Late starters – what are they? Later flowerers we know of. John Lee hooker coming back at the end of a long and slowly back-sliding career to barnstorm his way to the pop top again. Loretta Lynn, the coalminer’s daughter, making records with Jack White of the White Stripes at the age of 76. Emyr Humphreys, novelist of the Welsh north and the Welsh conscience, on the long list for the 2009 Wales Book of the Year at the age of 92. Ruth Bidgood, at 89, still publishing prize-winning collections of poetry with Seren. Dannie Abse at 88 is writing more now than he did in the energy and heat of youth. His Two For Joy from Random House follows hard on the heels of a fat New Selected from Hutchinson.
Those who have the life experience suddenly see the reaper up front and, if their health is holding, begin to exhibit a paranoia about leaving a decent mark. John Updike lived to the age of 76. His Rabbit books mapped out the route from life to death. “I can appreciate the advantages, for a writer, of youth and obscurity”, he wrote in Aarp magazine, “You are not yet typecast. You can take a cold view of the entire literary scene.” Young writers have their as yet untapped youth still to work with. Their first and so vital twenty years. The older writer will have mined those experiences and be, as Updike puts it, “sifting” from the age of 40 on.
You want fresh then go for the young. You’d prefer life to be measured? Stick to age. But the late starter, product of increasing life spans and a culture that encourages creative writing, where do they fit in? Among the modules and courses in extra mural departments and cold school room night classes there are some who seem to have been attending for years. They turn up. They write. They come back again. Nothing ever seems to go anywhere.
According to Joy Howard, owner and operator of Grey Hen Press, everything is like this. Late talent is out there and in quantity. Her mission in life is to offer space to the writer over sixty and especially those who are less well known, who might have waited decades to reach the cutting edge.
Grey Hen’s anthology Cracking On, “poems on ageing by older women”, hardly sounds as if it will have the world by the throat. It is, however, remarkably engaging. Here is poetry of parental death, lost youth, dead lovers, failing limbs, and “the long blind alley of night”, sure. But there are also verses of hope and wonder. June Hall’s leap over the road’s last stile. Alice Beer’s young men in the kitchen. Ann Drysdale’s mastery of generational slip. Fight back. Write it all down. Not a bad idea.
An earlier version of the posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #180