"Beloved Old Age - and What to Do About It." Margery Allingham's The Relay by Julia Jones

"The younger generation found themselves enriched in knowledge not only about old age but about themselves. They were able to look back with happiness and humour to an important part in their own evolution and found it good." Introduction to The Relay by Margery Allingham

I’m picking up Margery Allingham’s The Relay at a time of need. There's Mum, there's John's Campaign. There's the shortfall of hours in every day. My deteriorating eyesight frightens me.I'm fed up with time spent bashing up and down the A12. I want to be with Francis, with my children and my grandchildren, who are growing up much-loved but scarcely seen.Peter Duck will soon be seventy. I yearn to go sailing. Above all, I want to write -- elusive, unnecessary, adventure stories, not letters to Mum’s doctor or Quality Standards for the CQC. 

I know this won’t last for ever. “It’s only a phase” – as people say about toddlers and teenagers. But as toddlers and teenagers will understand, phases feel inescapable and eternal when you’re “going through” them. The horizon closes in, visibility is poor. The 50th anniversary of Margery Allingham's death (June 30th 1966) sends a signal like a RACON. These are radar beacons, fixed navigation marks that don't wait for you to pick up and identify them; they transmit their own distinctive beam in a pattern of Morse code. However impenetrable the atmosphere surrounding you -- fog, darkness, driving rain, a RACON on your screen is unmistakeable. 

So, with many thanks to the AE friends who encouraged me some months ago (Nov 2015) I'm taking The Relay as my beacon. It was Allingham’s last completed book. It's never previously been published and I've been thinking about it for years. Publication in time for June 30th 2016 gives me something to steer for. I know I haven't the headspace for write fiction but The Relay will be a joint publication; sharing Allingham's reflections on her experience then and the ways in which her book is helping me through my troubled waters now. 

“If you want to make God laugh,” says my friend Nicci Gerrard, “tell him your plans.” Once I'd decided to publish The Relay, I needed to work out how it should be done.  It was towards the end of a long day when I’d finally completed all my jobs and I’d made my excuses and retired upstairs to think about its structure. The papers were spread across the bed, the laptop was open, the pen in hand. I had the glimmer of an idea. My heart beat faster. The phone rang. I ignored it.

“Sorry,” said Francis, “It’s someone from Deben View.”

Deben View is the extra care housing scheme where my mother has a flat. We have an understanding that they will always telephone – or help Mum to telephone – if she’s upset beyond their power to comfort.  "Upset" can mean frightened, enraged, paranoid, abusive – or any combination of these. The carers who work in Deben View are truly good kind people who understand that her wilder moments are a cry for help. My job, at the far end of the phone in Essex, is to tell her I love her and help her calm down. She needs to recognise my voice, listen to my reassurance. Usually this brings her back to herself.

On this particular evening Francis and Georgeanna, my daughter, were in the next door room to me when they were startled by a furious screech, “Just go off and die then, you silly cow!”  Mum with the carer in Suffolk threw down the phone and was persuaded back, threw it down again and returned, shouting at me all the time -- while I shouted back at her that it was extremely rude to shout at people and her mother would have been ashamed of her and so was I – all at full shout.

This appalling conversation did in fact end up with Mum going happily to bed but there was no more work to be done on The Relay that night. 

I often think of a young man who allowed himself to be quoted in a dementia support guide “I loved my mum more than words can ever express but dementia could turn her and me into monsters that I did not recognise.” I wish I could say that I didn’t recognise this monstrous aspect of myself but that wouldn’t be true. It wasn’t only that this phone call had shattered a moment of serenity that had felt filled with potential, it was also that the quarrel woke so many echoes of old hurtfulness.

"Did you and your mother often row?" a dementia specialist nurse asked me. "A bit," I mumbled, not wanting to remember. "It possibly still feels safe for your mother, if it's you she's angry with." The carer who'd been with mum that night confirmed that she had indeed slept particularly well afterwards. It wasn't like that for me, I felt drained and desolate. 

Among the many reasons I take comfort from The Relay is that Margery Allingham and her mother did not have an ideal relationship.  Neither did her sister Joyce who was the front-line daughter most frequently called upon for help. Joyce told me she had lived most of her life attempting to avoid her mother. The time when mum's and my relationship came closest to collapse was the period immediately before the diagnosis of dementia. Not a good time to fall out. It makes me remember Margery's description of her mother as being "one of those people who invariably cut off the bough on which they sit".
In addition to the RACON there’s another unmistakeable pattern of signals which one hopes not to see on a nautical radar screen. It’s a stream of dots indicating the existence of a SART, a Search and Rescue Transponder. This means there’s a vessel in distress. It’s a Mayday and wherever you thought you were heading, the law of the sea demands that you turn towards the source of that distress and make all possible speed to offer assistance.

When the crisis came in the Allingham family with mother, aunt and elderly cousin all almost simultaneously in terminal need, those old hurts and quarrels were of secondary importance and there was never any doubt that Joyce and Margery would take responsibility. The urgent question, for Margery was "Whose survival, theirs or ours?" -- and The Relay gives her answer. I hope it will provide mine too.

(If you wonder about the lovely image at the beginning of this piece it's Claudia Myatt's interpretation of paisley. Margery loved textiles and in her more profound moments she believed an understanding of pattern could contribute to an understanding of existence, She cherished the combination of continuity and discontinuity, the movement of paisley. While she was organising the care for her mother and aunts, she was writing The China Governess. Just before the end of that novel, her detective contemplates the survivors: "Mr Campion was comforted. It was a picture of beginnings, he thought. Half a dozen startings: new chapters new ties, new associations. They were all springing out of the story he had been following, like a spray of plumes in a renaissance pattern springs up from a complete and apparently final feather." Claudia thought about paisley, she thought about discontinuities and new beginnings and this what she painted. Think of this as a warm shawl in which to swaddle a old granny -- or to cover a new book...)


Wendy H. Jones said…
What a poignant and heartfelt post. Thank you for sharing
Bill Kirton said…
Having read this simultaneously beautiful and awful post, there are so many things I want to say, Julia, but, not for the first time, the words aren't enough. I want to express sympathy, empathy, understanding, affection. You've conveyed the strange, infuriating mixture of love, regret, frustration, anger, guilt, helplessness, and so many other things in such clear, direct, honest terms. I wish there were a way of alleviating the distress and helping to get you to the next 'phase' but, apart from sending useless wishes, there's nothing. I'm sending them anyway.
Susan Price said…
I think Bill has said everything I wanted to say, Julia.

This was a distressing post to read, but so beautifully done. 'Drained and desolate.' You make me feel how that awful, shouted conversation must have left you shaking - how your thoughts and feelings must have circled and circled, tearing themselves into bits, perhaps for days...

Your sea metaphors of racon and sart too - so beautiful and so apt.

There's a safe, peaceful harbour ahead. We're all willing you on to fight your way there. And here's to June 30th and The Relay...
Thanks for your bravery and honesty, Julia. I to am looking after an aged and frail parent, but her problems - though severe - are physical rather than mental. I can't begin to think how distressing your situation must be. I look forward to The Relay.
cally phillips said…
Julia, if there's anything practical I might do - such as proof or help copyedit or anything on The Relay to get it ready in time for June - please do ask!!! I've got 2 books coming out April, 2 in May, 1 in June, and another 2-3 later in the year, so I'm kind of 'in the zone' regarding typesetting/proofing etc at the moment and would be more than happy to do whatever I could to help in time of need. None of us can help with the dementia, but you aren't alone publishing-wise at least!
Mari Biella said…
Julia, everyone has already said everything there is to say. I know there's nothing I can do and I know we don't even know each other, but I'm sending my best wishes to you and your mother. I wish there was more I could do.
Kathleen Jones said…
Bill has already said everything that's in my own heart, Julia. What you are going through is awful. Be very kind to yourself - you are absolutely amazing, as a daughter, partner and mother. And what you are doing as a campaigner for better understanding and support for Alzheimer sufferers and their family is beyond admiration!
glitter noir said…
Thank you, Julia, for sharing this heartfelt and gut-wrenching post.
Dennis Hamley said…
Julia, Bill has I think been the spokesman for us all. Whata wonderful post. I can relate to it when remembering my own mother and, by a cruel irony, my brother is having to cope on his own with his wife rapidly descending into dementia. He is getting no help, because facilities in leafy, rich, complacent and government-compliant Bucks are actually worse than ha
ving none at all. But how I know the anguish you feel when I remember and relive the last months of my first wife's life
Lydia Bennet said…
Julia, you would never ignore an SOS or ignore the rules of the sea, and similarly you will 'stand into danger' when you have to. I think it's good that you shouted back at your mum, you know from her reaction that she didn't suffer at all and in fact went to bed refreshed! As I sometimes reflected during the normal but difficult family times, we love our family members but we can't always like them - regardless of any excuse, reason or illness, puberty, dementia, whatever it is. Of course fear makes people dangerous, and if they haven't the power to be dangerous, they lash out any way they can. You may look back on your time with your mother now as having as one compensation, a closeness with her more than you may have had before, despite occasional flare-ups. I was struck by this closeness on the film you made together. I'm glad you've found a worthwhile project to remind yourself of the world that waits for you.
Sandra Horn said…
I just want to add my heartfelt thanks to you for this moving, beautiful post - shout on if that's what you both need!
julia jones said…
I have said before how deeply grateful I am for the understanding and support of you, my friends. Writing these monthly blogs has itself been a release and I clutch at all the lifelines you so generously throw. I have to say that I don't think having rows with my mum is good at all. It does happen and in some ways I suppose it is part of the lifelong relationship between two people that is different from the carer / cared-for relationship with its complex imbalances of power and agency. But it isn't good. The vulnerabilities are too great.

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