation to deal with an overtly gay theme in a mainstream story? It was interesting reading about how his work has changed over the years. When he was interviewed about Venus, he said 'once I had children, I had to worry about my writing because first, your day is limited, and second you've got to make money out of this game. The writer's block was forced, as it were to disappear'. Perhaps you identify with that? I certainly do. He went on to say: 'I feel guilty sitting in my house all day doing nothing. I have to pay for my kids to go to school'. It's reassuring to hear someone of Kureishi's status talking about juggling work and family the way we all are.

'Venus' is sublime - painful, beautiful, funny. If you haven't seen it do look it out on DVD. It's central motif is Velazquez's 'Rokeby Venus'. It's a gorgeous painting, and the line of the nude has been echoed by artists ever since - most recently Sam Taylor Wood in a self portrait:

Interestingly she also produced this beautiful image of Robert Downey Jr - the vulnerable pose is more typical of female nudes, but the challenging stare isn't (unless you take Manet's 'Olympia' or Goya's 'Maja' into consideration - atypical and at the time deliberately shocking paintings). What do you think of these images - where does nude and naked cross over?

To me, this is what great art and writing is all about - taking eternal truths, things we know but haven't noticed properly before and creating something lasting, provocative, beautiful. O'Toole's character wasn't easy - he was selfish, flawed, but (crucially) intelligent, experienced, talented. Instead of being repulsed, I found myself wondering if Venus hadn't got the best end of the deal. She had the youthful beauty but he brought everything else to the table. In western society the older man/younger woman scenario is typical - Kureishi just pushed the boundaries. When the tables are turned as in 'The Graduate' with Anne Bancroft playing the glorious prototype of all Cougars to come (jaded, smouldering, draped in leopard skin), it's still surprising.

TODAY'S TOPIC: Youth and beauty vs age and experience is a central dynamic in countless stories. What are the great examples you can think of? Which stories touched you? Do you think as women gain ground in Hollywood we will see more great roles for women over 40 (the absence of which is a regular lament)? I read an interview with Charlize Theron yesterday that discussed this problem - like many she has set up her own production company so that she can dictate which projects she develops and takes on. Actresses like her interest me in the same way Kureishi's writing does - they don't shy away from what is awkward and uncomfortable in real life. Today, why not think about how age features in your work - are your characters all 'like you', or do you explore every stage of the journey we're on? Which subjects wouldn't you write about - what is too uncomfortable for you? In O'Toole's character you saw a reflection of his youthful self - the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful - just like Venus and her mirror. When it is really great, art and writing holds a mirror up to us all.


  1. I like to read your blog last Kate as it is always inspiring and thought provoking.

    I watched a movie last night that made me realize a limitation I have. An American Crime. I love Catherine Keener so I netflixed it. It is a true story which I was unfamiliar with and was so distrubing it gave me nightmares. The idea that not just one human, but several could commit such a crime, took me to a place I wished I had not gone.

  2. What a great post. I love the story about the old man chasing you around the house, and his wife's response!

  3. Great post Kate, lots of intriguing concepts - as ever. Especially interesting as while I've written quite a lot from the perspectives of children and adolescents, hardly anything from an elderly viewpoint and on Friday, I began a new short story ...
    so thank you Kate!

  4. I think it would be challenging to write from a male perspective. Zoe Heller did this in Everything You Know and on the whole, I think, was successful.
    Anyhow, I claimed to be 86 for April Fool's Day, which was kinda interesting!!!

  5. Second Pseudo's comment above, about your thought-provoking posts. As happens at marta's blog, when I land here, squint a little, and look at all the question marks jumping off the page at me, I want to reach for the Raid. (Doesn't help in either case, though. They're still there, buzzing angrily and still demanding answers, after the can is capped.)

    The older-man/younger-woman relationship is fraught with so much baggage -- such history of abused privilege, power vs. innocence, all that -- that sometimes it's hard to feel anything other than creeped out when you see it in real life, or depicted on the page or screen. If I had a daughter of my own I'm confident the creeping-out would be visceral as well as political. (The Missus has sworn off anything Woody Allen-related for just that reason.)

    But I've always thought there was an undeniable charm to them in story and film, too, especially when the older guy is himself charming, and the younger woman more than capable of holding her own and not dependent on the gentleman in any way.

    Interestingly, while I really liked Bancroft before, once I found out she was Mel Brooks's wife and could do something strange with her eyes -- like moving them independently of each other -- I really really liked her. When I think about the whole Cougar phenomenon and how it's acquired this sort of dark glamor in recent years, I sigh and think to myself how lucky are young men now, to be growing up in such a world. :)

  6. See also Jack Nicholson in Something's Gotta Give. His co-star Diane Keaton made a very strong case for the older woman.

  7. Hi Pseudo - I hadn't heard of that film but having just checked on Wiki can see why it gave you nightmares. Senseless cruelty exactly the kind of thing I can't watch (or write) either.

    Hello Maggie May - yes, he was an adorable old flirt. Fine line isn't it, but he danced it well :)

    Hi Megan - a new story, exciting! Venus also made me think it may be time to up my OAPs - have written several characters in their 60s but none I think 70s, 80s and on ...

    Hello Scarlet - 86 for a day! I have been 'offline' must go and see ...x

    Hi John - try a flyswat? :) Yes Bancroft/Brooks what a knockout couple. Yep - that's it with Cougars isn't it? Every man I've ever spoken to responds similarly whereas women are more circumspect. Perhaps it's power itself in both male/female guises that's attractive?

    Hello GB - you've hit on an all time favourite there. Jack & Diane made a strong case for everything (and Jack beat Keanu hands down ...)

  8. I have ALWAYS ADORED Peter O'Toole. I love that he said "her first child" He's right.

  9. it is a great post :) that's already been said. but suuuch a universal theme. it seems we can't escape it.

  10. No fool like an old fool, is what I say. I, too, had some old dopes chase me around. At the time, it seemed just another part of life...something awkward, but unavoidable. Now, at an older age, when I think back to it, I find it just pisses me off. No other way to put it. The young are so darn innocent, and the older, just pitiful when they have to resort to preying on the young.

    As for writing about any sexual experience that I've had... you know, I'll put it all (I wish I knew how to underline the word all) to good use! :)

    Thanks for a good prompt, Kate. You can see it touched a nerve for me, though.

    Kathleen in VA

  11. Me too VM - few actors could pull off the storyline without seeming completely seedy and beyond redemption, but oh that charisma ..:)

    Hi Moonie - Thx :) Kureishi handled the theme so interestingly didn't he? Real skill to take something universal and make it fresh again.

    Hello Kathleen - you too eh?! I imagine I might look less benevolently on any old chap chasing after my daughter in a few years!

  12. What I find interesting (and maybe you are the exception here and do not find yourself suddenly lusting after 21 year olds) is the odd switch around that happens in one's mid-thirties. One's youth is all about being chased by old men. And then suddenly, flick of switch, one goes from Lolita being ogled by Humbert to Humbert ogling Lolita - the predator rather than the prey. I find it scary but rather enjoyable!

  13. Hi Emma - yes, it's a funny old thing isn't it? Enjoyed HSM3 for entirely different reasons than the 7 year old ..:) In my mind I'm still 19 (age I met the pilot), until I hang out with teenagers for a while and feel soooo old. My taxi light has been 'off' officially for so many years the bulb probably needs replacing, but do sense from single friends somehow women in their thirties are only just getting into their stride. Lolita - obvious, boring. Hello Mrs Robinson?

  14. Hello Kate ... I am new to this writing game. When challenged, by a writer friend, to develop a character ... I chose a man ... because I feel I understand them better than my own sex. (delusion, I am sure)

    It wasn't until I was a ways into the story (which I now think is a novel) ... that I realize the "young man" ... would really be someone 10-20 years older than myself. Yikes!

    Yet what grounds me is that at my present age I still am like you at 19. It's not 'till I get around others that I feel "old". I'm counting on it being the same way with the group of "old" men I'm writing about.

  15. As a fifty-four year-old man I think I’ll just keep a low profile on this one.
    However I’d like to add that it's a complicated affair to be young at heart and mind in an aging body, and that it’s my experience that women haven’t become any less attractive as time goes by.

  16. Welcome MitMoi - we're all still learning so you're very welcome round here! Yes, that's the great thing about fiction - it's liberating to 'be' any age, any sex that suits your story.

    Hi Son - complicated but fun. Everyone is so much younger - or aging more slowly - than the preceding generations I reckon the boundaries are continually being redrawn.

  17. I remember seeing 'My beautiful launderette' and being struck by the beauty of Dan Day Lewis.
    I thought - I've seen that face before and was thrilled to discover his mother was Jill Balcon who I saw In 'Midsummer night's Dream.'aeons ago in Manchester.

  18. Re what Emma k says I have a photographic memory of stepping into my bath with tears rolling down my face as a mother of two, in my thirties, and thinking of a young man I was working with on a play - aged about 18 and totally out of reach as far as I was concerned.


  19. Hello Pat - yes DDL is marvellous. As for the 18 year old I imagine he would have been thrilled had he known, having seen your beautiful photos! Perhaps times change. 18 year olds now seem like babies to me (but then am in that mid thirties two small kids place which does indeed play havoc with your self esteem ..:)

  20. I had hoped I'd be more comfortable with my looks as I got older. This has not turned out to be the case. But then again, I can see what I missed by being so insecure when I was young.

    As far as the older man/younger woman thing goes--not that many older men are Peter O'Toole. Most of the time seeing that combination just serves to make me feel worse about growing older--as if being older is so detestable.

    Now as for the younger man/older woman--I hear of this cougar thing but aside from Hollywood, I haven't seen it in real life. I'd just feel foolish.

    Well, I've got one manuscript I'm working on that is a girl/older man relationship (not Peter O'Toole old though), and the man doesn't give in to temptation. I thought that was a different angle--a man who can turn a pretty girl he desires down. I get tired of seeing male characters who are victims of their private parts. Some men are capable of saying no.

  21. Turning down pretty young girls - story of my life . . .

  22. Kate - it's been far too long since I've been here and at time when I have come I've only had time to read and then dash...I love the way you make me think..always. This post made me think of American Beauty for some reason...perhaps the concepts of age and changing...flawed resonated with me and I'm not sure it fits with this but it was what came to mind.

    This sentence " Actresses like her interest me in the same way Kureishi's writing does - they don't shy away from what is awkward and uncomfortable in real life" intrigued me. I like the idea of facing things that are uncomfortable..and today I am going to look at what I look away from and start to face it.

    I also gave you an Honest Scrap award I thought you would have fun with the ten things...the award is on

    Miss you and will be playing here more!

  23. Hi Marta - like the sound of your m/s. The battle to resist temptation far more interesting than an easy fall. And yes - if only young people (jees sound old - where are my slippers?) realised how beautiful they are simply by virtue of their youth and energy. As 'Sunscreen' intoned: respect the power and beauty of your youth.

    Son - there's a theme developing here :)

    Natasha - hello! You're not the only one, I've also found my blog reading time has been eaten into recently. Thank you for the award - really touched. I shall swing over :) And yes, this is a theme I've been thinking about a lot recently. Facing our 'creative monsters' and rather than denying them, or despairing, doing something useful (ie, creative) with that energy. x


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