Penelope Lively
The Booker Prize-winning author Penelope Lively on 21st century widowhood

The Booker Prize-winning author Penelope Lively on 21st century widowhood

Three out of five women over 75 live alone. I am one. So are five of my close friends – widows, all of us. The world is full of widows; the men go first, I’m afraid. Actually, not so far ahead: life expectancy for women in this country is 82, for men – 78. But in reality, looking around, the gap seems more pronounced.

The ancient term for a widow was “a relict” – her husband’s relict. We are not relicts now, thank you very much. We are a new demographic – an element of the whole expanding body of over-75s that is giving pause for thought to the Department for Work and Pensions. We may be cluttering up surgeries and brandishing our Freedom Passes, but we are also a substantial group – and a significant one, I think, veterans of long relationships, learning how to live differently.

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Penelope Lively: ‘I thought short stories had left me completely’

Penelope Lively: ‘I thought short stories had left me completely’

Penelope Lively thought she was done with short stories, when to her surprise an idea popped into her head. She had recently completed Ammonites and Leaping Fish, a book about memory and ageing that she refers to as “the view from 80”, when she went to an exhibition about Pompeii with her son-in-law.

The pair share an interest in birds, and were going around the British Museum in London spotting them in Roman frescoes. One puzzled them, and a curator was called to identify the large, long-legged wetland fowl as a purple swamphen – the creature that supplies the title for Lively’s latest book, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories (Fig Tree).

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‘A Writer Writes’: Penelope Lively’s Fiction Defies the Test of Time

‘A Writer Writes’: Penelope Lively’s Fiction Defies the Test of Time

The British novelist Penelope Lively is fascinated by contingency — the idea that an entire life is shaped by small decisions that seem inconsequential at the time. In 2005, she published a sort of anti-memoir, “Making It Up,” in which she imagined all the different directions her life might have taken. What if she’d become an archaeologist? What if she’d married an American? What if she’d had an illegitimate child? Sitting in an upstairs room at her London house at the end of March, she said she still thought this way. “I have six grandchildren, in their early 20s,” she said, “and I look at them now and think they’re making the sort of decisions that are going to determine the rest of their lives. It’s quite alarming. But mercifully you don’t know that at the time.”

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Penelope Lively: 'So this is old age'

Penelope Lively: 'So this is old age'

Years ago, I heard Anthony Burgess speak at the Edinburgh book festival. He was impressive in that he spoke for an hour without a single note, and was fluent and coherent. But of the content of his talk all I remember are his opening words: "For me, death is already sounding its high C." This was around 1980, I think, so he was in his early 60s at the time, and died in 1993. I was in my late 40s, and he seemed to me – not old, exactly, but getting on a bit.

View the full article
A source of inspiration – or a simple sanctuary? Three top writers explain why they relish gardening

A source of inspiration – or a simple sanctuary? Three top writers explain why they relish gardening

I am a much diminished gardener. Time was, I gardened on a large scale: grass, yew hedges, shrub roses, orchard, two rushing streams, vegetable-growing on an industrial scale. Now, I have a small paved London back garden, which is just as well, because I can't do much in it apart from watering and deadheading. Never mind – my Bulgarian helper, Danni, does everything I can't and last autumn we completely made over the long raised bed on the sunny side of the garden, installing 12 David Austin ground-cover roses and two climbers, she planting and me interfering. They will foil the local foxes, who had taken to lounging on the euphorbia that was there before.

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Penelope Lively at 80

Penelope Lively at 80

The Booker winner, still writing despite being in constant pain, tells Louise France about the pleasures and horrors of old age – and why she wouldn’t hesitate to buy ‘that one-way ticket to Switzerland’

Penelope Lively is 80 years old. She has written 20 novels, 3 memoirs and 29 children’s books. But one of her most recent compositions has been a living will. “When the point comes, if I am no longer in a position to say so, when my life has absolutely no value whatsoever, for me, then I would, frankly, want things finished,” she tells me. “I don’t want to be kept unnecessarily alive when there is no point to it. I could imagine buying that one-way ticket to Switzerland [to the Dignitas clinic]. Easily. I could and I would.”

She says this matter-of-factly, which seems typical of her. We’re sitting in the first-floor living room of the writer’s pleasingly unmodernised North London townhouse. She sits in…

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Penelope Lively’s diary: My old-age MOT

Penelope Lively’s diary: My old-age MOT

My surgery has been calling in all those over 75 for a special session with their doctor — a sort of old-age MOT. I came out of mine pretty well, I thought: I could remember the name of the Prime Minister, blood pressure excellent, spark plugs need cleaning, windscreen wipers ineffective, bodywork showing signs of wear. But not too bad for 80. Gerontologist Tom Kirkwood, in his book Time of Our Lives, gives a clinical but excellent and entirely comprehensible account of what we should expect, and what can and cannot be done about it.

View the full article
Penelope Lively’s notebook: Coal holes and pub opera

Penelope Lively’s notebook: Coal holes and pub opera

I have been having my vault done over. Not, as you might think, the family strong room, but the place beneath the pavement — the former coal cellar — pertaining to an early 19th-century London house. The vault opens onto the area — mine is the last generation to know that that is what you call the open sunken space between the basement and the pavement — and has been given the latest damp-proof treatment, plus shelving and smart lighting, so that I can use it for storage. Others use their vault more creatively: a couple next door had theirs excavated several feet and made into a troglodyte bedroom. No, they said, they couldn’t hear feet overhead, but wheeled suitcases could be tiresome.

View the full article

The Booker Prize-winning author Penelope Lively on 21st century widowhood

Three out of five women over 75 live alone. I am one. So are five of my close friends – widows, all of us. The world is full of widows; the men go first, I’m afraid. Actually, not so far ahead: life expectancy for women in this country is 82, for men – 78. But in reality, looking around, the gap seems more pronounced.

The ancient term for a widow was “a relict” – her husband’s relict. We are not relicts now, thank you very much. We are a new demographic – an element of the whole expanding body of over-75s that is giving pause for thought to the Department for Work and Pensions. We may be cluttering up surgeries and brandishing our Freedom Passes, but we are also a substantial group – and a significant one, I think, veterans of long relationships, learning how to live differently.

View the full article
The Booker Prize-winning author Penelope Lively on 21st century widowhood
Penelope Lively: ‘I thought short stories had left me completely’

Penelope Lively: ‘I thought short stories had left me completely’

Penelope Lively thought she was done with short stories, when to her surprise an idea popped into her head. She had recently completed Ammonites and Leaping Fish, a book about memory and ageing that she refers to as “the view from 80”, when she went to an exhibition about Pompeii with her son-in-law.

The pair share an interest in birds, and were going around the British Museum in London spotting them in Roman frescoes. One puzzled them, and a curator was called to identify the large, long-legged wetland fowl as a purple swamphen – the creature that supplies the title for Lively’s latest book, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories (Fig Tree).

View the full article

‘A Writer Writes’: Penelope Lively’s Fiction Defies the Test of Time

The British novelist Penelope Lively is fascinated by contingency — the idea that an entire life is shaped by small decisions that seem inconsequential at the time. In 2005, she published a sort of anti-memoir, “Making It Up,” in which she imagined all the different directions her life might have taken. What if she’d become an archaeologist? What if she’d married an American? What if she’d had an illegitimate child? Sitting in an upstairs room at her London house at the end of March, she said she still thought this way. “I have six grandchildren, in their early 20s,” she said, “and I look at them now and think they’re making the sort of decisions that are going to determine the rest of their lives. It’s quite alarming. But mercifully you don’t know that at the time.”

View the full article
‘A Writer Writes’: Penelope Lively’s Fiction Defies the Test of Time
Penelope Lively: 'So this is old age'

Penelope Lively: 'So this is old age'

Years ago, I heard Anthony Burgess speak at the Edinburgh book festival. He was impressive in that he spoke for an hour without a single note, and was fluent and coherent. But of the content of his talk all I remember are his opening words: "For me, death is already sounding its high C." This was around 1980, I think, so he was in his early 60s at the time, and died in 1993. I was in my late 40s, and he seemed to me – not old, exactly, but getting on a bit.

View the full article

A source of inspiration – or a simple sanctuary? Three top writers explain why they relish gardening

I am a much diminished gardener. Time was, I gardened on a large scale: grass, yew hedges, shrub roses, orchard, two rushing streams, vegetable-growing on an industrial scale. Now, I have a small paved London back garden, which is just as well, because I can't do much in it apart from watering and deadheading. Never mind – my Bulgarian helper, Danni, does everything I can't and last autumn we completely made over the long raised bed on the sunny side of the garden, installing 12 David Austin ground-cover roses and two climbers, she planting and me interfering. They will foil the local foxes, who had taken to lounging on the euphorbia that was there before.

View the full article
A source of inspiration – or a simple sanctuary? Three top writers explain why they relish gardening
Penelope Lively at 80

Penelope Lively at 80

The Booker winner, still writing despite being in constant pain, tells Louise France about the pleasures and horrors of old age – and why she wouldn’t hesitate to buy ‘that one-way ticket to Switzerland’

Penelope Lively is 80 years old. She has written 20 novels, 3 memoirs and 29 children’s books. But one of her most recent compositions has been a living will. “When the point comes, if I am no longer in a position to say so, when my life has absolutely no value whatsoever, for me, then I would, frankly, want things finished,” she tells me. “I don’t want to be kept unnecessarily alive when there is no point to it. I could imagine buying that one-way ticket to Switzerland [to the Dignitas clinic]. Easily. I could and I would.”

She says this matter-of-factly, which seems typical of her. We’re sitting in the first-floor living room of the writer’s pleasingly unmodernised North London townhouse. She sits in…

View the full article

Penelope Lively’s diary: My old-age MOT

My surgery has been calling in all those over 75 for a special session with their doctor — a sort of old-age MOT. I came out of mine pretty well, I thought: I could remember the name of the Prime Minister, blood pressure excellent, spark plugs need cleaning, windscreen wipers ineffective, bodywork showing signs of wear. But not too bad for 80. Gerontologist Tom Kirkwood, in his book Time of Our Lives, gives a clinical but excellent and entirely comprehensible account of what we should expect, and what can and cannot be done about it.

View the full article
Penelope Lively’s diary: My old-age MOT
Penelope Lively’s notebook: Coal holes and pub opera

Penelope Lively’s notebook: Coal holes and pub opera

I have been having my vault done over. Not, as you might think, the family strong room, but the place beneath the pavement — the former coal cellar — pertaining to an early 19th-century London house. The vault opens onto the area — mine is the last generation to know that that is what you call the open sunken space between the basement and the pavement — and has been given the latest damp-proof treatment, plus shelving and smart lighting, so that I can use it for storage. Others use their vault more creatively: a couple next door had theirs excavated several feet and made into a troglodyte bedroom. No, they said, they couldn’t hear feet overhead, but wheeled suitcases could be tiresome.

View the full article