A very grown-up book club

Lily and 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 ... "

"Not that. Blood pressure."

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 here."

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 pains."
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.

Simon Brett's 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.

The Nightingale House reading list:

Never Surrender Michael Dobbs
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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