This week on Refinery29, we’re filling your screens and consciousness with inspiring women over 50. Why? Because living in a culture obsessed with youth is exhausting for everyone. Ageing is a privilege, not something to dread. Welcome to Life Begins At...
I was my daughter’s plus one at a posh do at London's Savoy hotel when she was nominated for the Evening Standard's most promising new playwright award in 2010. I still smoked in those days, mostly OPs (Other People’s cigarettes), so I snuck out with another young promising playwright at our table who had a packet of cigarettes on her.
In the small group of smokers that congregated outside, Benedict Cumberbatch, a friend of the promising playwright, appeared to be the only one in possession of a light. About six of us, poised with our cigarettes stylishly hovering by our mouths, waited our turn.
He lit five cigarettes but somehow missed mine. Benedict (breathing the same polluted air as him gives me the right to call him by his first name, or even Benny boy, I think) caught sight of me, still waiting, and muttered something like, "I didn’t realise you were waiting for a light". And quick as lightning, I went: "Did you think I was here for the company?"
If that had happened to me in my 20s, I would have fizzled out like a dud firecracker. But I was in my 50s and, at some subconscious level, I guess I didn’t care how I was perceived, although I am still taken aback by my brazenness when I reflect on it. Was it my race or age that had made me invisible? Race has always been my fallback explanation for rudeness from an interlocutor, however unfairly, but the idea of age was new. I realised that this invisibility gave me a new freedom.
It is a freedom that allows me to walk late at night without fear. This is not to suggest that older women are not the targets of sexual violence but there is a steep fall in male attention. It is truly liberating not having to worry about the footsteps echoing behind you. When an older man in the park stared lecherously and threw the phrase "Fifty Shades of Grey" at me, I was so surprised that I accidentally made eye contact with him, a response I had studiously avoided for years.
I used to buy meat from a halal butcher staffed by mainly young Pakistani men whose hormones could have fuelled a Harley-Davidson. Once when I asked them the Urdu word for kidneys, someone yelled out goliyan, the word for testicles, and everybody laughed. I actually knew what that word meant. I resolved never to go back. About 10 or so years later, when I was passing and needed meat, I thought I’d venture in again. The staff had changed and were very respectful. It was only when one of them addressed me as "aunty" that I realised I had crossed the Rubicon. They were all still clones of the men who had served me years ago. Only I had changed.
Another watershed was when I was invited to speak about black women's activism in the 1980s, particularly my involvement with Outwrite, an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, feminist newspaper, at an event celebrating the history of black feminism. My early life had become someone else’s history!
Being comfortable in your own skin is the biggest gift of the advancing years. We are all plagued by fears and uncertainties but they are aggravated by youth. Perhaps it is also gendered because many of the young men I knew came across as cocky and self-assured. If only I had taken these fears in hand, overcome them, opened doors and wandered into spaces, owned them and expanded them all those years ago, where might I have been now? What I didn’t realise then and see more clearly now is that there is a cult of youth in Western society – partly because of its relative scarcity – where people want your views, however inchoate, because they are gilded by youth. So young people should feel empowered by that knowledge.
I avoided public speaking for years, turning down invites with some excuse or another. I was afraid of coming across as inarticulate. I wanted to be Maya Angelou or Martin Luther King. At the very least I wanted my spoken self to be as polished as my written self. It was only when my first sole-authored book, Enslaved, on modern day slavery, was published in 2007 in my early 50s and there was no one else who could speak for the book, that I had to take the reins myself. On one occasion when I had left my speech at home, I was forced to speak off the cuff and discharged myself quite honourably. It was easier than I had imagined. A public space expanded and owned! Oh, the joy.
The other thing that happens as you get older is that your relationship with time changes. Time speeds up. I hold back the rush of years by marking each year with one significant event; it might be a performance of my work, a publication of a book, a birth or death of someone close. I also keep a list of all the books I have read and the films and plays I have watched each year as an aide-mémoire. Looking back, my life feels full and long and acquires definite contours rather than forming a soup of half-remembered ingredients.
You are also driven to be more productive as time’s wingèd chariot hurries ever nearer. When I was younger, time was an endless ocean on which I would drift. Now there is always one more article to write, one more to read; one more meeting to attend. I rarely stand and stare. Even when I’m relaxing I’m doing mental gymnastics, working away at a Sudoku or crossword.
And what about your relationship with people? In case you think that age mellows you, I have found the exact opposite to be true. I ended a couple of close friendships recently. I had known those friends so long that they were like family, but I could no longer ignore the unhealthy dynamics that had developed between us. The niceties of social life can go hang.
When they say "Life begins at..." I’m not sure it is about a particular age but rather a time when you can at last focus on yourself, free from cares and caring, and also have a little spare cash to splash about. For many women, that point might come quite late in life, if ever. With women having children later than ever and parents living longer than before, one form of caring can merge seamlessly into another. For life to truly begin, let’s say at 65, we can only hope that medicine and technology will keep pace.
I’ve also discovered that ageing is now frequently, and non-judgementally, referred to as "this stage in the life cycle". It makes us sound like butterflies. I can live with that.