Stephen McGinty: Respect, all that is needed

Author James Salter. Picture: GettyAuthor James Salter. Picture: Getty
Author James Salter. Picture: Getty
WHEN James Salter was 79-years old he was invited to fly in an F-16 by an American Air Force general, who admired his novel The Hunters about pilots in Korea where Salter had flown over 100 missions in the early 1950s.

The novel, with its exhilarating and poetic descriptions of air-to-air combat, was a favourite of the general, who each year bought multiple copies to give to his junior staff. As they climbed into the cockpit, Salter, like an OAP in his son’s new sports car, was told “don’t touch” but by the end of the flight, he’d been allowed to take control and once again fly back to the vocation of his youth.

If flying was a young man’s game, for James Salter writing novels, novellas, short stories, memoirs and screenplays was a young man’s game, a middle-aged man’s game, an OAP’s game and, now, at the age of 87, a very old man’s game. The publication last week of his new novel, All That Is, his first in 34 years, has triggered garlands of praise and a reappraisal of his position as a great American writer in the company of his contemporaries Philip Roth, John Updike and Norman Mailer. Yet Salter, who is in Britain this week appearing at the Bath Festival of Ideas, has detected a few patronising notes in the symphony of praise. As he told The Observer: “It’s wondrous!’ They say: ‘It’s incredible! This old f***er can hardly stand, and here he is writing a novel.”

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In some ways it’s simply a literary form of the benign patronising tone we take with many of the elderly for whom we lower the barrier of what constitutes an achievement the higher their decades are stacked. Yet in the case of James Salter, he may have taken his time, but he’s still capable of writing an elegant sentence, a powerful paragraph and what, in All That Is, is shaping up to be a great novel (I’m only on page 81). The first 11 pages about the war in the Pacific is a masterclass in clarity, economy and emotion.

Martin Amis has said that writers die twice. The first time is when their literary talent, once strongly in the ascent, crashes back down to earth. I can remember in Martha Gellhorn’s letters how she gloomily described a visit from Ian Jack, the editor of Granta, as he come round to explain, subtly, that her latest article just wasn’t good enough for publication. So it’s inspiring to see Salter’s success and his grumpiness about the title of the New Yorker’s profile, “The Last Book”: “I suppose it’s a fair bet that this might be the last book. But, you know...”

The author who enjoyed a successful career as a screenwriter and wrote The Downhill Racer for Robert Redford lives today with his second wife in Colorado and on Long Island. Reading Jay McInnerney’s blog entry about the recent champagne book launch thrown for him by his friends and publisher, it’s hard to imagine Mr Salter, should he be resident in Britain, ever requiring the services of the Royal Volunteer Services, but should he have found himself lonely and housebound it’s good to know there is help at hand.

The elderly are unpopular. In terms of current trends in charitable giving, the old cannot ever be described as chic. Cancer charities, animal charities, children’s charities, all appear to have an energy around them, a sense of determination and youth, of spirit and fight, but when we think of charities for the old we think of knitted cardigans, soup, and municipal chairs all perfumed with the faint aroma of pee. For selfish reasons this has got to change. We need to find a way to better look after the old, for it is a service we may one day wish to rely upon, which is why I’d like to highlight the decision to re-brand what was once the Woman’s Royal Voluntary Service, and then became the WRVS and now has dropped the “W” and is, as of Wednesday, now known as the Royal Voluntary Service with the catchline: “Together for Older People”.

The charity, which is 75-years old this month, was formed during the Second World War to marshall women into necessary roles crucial to the war effort, then evolved in a number of areas before concentrating on its current role, that of assisting the elderly. The decision to drop the “W” is in a bid to encourage more men to volunteer their time, as currently less than one fifth of their 40,000 volunteers are men. In Scotland the RVS has approximately 7,000 volunteers of which just over 1,000 are men and range in age from teenagers to a woman of 102, who is the oldest and longest serving volunteer in Britain.

The organisation runs cafes, shops, and trolley services in hospitals and community centres; it delivers meals-on-wheels, books-on-wheels and, most importantly, a befriending or Good Neighbours services which can involve taking elderly people to a hospital appointment, meeting up once a week for a cup of tea, a visit to the pub or a football game. The plight faced by the elderly is a growing problem. In Scotland today there are 408,000 people aged over 75 and by 2030 that figure will have risen by 248,000 to over 656,000.

The majority of older people do not wish to go into residential care and while most people would assume that it is their children’s responsibility to care for their elderly parents, the reality of modern life, in which sons and daughters may now live and work further away than they would prefer, mean this is not always practical or possible.

A report by the RVS found that for 11 per cent of older people, their nearest child lives more than a hour’s drive away, which means, for almost half of them, a visit every two to six months. Then there are those without children who have no such prospect. I’ve never experienced genuine loneliness, and I honestly hope not to, though I’ve seen what it looks like. In a sheltered housing complex I’ve visited regularly, there was an elderly woman who would sit for hours in a chair in the central corridor. She didn’t have any visitors herself but liked to smile and chat to those arriving to see her neighbours. I thought about inviting her to Christmas dinner one year, but didn’t because like most people I think too much and do too little and by January she was dead.

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The television, despite its multiple channels, is no substitute for human contact and if you talk to older people who’ve been deprived of company the conversation can tumble out in a confused, frantic, desperate fashion, as if they’re gorging in preparation for the next bout of enforced starvation. Which, in a way, they are. The importance of regular human contact is crucial to physical and emotional well-being and never more so for the old and frail. All the evidence shows that participation and engagement in society can result in lower mortality rates, better physical health, a reduction in the symptoms of depression, higher cognitive function and overall improvements in wellbeing. I remember the late William Hunter, one of the Herald’s finest columnists, with whom, after his retirement, I irregularly lunched, joking about the time-wasting exercises of the newly retired. When I asked what he did in the morning, he replied that what he didn’t do was look out of the window, when I asked why he said, “then you’d have nothing to do in the afternoon.”

A survey found that in Britain over three million men planned to do some form of voluntary work during 2013, which means there are roughly 300,000 Scots men looking to put a little something back. The RVS may not have been their first thought, but anyone who has worked with the elderly knows that it can be deeply rewarding as well as frustrating, difficult and demanding because wrapped up in those wrinkles and behind those liver spots is the same person they once were with all their gifts, faults and failings.

Or in the case of James Salter, a talent still burning against the dying of the light. Few 79-year olds can expect an invitation to fly an F-16, but in Scotland many more deserve an invitation to go for coffee and cake, a pint or a trip to the football.

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