I am on the train to London after a visit to Wakefield to see my lovely Mum. My Mum is 91 years old now (yes, she was very old when she had me! I think it is safe to say I was a bit of a surprise) and she has just been in hospital, only overnight and more mysterious than serious. I paid her a visit while my sister, who is her main carer, took a break in the country. She wasn’t expecting me and was delighted and shaky when I came to the door. Spending time with her without the kids meant that we could really sit and chat together, something I realised I hadn’t done properly for about 10 years.
We don’t really think about the elderly do we? I mean we visit briefly and do the practical household/medical duties that need to be done but we (at least, I) don’t really take stock of what it means to be old, of how it must be when the majority of your life is in the past. Sitting in Mum’s tropically heated living room while she chatted in her armchair about old friends and memories, I was struck by how much she has shrunk in stature. It isn’t just her height, though she must be a good foot smaller than she was in her sixties, her whole body has lost its fullness, the bones in her arms jut out at angles and her skin hangs loosely. I don’t say this with any revulsion, this is just what happens and as most of us will live much longer than our parents it is perhaps something we should get used to. My Mum is still an extremely pretty old lady, always immaculately turned out in practical but fashionable clothes, nails done by her grand-daughter, hair set, a splash of lipstick. Her eyes sparkle with the mischief and vigour of a child’s yet her face is lined like a contour map, and this is the way it should be. I have never thought of wrinkles as ugly; I find them very beautiful. They are the visual representation of a life lived, of the hopes and fears, triumphs and disappointments, love and tears and laughter that have made up the past. Stretched and cut-away, that’s ugly. Women (and it is usually women) who pull and plump their flesh into an unnatural approximation of a flawless teen just end up looking weird, as if they are denying their life and all the things that have made them what they are. It really doesn’t have the desired effect. When Madonna recently appeared on various chat shows her face was a smooth as the moon but she was wearing Chanel gloves indoors presumably because her hands resemble a railroad interchange. Why deny your natural form, it’s not as if we’ve forgotten you’ve been around for decades?
Natural form is very much to the fore in Wakefield’s Hepworth Art Gallery. This amazingly beautiful museum is a ten minute walk from my Mum’s flat. Built on what used to be an industrial wasteland near the canal it is a welcome addition to the city. I love wandering around its gigantic airy galleries filled with imposing abstract sculpture by the like of Barbara Hepworth (naturally) and Henry Moore. The work of these two artists is something I remember from going up in the area, something to be proud of, they were locals like the rest of us but their art was on display in Paris and New York. The pieces are often just entitled Form or Figure followed by some minor qualifying identification. When I took the boys there a few months ago we spent all day making clay sculptures, collages and slide projections. Even the lunch is a work of art, huge pyramids of sandwiches arranged on stark white dinner-plates. In one gallery we were allowed to touch Reclining Figure by Henry Moore. Through the cotton gloves provided you could feel the detailed texture of the piece which from a distance looks full and rounded. Under my fingertips it reminded me of fossilised bone, hard and knobbly a reminder of what’s inside all of us.
I can no longer look at art (anything!) from the 1960s without thinking of my current favourite TV show – Mad Men. I’m obsessed. The show finished on Sky Atlantic here on Tuesday and I’m in mourning. What an amazing season it has been! It got off to a slow and frankly disappointing start (not that it wasn’t still brilliant television, it just wasn’t THE BEST thing on TV) but by episode 11 all that had changed and it was on top form. I’m going to talk a bit about the last two episodes so if you haven’t seen them don’t read on. I did wonder how they were going to top episode 12 and the shock suicide we all should have seen coming since the opening credits of episode one. In the end they did something altogether cleverer than going out with a bang, something I don’t think I ever seen done so well, they managed to dramatize grief. Entitled The Phantom, the episode was haunted by the memory of Lane Pryce throughout (even though nobody ever mentioned his name) there were empty offices and chairs and silences in meetings that would have been filled by his comments. The money rolled in but it was tainted by loss and there wasn’t much joy in it. Lane wasn’t the only ghost in the episode, all the characters had to live on through absences; Peggy was largely absent (and missed), Betty and the kids weren’t there at all, Pete’s lover had ECT that made her forget he even existed, and Don, well where to begin. As well as being literally haunted by his dead brother Don was plagued by a toothache that nagged throughout. What did this mean? Was it his secret past? Guilt at the deaths of Adam and Lane? His failed marriage? His next failed marriage? The truth is it’s probably all of these motivations and more. Draper is such a beautifully realised character (from his trademark look of disappointment to that cuddly toothache cardigan) that there can never be a simple explanation for anything he does. I get quite annoyed by this guy John Hamm who does all those chat shows because, affable and handsome though he is, he’s just not Don.
The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has said that Mad Men is so popular because it lets us experience the past as it really was for our parents and grandparents, from blatant racism and sexism in the office to the martini fixed by the kids at the end of the suburban commute, all without the nostalgic those were the days veneer we have for the past. When Don watched Megan’s screen test that veneer was already in place and Megan was in the past. The scene gave the nod back to the glory days of the Kodak pitch in season one. In the words of the closing song, You Only Live Twice, and Don’s already had his two lives, firstly as Dick Whitman, the dirt poor son of a whore and then as the slick, selfish and successful ad man who was largely missing from this series. He can’t have happy family-man too, so when the girl at the bar asks him if he’s alone we don’t need to hear the answer. The whole episode was full of the life goes on melancholy that by necessity follows a loss. It left me feeling sad – and longing for the next season.
Rumour has it there might only be one more series of Mad Men left and then there won’t be any more surprises, we’ll all just be watching re-runs of glorious memories as on a Kodak Carousel.