Think old people can be troublesome?
You don’t know the half of it!
Why didn’t my mother warn me?
It didn’t feel like it at the time but was it a stroke of luck for me that my friend Rose Hacker died two years ago, just shy of her 102nd birthday? If she hadn’t, I’d probably be in prison now – or at least awaiting trial, for conspiracy under Britain’s increasingly draconian “anti-terrorism” (read “anti-freedom”) laws.
Of course I’m not happy she’s dead. We were friends for fifty years.
So, how could Rose, who would have been 104 this month, and her friend Hetty Bower, six months her senior, 105 this October, have put me in the security services’ firing line?
Rose, Hetty and Rose’s friend Alice Herz-Sommer are just three among the ever-growing number of centenarians who challenge most of our pre- or mis-conceptions about ageing, what it is to be old and much else.
At 107 this year, Alice is the eldest. An internationally renowned pianist for more than eighty years, she survived the Nazi holocaust in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, losing almost all her family except her young son who survived only to die suddenly aged 65. Just a few weeks ago the BBC screened Everything Is A Present, an hour-long interview with Alice speaking and playing piano. She still lives alone and practices for three hours daily. She holds no grudge against the Germans, unlike many Jews, and made it clear that even Wagner’s well-known anti-semitism and role in the Nazis’ masterplans did not prevent her admiring his music.
When I saw Roberto Benigni’s film ‘Life is Beautiful’ I thought the story of a father not only keeping his young son alive but shielding him from the horror of concentration camp life by a mixture of play and humour far-fetched. Yet that was the reality Alice created for her son. His brief description in the introduction to her biography A Garden of Eden in Hell explains just how effective she was. And her love of life and sense of humour continue unabated.
How many major anti-war or pro-peace demonstrations take place each year in London? Probably around a dozen. At how many can you expect to find Hetty Bower marching – usually leading? Around a dozen. Rose and Hetty went on every march against the 2003 Iraq invasion. On 5 March a story about Joe Glenton, a young soldier facing Court Martial for desertion after refusing to return to Afghanistan, was screened hourly on BBC News. Who appeared alongside him in the archive footage? None other than Hetty Bower.
How does Hetty keep in practice? She walks daily, protests other major issues, takes annual walking holidays, staying in Youth Hostels. She has been on two demos against Israel’s actions in the occupied territories this year. In February, the worst in London for many years – and she hates cold and snow – she was out leafleting in the streets against closure of her local hospital’s Accident and Emergency unit before taking part in a two-mile protest march to draw attention to the problem. Questioned on national television before the start about why she was marching she declared, “It’s my patriotic duty. I would die trying to save the Health Service. I believe it was the first of its kind in the world and used to be immensely proud of it.” She then told a local newspaper reporter, “I prefer to march at the front. People walk too slowly further back along the line.” Clearly the ramblings of a feeble-minded, weak, old woman! After the march she confided, “I know I’m getting old. I had to stop twice for a little rest and a cup of tea.” But that didn’t prevent her completing the march, all uphill, in around an hour, before many other people.
Over lunch she said she doubted she would do her annual Oxfam fundraising hike this year. Last September she walked three miles and raised nearly two thousand pounds. But then her daughters and I both reminded her she had said the same thing last winter when it was cold and grey. Just let one ray of sunlight come out and so will her get-up-and-go. Hetty’s the best argument I know for switching to solar energy now.
And how did she recover from her exertions on the hospital protest? By going next evening to a chamber-music Sunday Concert in memory of Rose who died two years earlier after attending them for seventy years. Despite poor hearing, the expression of rapture on Hetty’s face showed she adored every moment. Many of the more than 200 people attending were clutching copies of the Camden New Journal in which Hetty had written a tribute piece to Rose about the importance of music in education and much else.
That recovery process may hold at least part of the clue to their longevity.
Just a few weeks after her 100th birthday Rose asked if I could drive her over to see her friend Alice for her 103rd birthday. She could have walked the two miles but she wanted to arrive fresh in order to …
Let’s go back to a little story told at her funeral by one Rose’s hundreds of close friends; everyone that met her immediately considered her a close friend. Rabbi Lionel Blue, a mere stripling at only 80, is probably Britain’s best known, out, gay, religious leader. He speaks regularly on radio and television, writes extensively and does a national public speaking tour – An Evening With Lionel Blue. He told the mourning crowd how he had met Rose at a Passover Seder dinner at the home of mutual friends. She was then only 90. The two of them kept everyone in stitches before Rose rose, announcing it was time to teach the children how to belly dance. And she did.
For Alice’s 103rd birthday Rose and Wendy, a young friend in her 80s decided to entertain Alice by belly dancing for her. I still have pictures. In her sixties Rose had joint and back problems. She overcame them and roared back to good health by learning and continuing to follow the Alexander technique. In her eighties she took up belly dancing and in her nineties added Tai Chi to her repertoire. At 97 she was given an award as Britain’s oldest working artist – she was a skilled sculptor. And like both Hetty and Alice, she loved walking especially in sculpture rich Kenwood on Hampstead Heath and in smaller local parks. A week before her 101st birthday, Rose and two friends in their nineties starred on stage at one of London’s main dance venues, The Place, in Remembrances, a piece specially choreographed for them. It recounted the story of the twentieth century through dance. They stole the show.
Four or five times a year Rose and Hetty used to, Hetty still does, attend concerts of Musicians Against Nuclear Arms (MANA). Almost every week Rose also went to the opera, another concert and lectures or meetings.
Even with failing hearing and eyesight, both still loved theatre and cinema. A couple of months ago I took Hetty to a Sunday morning London Socialist Film Co-op screening of Memories of Underdevelopment, a 1968 Cuban film. Hetty speaks no Spanish, could only pick out occasional subtitles and get a vague impression of the images on the screen, she claimed. At the end she whispered, “I must be getting old, I couldn’t tell whether that was a feature film, a documentary or a film about the making of a film.” A discussion led by a professor of Latin American studies began, “When this film came out in 1986, it was probably the first film to combine documentary footage into a feature film and it was interesting for being highly self-referential, a film about film-making.” Clearly Hetty’s understanding has waned with age.
Last month we went to see one film about protest in Iraq and another, Waiting for Mordechai about the international team that assembled to greet Mordechai Vanunu on his release from Israeli prison. This month it will be two retrospectives on the Spanish Civil War. Then two films on Palestine and maybe a bit of Michael Moore for relaxation.
In various ways all of them have spent their lives working for peace.
Both Rose and Hetty have described the process by which, during World War I they became pacifists. Both were swept up in the wave of patriotism in which young men were sent off to Europe to die. Both were taken by school teachers to wave goodbye to “our brave boys”. Both saw the limbless, shell-shocked, traumatised, emotionally wrecked, young men who returned from the battlefields their lives in shreds. And quite independently, well before that war was over, both came to the conclusion that war was wrong and far from solving any problems, created disaster. True patriotism meant working for peace and both committed themselves there and then to fighting against war and for peace. Hetty’s father had taught her before WWI to recognise anti-German propaganda for what it was. Like my parents (with me), in 1958 both Rose and Hetty marched in the first of what became annual marches by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an Easter-weekend-long protest against the Nuclear Weapons production and storage base at Aldermaston.
All three came from comfortable, middle-class Jewish families and enjoyed good health. Rose and Hetty had strongly egalitarian fathers and much more conservative mothers. Rose described her father as a ‘feminist’, Hetty described hers as a ‘political radical’. Rose was and Hetty still is an active supporter of Jews for Justice for Palestine. Last summer Alice persuaded a Muslim friend to offer a fascinating introductory course on Islam at the local University Of The Third Age which she only recently stopped attending.
Rose and Hetty both became committed socialists early in their lives. Rose, working as a designer in her father’s fashion house overlooking Oxford Circus in London witnessed the 1920s hunger marches. She was shocked when she realised the miners she could see from her window were so much smaller than Londoners because of malnutrition. Hetty was influenced by her older, suffragette sister and her political friends. Hetty worked in progressive cinema, refugee relief and education. Both strove ceaselessly for the improvement of society through politics, policy, art, music, culture and example.
While Alice’s life was bound up in music, Hetty and Rose were involved in education, politics, human rights; minority, immigrant, children’s, women’s prisoners’ and refugee rights, among others. Rose worked in social welfare, marriage and relationship counselling and sex therapy. She researched for a 1949 UK study of sexual behaviour that went much further than the Kinsey Reports. In 1956 she wrote The Opposite Sex Britain’s first book on sex directed to children and young people. The initial run sold around a quarter of a million copies. In between she found time to raise a family, sculpt, paint, write poetry and speak publicly, particularly on mental health and the rights of the disabled, mentally ill, homeless, elderly and generally dispossessed.
At an age when many people were retiring Rose became a Councillor on the Greater London Council, considered so left-wing by Margaret Thatcher that she abolished it. Interestingly, many of its most radical policies, hated by Thatcher, championed by Rose, have since become mainstream. Rose had particular responsibilities for music and theatre in education and the community and the canal network for the Greater London region.
In 2006 I asked the organisers of an annual Hiroshima Day commemoration which my mother had launched in 1967 and Rose always attended, to invite Rose, then 100 years old, to speak. She not only mesmerised the crowd, she caught the attention of the editor of a local newspaper. He was so impressed that he decided he needed her to write a hard-hitting political column every two weeks. Her column became a big hit. Under the banner “The World’s Oldest Columnist”, she was able to write things nobody else could get away with. She soon had a new cult following. Daily papers picked up on her story, she was frequently interviewed by international media. She was asked to speak to ever more organisations, appear on more platforms, take part in more demonstrations. Often Hetty and some other near centenarian friends went along.
One request Rose received was from a TV production company proposing a four part series about sex. Each episode was to deal with a different age group and Rose was asked to become the presenter for the oldest segment. She had already done something similar in a documentary called Little Kinsey.
I probably should have known better than to take Rose and Hetty to see Mark Thomas, a brilliant satirical, political activist much of whose work has been devoted to sabotaging Britain’s massive arms manufacturing and trading industry (universally regarded as phenomenally successful if you discount the bribes it has traditionally and illegally paid out). With Rose then in the record books as the world’s oldest working columnist and Mark a Guinness record holder for the highest number of demonstrations in twenty four hours, some kind of symbiosis was inevitable. In a packed theatre in which the induction loop system didn’t seem to be getting sound to their hearing aids, Rose and Hetty sat entranced as he went through his routine.
In the panic following 9/11 the British Parliament rushed through legislation to protect all that it holds most valuable, namely the British Parliament. It passed the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 banning any demonstrations around London’s Parliament Square without prior police approval. The real aim was to remove the embarrassing Brian Haw, a lone protestor who had camped on Parliament Square to protest the 2001 Afghanistan invasion and stayed. In its haste Parliament left a vacuum and a loophole. The loophole was that the law could not have retroactive impact and was therefore useless at removing a protestor who had already been there for four years. The vacuum was that it forgot to give police any grounds to refuse permission or any resources to handle applications to demonstrate.
Mark Thomas happily devised a series of schemes to fill that vacuum. For people who wanted to protest in front of Parliament but were tired, too busy, couldn’t find a baby-sitter, had a previous appointment or needed to wash their hair, he could offer a complete service including permit application, poster or banner preparation and even a person to wave them. Realising that twelve hundred individuals staging one-person demonstrations could not be seen as a mass demonstration (taking longer to process), he came up with the concept of ‘mass lone demonstration’. Within days the Westminster police were tied up in knots, forced to process thousands of applications for demonstrations in the area around Parliament with no option of refusing them.
Despite the packages Mark offered, Rose and Hetty had ideas of their own. Both were incensed at the loss of freedom of speech, which they viewed as the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. Both wanted to protest against the government’s trampling on long-established rights of protest and while Hetty was not keen to go to prison, Rose was quite willing to do so. She had worked in prisons for over fifty years and they held no fear for her. The plan was simple. Hetty would apply for a permit to protest. Rose would not. Robust Hetty, “I’ve still got very good legs,” would push a wheelchair in which frailer Rose “My legs aren’t what they used to be” would sit. Hetty would carry a placard saying:
LEGAL 102-YEAR-OLD PROTESTER
AGAINST LIMITATION OF THE RIGHT TO PROTEST
Rose a banner declaring:
ILLEGAL 102-YEAR-OLD PROTESTER
AGAINST LIMITATION OF THE RIGHT TO PROTEST
The police were required to arrest Rose or risk condoning lawbreaking. We would obviously have ensured good media presence and adequate TV coverage, then sat back and waited to see which police officer would be the first to dare arrest a fragile-looking, 102-year-old in a wheelchair on national television. Planning was difficult because of all the giggling.
My role in all this? I introduced them to Mark Thomas. I was present when they were discussing their evil ploy. I was expected to help co-ordinate, transport and provide refreshments. All material support of conspiracy to commit serious crime.
Sadly – and not just for the plan – Rose died just before her 102nd birthday. Hetty could not make that particular protest alone. The plan died with Rose. For months Hetty was depressed by Rose’s death, they shared so many interests and at Hetty’s age, so many of her friends and relatives had already gone. A film then nearing completion about life in the wonderful Mary Feilding Guild residential home where Rose and Hetty lived, ‘The Time of Their Lives’ starring Rose, Hetty and a fascinating younger woman, Alison Selford, had to end without Rose and Hetty’s demonstration. Nonetheless it has gone on to win international acclaim in film festivals around the world (including Canada), as well as being widely shown on television. And Hetty has revived, continues to do things that matter to her and has agreed to address this August’s Hiroshima Day commemoration.
Is there a secret to being a vibrant, radical, centenarian role-model? Being born over a hundred years ago is a good start. Making and keeping your life interesting helps. Positive and accepting attitudes seem to play a role. All three are humanists, convinced atheists. Do they fear death? No. They welcome it.
So why didn’t my mother warn me against such centenarian trouble-makers? Was it because, when she was dying over thirty years ago, barely a half-centenarian, despite an unbelievably busy schedule, Rose made time to help me nurse her, the only person to do so?
No. I think it’s because she aspired to being one of them and wanted me to as well.
Link to a recently released BBC film called “Alice Sommer Herz – Everything is a present”:
Here is a ten-minute interview with Alice Sommer Herz on the BBC radio (Radio 4) Front Row =>[audio:AliceHerzSommerinterview.mp3]