Most helpful positive review
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An interesting and refreshing insight
on 7 April 2014
One of the most disappointing books I've read is Laurie Lee's "I can't stay long". It's full of platitudes and home truths, written as the perspective of an old man (who'd just turned sixty): unworthy of the vigour and sparkle of his earlier books. Penelope Lively writes as someone twenty years older, so I was worried that it might be introspective philosophising. And it does include some of that. I had to reach for the dictionary on various occasions, such as when I was told that, "we are all solipsistic" and when the author referred to the "parabola between youth and age". But whatever Dame Penelope is, she is not homespun. And if her prose is sometimes fairly challenging, she is also thought provoking and raises many points that I, as a sixty nine year old, can identify with. She ponders when old age begins and she also gives us some gems: "the poor are always with us and now the old are too". And statistics: by 2030 there will be four million people over eighty in the UK; and whilst in 1961 there were just 592 people over a hundred, by 2060 there will be 455,000. "Consider these figures and gasp".
The book is divided into discrete chapters. After musing on old age, the author turns to Life and Times. This is not so much an autobiography (although there is a degree of this) as a look at important events in her lifetime (Suez, the Cuba crisis and the Cold War, for example). I find it refreshing that she remains in London and needs to keep in touch with events, rather than retreat to a make-believe world in "the country". She says that she is not at heart a city dweller, "but it makes every sense". And it is also refreshing that she maintains her balanced liberal beliefs, for example welcoming multi-culturalism as opposed to the grey monochrome she encountered on arrival from Egypt nearly seventy years ago. I also found myself very much in tune with her observations on English society, not least the odious class system.
The chapter on Memory was rather heavy going, though I agree with her contention about the teaching of history and could also identify with "the miasma of gloom" of a "dire" single sex boarding school.
As for the chapter on Reading and Writing, well a parallel might be useful. I once read an interview with Mike Atherton, then the English cricket captain (and a fellow Oxbridge History graduate, like Penelope Lively). He was fairly taciturn on cricket, but when it came to the books he read, he came to life. I could have talked books with him far more easily than cricket. But in the case of Dame Penelope, she was a bit high powered for me. I hadn't heard of all the writers she likes, and had only read two (William Golding and Elizabeth Bowen). But I was pleased to see that whilst seeming to prefer books, she was relatively open-minded about Kindle: "I get bored by the exclusive defence of either paper or screen". And she values the Internet.
Finally, we come across "Six Things": objects important to her. I noticed that one of these was a (New Testament) Jerusalem Bible. Although I'm an Anglican, I was pleased that she's a Bible-reading agnostic. Not for her the smug sophistry of the trendy "new atheists". Altogether, a very balanced person.