In February Elspeth Penny of 2BU
Productions very kindly invited me to join a panel on ageing as part of a
conference entitled ‘Vulnerability,
Exclusion and Domination’. This was organised by Dr. Dagmar Wilhelm of the
Philosophy Department of the University of the West of England - my thanks to
Dagmar as well. The following is adapted from the talk I gave:
My particular interest in gerontology
has been aesthetic experience and the
ways it defines the best and the worst
of later life, grounds our embodied sense of being in the world and accentuates
the cultural diversity of older men and women.
My purpose has been to flag up
later life as not simply a time of
sensory loss, biological deficiency and dependency, but a life elevated and dignified by aesthetic
So what I’d like to develop today,
hopefully in line with the themes -
vulnerability, exclusion and domination - are the ways in which
aesthetic experience, as autonomous to the individual, tells us different
stories. Stories of lives that I believe
are interstitial. By this I mean lives
lived betwixt and between the cracks, on the fringes of society and its
normative expectations. I’d argue that
being interstitial generates a particular power if thought about as a challenge
to those expectations. A power driven by
the particularity of aesthetic experience.
To better explain this I want to
focus on two extraordinary women who have always left a strong impression on
me. To do this I need to go back to
about 1971 when I was 20. Living in
London, doing odd jobs, bar work, temping like thousands of other young women
who’d left school with nothing of significance. On the look-out for the type of man who’d
buy you a meal in a restaurant where you knew you could escape through the kitchens
if necessary. I remember being at a
party in North Kensington with this kind of man. The sort of party where
everyone is on the make, out to get what they want. That imperative filtered through an
atmosphere - I can sense it now - infused by the taste of warm, white wine; the
smell of garlic, sweat, stale aftershave, perfume and weed. A toxic mix of excitement cut with
nervousness. I notice a beautiful, dark
haired woman in a group across the room. Others do too. Her presence, her back story, compounded for
me that sense of being vulnerable, on the edge.
Christine Keeler. The model,
topless dancer, or prostitute, as society of the time labelled her. Notorious in the early 1960’s for her
simultaneous affairs with the then secretary of state for war, John Profumo and
a Soviet naval attache. At the height of
the Cold War no less. If that wasn’t a
taboo enough for the 1960s, at around that time Christine was also involved with a couple of African-Caribbean men, Johnny Edgcombe and Lucky Gordon. This volatile love
triangle, involving a gun, then the police, lit the fuse that blasted the
Profumo Scandal into the public domain. (1)
Whilst acutely aware
of the exploitative nature of the worlds she moved in, Christine, on her own account, enjoyed sex and was clearly fond of many of
her lovers. She reserved her hate for
the hypocrisy and corruption that circulated around the Establishment.
Inevitably, the popular media kept a
constant watch on Christine throughout her life course. She described with some irony how she was
expected to take her clothes off for a later photoshoot re-presenting, as it
were, the aesthetics of her youth.
Ultimately the press published paparazzi shots
of her when she was much older and clearly in very poor health; no doubt taking
delight in that she had conformed at last, conformed paradoxically to some
acceptable version of drab, invisible, old age.
I believe Christine is representative
of so many women now in their sixties and seventies. And an inspiration for me in the development
of a script about two older women, ever rebels and refuseniks who’ve negotiated
the same challenges. In later life they
are predictably oppositional to the “middle England”, age appropriate version
that takes no account of their culturally diverse lifestyles and identities.
Turning now to my second,
extraordinary – or interstitial - woman.
She is what you might call a “real fiction” – but then in many respects
so is Christine. Again about 1971, I remember watching with my mum a “Play for Today” – an innovative series
commissioned by the BBC. The play was written by Jeremy Sa
ndford better known
for authoring “Cathy Come Home”.
Directed by Ken Loach, this play
triggered the founding of the homeless charity, Shelter. Sandford again pursued the theme of homelessness with “Edna the Inebriate Woman”. 
My mum and I
were stunned. Even without the
award-winning performance of the actress
Patricia Hayes, who played Edna, it was
an incredibly powerful and coruscating work.
The play follows the destitute Edna
on the road; an older woman, probably in her sixties, Patricia Hayes’s age at
the time. We see her progress through
the grim environments of local authority doss houses, rough sleeping, prison,
and a psychiatric ward. We witness her experiences of indignity; at one point
when she seeks shelter in a doss house she is required to strip for an
attendant to shine a torch over her hair and the rest of her body to check for
vermin. In the same, sharp detail we see
her experience of violence, electric shock treatment, her interactions with fellow rough sleepers,
psychiatric patients and of course the authorities of the time.
Watching the play again, one scene
stands out. Edna is in the dock of a
magistrates’ court having been arrested under the 1824 Vagrancy Act. Distressed she shouts out repeatedly at the magistrates: “ I am not the Vagrant, I am
not the Vagrant..” A desperate plea to them, and us the audience, to
recognize her essential humanity. We,
the audience, need no reminding. Edna’s
spirit, energy and resilience dominates Sandford’s play. She transcends the bleakest of environments
imaginable. Visceral, in that watching “Edna”
many years on I still feel physically unsettled and emotionally haunted.
Remarkably, the 1824 Vagrancy Act
still exists and if other stuff wasn’t currently getting in the way, hopefully
stands a chance of being repealed. What we do know is that there has been a
significant increase in older men and women rough sleeping in the UK. Excluded physically, culturally and
politically from society in circumstances no different from the 1970s. They are utterly removed from the representational aesthetics
of ageing purveyed by the UK’s
charities, the media and policy
makers. The jolly, glowing ‘Active Agers’ reflective of a conventional, Western, retirement model of
later life. Or the anonymized, faceless body in a cosy, centrally heated
cocoon; framed by supportive arms and metal frames or reducible to a single
hand enclosed by a much younger one.
To return to Christine and Edna and
what these brief sketches reveal of
lives lived in the cracks or beyond societal norms.
Firstly, the essential vulnerability of being a woman
and in Christine’s case, being an object
of the male sexual gaze throughout her life until she ceases to deliver. For Edna, being the embodiment of disgust to
the point of dehumanisation. But secondly, I’d suggest that both women never
conceal their appetite for life whether that be sex, physical intimacy, drink,
the frisson of sociality, the vigour to survive, live dangerously and
flout moral prescription. Therein
lies the power of their interstitial status. They are both sensual women. Driven, for better or worse, by their
aesthetic experiences as ways of being in the world. For our part, we need a heightened sense of
awareness that extends beyond the visual.
Tap into other sensual modalities to better understand what delights and
repels if we are to better understand later life and its infinite cultural
image is that iconic photograph taken by Lewis Morley in 1963.