Laura Parker explores the ageing process in literature and a study of Alzheimer's

“When I was twelve, my grandfather began to act strangely.” Joseph Jebelli’s disconcerted early memory marks the start of his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease. It was also the beginning of his interest in the subject, which has led to a career in neuroscience and his first book, In Pursuit of Memory, where he explores how the body's immune system can be used to halt the progress of the disease.

Ageing has always interested fiction writers. Older characters who ‘act strangely’ by kicking against the constraints and expectations of their advanced years offer plenty of scope for comedy and tragedy. Old age can be the perfect package of contradictions, where experience is not matched by wisdom and getting on does not mean giving up.

In 2012, Rachel Joyce introduced us to the recently-retired Harold Fry, who nips out to post a letter and ends up going on an Unlikely Pilgrimage to the other end of the country. Harold’s life takes an unusual and adventurous turn just at the stage when everything should be safe and predictable.

A long life can contain abundant mysteries, and this is the fulcrum of Joanna Cannon’s Three Things about Elsie. We meet 84-year-old Florence just after she’s had a fall at a care home. The scene is set for a poignant decline, but Florence is thinking about the terrible secret in her past, which is just about to unravel…

Muriel Spark’s novel Memento Mori has a whole group of elderly ladies nervously anticipating the unveiling of their secrets after they are taunted by mysterious phone calls which threaten to blow the lid off their genteel lives and reveal, amongst other things, blackmail and adultery.

Another featured LitFest writer, Barbara Pym, looks at the quieter and more sombre aspects of ageing in Quartet in Autumn (nominated for the 1977 Booker Prize) as her newly-retired characters Letty and Marcia face up to their anonymous old age and an eventual realisation that ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’. 

Take a stroll through literature, and some of the most memorable characters you will meet are in the later stages of life. Here’s King Lear, Don Quixote, Scrooge, Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared. And here comes The Wife of Bath, Miss Havisham, Aunt Ada Doom and Olive Kitteridge. And so it goes: if you are old, your heroic struggles are magnified, your everyday tribulations can be made comic, your last years can still hold hope – and your tongue can be fully unleashed.

  •  Neuroscientist Joseph Jebelli’s In Pursuit of Memory has been shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize. He will be in the Town Hall on Sunday 29 April at 13:00.
  • Rachel Joyce wrote The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Her latest novel is The Music Shop, and she will be discussing Words about Music with music journalist Pete Paphides in the Methodist Church on Sunday 29 April at 13:00.
  • Joanna Cannon is on our panel of three debut writers of 2016/2017 whose novels quickly became international bestsellers. They have all just published their eagerly-anticipated second books. Joanna, whose first novel was The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, joins Kit de Waal (My Name is Leon, The Trick to Time) and Joseph Knox (Sirens, The Smiling Man) at the Methodist Church on Saturday 28 April at 16:00.
  • Alan Taylor will be talking about Appointment In Arezzo - A Friendship With Muriel Spark on Sunday 29 April at 15:00 in the Methodist Church.
  • Our Barbara Pym book club-style event will be led by Andrew Male and is being held at St Mary’s Parish Rooms on Saturday 28 April at 18:00. Ticket price (£10) includes a copy of Excellent Women, sent out in advance.


Ageing in poetry

I grow old ... I grow old .../I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock T. S. Eliot

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple/With a red hat that doesn't go  Warning Jenny Joseph

I am a very foolish fond old man/Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less/And, to deal plainly/I fear I am not in my perfect mind. King Lear William Shakespeare

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said/“And your hair has become very white;/And yet you incessantly stand on your head –/Do you think, at your age, it is right?” You are old, Father William Lewis Carroll

It is an ancient Mariner/And he stoppeth one of three/'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye/Now wherefore stopp'st thou me? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Samuel Taylor Coleridge

When you are old and grey and full of sleep/And nodding by the fire, take down this book/And slowly read, When You Are Old William Butler Yeats

“Old men have grey beards, their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum. They have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams…” Hamlet, William Shakespeare