Secret, smouldering hatred
Auberon Waugh There is an old woman Who lives in a neighbouring village to ours in France called Mathilde. She is a widow whose only son died; she now lives in retirement after a lifetime of service as cook in a private house. 1.le has only two teeth, but they are very large and obviously quite useful. The rest of her body is in excellent shape, as far as one can tell, although it is only fair to say that her face is not such as invites the eye to !inger over her body, speculating about its less accessible parts. Mathilde supplies us with the livers of geese and ducks, lovingly fattened through°nt the early autumn and slaughtered with t,onlanY a merry cackle towards the end of avember. In the cold winter months, when 'ler English equivalents are burning each Mier to death in horrible residential centres administered by the local authority, she nlakes crocheted bedspreads of delicacy and antique charm. Most of these are given to her nieces, of v"hich she has a huge supply, but just occa0ItallY she can be persuaded to do one for .1'0neY. When the delicate matter of payment arose, my wife at first suggested that it st.,11mIld be at an hourly rate; but she had not rken into account the hours involved. It ir,a„risPired that if we paid Mathilde one franc
an hour, the bedspread would cost .),..00 francs (about £60) in labour costs alone.
lierybody agreed this was far too much, Ind Mathilde herself, who is a deeply reliV)tls `woman, was appalled at the idea. So e fixed the fee at 250 francs and left it at that.
ti It goes without saying that Mathilde is the ,41313lest woman alive. She distils her own 'heail de vie which she wisely does not drink
self, being of religious turn of mind, but
ers to guests. She rides her mobilette to alnarket in Castelnaudary every Monday, bild generally returns with a green plastic so°M, a five-kilo bag of boiled sweets or Ole similar trophy. She lives surrounded II' nieces and cousins; she has a. position in foepr village, and her moustaches are admired 1,1nliles around. In terms of social useful she is worth a charabanc load of Itaillpagers, twelve young married couples,
dozen factory workers and a battle
s...is.she, I wonder, the same breed, the same tWjes as the Arehbishop of Canterbury is '!ng about when, after much agony of troltn, he chooses to remind us of the tradicitnalChristian doctrine that there are iljnstances in which the old or incurably
onlaY decently be left to die?
.foon every other occasion this vain and his Ish man has chosen to open his mouth, words have fallen like the proverbial cowpats in a field: his ludicrous suggestion at a Lord Mayor's Banquet (of all places) that the better-off might like to forgo a proportion of their income to improve still further the housing of the lower classes— presumably he has never heard of progressive taxation; his prePosterous Call to the Nation, suggesting we start a Great Debate on what sort of society we wish to be—even The Tinzes now admits that his seed like Onan's fell on stony ground, if I have not got my biblical references mixed.
It would be a terrible thing if, in the course of his maunderings about the old, he suddenly hit a fertile patch. Nothing Dr Coggan said could possibly be held to condone geronticide. He was, as say, just droning along, opening and shutting his mouth like a goldfish which has suddenly, miraculously, learned to speak. His words had no application whatever beyond the pleasure it gave him to utter them. But just suppose somebody imagined he was really making a point, what point could they possibly imagine he was trying to make? Obviously, he must have been dropping hints: just as the Church of England has been having a long, hard look at its previous doctrine on the sanctity of human life in relation to unborn babies, so the time has now come for it to have a long hard look at its previous attitude to old people, many of whom are incurably insane, not to say incontinent, unpleasant and greedy ... Can old people be said to have immortal souls, and if so, does it really matter ? A large part of the Christian message is surely that many of these people will be much happier after they are dead. Living standards are much higher in Heaven, so are old age pensions, and there are more facilities, of course, for looking after the old ...
In 19631 wrote a novel-1 have not looked at it since, and hope no one else has—in which one of the key jokes was a group of students who demanded abortions on the National Health Service. This seemed outrageously perverse at the time, since abortion was still illegal and students were more or less forbidden to have sexual intercourse —I think women could be sent down for it. Now, of course, National Health abortions are taken for .granted, and students are expected to avail themselves of this service as a token of academic seriousness. I do not doubt that within my own lifetimeold people
will be being put to sleep by the thousands every week : those too senile to complain, those wanted out of the way by their relatives, those who have missed out on their National Insurance stamps, or been selfemployed, or never belonged to a union . .
But, in fact, there will be no protection in having belonged to a union. One thinks of Boxer, the faithful old carthorse in Animal Farm, sent to a knacker's yard as soon as he has grown too old to work. I often point out how the logical outcome of workers' power is first the impoverishment of the workers (of which, on balance, I approve) and then their humiliation and concomitant enslavement (of which, on balance, I don't). But one usually overlooks the concomitant and apparently irresistible compulsion for workers in power to kill each other—something of which only a moral imbecile could approve.
I do not know why workers in power should feel this strange compulsion. Perhaps a lifetime of contemplating each other across the workbench or in the social security queues has given them an imperfect awareness of the sanctity of human life. Perhaps such lofty truths are only apparent to the remote, contemplative bourgeois mind, a product of exploitation and privilege. I don't know. All I do know is that if I were an old age pensioner at the present time, I would be beginning to think of ways to make myself scarce.
Poor things, they could hardly make themselves scarcer as it is. The secret, smouldering hatred of the English for their parents requires that we, alone of all civilised nations, tuck them up in retirement bungalows and old people's homes, as far away as possible from the family. Then, to aPpease our consciences, we make sentimental noises about them at Christmas time. As a result, they are not only miserable but also idle and useless.
The notion that retirement should be spent in idleness, that people are only happy when they are idle, may be an inheritance from our wicked system of primogeniture, as I believe, or it may be a subtle form of punishment reflecting this secret hatred of the old. In either case, it is plainly a waste of time to urge people to change their attitudes to work and old age at a moment's notice. But it might be prudent for old people to try to make themselves a little more useful in the difficult times ahead.
There are a hundred things they could do if they had a mind to it, even hampered as they are in this country by false teeth that don't fit, ridiculous spectacles and surgical trusses. They could shell peas in the summer, clean shoes, baby-sit. We would sooner employ young people to babysit, of course, but it is not good pretending they are very reliable nowadays. Quite often, one reads, young people murder children left in their care. Many old people still have useful skills like plucking chickens, cleaning rabbits, darning socks. In the year of the beaver, it might be a good idea to give us a sight of them.