Once a week I go to the nearest Age UK offices and ring old people for a couple of hours from a little windowless basement room. I hear amazing things talking to these old people, once we get past the usual 'so how are you feeling and do you have enough food in the house?' I like to get them to reminisce about when they were young because it's a free social history lesson. Albert tells me about being brought up in the slums near the Ram Brewery and describes sleeping with his six brothers top to toe in the same bed in the attic and hearing rats moving around in the wattle and daub walls just inches from his head. He tells me his father left his mother for another woman so she had to bring up nine children alone. She worked in the local candle factory six days a week and took in washing in the evenings in order to make ends meet. He had his first job when he was six selling newspapers with his brother outside Arsenal football ground. "But Arsenal's miles away," I say. "I know it is," he says, "and I used to walk there and back."
Doris describes the London Blitz to me in minute detail. She lived in Putney during the war while her younger siblings were sent away to the countryside; she was 16 so had to stay home with her parents to help in the family bakery. She talks about the fires that lit up the sky at night all the way from the East End to Putney, and tells me they used to keep their front doors unlocked in those days and pop in and out of each other's houses borrowing things, not like now, when you can't be too careful and someone came right into her house the other week and took money from her kitchen table. Sometimes the things they say make me laugh, we make each other laugh, to be honest, like the woman who told me it was her birthday so I sang her happy birthday and then checked her notes and found that it wasn't. And sometimes they make me cry, just quietly to myself, you understand, because I don't want to upset them. Like the woman who said she goes to bed with a hot water bottle as early as possible every day because she can't wait for it to end, the old man who told me he goes for a walk by the river and sits on a bench just to watch people walk by; he says it makes him feel less lonely.
I read that loneliness is now an epidemic amongst the elderly, with 1.2 million older people in England chronically lonely and the over-85 population set to rise from 1.3 million people to just under 2.8 million over the next 20 years. Many of the people I talk to were fine not so long back: fit and healthy with active lives and happy marriages, then something happens, a turn for the worse health-wise, a heart attack, a stroke, a fall, the loss of a beloved partner, and everything changes.
You might think it's nice of me to give my time freely like this when really it's not. I do it for selfish reasons. One of them is because I like the reaction I get from people when I tell them. "Ooo how lovely of you," they say, "that's so kind." Another is because it gets me out of the house when I'm working from home and going stir crazy. Mostly it's because it makes me feel better about myself. Surely if I do this, I think, and sit in a depressing little basement and talk to a bunch of elderly sad people then I'm not completely useless. When of course I can still be completely useless because I'm using those elderly sad people to make myself feel better, and then write about it.
When I was a teenager I had a huge row with my Sociology A'Level teacher, which went on for weeks, when he told the class there's no such thing as a selfless act. I desperately tried to come up with one: the member of the French resistance who risks his own safety for others. "Self-serving," he said, "because it makes him feel good about himself." The mother who throws herself in front of the bullet to save her child. "Her child," he said, "so in effect she's saving herself." Now I think perhaps he was right. When I mentioned I was writing about this to one of my sons, he said: "reciprocal altruism, look it up." So I did. So maybe that's why I talk to old people, perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind I think it's money in the bank for my own future: what goes round comes round, do as you would be done by, tit for tat.
Whatever the reason, sometimes it's pretty thankless, especially if they're rude or cross and slam the phone down, which is rare but does occasionally happen. But mostly the thanks come in thick and fast and they're charming and so pathetically grateful I've rung for a few minute's chit chat it does make me feel perhaps I'm putting something back and the reasons I do it don't matter. The other day I had a long chat with an elderly Jamaican man about the jazz band he was in during the 40s and he told me "every day is a precious day," and another gentleman was listening to Mozart very loudly when I rang and I saw from his notes he's often difficult or too depressed to talk so I spent twenty minutes chatting to him about Mozart. I'm only meant to spend a few minutes talking to each one so I can get lots ticked off the list but I can't see the point of that and have favourites I like to talk to for longer. Sometimes they ask about my life and when I describe it to them it sounds wonderful, even to me. This week I got involved in the case of an elderly man, registered blind, who was moving house. All he needed was someone to put the food in his fridge so I put the phone down and got the relevant permission and went round and did it for him.
Love E x