very grown-up book club
Miriam belong to a rather unusual reading group. It is chaired by
Edwina Currie, most members are in their 90s and their stories are
more extraordinary than the books they discuss.
By Blake Morrison
Saturday June 7, 2008 The Guardian
A Wednesday afternoon in Clapham, south London, and the Nightingale
book club is having its monthly meeting. Along with the chairperson
and a couple of volunteers, 10 women have assembled round the table
- "ladies", one is tempted to call them, as they sip tea
and help themselves to scones from a silver cake-stand. Once business
begins, however, the conversation is far from stuffy or genteel.
The book under discussion is Simon Brett's The Penultimate Chance
Saloon, a post-menopausal sex comedy in which the hero, Bill, who
married young and has just divorced, tries to make up for decades
of monogamy by bedding as many women as possible. The book, they
agree, is well-plotted and highly enjoyable, but the ladies are
less keen on Bill. "I got a bit cross with him," one says.
"Do you know any men like him?" another asks. "I
hope not," comes the reply.
Since the book's
author is here in person (the book club sometimes invites the selected
writer along), he's able to explain Bill's motivation - his need
to experience, in his 60s, the 60s he never had. The book group's
chairperson, Edwina Currie, who has been running the book club for
the past 10 years, throws in helpful comments, too - only that morning
she has been reflecting for BBC television on the sexual compulsions
of male political leaders ("Goodness knows why they asked me"),
and she knows where the hero is coming from. She quotes a passage
of post-coital conversation from the book:
"Oh God!" Her hand leapt to her mouth. "I haven't
taken my pill!"
"But surely you're, er ... well, not to put too fine a point
on it ... at your age ... "
There's a ripple of laughter, before a debate ensues on whether
today's morals differ from those of the 60s and, earlier, the second
world war. "I was wondering if Bill and his women ever undressed
in front of each other," somebody muses. The book club is an
all-female group, since it's felt that with men present they'd be
too shy talk freely. "You couldn't say what was in your heart,"
Julie, sitting next to me, explains. As it is, there's little inhibition
round the table, and no one seems discomfited by the novel's sexual
candour. Indeed, when at a previous meeting one member complained
about the amount of sex in a novel by Fay Weldon, she was quickly
shot down by a 97-year-old: "I thought we were all grown-up
The grown-up-ness of the Nightingale book club is one of its most
striking aspects. Among the members I talk to are Miriam (93), Freda
(92), and Lily (90 next year). When PD James came to speak to the
group, at the age of 79, she joked how wonderful it was to be the
youngest person in the room. The choice of books isn't tailored
towards nonagenarians, however: Edwina Currie's preference is for
contemporary British fiction (Julian Barnes, Tracy Chevalier, Hilary
Mantel), with Booker and Orange prize winners to the fore. If the
material is sometimes disturbing she thinks that a good thing ("It's
like putting your finger in an electric socket - you might get a
shock but it also makes you feel alive"). Today's guest, Simon
Brett, is a sprightly sixtysomething, 30 years younger than most
of the members, and has the temerity to describe his book as "a
gaga saga". But the ladies laugh at his jokes and don't hold
his boyishness against him.
At Nightingale House, the care home where the book club is based,
the average age of the residents is 89. The Nightingale itself is
pretty long in tooth, being 100, 113 or 168 years old, depending
on when you date it from. Established in 1895 as the Home for Aged
Jews, it was an amalgamation of two asylums set up in the East End
in 1840, and - thanks to the gift of a house and grounds from Lord
Wandsworth, the Viscount de Stern - moved to its current base, in
Clapham, in 1908. Its proudest boast isn't its longevity, though,
or even that, with 250 residents, it's one of the largest care homes
in Britain. What sets it apart is its commitment to providing residents
with a stimulating and culturally enriching old age. The book club
is only a small part of that. There are also the language lessons
- French, German and Yiddish; the trips to opera and concerts; computer
classes, drama therapy and discussion groups; and a thriving arts
and craft centre. On my tour of the premises, I come across the
pottery teacher adding finishing touches to a display of masks.
Some of them look highly accomplished, and I ask her how many of
her students had previous experience of making pots. "None,"
she says, "they all started here."
Music and poetry have a part to play, too, not least with those
who have dementia or Alzheimer's, as two-thirds of those in the
Nightingale do. The calming effects of familiar tunes or rhythms
on dementia patients are well-documented: music seems to bring peace
to the restless and convulsive, or to activate minds otherwise immune
to outside stimuli. Miriam says that poetry has a similarly beneficial
effect, both for those who listen to it being recited and those,
like her, who write it. One of her poems is called Age - "We
can still see the child within us / And imagine if our years were
less / What feats of prowess we might yet achieve" - and she
thinks that the challenge of creating literature or responding to
it is therapeutic: "While we're concentrating, we forget our
In the book club, some of the forgetting comes through laughter.
The chosen texts aren't necessarily comic and, Currie insists, "no
subject is taboo". But the prevailing tone is good-humoured.
No one is here to show off or get A grades. Bright they may be,
but they're also conscious of their frailties. Most of the texts
used are large-print editions, bought by Currie or lent by the local
library service in Wandsworth.
Carol, next to me, has an audio-cassette. Walking sticks, Zimmer
frames and hearing aids are part of the decor. And the club has
its inevitable turnover, as illness and death intrude.
The club can be inspiring and even rejuvenating, though, which is
why Currie remains committed to it and once flew back from South
Africa rather than miss a session. "People tend to be shy and
withdrawn when they first join," she says, "then you see
their body language change and watch them flower." Lily began
coming "in great sorrow", three weeks after the death
of her husband. "It was a very difficult time," she says,
"but I'm a lifelong reader, and needed a distraction, and I
had to start somewhere. I couldn't speak at first. Now I can. It's
been marvellous in that way."
At its lowest, the book club gives members a reason to get up in
the morning. "I'm a keen reader anyway, but with the club I
always read the book at least twice," Miriam says, "because
there's so much you miss the first time round." As well as
the intellectual stimulus, there's an emotional connection, too:
"I love the feeling of putting myself in the book, of being
in the skin of the characters," Freda says.
Analysing a narrative together encourages people to share their
own stories - or simply to enjoy a sense of common ground. Few of
the books chosen are by Jewish authors (and even when they are,
Jewishness isn't the reason they're chosen). But there may be something
Jewish about the reverence in which books are held at the Nightingale.
As one member put it: "Of course books matter to us - we saw
them being burned in Berlin."
Care homes can be infinitely depressingly places, as I found when
my mother-in-law became ill three years ago and we visited a few
in her area. Even where the conditions are reasonably good (clean
rooms, healthy food, attentive nursing), the emphasis is on physical
maintenance, not mental stimulus, and the sense of decay and torpor
can make you want to run screaming to the nearest exit. The real
scandal isn't the inadequacy of particular homes, it's the assumption
at large in society that we can't do much for the elderly (itself
a term that members of the book club bridle at: "Just call
us people") except to ease them through their twilight.
If the ambience
of the Nightingale is refreshingly different, that's not because
the fees are particularly high (they range from £720 to £940pw,
with local authority part-funding the care of many residents) or
because the clientele is drawn exclusively from the professional
classes (social backgrounds vary widely), or because every resident
is guaranteed a place for life no matter how ill they become or
how much their circumstances change (some arrive as a married couple
then find themselves alone). The key is the opportunity people are
given to express themselves. Diminished though some of them may
be, it's understood that they do still have ideas to contribute,
or objects to create, or stories to tell.
Some of the
stories people at the Nightingale tell are more extraordinary than
the books they discuss each month. Freda's story of losing both
her parents within a year when she was nine, leaving school at 14,
and being married for 67 years, for instance. Or Lily's story of
escaping both the Nazis and the communists in her native Hungary:
the Nazis when she was arrested for making a call from a phone box
in the street (her fellow cell-mates went off to Auschwitz but she,
thanks to a friend's intercession, was released), the communists
when - without a passport and travelling in secret at night with
her four-year-old son - she was smuggled out to Bratislava and Vienna
in 1949. Lily and Freda could write a book. But for now, modest
as they are, they are thankful just to be able to read them.
book has gone down well, not least, perhaps, because it's respectful
towards women who're no longer young. Next month, Currie announces,
will be non-fiction for a change - and copies of a book by the late
Alistair Cooke are handed round. "Anyone need a porter?"
one of the volunteers asks. "Me, please," Freda says,
less from need than in the hope of getting one of the handsome ones.
It's not how most book clubs end. But this isn't like most book
clubs, and the Nightingale isn't like most homes. I'm only sorry
my mother-in-law's not Jewish. If she converts to Judaism, will
she become eligible for a place? I shall have to find out.
House reading list:
Snobs Julian Fellowes
First Love, Last Rites Ian McEwan
Arthur & George Julian Barnes
Debs at War Anne de Courcy
Sharpe's Fury Bernard Cornwell
Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction Sue Townsend
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian Marina Lewycka
The Conjuror's Bird Martin Davies
Iris & Ruby Rosie Thomas
Puccini's Ghost Morag Joss
Next to You Gloria Hunniford
Natural Flights of the Human Mind Clare Morrall
The Penultimate Chance Saloon Simon Brett
Girl with a Pearl Earring Tracy Chevalier
Every Man for Himself Beryl Bainbridge
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